Zin I Am

ZIHN-fuhn-dehl. noun. A red wine grape originally thought to be indigenous to California. Recently, however, experts have concluded that the Zinfandel grape was brought to the United States from Italy’s Puglia region.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Alas, the experts reached their conclusions on the provenance of America’s heritage grape somewhat after the World Wide Web devoured their false leads. Thus, all kinds of deathless half-truths abound, like the one above from Answers.com.

Fittingly for the grape of myriad disguises, the theme of this year’s Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) festival is “masquerade.” Zin’s a robust, simple mate to the plate; a sweet and blushing ingénue; a brooding bramble-berry beast. But as for the vino incognito’s famously mysterious origins—the subject of much fun over the years—well, that party’s over.

Like the genealogy-obsessed folk we are, diligent Americans have nailed Zin through DNA matching and by scouring the historical record. And although it turns out that the vine was, in a way, ordered from a catalogue like a packet of peas, its story remains no less a great American story.

An obscure subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Zinfandel was imported to be grown under glass as a table grape by New England garden enthusiasts, as was the fashion in the early 1800s. When a sea captain brought it around the Horn to California, it found new life as a rough-and-ready claret to slake the thirst of the ’49ers; later it became a prolific mortgage payer for burgeoning Italian wineries. Following Prohibition (hiss from the balcony), Zinfandel was “rediscovered” by iconoclast vintners of the 1960s.

Got it? Good. Now let’s return to the business of drinking it. The ZAP festival draws as many as 10,000 attendees, who knock back some 550 of the hottest, the smoothest and the most unusual wines under two roofs. There are tasty everyday values like Carol Shelton’s new “Zinami,” a nonvintage brilliant ruby version of her fruit-packed vineyard designates. It’s easy to like, with warm, toasty aromas of roasted cashew, herbs, fruitcake and cinnamon. Its velour-like tannins inspire the tongue to search out every last drop of strawberry and grape jelly on the palate, a lively companion to pork chops or fried tofu and green beans in garlic sauce.

Or ask a seagull what pairs best with Zinfandel. If that seagull were to answer you, he would say “french bread.” The ZAP tasting invariably ends with a fatigued but recklessly merry crowd ringing the quay between the festival piers, throwing scraps to a hungry nation of birds.

The 18th annual ZAP Festival’s public tasting is slated for Saturday, Jan. 31, from 2pm–5 pm. Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. $59–$69. 530.274.4900. [ http://www.zinfandel.org/ ]www.zinfandel.org.

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