ZAP: Zinfandel Advocates + Producers

Ribald annual Ft Mason fun 30 Jan w/ 10,000 party-goers, close to 1,000 wines. Take a taxi.

Zinfandel is so very California. It’s an immigrant, like so many other residents. It has flourished here, like so many other immigrants. It’s unique, yet it can appear in many guises: from chilled, blush-colored quaffers to inky black, semi-sweet after-dinner head-bangers which just invite everyone to leg-wrestle. For decades its most prevalent form was cheap, honest, workingmans’ red wine sold in half-gallon jugs (big discount if you brought your own jugs). Zinfandel goes great with slow-cooked pork, and even better with the blues. In Europe Zinfandel has done for American wine what Levis did for pants.

Background wine education

     Thanks to DNA research by Dr. Carole Meredith at U.C. Davis, we now know Zinfandel grapes came from Croatia, an island off the Dalmatian coast to be exact. They are the same as the Primativo from Puglia, the heel of the boot in Italy, but they didn’t come from there. In fact their route to California ran parallel in time to the route they took across the Adriatic to southern Italy. During the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Zinfandel grapes were taken to a garden at the Emperor’s Court in Vienna. From there they traveled to the US, and show up in nursery records near Boston in the 1820’s. Eventually they were taken around the Horn by English sea captains, and appear in nursery records near San Jose, California during the early 1850s. Zinfandel has a thin skin and large, compact clusters. It was not prized in Croatia, because Summer rains split the skins, which in turn rotted the clusters. Arid Summers in California were just what the doctor ordered. Prior to the mid-1980’s Zinfandel was California’s most widely planted premium red wine grape.
     To wit: Zin comprised 20% of California’s red grape acreage (at 23,500 acres) in 1962; but under 8% in 1983; rising again in 2007 to 11% (52,360 acres).
     There are fascinating reasons for this trough in the acreage curve for Zinfandel. Prior to the early 1990’s a bottle of Zinfandel couldn’t command double figures in the US. Much beloved by college students, and Italian restaurateurs, it was nevertheless caught in a self-fulfilling, circular prophesy: you can’t make great artistic wine if you can’t sell it for more than $10 a bottle. By the early-1980’s Zinfandel vineyards were being ripped out all over California, including many wonderful 80-year-old vines, because the price of the grapes barely covered the cost of maintenance and harvest. Serendipity is a marvelous thing, but in this instance it also reveals a disgraceful chapter in America’s wine consumption history. Artistically valuable, ancient Zinfandel vineyards in California were actually saved by the White Zinfandel phenomenon. The irony of it makes my skin crawl. Nevertheless it is true. Demand for simple (virtually indistinguishable), slightly sweet, blush-colored pseudo-wine called “Zinfandel” across America rescued vineyards which today are making $45, serious red wines.

San Francisco Wine Festival

     The second essential ingredient in resurrecting red Zin was a creative, sophisticated marketing outreach program called Zinfandel Advocates and Producers. ZAP is a noteworthy effort which today’s proponents of social networking would do well to examine. It is not simply a Trade organization, although it was originally pulled together by a modest number of wineries concerned about the possible extinction of this remarkable, traditional grape variety. The extraordinary feature about ZAP is its 6,000 consumer members, who deserve as much credit as the founding wineries do for pulling the grape variety back from the edge of the abyss, and launching it on a newly ascendant trajectory. ZAP’s three-day celebration in San Francisco each year at the end of January is that effort made manifest. This will be the 19th convocation. Visit the ZAP website for tickets and registration.
ZAP 2009
     The Grand Tasting on Saturday fills two piers at Fort Mason from 1:00 pm to 5:00. Parking is not even worth considering. Either take a bus to the foot of Van Ness (say the # 35), or park your car near some restaurant to which you’d like to return in the evening, and take a taxi. Or park in the lot below Ghirardelli Square and walk over the hill.
     There is also an auction Thursday night at Fort Mason, and two events Friday at the Mark Hopkins Hotel: educational flights of wine in the morning; and a dinner with inventive Hawaiian chef Beverly Gannon in the evening.
     Proceeds from the festivities go toward two worthwhile causes. One is an attempt to create a $500,000 endowment for the Donn Reisen Memorial Scholarship. Donn was a much admired marketing exec at Ridge Vyds who died somewhat tragically a couple years ago. The scholarship helps students wishing to attend the Wine Business MBA program at Sonoma State. The second cause is a rather smaller amount of money to fund a research effort ZAP initiated with U.C. Davis back in 1995. It is called the Heritage Vineyard, one acre in Oakville, Napa Valley. Today there are 90 different Zinfandel cuttings planted in the Heritage Vineyard, representing 12 regions throughout California, all taken from especially good vines that were at least 70-years-old. The Heritage Vineyard is an important repository of genetic material, and a valuable tool for future study. It also produces grapes. A different winemaker member of ZAP is chosen each year to vinify the Heritage Vyd Wine, which is then sold exclusively at the Thursday night ZAP tasting. Since its inception, ZAP has put $330,000 into the Heritage Vyd.

     I will do a post in February singling out some good quality Zin producers newly discovered at the ZAP party. Assuming no one molests me there.

  • Jo Diaz

    Hey, Bruce,

    Welcome to the world of wine blogging.

    I’ve enjoyed your writing for so long in print media.

    Great to see you so accessible on the Internet.

    Best wishes!