Zurviving ZAP

Many of my longstanding readers know that Sostevinobile was borne partly out of Your West Coast Oenophile’s frustration with the advertising industry in San Francisco. Meritocracy be damned—this is an insidious clique hellbent on quashing true talent in favor of preserving the status quo mediocrity. A prime example of this phenomenon can be see at the once illustrious Foote, Cone & Belding, an agency that blazed trails in the 1980s with its work for Levi’s, as well as its iconic claymation, The Dancing Raisins. 

In the 1990s, FCB created one of the most vapid commercials ever broadcast, for the short-lived malt beverage Zima. Their spokesman, a pallid imitation of Chico Marx, feebly promoted this clear-colored alternative to Bartles & Jaymes and Quinn’s Quail Coolers by eliminating the letter “S” from his dialogue, substituting a “Z” whenever possible.

Zimply ridiculouz! I was so offended by this spot—not because of its content but because the hack who created it, not me, was thriving as a copywriter—that I took to posting this retort outside FCB’s entryway.

Zo I zaid,“Zit on my face!”


And zhe replied, “Then pop it, Pimplehead!”


Zima exists now only in the painful recesses of the memory, while Foote Cone & Belding’s office in San Francisco has shrunk to a vestige of what it once was. I don’t pretend I could have salvaged this product, but had the FCB folks ever had the perspicacity to put me on staff, I can safely say (zafely zay?) such a ludicrous campaign would have never seen the light of day.








Twenty-five years’ of backstabbing, rampant mediocrity, and relentless
mendacity ultimately drove me out of advertising & marketing and back into the relative tranquility of the viticultural realm, though readers here know that I always maintained close ties to the industry through this hiatus, developing wine labels, custom bottling, and, most importantly steadfastly attending numerous trade shows to continue expanding and refining my palate. These efforts included taking part of nearly every ZAP festival since it first filled the Golden Gate Room at Fort Mason.

Naturally, I was on hand a couple of weeks ago for 20 Years of Zinspiration, the vigentennial celebration of ZAP’s Grand Zinfandel Tasting. Popular perception holds that this gathering has mushroomed to overwhelming proportions since its inception, but actually it has contracted from around 250 participating wineries in 2009 to just 205 this most recent incarnation. Yet with nearly seven hours to cover both buildings, I still found myself hard-pressed to meet with every winery I had pre-identified for the afternoon.

Over the course of the afternoon, I delved into some Primitivos, some Zinfandel blends, a handful of Ports, and one or two unsanctioned wines hidden beneath the table. If there were any White Zins on hand, I managed to skillfully avoid them; for the most part, however, the event provided an interminable flow of Zinfandel, Zinfandel, and more Zinfandel.

Several of my previous entries have detailed my perceptions on the challenges of tasting through a single varietal event. My methodology for navigating these events certainly has been laid out extensively. And by now, I’ve described the setting of the pavilions at Fort Mason and my bipedal commute from Pacific Heights ad nauseam. So, rather than risk redundancy, let me list the stations I visited, starting with the newcomers to the Sostevinobile roster.

Santa Rosa’s Carlisle Winery bottles both Zinfandel and an array of Rhône-style wines. Here they poured contrasting Zins, starting with the 2009 Zinfandel Montafi Ranch from the Russian River Valley. This superb wine only slightly eclipsed their 2009 Zinfandel Monte Rosso Vineyard, which, in turn I found slightly better that the still-impressive 2009 Zinfandel Martinelli Road Vineyard. Now recite them all, three times fast…

My readers know that I have been steadily building this wine program for nearly three years. At this stage, I can list three certainties about the wine industry: 1) no one can list all the wine labels being produced on the West Coast (current estimates place this figure at ~8,000 distinct producers); 2) no one can possibly guess how many varietals are being grown here (Sostevinobile has uncovered 147 so far); 3) no one knows every wine venture Nils Venge has his hand in. And so I was quite surprised to see this storied winemaker standing at the table for Cougar’s Leap, a red wine venture out of Rutherford. Today’s tasting provided a cursory insight into the scope of this venture, which is also bottling a Meritage, Petite Sirah and Rosato di Sangiovese; the 2007 Black Rock Zinfandel showed beautifully, while the 2009 vintage struck me as too early to be poured.

My appreciation for the wines from Dendor Patton fell pretty much along the same lines. This Mendocino venture, which lists its business domain as Belchertown, MA (great address for a brewery!), impressed me greatly with their 2007 Wisdom Zinfandel, while the 2009 proved premature.

