Zinfandel – California’s heritage grape celebrated at 20th anniversary of ZAP

35-year old zinfandel vines at Black Sears on Howell Mountain

There are few grapes around the world that can be said to be a country’s ‘signature’ grape – those grapes that do so well and are so identified with a region they are rarely cultivated elsewhere on such a large scale.  For example, malbec from Argentina, carmenere from Chile or Pinotage from South Africa.  In the U.S., that grape is indisputably zinfandel whose full-bodied and fruity wines are so beloved.  In 2009, zinfandel accounted for 10.9% of the California crush by volume, making it the 2nd leading grape variety after chardonnay according to the USDA.

While research has concluded that zinfandel originated in Croatia, it is no longer widely planted there.  Historians believe that zinfandel found its way to California during the Gold Rush as a table grape but was soon found to make a very good table wine.  It was one of the most popular red grapes planted in the Napa Valley from the 1860’s, such as in the vineyards of Charles Krug and in 1872 at Inglenook where Captain Neibaum made zinfandel wines and added zinfandel to his “Black Label” claret.  While zinfandel only represents about 5% of Napa Valley acreage today, it still carries a lot of sentimental value.  Many vintners such as Francis Ford Coppola and Aldo Biale were pressured in the 1970’s to pull-up existing zinfandel vines in favor of the more lucrative cabernet sauvignon, but resisted.

Because zinfandel is a vigorous variety that can easily overcrop in large, tight clusters, the most expressive fruit grows in warm microclimates with poor soils, limited irrigation and goblet pruning that control yields.  Some of Napa Valley’s best zinfandel wines come from dry-farmed, century-old vines such as Morisoli Vineyard (1900) in Rutherford, Old Crane Ranch (1880’s), Old Kraft Vineyard (1890’s) and Hayne Vineyard (1903) in St. Helena and Moore Earthquake Vineyard (1906) in Napa.

At its core, red zinfandel is a full-bodied, easy-to-drink wine with rich berry fruit and spice, but its personality shines through in different terroir according to Thomas Brown, Food and Wine magazine’s 2010 winemaker of the year.  He not only honed his craft at cult zinfandel producer Turley Wine Cellars but today produces zinfandel for Outpost and Black Sears on top of Howell Mountain, for Chiarello Family Vineyards in St. Helena and Schrader in Calistoga.  Brown told me this weekend that Howell Mountain zinfandel has a savory quality to it with more structure and greater ageability than valley floor zinfandel.  He describes his Howell Mountain wines as having high-toned, briary red fruit, pepper and notes of sage brush, whereas the zinfandel from Michael Chiarello’s century-old vines in St. Helena produce wines with richer, darker fruit and lower tannins.

Discover the different expressions of zinfandel at the 20th anniversary of the Association of Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) in San Francisco from Thursday January 27 to Saturday 29th.  Thursday’s kick-off event will be the Good Eats and Zinfandel pairing at Fort Mason from 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm which will feature 50 wineries pairing their wines with dishes prepared by 50 top Bay Area chefs.  Cost for the Good Eats is $200/member and $225 for non-members (membership is only $44 total for two persons).  Friday evening will be a silent auction and charity dinner at the Westin St. Francis.  Saturday is the Grand Zinfandel Tasting at Fort Mason from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm (from 2:00 pm for non-members) with 250 participating wineries pouring.  Cost for the Grand Zinfandel Tasting only is $60/member or $70/non-member.  For details on the individual events, venues and prices, check out the www.zinfandel.org website.  Total cost will include nominal fee for handling and contribution to the American Heart Association.

A good time will be had by all.