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Enjoying big zins at ZAP is duck soup

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Nineteen years ago, when ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) held the first of its annual tasting extravaganzas in San Francisco, there was little inkling of just how big an event it would become.

A smash from the get-go, the festival quickly built up to its average attendance of some 8,000 purple-teethed zin fanatics (at this past year’s, I actually observed one zin lover brushing his chops in the restroom, then head out for more party juice), with up to 300 producers pouring at least two to six different zins each. If for the dark, lush, full bodied richness of zinfandel you pine, ZAP is for you!

Here’s another kicker, if you are a newly conscious zin lover: ZAP is also a movable feast. This year (2010) ZAP festivities will be held in Denver’s Mile High Station on April 15; then in Costa Mesa in California’s Orange County on April 18-19; moving on to Kahului, Maui on May 21-22; and then Honolulu on May 24. And if you really love to swim in zin, there is even a ZAP European Dream Cruise on August 10-24; when you board a fully loaded Oceania liner to rub elbows with not just a bevy of zinfandel producers, but also with Jacques Pepin and the executive chef of Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse. See details on zinfandel.org.

So how do you enjoy several hundred big red zinfandels at one time, and still come up roses? You don’t; especially if you’re not in the habit of spitting after every sip. I’m a professional spitter, yet in this past ZAP’s grand tasting in San Francisco (January 30) even I needed a good five hours to slowly pace myself in order to collect notes on barely a hundred zinfandels, before my palate (and entire body) finally cried uncle.

One thing I do need to say, especially to zinfandel naysayers: tasting big zins is not especially hard. Even average quality zinfandels offer plenty enough juicy fruit qualities that cushion the palate just fine, despite average alcohol levels of 15%. Aficionados of pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, or Australian,, French, Italian or Spanish red wines need hardly hold up their noses; since when you actually look at those types of wines being produced today, you see that those wines are now averaging over 14% alcohol, too – not much different than your typical modern day zinfandel.

Besides, the reason why red zins taste best at closer to 15% alcohol is simple: that’s when the grape’s decadent fruit and tingling spice really begin to pop and, yes, zap you upside the chin with all the natural goodness of the grape (or as Mae West said about her diamonds, goodness had nothing to do with it…).

Part of the time at this past year’s ZAP I happened be tasting with a wine lover born and raised in France, who confessed to having a hard time with the sheer size of the best zinfandels and their “difficulty with food.” Well, I certainly can see that, if your diet and eating habits are still basically French. Here in the U.S., we don’t eat in parsimonious courses, and make no bones about loving, say, our barbecued meats slathered in sticky, smoky, spicy, sweet, even sour edged sauces; and there’s hardly any French wine that goes well with that. We need our big, sweet, spicy red zinfandels!

Another nice thing about good ol’ American zinfandels: everyone has their favorites; and aside from those that say “Turley,” there really is no hierarchy of prestige brands fetching ridiculous prices because of the wanton lust of overweening collectors. Zinfandel lovers are truly a democratic, workingman’s, red loving lot.

Thus, my favorites most certainly wouldn’t correlate with that of another zin lover’s, but more power to the both of us. Like most true-blue big zin lovers, I love the unabashed excess of fruit as well as alcoholic power of today’s zinfandels; but as a classicist at heart, my favorites invariably retain a sense of balance, multi-layered texturing, and qualities of buoyancy and length on the palate as well. Call me a sissy, but I look for a little more besides wham-bam-thank-you-m’am when the push comes to shove.

There is no reason, to my way of thinking, why a good zinfandel can’t deliver as much as 16% alcohol’s worth of intensity, along with some grace and finesse. As a matter of fact, I think that the following most certainly do:

Carol Shelton

2005 Carol Shelton Maple, Dry Creek Valley – Since the turn of the century, Carol Shelton has emerged as California’s high priestess of old vine zinfandel; hers are not just “big,” but perfectly proportioned, always subtly oaked, never excessive in tannin or sweetness, yet as juicy rich as anyone’s. I crave a Shelton zin the way lonely girls crave chocolate. The Maple is bright with autumn berries, with floral perfumed notes; on the palate, balanced, velvet textured fruit qualities fill a medium-full body with a rare air of elegance.

