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A Meander Through Some New-Style Zinfandels

by Andrew Chalk

Zinfandel (America’s reboot of the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski) took the market by storm in the 1980s, proving popular with a particularly fervid category of (mainly young) wine consumers. They even formed a society to promote it Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) that held an annual tasting that started in one shed but soon took over all of Fort Mason in San Francisco. The sea lions that swam around the docks couldn’t figure out the bizarre humans with red teeth who stood above at perilous angles.

Zinfest, as it was called, grew to over 14,000 people by the end of its first decade, but it wasn’t the crowds that stopped me making the annual pilgrimage. Robert Parker, then the world’s most influential wine critic, extolled Turley Vineyards and their style of Zin, at a time when more snobbish and insular wine publications refused to take Zinfandel seriously.

In particular, Turley’s Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel got cabernet-level scores. It was high alcohol, ripe, hugely extracted and had massive forward fruit. Other producers, almost to a man, jumped on the opening and restyled (turleyfied) their wines. The process of turlification took three or so years and in the process Zinfandel became difficult to pair successfully with food and almost like port in its headiness while being served in table wine glasses. You got drunk rather than happy.

That may have pleased the Fort Mason sea lions even more but, with the Dallas sea lion count at zero, I exited Zinfandel. Spending my Zinfest money on other wine fairs, stopping purchases, and drinking up my collection. So, apparently, did the rest of the world. Zinfandel bombed in the market with only an abomination called White Zinfandel saving many vineyards from being pulled or grafted over.

For the first decade of the 21st century, erstwhile Zinfandel producers entered the witness protection program, pretended they had never heard of the grape, and told you about their cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, children, dogs, and other full-bodied reds.

Wind forward to the post-COVID era and a new generation of producers (and a few survivors) are attempting to resurrect Zinfandel, but a Zinfandel that pairs with food and stands alongside other full-bodied red wines as an organoleptic alternative. ZAP was cryogenically thawed in the persona of Rebecca Robinson, its personable and energetic Executive Director, who is hitting the ground all over the country in a Rolling Stones style tour named Zinfandel Live to introduce wine drinkers, new and old, to the New Zinfandel. ZAP has also recast Zinfest as no longer a mass tasting, but a multi-day exploration including dinners, seminars, tastings in small groups often led by the winemaker(s), and a VIP tier for those who want to try small production Zinfandels that would otherwise not be available.

One of the destinations on their Zinfandel Live tour was (wisely) Dallas where they enlisted the help of restaurateur and wine lover Kent Rathbun to provide the food and location at a recent tasting for 50 devotees of some of the New Zinfandel producers, winemakers often present.

I attended on a media pass and can report:

  • The New Zinfandel is totally different from the turleyfied abominations that killed the industry. These wines are in what was called in the 1980s, when only a few producers like Ridge and Storybook Mountain did it, the claret style. As described above these are full-bodied red wines that balance fruit, acid, tannin, secondary components like oak, and tertiary notes like dried fruit, mushroom, leather, forest floor, and tobacco. Plus, they keep the massive natural fruit of Zinfandel harmonized with the other components.

  • New Zinfandel pairs with food. Whether it is pizza, meat hors d’oeuvres, or vegetables, they were on message.

  • Any of the wines in attendance would be great to buy and try. Taste alone or pair with red meat from Texas barbecue brisket, steak, prime rib, lamb, venison, or pork. Or, with Italian pasta dishes with red sauces.

The producers taking part

  • Bricoleur Vineyards

  • Cast Wines

  • Oak Ridge Winery

  • Peachy Canyon Winery

  • Rombauer Vineyards

Is a renaissance of Zinfandel imminent in America? I think it is too early to say at the moment, but the producers and promoters are doing everything right to make it happen!

Correction 09:16CT: Robert Biale winery was apparently also at the tasting I knew they were scheduled but did not see or try their wine so assumed that they had missed it. I am informed that they were there.



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