Lest anyone begin to suspect that the 2008 vintage was somehow missing in action, Haraszthy Family Cellars more than filled in the gap with four distinct bottlings—not surprising when the title bar to their Website reads “Zinfandels and only Zinfandels.” Their pouring progressed from the 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi to the pleasant 2008 Zinfandel Amador County to the more luxuriant 2008 Zinfandel Sonoma County. The crescendo came from their unannounced 2008 Zinfandel Howell Mountain, a genuine pleasure to sample.

From there, I moved onto a semi-unfamiliar label, Headbanger, a division of Hoffman Family Cellars. As with Dendor Patton and Cougar’s Leap, attendees were presented with non-sequential vintages of their Zins, the definitive 2007 Sonoma County Zinfandel and the aspirant 2009 vintage. Headbanger also offered their 2010 Rock n Rosé of Zinfandel, nice diversion but not a wine worth revisiting.

Headbanger brought to mind last year’s 120 dB pour from Deep Purple, which I unfortunately bypassed, as well as the other rock ’n’ roll label, Sledgehammer (think Peter Gabriel). All jesting aside, this Napa project produced quite an impressive 2007 North Coast Zinfandel. As over the top as these labels may sound, at the opposite end of the spectrum I discovered Predator, the Zinfandel-only label out of Rutherford Ranch’s stable, benignly illustrated with a spotted ladybug on its label. In a rare reversal, I found the 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi most distinct, while the 2007 Rutherford Ranch Zinfandel seemed commonplace.

Another highly impressive 2009 came from Mike and Molly Hendry, a label wholly independent from the acclaimed Hendry Ranch Winery run by Mike’s uncle. This offshoot also produced a solid 2009 vintage, the 2009 Zinfandel R. W. Moore Vineyard. There are more offshoots from the Sebastiani clan these day than I enumerate, but, ironically one is not Sebastiani, which is now part of the burgeoning Foley Wine empire. Nonetheless, this current incarnation mildly impressed me with both their 2008 Zinfandel Sonoma Valley and the 2008 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley.

I had a nice moment visiting with Camille Seghesio, whose mother I had befriended just days before her untimely death. As one of the leading Zinfandel producers whose name does not begin with an “R,” their 2008 Cortina from Dry Creek Valley proved as splendid as ever. Camille’s cousin, Gia Passalacqua, returned to ZAP with her Dancing Lady Wines’ spectacular 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel (I could not muster the same enthusiasm for the 2009 California Zinfandel from her pal Gina Gallo’s Dancing Bull ). Another Seghesio cousin, Rich Passalacqua has consistently dazzled with his lineup of Gia Domella Zins, making equally impressive showings with both the 2007 Estate Zinfandel and the 2008 Estate Zinfandel. Approaching a surreal plane were both his 2008 Reserve Zinfandel Russian Valley and its predecessor, the 2007 Reserve Zinfandel Russian River Valley.

I had not previously encountered Rancho San Miguel Winery from Sonoma, yet found myself extremely pleased with their 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel Starr Rd. Vineyard. On the other hand, the San Joaquin Wine Company from Madera produced a 2007 Green Eyes Zinfandel barely worth the $7 it lists for. Ditto for the overpriced ($11.99) 2006 Howling Moon Zinfandel from ADS Wines of Walnut Creek, a decidedly schizophrenic operation. And Forever Vineyards poured a $9.99 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel that, indeed, may be permanently burnished in the memory in ways they had not intended.

Returning to my genial demeanor, I found much to appreciate in the 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel Sherman Family Vineyards from Lodi’s Fields Family. I was also extremely pleased finally to make it to Manzanita Creek’s table to sample a trio of their wines. while the name alone made me like their lush 2005 Stealth from Alexander Valley, even more compelling were the 2007 Zinfandel Alfonso Old Vines and the 2007 Zinfandel Old Vines Carreras Ranch.

I knew I had tasted with Pech Merle previously, but somehow managed to forget incorporating them in my previous entries. Non è importante—it was more than a pleasure to revisit with Laree Adair Mancour and Bruce Lawton and enter both the 2008 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley and their impressive 2008 L’Entrée into my Sostevinobile column. Keeping my pre-tasting notes, however, proved a bit more elusive. A glitch in my iPhone somehow relegated my methodical sampling guides to an unknown sector of cyberspace just as I was finishing up with Spenker—a Lodi house producing enviable results with their 2002 Estate Zinfandel and the aptly-named 2008 Rustic Red Zinfandel—and, in my frantic attempts to recreate this road map, I inadvertently overlooked Saldo, Sausal, along with Nils Venge’s home base, Saddleback Cellars.

