I’ve been a Zinfandel fan for some time. I mean what’s not to like about this California favorite? It is so versatile, ranging from jammy to elegant in the right hands. Until this year though I’d not made it to the Zinfandel Festival. I know, how could that be? I considered going last year but it seemed daunting, difficult to get a grip on. Almost 300 wineries attend, in two large halls, at the Herbst and Festival Pavilions at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, and it’s bit spendy at $59 for the Grand Tasting. Could I really taste enough to make it worth going? What would the crowds be like? How would I know what to try? This year I got a surprise offer from a friend to volunteer. It sounded fun, in a way. I’d be directing the attendees to their destinations for a few hours and afterwards I’d be free to join in and taste some Zinfandel; In fact, a lot of Zinfandel, if I wanted.
I was looking forward to the adventure so when Saturday came around we were on our way with a sense of excitement. Living out in Pleasanton taking BART is the best bet for getting to San Francisco for me. At Embarcadero we jumped on the F-Line and rode it to the end of the line. It’s a fun experience on the old time trolleys, that so many visitors like to share. After the stop it’s just a short walk past the aquatic center and over the hill to Ft. Mason. It was a sunny but cool January day but there were swimmers in the bay. Some people are hardier than I am for sure. I was planning to wet my whistle, but that was it.
We arrived about 11:30 and the hall was already busy with trade people who were doing an early tasting session that had started at 10 am. Other volunteers were mingling at the door in their Hawaiian print style shirts, so we checked in at the back of the hall and were issued our shirts and then took our places at the front door, ready for the onslaught of press attendees who were already lining up out front and would be coming in at 12. I could tell the event was going to be huge. They say that about 10,000 people come to this event and I was starting to believe it as I prepared myself for the final wave of wine lovers coming for the public event at 2pm.
San Francisco has a lot of wine lovers and they like to get out and enjoy. But it’s not just San Franciscans that turn out for ZAP. Some people come from all far away and for the entire weekend of activities, which includes a Zin and Food pairing walk around event with noted chefs preparing tasty treats to go with their favorite Zin. There are also a series of seminars on Friday that take you through a tasting with commentary from the wine makers. It’s a good way to get to know Zin and learn to discover which Zin is the one for you. Another event is the Evening with the Winemakers which features a live auction for charity, a pre-dinner tasting, and a sit-down dinner with winemakers. This is your chance to indulge in wine while giving to charity, and have a tasty meal while a winemaker discusses their wines. I’ll have to try that one next year, but this year I was here for the Grand Tasting.
So far things were going well. People were orderly and a few asked directions, like where to check in, and get their glasses. After 19 years this event is figured out and it flows well. You enter the pavilion, at your designated time, depending on the group you are in, show your ticket, pick up your tasting glass, grab a bottle of water and a baguette and head in to the all to taste your favorite Zinfandel or discover some new ones. After 2pm when the doors open and public crowd comes in the event can get a little hectic as the crowd builds and some people are feeling the spirit of the occasion, but over all I’d say it was under control, although seeing guys in Hula Skirts was a bit much, but the ladies know how to dress for this event. Munching bread and drinking water is definitely a good idea to avoid any sudden effects of the wine. If you are going to taste more than a few picking up a spit cup when you enter is also a good idea. It’s hard to evaluate a wine if you are feeling the effects. Taking a swallow of water and a bite of bread between tastes clears your mouth and absorbs the wine you just tasted getting you ready for another taste. Otherwise the alcohol, tannins and acid in wine take their toll on your taste buds and linger, masking the taste of the next wine. You don’t want that to happen as you seek out your favorite Zin.
About mid-afternoon my volunteer shift ended and it was time to go tasting, so I got my ZAP glass and headed out in to the hall. With about 300 wineries pouring, ZAP is one of the biggest wine events in the world. There’s no way to taste everything, but some people seemed to be making a good effort. We were given a guide book and I looked through it and tried to find a few that I wanted to try. Long rows of tables lined the hall which seems bigger than a football field and I searched out the names, which were in alphabetical order.
It’s amazing how Zinfandel has caught on. It has a long history in California and it grown in so many paces. It was mainly produced by Italian immigrant families in areas such as Dry Creek, near Healdsburg, but also in the Sierra Foothills and to the south in Paso Robles. They made it mainly to drink with dinner, which is part of their heritage, and it was also produced for blending and made up the bulk of what was called “Hearty Burgundy” in the earlier years of California’s winemaking history. Zinfandel is considered a heritage grape of California, however it isn’t native. Using DNA researchers in UCD traced the origin to ‘Primitivo’, an Italian grape, but its history suggests an ancestry even further back to a grape which was originally grown in Croatia called Crljenak, which I can’t pronounce.
I saw some old favorites such as Robert Biale, which has quite a following, especially for their legendary Black Chicken. Even Chateau Montelena famous for the Chardonnay featured at The Judgment in Paris makes a Zinfandel and the popular Prisoner from Orin Swift is a Zinfandel. Of course Rosenblum, maker of the most Jammy was there as well as Rombauer, a favorite with "desperate housewives". In all fairness, it is not possible to give tasting reviews an event of this size. There is just too much to take in. So I just tried a few, and took some suggestions from my friend who got me to volunteer there. Judging from the crowd, which was definitely having fun I’d say Americans are clearly are taking to Zinfandel. There was lots of enthusiasm and the price didn’t seem to put people off. Some people are regulars and others like me were new but I think we agreed it was a great opportunity to sample the old and the new Zinfandel offerings, and find some new possibilities as well as reacquaint with old favorites.