At 2024 ZAP, it became clear that California Zinfandel has finally grown up
By Randy Caparoso
There is, undoubtedly, no organization that’s done more for a single varietal category than Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, a.k.a. ZAP.
When ZAP first started back in the early 1990s, Zinfandel was on the ropes. Many of the bigger, higher profile brands were dropping the variety from their line-ups. Cabernet Sauvignon had become California’s most important varietal red. The popularity of Merlot was growing rapidly, and Pinot Noir was being aggressively planted in the cooler climate pockets of the state where it belonged.
This was despite the fact that, for more than 100 years, Zinfandel was the tried-and-true grape, adapting far more easily to California’s Mediterranean climate than any other variety of Vitis vinifera (i.e., cultivars belonging to the European family of wine grapes) aside from Carignan.
The future of Zinfandel was in serious jeopardy.
White Zin and the red resurgence
The only reason many of California’s classic “old vine” growths (the thousands of acres originally planted between the late 1800s and early 1960s) survived was because of White Zinfandel, a related but different varietal category. If not for the popularity of this soft, fruity pink wine, most of the old Zinfandel vineyards would have been ignominiously ripped out and replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or (of course) Chardonnay.
The consumer craze for White Zinfandel has since subsided substantially. Just in time for a second resurgence of Zinfandel as a red wine of note.
I’d put this “second coming” of Zinfandel as happening only within the past 10 or so years. It’s that recent. Up until then, many die hard Zinfandel lovers appreciated the wine more for its full bodied, ultra-dark and ripe fruit profile, commonly described as “jammy.” Like fruit cooked with sugar, pectin and alcohol … lots and lots of alcohol.
Zinfandel, ironically, is not intrinsically a “jammy” wine. When planted, cultivated and picked in more of a classic style — that is, not excessively high in sugar, which would require the addition of water and acidification to bring the wine into some semblance of balance — it is actually a delicate wine. Moderate in color, not connotatively black and blue. Fragrant or floral, not so much jammy. Refreshingly bright and sprightly in natural acidity. Not fat, flabby or pumped up with fake acid or the artifice of wood.
A ballet dancer, not an offensive lineman.
But as the old Western swing song goes, time changes everything. All during Zinfandel’s stylistic evolution over the past 30 years, ZAP has been there, drumming up enthusiasm for the variety, no matter its various guises.
Zinfandel grew up
This past January 27, 2024, ZAP held its annual Grand Tasting in San Francisco. Many die hard Zinfandel lovers can recall the first 10 or 20 of these yearly gatherings as more of a wild and delirious party than a civilized tasting. This is what happens when hundreds of different bottlings are poured, most of them made in super-ripe styles and finished with 15%, 16% — even above 17% — alcohol.
2024’s ZAP gathering was less of a bacchanal and more of a soirée. There were smiles, murmurs and discussions rather than madding crowds afflicted by uncontrollable laughter. Just 20 years ago, glasses used to fall to the floor every few minutes, and Zin lovers would cheer. This year … no broken glass, no cheers, no craziness.
Does this mean Zinfandel is no longer “fun”? No. Good wine is always fun. But it’s also something that stimulates the mind, not deadens it. Zinfandel, in other words, is now considered a serious wine, which it has always deserved to be.
It is, after all, a grape that is ideally suited to California. Many say far more than Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay, because it is so simpatico with the climate. The earliest pioneers of the California wine industry recognized that from the start, which is why they planted so much more Zinfandel, far less Cabernet Sauvignon, and virtually no Merlot or Chardonnay (at least not up until the 1960s).
Zinfandel belongs. Not just in California, but also among the great wines of the world.
The Individuality of Zin
Have American consumers finally freed themselves from the compulsion of “bigger-the-better”? I could not help thinking that, while eavesdropping on conversations at the tasting tables during the 2024 ZAP Grand Tasting: Zinfandel lovers seemed to be keen on finding — and appreciating — variations of Zinfandel. No longer looking for the biggest ones possible.