Despite not having my iPhone to guide me, I did remember to traipse over to review Healdsburg’s Rusina. Here the splendid, acronymic 2007 AXV (for Alexander Valley) presaged the even more appealing 2007 DCV (Dry Creek Valley). Finally, their 2007 Triskelion, echoing the familiar three-legged Sicilian icon, broke up the afternoon’s redundancy with a distinctive blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah. Nearby, Jeff Cohn crafted not only an excellent organic 2008 Estate Zinfandel for Simoncini but also a dry 2009 Zinfandel Rosé that bore little resemblance to Bob Trinchero’s paltry pink approximation of this wine.

Trinchero does not comprise the only Italian “T” within the California wine realm. Vince Tofanelli, whom I would subsequently visit in Calistoga just to try his Charbono, made a marvelous initial impression, first with his 2007 Estate Zinfandel, then with the superb 2008 Estate Zinfandel. Trione Vineyards, whose various incarnations I have encountered since 1983, held court with their 2008 Home Ranch Zinfandel. Technically, of course, Trentadue is Swiss Italian, but I was nonetheless taken by their 2009 Old Patch Red, an old school blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane and Sangiovese. And while Trattore Estate’s Tim Bucher may not be Italian, his pivotal role in the promulgation of Apple’s OSX garners him honorary inclusion among il vero popolo eletto, as we refer to ourselves. Not that his 2009 Estate Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley wouldn’t warrant major accolades!

Being such an unabashed evangelist for Italian culture and, in particular, Italian varietals grown within Sostevinobile’s radius, I would think certain wineries like Staglin would be ecstatic to have me sample their pertinent bottlings, like the 2008 Stagliano Estate Sangiovese. Similarly, I have long been pestering Bill and Betty Nachbaur to ply me with their 2008 Dolcetto Alegría Vineyards; instead, I had to content myself with Acorn’s nonetheless splendid 2008 Zinfandel Heritage Vines. And although Jerry Baldwin does not produce any wines in the CalItalia category, once I had finished sampling his striking 2008 Zinfandel Dawn Hill Ranch and its preceding vintage, he did pour me a most enjoyable 2008 Rattlesnake Ridge Petite Sirah

I’ve not only indulged in the wonderful Sagrantino and Aglianico Napa’s Benessere crafts, I have even partaken of their little-known Grappa of Trebbiano; their ZAP selection, the 2007 Black Glass Zinfandel, more than held its own with their signature varietals. Another ZAP stalwart, Brown Estate made their customary splash with both the 2009 Zinfandel Napa Valley and the incredible 2009 Zinfandel Chiles Valley. And no matter how many years they pour at this event, Rombauer will always make for a mandatory visit, as both their exceptional 2008 Zinfandel Fiddletown and the quirkily-labeled 2008 Zinfandel North Coast (60% Sierra Foothills, 40% North Coast) readily attested.

Rombauer, of course, is best known as one of the four R’s of Zinfandel. Being that I receive Ridge’s ATP shipments, sampling from their two tables seemed superfluous, given the confines of my schedule. I also chose to bypass Rosenblum, whose fortunes appear to be declining under Diageo’s stewardship, but did partake in a couple of wines from successor Rock Wall: the 2009 Zinfandel Pearl Hart Reserve and the newish 2009 Vive La Rouge, blended from Syrah, Zinfandel and Nebbiolo.

Ravenswood Quarry separated itself from the Ravenswood Sonoma table, where founder Joel Peterson —a fitting acknowledgment from parent company Constellation presided—arguably showed no signs of decline following their acquisition, boasting a phenomenal 2008 Zinfandel Old Hill Vineyard, a single vineyard designate described as Zinfandel “+ mixed Blacks,” and the ever-reliable 2008 Zinfandel Teldeschi Vineyard, a wine blended with Petite Sirah and Carignane. Teldeschi Vineyard’s family stewards, Ray and Lori, appeared once again this afternoon with their Del Carlo label, featuring the 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley and the clearly preferable 2007 vintage of the same. 

Zinfandel seems to thrive in nearly every sector of California. Witness Guglielmo from Morgan Hill, with their respectable 2007 Private Reserve Estate Zinfandel Santa Clara Valley. Marr Cellars of Davis sandwiched two exceptional versions of the grape, the 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel Mattern Ranch and the 2008 Zinfandel Tehama County around a very food friendly 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel Mendocino. Templeton’s Rotta showcased their 2006 Estate Zinfandel Giubbini Vineyard and the 2006 Heritage Zinfandel, a blend of 80% Zinfandel and 20% Primitivo. And from Alexander Valley, Starlite Vineyards produced a 2006 Estate Grown Zinfandel.

