January 10, 2008
Zinfandel, I Love You, But...

Didn't I say just yesterday that I'm a zinfandel partisan? I did. And I still am, though our panel at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale just finished judging Class 413, zinfandels priced $35 and higher. Zinfandels $35 and higher? My gosh, zinfandel long has been the wine of the people, easily accessible both economically and stylistically. If Berkeley were to declare a wine of the city, it would be zinfandel. So how did we get to this state where you can go to a wine competition and find so many zinfandels so expensive? Greed? Perhaps, but I'd rather think these high prices more likely reflect the prevailing marketing belief that consumers increasingly equate quality with cost. I'm not convinced that if that's the case today it will last long, especially as consumers get burned out by the harsh tannins, burning alcohol and dubious ageability of many of these powerhouse zinfandels. I also worry for the wherewithal of zinfandel producers who still turn out commendably accessible wine at an accessible price. I fret that they will get lost in the dust stirred up by the masses clamboring for excessively expensive zinfandels under the mistaken notion that if they cost more they must be better.

But I digress. Just let me say that the price wouldn't bother me if only the substance were there to justify it. In too many instances, it wasn't. Too many wines were excessively tannic and alcoholic, without inviting and caressing smells and flavors, the grace and charm that long has made zinfandel such an appealing wine. We tasted 52 zinfandels in this category. Out of that group, we gave 17 gold medals. To me, that's an astounding number for the overall quality of the group, but I plead guilty to finding several gold-worthy wines in the lineup, though not all the wines I thought deserved gold got it, and several that did just didn't seduce me. I guess that's why you have five-person panels, each member of which has his or her experience and perspective to draw from.

I'm looking forward to learning the identity of the zinfandel that won best of class from our panel. Right now, we only know it as wine No. 54. It won on a 3-2 vote. The wine that got the two votes was No. 1. As fellow panelist Kent Rosenblum remarked, how many times does the last vote for best of class come down to the first and last wines tasted? Not to say that we wasted our time tasting all those zinfandels in between. We learned, among other things, that too many zinfandels are just too massive. Once again, buyer beware.

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