Taking the Party on the Road
"Recently it was determined that zinfandel is identical to a grape long cultivated in Croatia. In other words, it is an immigrant. But myths die hard, and having taken zinfandel as our own, we are, it would appear, reluctant to give it up."
Is there any kind of brochure or leaflet or book or add or ANYTHING coming form Croatia about Zinfandel? Are we watching another golden carriage pass by?
FOR A GRAPE Wines from 275 wineries were featured at the 13th annual Zinfandel Festival in San Francisco in January.
By FRANK J. PRIAL
Published: March 24, 2004
HARDONNAY is America's favorite wine, but if someone gave a party to celebrate it, how many people would come? Oh, a handful of fanatics, perhaps, plus the people who produce all those oak flavorings. But that's it. There is nothing visceral about the appeal of chardonnay.
Ah, but zinfandel, now that is something else. There was a party for zinfandel in San Francisco in January, and 8,500 people came. In the course of a long, liquid afternoon, they tasted, if that's the appropriate word, more than 550 wines offered by some 275 wineries.
Tasted might not be the right word because, according to participants (both winemakers and revelers), hardly anybody bothered to sip and spit. It was a wine drinking affair. In all fairness to the hosts, no one had to drink or taste on an empty stomach: each arriving guest was handed a baguette at the door, and there were mountains of California cheeses available.
The party, the San Francisco Zinfandel Festival, is an annual affair organized by Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, better known as ZAP, a nonprofit group dedicated to, in its own orotund words, "advancing the public knowledge of and appreciation for American zinfandel and its unique place in our culture and history." In other words, to tirelessly plug the wine, an exercise which has been wildly successful. I must note here that the organization means red zinfandel, and definitely not that wimpy, pale pink stuff known as white zinfandel.
The tasting, on Jan. 24 at Fort Mason, was preceded by several other events including an equally over-the-top Good Eats and Zinfandel lunch in Golden Gate Park, at which 36 zinfandel producers and 36 restaurants teamed up to show how well the wine goes with food. Only a modest 800 fans took part.
At the first ZAP tasting, in 1992, 22 wineries poured their wares for a small group of zinfandel fans. It was the kind of tasting that goes on every week in San Francisco, virtually unnoticed. But this one grew. Today ZAP claims 6,000 advocates and 310 producer members.
Almost all zinfandel comes from California. Small amounts are made in Oregon, Washington and New Zealand. Similar wines are made in Italy and Croatia. In Italy, the grape and the wine are called primitivo. Most of the wines poured at the big tasting were bottled ones from the 2001 vintage. Many producers also offered barrel samples, wines not yet bottled, from 2002.
Aside from showcasing zinfandel, ZAP finances research on the grape's provenance and history and covers most of the operating budget for the Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard in Oakville, in the Napa Valley, where zinfandel vines are gathered from all over California to study and preserve. Some of these vines are more than 100 years old.
Part of zinfandel's appeal is its long connection with America. For years it was known as this country's only native vinifera vine. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and chardonnay all have traceable European origins.
Recently it was determined that zinfandel is identical to a grape long cultivated in Croatia. In other words, it is an immigrant. But myths die hard, and having taken zinfandel as our own, we are, it would appear, reluctant to give it up.
Zinfandel was long considered a second-tier grape, suitable mostly for jug wines. It was a major constituent in wines like Gallo's Hearty Burgundy. Later, producers like Ridge Vineyards showed that it could be fashioned into wines with elegance and complexity. Today's winemakers turn the grape into a remarkable array of wines, from light and simple styles to wines that are intense and long-lived. In recent years, old-vine zinfandels have been popular; so have high-alcohol wines, some of them containing 16.5 and 17 percent alcohol (most table wines have a 12.5 to 14 percent alcohol content).
Though many of the zins poured at the festival were alcoholic monsters, many seemed less massive than in former years, wrote Paul Franson, who publishes a newsletter about the Napa Valley. That was either because of climatic conditions or of restraint on the part of winemakers who may recognize that big isn't always better.
Many of the wines, in fact, were more like the friendly zins of yore, though that wasn't what most festival attendees were seeking, Mr. Franson wrote.
Calling the wines zins is part of zinfandel's populist image. Winemakers cannot resist the slightly louche effect that comes from rhyming zin with sin. Names that have appeared over the years include Original Zin, Mortal Zin and, in the case of wordsmith-winemaker Randall Grahm, Cardinal Zin, Made from Gnarly Old Vines.
For zinfandel lovers who can't make it to San Francisco for the annual bacchanal, ZAP takes its show on the road. As road shows go, it's a big one.
This year, some 50 wineries will pour new releases for their fans in five cities beginning with New York on April 22, where they will pitch their tent, figuratively speaking, at the 200 Fifth Club at 200 Fifth Avenue. Ticket information is available at www.zinfandel.org.
The road show offers less wine than the main event in San Francisco, but no one is likely to complain about being limited to 50 wines. In addition, there is the usual detritus of fan-oriented events, including caps, T-shirts and the like. A zinfandel T-shirt says something about the wine's laid-back image. I ask you, who could conceive of a cabernet sauvignon T-shirt?