2006 Carol Shelton Wild Thing, Cox Vineyard, Mendocino – Here, wild cherry is mixed with blueberry concentrations in an explosive nose; there is size aplenty, yet the alcohol (15.5%) alcohol) and muscular tannin is the last thing you notice, as the round,, wild berry flavors roll through the mouth in waves of sweet, elegant sensations.

2007 Tres Sabores, Napa Valley – Winemaker/proprietor Julie Johnson has truly been on a roll with her mastery of her old vine plantings, tucked into a slope on the western edge of Napa Valley’s Rutherford District. What is unique about Tres Sabores is its pungent clove and cinnamon spice notes, ringing in the bright raspberry/blackberry aromas; on the palate, moderate tannin buttresses a medium weighted body, holding the luscious, spiced berry flavors close to a smoothly textured vest.

Julie Johnson at this year's ZAP in San Francisco

2007 Macchia Adventurous, Amador County – Macchia specializes in exuberant yet finely crafted Lodi sourced zins, but this one from Amador is pinpoint, elegant, claret-like in style; its silken layers teeming with blackberryish fruit; firm yet fresh, animated, and deftly balanced through a smooth finish.

2007 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve, Florence Vineyard, Rockpile – The Rockpile AVA, defined by 800 to 2,000+ foot elevation slopes located north and west of Dry Creek Valley, east of Lake Sonoma, yields good sized zinfandels of hillside concentrations, somewhat elevated acidities and leaner profiles; translating in the bottle to wines of extremely unusual length and buoyant mouthfeels without the fat, plodding feel that typifying even the best California zins. Shelton’s announces itself with a low key yet glowing, harmonious array of blackberry, raspberry, crème de cassis, peppercorns and smoky roped tobacco aromas; progressing into a crisp edged, tightly wound medium-full body, uncoiling its silken, multifaceted fruit and spice sensations in dramatically long, sinewy, finely delineated fashion.

2007 Mauritson Rockpile Ridge, Rockpile - Rockpile sourced zins, in fact, often fool you; coming across as tight and restrained in the nose, then turning around and releasing layers upon layers of thick, lively, zesty sensations that go on and on in the mouth. Mauritson’s Rockpile Ridge is a perfect example: once you get past a modest raspberry concentration in the nose and a wall of fisted tannin on the palate, the fruit evolves into bouncy, bang-a-gong flavors, prickling the palate, then spreading out and finishing with a big, bright, and velvety smooth feel.

2007 Rosenblum, Rockpile Road Vineyard, Rockpile – Rosenblum has established its rep on big, roly-poly zinfandels. Dyed-in-the-wool zin-bibbers adore it, non-zinners abhor it, and to each his own, right? Yet it’s fun to see how this winery’s style squares with fruit from the high elevation Rockpile region. Although they’ll pick at a couple degrees more Brix than, say, Carol Shelton, and end up with a degree or two more alcohol (usually around 15.5% for Rosenblum, as opposed to 14.5% for Shelton), Rosenblum’s Rockpile is structurally firmer (like muscled toned fat, rather plain fat), and less outwardly sweetish, than its two dozen-plus other zinfandel bottlings. The ’07 delivers of blast of blackberry jam in a liqueur-like nose; and on the palate, the wine really kicks in with full, velvety, glycerol textured flavors, long and fluid, floating (to quote Dylan’s Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat) like a mattress balancing on a bottle of wine.

2007 Gamba, Moratto Vineyard, Russian River Valley – This old vine bottling (planted in 1920) yields a luxurious mélange of ripe blackberry, plum, smoke, blackpepper and allspice in the nose; these qualities holding up in equally compelling doses in the mouth, filling out a big, zesty edged body, as thick and rich as black chocolate. Stunner.

2007 Acorn Heritage Vines, Alegria Vineyards, Russian River Valley – Ah, the joys of 100-plus year old Sonoma vines; field mixed, as they were, with upwards twelve other varieties (in the Alegria, including large percentages of Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet, along with vines identified as Carignane, Sangiovese, Syrah, Trousseau, Petit Bouschet, Negrette, Muscat Noir, Cinsault and Grenache). Whatever the case, it is what it amounts to that counts, and this one is a doozy: positively rich, multifaceted aromas of blackberry, raspberry, smoky mocha coffee, pods of vanilla and cracked peppercorns; and all of these flavors tucked into a velvety, buoyantly balanced medium-full body, finishing with zip and persistence.