One of Lodi’s premier Zinfandel producers, McCay Cellars, featured their two stellar bottlings, the 2007 Jupiter Zinfandel and (this is not a mistyping of Turlock) the 2007 Trulucks Zinfandel. Fiddletown’s Easton excelled with both the 2007 Estate Zinfandel Shenandoah Valley and the 2008 Fiddletown Zinfandel Rinaldi Vineyards. And with a quartet of elegantly crafted wines, Gamba Vineyards certified the Russian River Valley’s rightful place in the Zinfandel pantheon: the 2008 Zinfandel Russian River Valley, their 2008 Estate Old Vine Zinfandel, and the remarkable 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel Moratto Vineyard, as well as a preview release of their 2009 bottling.

Austin Hope’s Candor label came through, as per usual, with an intriguing non-vintage selection, their Lot 2 Zinfandel, blended from both Lodi and Paso Robles grapes. Lake County’s Gregory Graham demonstrated his virtuosity with the interminably-named 2007 Cluster Select Sweet Zinfandel Crimson Hill Vineyard. Vineburg’s cacuminal Gundlach Bundschu offered their affable 2008 Zinfandel Sonoma County, while Healdsburg’s Sapphire Hill seemed downright whimsical in their nomenclature for both the 2008 Zinfandel Winberrie Vineyard and their impressive 2006 Zinfandel Porky’s Patch.

Th-th-th-th-That’s all, Folks! Or so I would wish, having some 20 more wineries to cite. Several tried and true friends from my two decades of attending this event warranted quick visits as I passed by their tables. Harney Lane lent considerable credence to the acclaim for Lodi’s Zins with their 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzie James Vineyard, as well as the unpretentious 2008 Lodi Zinfandel. Similarly, Lava Cap helped consolidate the Sierra Foothills burgeoning reputation for this varietal with three solid bottlings: the 2008 Zinfandel Rocky Draw, their 2008 Zinfandel Spring House, and the standout 2008 Reserve Zinfandel. I know Skip Granger probably has still not forgiven me for eschewing tasting every one of Starry Night’s selections but I was favorably impressed with the two I did sample, their final 2006 Zinfandel Tom Feeney Ranch and the 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel Nervo Station, before I moved onto other stations I needed to cover.

Rockpile pioneers Mauritson brought out their big guns with the 2009 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley, the 2009 Jack’s Cabin Zinfandel, and the masterful 2009 Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel. ZAP’s co-founder Prof. Jerry Seps manifested his Storybook Mountain Vineyards’ considerable pedigree with both the 2008 Mayacamas Ridge Estate Zinfandel and the 2007 Estate Antæus, a superior mélange of 57% Zinfandel, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot, and 6% Merlot. Julie Johnson’s Tres Sabores poured a similar blend, the 2008 ¿Por qué no? (Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah) and her excellent 2008 Rutherford Estate Zinfandel.

I bypassed both vintages of their Willow Creek Farm Zinfandel in favor of the 2008 Dimples Proulx poured, an evenly-balanced mix of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah in true Paso Robles style. Another Central Coast operation, Hearthstone Vineyards, made a nice ZAP debut with their 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles. And Paso Robles Zin specialists Peachy Canyon prominently poured their 2008 Mustang Springs Zinfandel, as well as two confidently-named bottlings, the 2008 Vortex Zinfandel and the 2008 Especial Zinfandel.

Despite Sostevinobile’s frequent disparagements, the large conglomerates sometimes do manage to produce memorable wines, like the 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles from Constellation’s Paso Creek. Likewise, Terlato Wines2007 The Federalist, a single-bottling endeavor, provided a nicely approachable Zin, even though their costumes and antics seemed totally affected (ever since Randall Grahm sold his over-the-top Cardinal Zin, someone has always been trying to usurp his aplomb). And hard as it may be for me to admit, the 800-lb. gorilla in the room, Bronco, managed to preserve the quality and integrity of Red Truck’s organic offering, the 2008 Green Truck Zinfandel.

Of course, these mass producers will inevitably bottle their vintages, too, like the 2007 The Fiddler Zinfandel from Masked Rider (Bronco) and the nadir of Twisted’s unpalatable 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel (Delicato).

20 Years of Zinspiration marked what may well be the annual devolution of the Grand Zinfandel Tasting into something more manageable for attendees and more viable for wineries. If participation continues to contract, the event could easily revert to occupying a single pavilion, as it had in earlier days; certainly, a number of the wineries at this event would be better served tinkering with their œnology before considering a return here. As always, there were extraordinary wines on hand, but the proliferation of mediocre bottlings seemed far more evident than ever before.
Usually, I like to wrap up my posts here on an upbeat note, but, alas, the last word in Zin this afternoon, the 2009 Lodi Zinfandel from Zynthesis tasted as absurd as its name. Zometimez, that’z juzt the way the ball bounzez!

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