January 28, 2007
If It's January, Get Zinfandel

A few early impressions from Saturday's 16th annual Zinfandel Festival at San Francisco's Fort Mason:

- Zinfandel vines are one of the few things on Earth, and maybe the only thing in California, valued for its old age. Vintners discovered years ago that terms like "old vines" and "ancient vines" help distinguish and sell their zinfandels. A growing number, however, now eschew the term, recognizing that it doesn't mean anything. I asked several winemakers who still boast of the age of their vineyards on their labels just how old their vines are. Responses ranged from 30 years to more than a century. No one, including government regulators, has ventured to establish a definition of "old vines," and maybe that's a good thing, reflecting the independent and carefree spirt that characterizes the zinfandel community.

- Someone was too carefree, however, in writing this year's festival booklet, which lists all 270 or so participating wineries and the two, three or more wines each is to pour. I've never before seen such inconsistency in vintages, prices and wines between what was described in the booklet and what actually was being poured. Before next year's festival, the organizers - the trade group Zinfandel Advocates & Producers - needs to come up with a way to better assure attendees that the information in the booklet reflects what they will find on the tables.

- On the other hand, kudos to ZAP and participating wineries for having on hand plenty of palate-clearing cheese, bread and water right up to the end. At too many tastings the food and often the wine itself runs out early on, much to the consternation of people who have paid big bucks to attend. Much to its credit, ZAP also had available big red plastic beer cups for guests to use as individual spit buckets, not that a lot of attendees were taking advantage of them.

- Many of the 2005 zinfandels introduced at the festival were notably lighter than the 2004s now in the market. Whether this reflects the nature of the vintage or a conscious effort by winemakers to rein in the ripeness, alcohol, tannins and oak of recent years warrants more exploration. Nonetheless, I like this trend, and found a higher proportion of fresh and spirited zinfandels than at any previous festival.

- Several producers were new to me or new to the festival, or both, and of those the ones I will want to keep an eye on for the distinctiveness of their zinfandels are Kokomo, Gamba, Mara and Bugay. Bugay Vineyards, which is in Sonoma County, about 1100 feet up the east slope of the Mayacamas Range, has a Sacramento connection. Proprietor John Bugay is the nephew of Sacramento broadcasting icon Stan Atkinson. Despite that association, Bugay has yet to find a retail outlet in Sacramento for his wines. Maybe when Uncle Stan gets back from one of his cruises he can do something about that; the wines truly show the authority of hillside fruit.

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