Yesterday in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to attend the largest wine tasting event of my life, the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) Festival. This was the 15th year of ZAP and about 7,000 wine lovers attended on a drizzly Bay Area winter day. The festival was divided into two halls, with A-G in the first pavilion and H-Z in the second. Being a member of the media gave me access to the trade tasting which started at 10am and continued until the general public was admitted at 1:00pm. I attended the tasting with Alan Baker, the Cellar Rat, who will also be podcasting and blogging ZAP. While standing in the rain before the doors opened we had the chance to meet Alder Yarrow of Vinography, which was great as I have enjoyed his writing for more than a year and he shared some strategies for getting the most out of the day from his past experiences at ZAP. Once the doors opened, it was time to see who was pouring the best expression of California’s signature red wine varietal.
We started in the second pavilion to get to some the the most well known producers. Wineries like Ridge, Rosenblum, Turley and Trinitas, where we began our tasting of Matt Cline’s Old Vines Zin’s from Contra Costa county. It was great to meet and speak with Matt as we tasted his wines and I will be featuring an interview with him on a future podcast. After being “calibrated” by wines I have had before, we ventured into the more than 300 other wineries participating featuring over 1,000 wines. Since it would be impossible to taste them all in the allotted time, not to mention palette fatigue from the intense flavors and tannin buildup in the mouth, we had a game-plan going into the tasting which featured some old favorites and new wineries who have been getting some high scores with critics or industry buzz. In the 6 hours that I tasted, I had 90 wines in my mouth and spit every one of them back into the plastic cups supplied. I took a 15 minute break every two hours to eat as much bread as possible and drink a pint of water which were also conveniently around the tasting tables. Near the end of the day, my bread eating and water guzzling became more frequent and I would estimate I had at least 80 pieces of bread and 8 pints of water at the event.
So what about the wines, you might ask. I have to say that I was amazed at the range of styles and flavors that are possible with Zinfandel. As I have said here in the past, Zinfandel is my favorite red varietal and I could drink it everyday and not get tired of the wines. Even after tasting 90 wines, I am still looking forward to trying some other examples later today as we taste around the Russian River Valley. I favor big and bold wines with lots of concentrated fruit flavors but did appreciate some of the more subtle examples offered at ZAP. In fact, of my handful of outstanding wines most of them are of the more elegant style where balance is paramount. I will be talking about 25-30 excellent wines in at least 2 podcasts in coming weeks but will offer some of my very best picks here. These were rated 9.5 on my 10 point scale and are some of the best expressions of Zinfandel I have yet encountered. They are in alphabetical order as I flip through my tasting log:
Chase Family Cellars, Zinfandel, Hayne Vineyard, St. Helena 2003 ($40) – From the same vineyard of the outstanding Turley below, this wine has a stunning dark fruit nose and outstanding black cherry and black pepper flavors with moderate tannins. Another wine of great balance and it’s interesting to see how different this is to the Turley, vintage notwithstanding.
Chiarello Family Vineyards, Zinfandel, “Felicia” Old Vine, Napa Valley 2004 (barrel sample) – Only 100 cases produced of this elegant and complex marriage of black cherry, blackberry, blueberry and spices. A silky mouthfeel and fine tannins sets up a long finish.
D-Cubed Cellars, Zinfandel, Howell Mountain 2003 ($37) – I love the concentration of mountain fruit and this wine packs in excellent blackberry flavors with perfect balance of fruit and moderate tannins. The first outstanding wine tasted early in the day and their Napa Valley bottling also scored a 9.
Mauritson Family Winery, Zinfandel, Rockpile Ridge, Cemetery Vineyard 2004 (barrel sample) – An almost unbelievable example of terroir in Zinfandel. Although this vineyard is adjacent to the excellent Rockpile block, the wines are quite different. I asked the winemaker how much Petite Sirah he added to give the blueberry flavors behind the boysenberry and spice; he said “none” as this is 100% Zin. An outstanding wine that I am looking forward to tasting again once they get it in the bottle later this year. I tasted 3 other excellent wines from this producer, as well.
Turley Wine Cellars, Zinfandel, Hayne Vineyard, Napa Valley 2004 (barrel sample) – Huge and extracted blackberry and blueberry with spices and a long finish. Yes, it has a touch of jam in the mid-palette but the balance is perfect. Another wine tasted early in the day that made a big impression, but not as big as other Turley Zin’s I’ve tasted.
T-Vine Cellars, Zinfandel, Brown Vineyard, Napa Valley 2003 ($29) – A more classic Zinfandel with brambles, blackberry and spices finishing long with silky tannins. A shade better than the Brown Estate Vineyards version I tasted, but they were out of the 2003 vintage by the time I got to their booth in the afternoon. A great vineyard to watch in the future.
I have about 30 wines I rated 9/10 which I will sort and put into some podcasts and probably post tasting notes here too. Although most of the wines were very good, I did encounter a few 6 out of 10’s, which surprised me. Pouring defective wines at such an event is not the best way to make an impression. Of the wines above, it’s very difficult to pick a “best of the best”, but I obviously liked the Hayne Vineyard quite a bit.
This was a great treat and I am definitely looking forward to next year. I also have a great amount of respect from the pros who taste this many wines on a more regular basis. Keeping track of all the aromas and flavors is a lot of work, especially when surrounded by thousands of wine lovers in the afternoon.