The Zinfandel Advocates and Producers Come to Austin
In the old days of Austin's food scene, circa 1975, Bob Lowe was one of the few restaurant owners who believed in wine as an integral part of the meal. In his restaurants, the Galleria and 1800, Bob built an enviable reputation because of the wine education he provided to both his employees and his patrons. At one point, Bob was the wine writer for the Statesman. He educated readers quietly but with enormous knowledge and love. Bob was a zealous advocate of Zinfandel. In 1992, he and Crutch Crutchfield started the Original Zinners here in Austin, a tightly knit group of 12 folks who monthly celebrate the siren song of America's only homegrown grape. Crutch recently told me how it all started. "We wrote a letter to the top 50 Zin winemakers," he said, "and told them that we were here and thought that Zin was badly under-appreciated and we wanted to help." He started laughing. "The side benefit was they sent us a lot of free wine!" When the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) was founded, the Original Zinners joined en masse.
All members (including myself) made regular trips to Sonoma and Napa and talked up Austin's burgeoning Zin market. Winemakers began to stop in Austin and attend the Zinner meetings. The final outcome: ZAP is coming to Austin.
When Bob died in 1997, he left a lot restaurant patrons and friends richer for his presence. Recently, three Original Zinner members -- John Bagget (from Les Amis du Vins), Crutch Crutchfield, and restaurateur Stan Adams (Sienna, Gilligan's, Brick Oven) -- cajoled, pleaded, and wheedled ZAP into bypassing other, larger cities in favor of coming to Austin, home of a small but extremely vocal contingent of Zinfandel lovers. As a result, Austin will be one of only three U.S. cities this year to get a visit from ZAP. While a lot of people helped bring this event to Austin, the truth is we owe it all to Bob Lowe. Crutch ended by telling me, "I'll bet you Bob's spirit will be in attendance."
Zinfandel was first cultivated in the Northeast U.S. in the 1820s. It eventually moved west with the California gold rush, and, even after the gold ran out, peoples' taste for Zin just kept getting bigger. By 1859, it had been planted in Sonoma County, where the combination of climate and soil and location (the French call this combination terroir) produced better-tasting Zins than ever before. By 1878, Zinfandel was the most widely planted grape in California. The Italian immigrants especially prized Zin. It reminded them of the thick, red, intense, and fruity wines of Italy. During Prohibition, Zin was one of the top home crops for folks making their own wines.
Zinfandel: America's Grape
Zin reappeared in the Eighties when consumers began to pay more attention to varietal names and winemakers discovered a new way to market sweet rosé wine by calling it White Zinfandel. By the Nineties, the red version of Zin had become something of a cult item among red wine lovers. The grape began to attract some of California's most talented winemakers and wineries. Finally, the missionary zeal of the makers and drinkers gave birth to the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, aka ZAP.
The Zinfandel grape is midnight-dark and capable of making red wines so intense that they literally stain your teeth. It is currently the most widely planted red grape in California. A relatively small amount of it goes to making fine red wine (most goes to White Zinfandel), but, to those of us who are fervent zinophiles, it's the red stuff that gets us going. These are big, racy California-style wines, not for the faint-hearted. They are rarely subtle or suave.
Fifty of California's best wineries will be at ZAP (details at end of article). I would recommend that you head for Seghesio and St. Francis first, simply because they represent a very high standard of quality in their respective price slots (Seghesio's most popular Zin is $14; St. Francis starts at $20). Other wines that generally score well in our tasting group include Robert Biale Vineyards, Cline Cellars, De Loach Vineyards, Edmeades Vineyards, Hendry, Howell Mountain Vineyards, Peachy Canyon Winery, Ravenswood, Renwood Winery, and Rosenblum Cellars.
Sight: Zinfandel should look bright red, like a ruby or a garnet. If it looks like an Acme brick, it's gotten old in the bottle.
Tasting and Buying Zinfandels
Aroma: Some aromas you're likely to encounter: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, vanilla, pepper, cinnamon, Dr. Pepper, sarsaparilla, coffee, leather, tar, or cigar box.
Taste: An important aspect to learn in red wines is how to judge the tannins. While tannin can help in preserving a wine, it can also add mouth feel that not everyone likes. If you've ever tasted tea that has been steeped too long and gives a dusty feel in your mouth, that's what tannins can do.
Most red Zins have virtually no sugar. They can still taste sweet from the fruitiness.
Consider where the wine falls in the continuum of watery to syrupy. (Our tasting group seems to generally prefer the thicker styles of Zin, but you should judge it according to your personal taste.)
If the wine feels hot in your mouth, it may have too much alcohol, a possible sign it is poorly balanced. Zins can be as high as 16.5% alcohol (33 proof). A five-ounce glass of wine at this strength has the same jolt as a jigger of vodka. A well-balanced Zin from an expert winemaker can have over 15% alcohol and still not burn.
A good Zin has a long-lasting flavor. Some tastes to expect: strawberry, blackberries, cherries, plums, pepper.
How old should a Zinfandel be? While we have tasted extraordinary Zinfandels up to 20 years old, they are unquestionably in the minority. Most Zins taste great as soon as they are released; several improve a little over the next two or three years. It is a rare Zin that keeps improving over more than five years. The bottom line: Drink up.
Quality for the Money: One of the big reasons red wine drinkers have been moving to Zin is the quality-to-price ratio. While Cabernet and Merlot prices have gone sky-high over the last 20 years, Zins have remained relative bargains. As an example, a Cabernet of equivalent quality to Seghesio's Sonoma Zin ($15) would probably be in the $30-plus range.
The Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) tour stops in Austin at the Driskill Hotel on Monday, April 23, from 6-8pm. Fifty California wine producers will congregate to talk about and pour 100 of their prize Zinfandels for a ticket price of $45. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling the ZAP office (530/274-4900) between 9am and 5pm Pacific Time (that's 11am-7pm calling from Austin). The cost is $40 for ZAP members and $45 for nonmembers. You can join ZAP at the event; annual membership is $25/single and $30/double (includes a newsletter and advance notice on releases of wines and events around the country). Log onto www.zinfandel.org for more information.