I have just spent what otherwise would have been an unremarkable Saturday with 5,500 possessed people, all of whom had unnervingly purple teeth. This was the consequence of their having consumed something in the neighborhood of 54,300 glasses of Zinfandel with what can only be described as abandon. Zinfandel ― more than any other wine ― does this sort of thing to people. It makes them giddy with obsession. Drinking Zin is kind of like falling in love for the first time.
The Zinfandel fanatics and I were in San Francisco at a ZAP event, possibly the most hedonistic wine tasting in the country. ZAP stands for Zinfandel Advocates & Producers. As a descriptor, advocates only scratches the surface; these were enthusiasts who could comparatively taste two Zinfandels, eat little cubes of orange cheese, and talk on a cell phone at the same time.
What was amazing to me ― and the reason I bring up this tasting (which is open to the public*) ― is this: out of more than 360 Zinfandels from 181 producers, a huge number were absolutely stellar. You just don't taste this kind of across-the-board success in a mass of Chardonnays or Merlots. But quietly, steadily, and without attracting much notice, Zinfandel has become astonishingly good. The top Zins are now wines of depth and complexity. Not to mention irresistible crushed-velvet textures and ripe, spicy boysenberry flavors.
Why this upswing in quality? The short answer is money. Because Zinfandel now commands higher prices than it once did, growers can afford to plant the grapes in the best vineyard sites and winemakers can use top-quality barrels and equipment.
Zinfandel is often called "America's grape." As early as 1830, for example, it was showing up in nursery catalogs around New England, where it was eaten as a table grape.
Then, serendipitously, something happened in the West: the Gold Rush. Thousands of European immigrants, heady with dreams of wealth, poured into Northern California. When their hopes of getting rich quick died, they turned to what, in many cases, were the only occupations they knew: farming and winemaking. Zinfandel was a sturdy grapevine, requiring very little special equipment to turn its fruit into satisfying wine. By the late 1860s, Zin was growing in the Sierra foothills, Sacramento, the Napa Valley, Sonoma, and the Santa Clara Valley. By the 1870s and 1880s, the time of the vast post-Gold Rush grape plantings, Zinfandel was the leading red grape in California.
It still is. As of 1997, Zinfandel, with 50,498 acres, is the most widely planted red variety in the state. Cabernet Sauvignon, its more aristocratic cousin, comes in second with 45,307 acres.
Given Zinfandel's significance in American history, it's startling to realize what scientists themselves discovered only months ago ― that Zinfandel is probably of Croatian origin. Using the new technique of DNA fingerprinting, they've found that it's a close relative of a grape grown on the Dalmatian coast.
In the end, though, the single most important fact about Zin may be this: it's the absolute best all-around summertime red. When it comes to grilled steaks, grilled leg of lamb, or, say, barbecued chicken, most white wines just don't cut it. Zin, on the other hand, is massively fruity ― a delicious contrast to the char of grilled meats. Plus it's less tannic than Cabernet or Merlot, making it refreshing and easy to drink.
There's one more thing: backyard pleasures imply "backyard prices." Somehow, drinking a $40 Cabernet while sitting out on the deck seems a tad indulgent. And while the price of Zin is higher than it once was, dollar for dollar the wine is still one of the West's most affordable pleasures.
*ZAP tastings are held annually throughout the country. For more information, call (530) 432-8964.
BACKYARD BLISS IN A BOTTLE
Here, after extensive ZAP research, are some of my current favorite Zinfandels.
Eberle "Steinbeck Vineyard" 1997 (Paso Robles), $16
Folie à Deux Old Vine 1996 (Amador), $18
Green & Red "Chiles Mill Vineyard" 1997 (Napa Valley), $20
Hidden Cellars "Mendocino Heritage ― Eaglepoint Ranch" 1996 (Mendocino), $28
Lolonis Estate 1996 (Redwood Valley), $17
Ridge "Geyserville" 1997 (Alexander Valley), $27.50
Saucelito Canyon 1997 (Arroyo Grande), $19.50
Tria 1997 (Napa Valley), $18
SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Beaulieu Zinfandel 1996 (Napa Valley), $12. A juicy, rustic Zin with mouth-filling berry-spice flavors. Zinfandels in this price range seldom have this much personality.