2007 Bella Vetta, Jack’s Cabin Vineyard, Rockpile – At every ZAP you are bound to “discover” something new, and this was a thrilling find for me: a focused blackberry nose laced with baking spices; fleshing out even further on the palate with a solid, meaty, bouncy feel, bursting from the seams of its smartly sized, medium-full body with the fresh berry pie flavors.

2007 Rosenblum, Planchon Vineyard, Contra Costa – Oodles of blackberry jam on toast, with sides of smoked bacon, in the nose; on the palate, velvet textured entry, leading to big, thick, fat feel, hardened in the middle by sturdy tannin, while finishing lush and juicy.

2007 Cedarville Estate, El Dorado – Located 2,500 feet up in the spectacular mountain setting of the Sierra Foothills, this vineyard has produced equally spectacular zins on a consistent basis during the past decade. The varietal profile here is of fresh raspberries handsomely wrapped in pungent espresso-like smokiness; and on the palate, not only is the feel lush, round and juicy, but also thick with tannin adding a dense, musclebound feel, lightened by a good acidic zip.

Robert Biale, Verozza Vineyard, St. Helena, Napa Valley – The wine world owes much to the efforts of Bob Biale, whose masterful bottlings of old vine zinfandel have more than justified the preservation of these heritage plantings, even in the face of the relentless cabernezation of the Napa Valley. Wines like the Verozza Zinfandel – from “old warrior” vines approaching their hundredth year, still tended by the grandson of founder John Varozza – need to be appreciated for their historicity and rarity (barely 250 cases produced each year), but even more so for their pure, full fledged qualities: beautifully sweet, flowery scents of boysenberry and blackberry tinged with faint whiffs of old cigar boxes; balanced medium body, teeming with vivid, fresh, limpid berry flavors, veiled in silk and bright, intrinsic acidity.

2007 Rock Wall, Sonoma County Reserve – In early 2008 Kent Rosenblum sold his namesake winery to the beverage giant, Diageo; and he now concentrates on Rock Wall in partnership with his winemaker/daughter, Shauna Rosenblum. It’s a brand new family affair, and this bottling bodes very well: blasting off with pepper and chocolate studded, floral scented raspberry notes; transitioning into lush, ripe, fleshy flavors anchored by underlying tannin and sweet oak, caressing the palate with undulating textures.

Pruning old vine zin in Dry Creek Valley

2007 Valdez Family, Quinn Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley – Trayfuls of fresh, plump raspberries flood the nose with sticks of cinnamon and blackpepper; and while the expectations on the palate is for sweet sensations of the same, the feel is actually tight and cohesive, with sturdy tannin and zippy acidity doling out the sweet sensations in long, finely finished layers, suggesting elegance and balance rather than the usual plain tubbiness.

2007 m2, Soucie Vineyard, Lodi – This artisanal Lodi producer seems to have the touch; taking ultra-ripe, juicy, jammy qualities typifying old vine Lodi vineyards (the Soucie Vineyard was first planted in 1916), and crafting them into something finer, longer, more elegant than what is usually found in this delta region, without sacrificing the power or pure exuberance. The ’07 starts with fragrant, violet-floral notes, and then wraps the sweet jammy fruit in silken packaging, soft and transparent on the palate.

2006 Starlite, Alexander Valley – Never expect giant sized zinfandels from this modest estate; but rather, exceptionally fine, upbeat, silky textured wines of moderate weight and zesty edge, belying a sheer intensity of bright raspberry perfume underscored by cinnamony spice notes. It is precisely these restrained qualities that has made Starlite the “in” zin of choice in rarified restaurants like San Francisco’s La Folie and Michael Mina, and New York’s Alain Ducasse, Daniel, Veritas and Gramercy Tavern.

2006 C.G. di Arie Southern Exposure, Shenandoah Valley – Vinified primarily from the 140 year old Grandpére Vineyard, this concentrated wine leads off with pungent aromas of blackberry cake meshed with dried black cherry, licorice, smoke and cedarwood; the same sensations, thick and sinewy on the palate, the lush fruit flavors wound tightly by strapping tannin and sweet, toasty French oak.

2007 Klinker Brick, Lodi – Where else but in Lodi can you still find $16-$18 zinfandel with all the stuffing of zins from other regions going for twice the price? This wine is one juicy fistful of blackberries, lush and drippy on the palate; rich, round, and fruit driven directly to the sweet spot of any zin lover’s palate.

Mauritson's Rockpile vineyard

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