Zinfandel Takes Center Stage

Every year, about this time, thousands of zinfandel devotees assemble in San Francisco for a chance to taste the latest offerings from the best producers in the country.

This past Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) grand tasting, held at Fort Mason.

ZAP Media Room Bottle Lineup


More than 200 wineries poured more than 1000 different wines at this event. Out of the 127 wines that I tasted, here are my favorites:

A for Acorn

The Acorn Winery 2008 zinfandel from heritage vines on their Sonoma estate is a $32 keeper. It’s slightly jammy, but not over the top. The mouthfeel is smooth and the flavors run to the plum side of zinfandel. There are some blackberry fruit highlights mixed in for good measure. This wine got better with each sip and I think it would improve with a bit of bottle age or aeration.

The 2008 Dawn Hill vineyard bottling from Baldwin Wines, a small Sonoma producer, was a stunning example of dry-farmed zinfandel grown near Sonoma Creek. This $28 bottle tasted of fresh raspberries and was very smooth and easy to drink. It’s predecessor, the 2007, won gold medal honors at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in 2010.

I also enjoyed two wines poured by D-Cubed Cellars, a Napa winery with a steady hand when it comes to zinfandel. Both the 2007 Napa Valley blend ($27) and the 2007 Korte Ranch (32) showed well with a streak of wonderful cherry fruit that wouldn’t quit.

Goodness Runs in the Family

Fields Family Wines showed again why Lodi continues to be a hotspot for good zin. A bottle of 2007 old vine zinfandel from the Sherman Family Vineyard, showed a smoothness and almost pinot noir-like femininity that belies the area’s reputation for big, high-alcohol wines. Ryan Sherman, whose family owns the vineyard, is also the winemaker for Fields. Controlling the yields, which can easily reach 6-7 tons per acre if left unchecked, helps keep this $24 wine under control and in good form.

Another family-run outfit — Frank Family Vineyards — earned its reputation as a premium cabernet producer, but they did a great job with zinfandel in 2008. Their Napa Valley zinfandel ($34.50) was one of the smoothest tasting wines to pass my lips at the ZAP get-together. It blended a nice nose of blackberry and violet with black fruit flavor and a peppery nuance that gave the wine just enough zip to stand up to a grilled steak or red-sauced pasta. Click here for our video of a recent visit to Frank Family Vineyards.

The Rued Winery is also a family affair that has been in the California wine business for 125 years (six generations!). They farm a lot of chardonnay plus a bit of merlot, cabernet and pinot noir, but it is their wine made from a four-acre plot of zinfandel grown in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma that caught my attention at ZAP. There’s a bit of baking spice on top of some delicious blackberry fruit that tastes great for this $25 bottle from the 2008 vintage.

Wines For the Future

Several wineries offered barrel samples of wines not yet ready for release. Two stood out as wines with outstanding potential.

Bedrock Wine Company’s 2010 barrel sample of old vine zinfandel from the famed Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma is a great wine that’s going to be even greater. It’s a field blend with 70 percent zinfandel and 30 percent mixed red grapes. It is fruit forward (think sweet blackberry) with a touch of mint on the nose and on the tongue. No word yet on pricing, but check with the winery for timing of this release.

Robert Biale Vineyards 2009 Black Chicken, a deep, dark zinfandel, is going to be a great wine. It’s already good as a barrel sample with ripe blackberry and raspberry flavors plus a nose of sweet fruit. It will cost $40 upon release. I’ve had several vintages of this wine, which has yet to disappoint. Check with the winery on release dates.

Two Famous Chefs, Two Great Wines

Not everybody who’s good in the kitchen, is also good in the vineyard. But, don’t tell that to Pat Kuleto, famed restaurant designer, and celebrity chef Michael Chiarello.

Kuleto Estate Winery made a fantastic 2008 Napa Valley zin ($35) that featured ripe, sweet fruit and rich red berry flavors.

Chiarello Family Vineyards’ 2009 “Giana,” named for one of the famous TV chef’s offspring, is a delightful wine that comes down on the plum side of zinfandel. It’s a smooth-tasting red wine ($35) that earned a 93 rating from Wine Spectator.

Stack of baguettes for ZAP wine tasters


Central Coast Star

I have also enjoyed the zinfandel from Opolo Vineyards on the Central Coast. It’s an extra-friendly establishment, with an emphasis on personal hospitality that’s refreshing. Even better is their just released 2009 Mountain Zinfandel. This $28 wine, made from grapes just up the hill from the Paso Robles winery, featured a hint of cranberry alongside raspberry flavors tinged with spices. Opolo’s Summit Creek 2008 zinfandel offered a different take on what this grape can do. This is a decidedly more masculine wine that pushes the jam factor up a couple of notches, but not too far to make it over-sweet. Delightful!

Best Buy in a Box

Bota Box offered a 3-liter box of California zinfandel for $19.99 — that’s $5/bottle for some pretty good juice. The wine was a moderate red color and it was tasty, leaning toward raisins and plums in the mouth, but not too sweet . There’s just enough acid to balance the taste out. I’d gladly pair this with barbecued pork ribs, burgers, pizza, or a ham and cheese sandwich.


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