Like American wine consumers in general, most Zinfandel advocates also appreciate brands, and so the biggest crowds were predictably gathered around the tables of the more established, justifiably prestigious producers such at Turley Wine Cellars, Ridge Vineyards and Robert Biale Vineyards.
However, there were also, at times, crowds bulging two-or-three-deep in front of tables of other producers such as Peachy Canyon Winery, Seghesio Family Vineyards and Hendry Ranch Wines.
The thing about today’s higher profile brands is that they each produce distinctive styles of Zinfandel. Distinctive, particularly, in terms of sensory qualities associated with different regions, or the specific vineyards from which their wines are sourced. The classic wine term for that is terroir, or “sense of place.”
Turley Wine Cellars, for instance, was pouring Zinfandels from its Del Barba Vineyard in Contra Costa County, Dragon Vineyard in Howell Mountain (Napa Valley) and Hayne Vineyard in St. Helena (Napa Valley). The wines, like their respective appellations, couldn’t be any more different from each other. The Del Barba exhibited the flowery, finely textured qualities you get when growing Zinfandel in literal sand dunes right next to water; the Dragon possessed a far meatier texture, peppery spiced concentration of its high elevation mountain site; the Hayne showed its burly, ripe, toned-yet-svelte, multifaceted, forest floor-nuanced character typical of old vines on the Napa Valley floor.
Christina Turley, the winery’s director of national sales and marketing, shared one of the more interesting comments that I heard that day. Reflecting on the shifting popularity of Zinfandel in the marketplace, she said:
“When I first started going out, Zinfandel was still considered a little old school, maybe something of a tired, predictable wine. Then a few years ago, it became the wine of the hipper crowd, with a retro-cool image. Recently, it’s gone back to being a little old school, but not in a bad way — it’s old school because it’s always been around, and the best ones come from really good old vineyards.”
If anything, Zinfandel has become more real to consumers, and Zinfandel specialists are crafting the wines to meet those expectations. They’re producing wines with less alcohol (14% now seems to be the average ABV) and far less oak influence, letting the naturally floral/berry qualities of the grape shine through. Not only that, but they’re also making wines with distinctive terroir-related profiles — attributes specific to sites, big or small.
For instance, Zinfandels grown in Sonoma County’s Rockpile AVA generally retain the iron clad tannin/acid structure of Zinfandels associated with Rockpile. Zinfandels from Lodi or Napa Valley’s Coombsville AVA invariably have earthy/loamy characteristics that make them all the more interesting. There is often a startling minerality to Zinfandels grown on the white calcareous rocky slopes of Paso Robles. Russian River Valley Zinfandels are typically luxurious in their black fruit berryishness. There are often funky/herby characteristics in Sonoma Mountain Zinfandels — and the funkier the better. And on and on.
Zinfandel, in other words, has finally grown up as a variety because it is now allowed to taste like where it actually comes from, not hammered into caricatures of varietal character typical just 20 or 30 years ago. It’s as if the grape is finally comfortable in its own skin. Advocates are more cognizant, vintners more sensitive, and media … well, it always takes the media (i.e., journalists, especially 100-point proponents) a little more time to catch up to what consumers are enjoying and the industry is producing.
There is still, of course, brand-related stylization involved. It will take a long time before that goes away, since wineries have to compete, and one way to compete is to establish distinctive sensory markers associated with brands.
At the same time, though, there is a growing respect for regional styles as well as greater appreciation for individuality of vineyards. Sure, I’d like to see wineries that produce two, three, even five or six different vineyard-designate Zinfandels begin to fashion their wines to be a little more distinct from each other, instead of slavishly adhering to “house style.” But that won’t happen overnight.
The important thing is that Zinfandel styles are making progress as we speak. As a Zinfandel lover myself, I say “Hallelujah!”
Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, California. In a prior incarnation, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. While with Roy’s, he was named Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated his own Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for his hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal (founded in 2007 as Sommelier Journal), and freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (lodiwine.com). You may contact him at email@example.com