Zinfandel panel at San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival
'I was in bed this morning, thinking about chocolate," said Foppiano Vineyards representative Susan Valera. "Back in the '60s, when it came to wine, you had Burgundy, Rosé, and White Sauternes. And back then, my dad used to bring home five-cent Hershey bars of milk chocolate. These days, the diversity of Zinfandels is kind of like the diversity of chocolates. You don't just have milk chocolate -- you have white chocolate, dark chocolate, chocolate with 62 percent cocoa and with 78 percent cocoa. Depending on what you like, you can go and pick a Zinfandel you like."
Valera was speaking as one of the panelists at a Zinfandel-tasting seminar held at the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center as part of the fourth annual San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival. The panel was hosted by Paul Lukacs, wine editor for Saveur magazine and an accomplished wine writer (his book, American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine, won a trio of wine-book awards), and featured six Zinfandels (and six accompanying speakers) from six wineries: Bourassa Vineyards, Michael David, Écluse, Foppiano, Opolo, and Van Ruiten. Besides the usual rundown on each wine, Lukacs had asked the speakers to comment on two questions.
First, said Lukacs, "Compared to most varietals, Zinfandel comes in a very diverse array of styles, from...claret-style...to wines that taste so heavy they might as well be fortified." (I was glad he slipped in the "most," there; otherwise, someone surely would have asked about Riesling.) The question, then: "If you're a consumer, how do you know what you're buying?" Valera's riff on chocolate was less a response than a nifty bit of perspective on the matter, but her answer got me thinking. Riesling comes in a dizzying range of styles, but there's a name for each -- Spatlese trocken, for instance, tells the consumer both about must-weight prior to fermentation (Spatlese) and the degree to which fermentation is carried out (trocken). I read the label, and I know this much: I'm getting a bone-dry, medium-bodied Riesling. Zinfandel already includes the term "late-harvest" when it wants to indicate Port-like levels of ripeness and alcohol; perhaps the varietal could benefit from a full set of stylistic terms?
Of course, the label already gives some hint of what's to come in the form of an alcohol percentage. Alcohol content can tell you something about ripeness, body, and mouthfeel; high levels are occasionally associated with the term "jammy fruit bomb." And that led to Lukacs's second question: "An issue that seems to be getting more and more prominence in the press, and from what I hear, more and more concern for consumers, is the ever-rising level of alcohol. A 16 percent Cabernet is not common, but it's almost unusual not to buy highly alcoholic Zinfandel. Is this good? Is this bad? What do you think?"
Vic Bourassa of Napa's Bourassa Vineyards took first crack. "Our particular wine is one of the lighter ones you're going to taste; it's only 14.3 percent. That's based on what happened in the vineyard this year. It's got tannin, fruit, structure. The wine is light in alcohol, so what fruit there is in it is allowed to come through. Also, the spiciness. It's got balance, and when you taste balanced wines with balanced foods, the food makes the wine taste better and the wine makes the food taste better."
Michael Phillips of Michael David spoke next. "We like the higher alcohol; it works in Lodi," he said. But he wasn't claiming that Lodi just produces riper fruit. Phillips said that he waters "very sparingly, in order to concentrate the fruit." Further, "We let the fruit concentrate on the vine until it's slightly shriveled. You get a very concentrated wine." Concentration means a higher ratio of sugar to water in the grape, and that means higher alcohol levels. "Everybody has different styles, but this is the style that I've developed over the years. This wine is 15.9 percent. I have wines close to 17.5 percent, but that's bigger than I like, so I'll probably blend them down."
"Our intent is to try to do food-friendly Zinfandels," said Steve Lock of Écluse Wines in Paso Robles, though he was quick to add, "I'm realizing you can be food-friendly from a Port all the way to the other end." Still, "The feedback we get from our wine club and the people we speak with is that that's the kind of wine they're typically looking for. It's a complement to food and not simply a wine you might sit around and drink on the patio. The alcohol on this one is 15.4 percent; our intent is to get it down in the fourteens if we can. But we pick the fruit when we get the flavors we want," and sometimes, that means higher alcohol levels.
Rick Potruch of Opolo Vineyards (also in Paso Robles) concurred with that last bit, saying, "People think we search out the ripest fruit we can find, in order to make high-alcohol wines. Actually, to achieve physiological maturity in our vineyards, we have to let the fruit hang out there, building up sugar levels." That's because "we have extremely cold nights for as warm as our days are. We may be at 95 degrees during the day and cool down to the high 40s at night. The cold locks in the natural acids." The result: "We once had a tank ferment totally dry to almost 18.9 percent. We've actually used a spinning cone system to reduce the alcohol on some of our wines, just because we don't want to put 18 percent on a Zin."
But he parted company with Lock on the whole food-friendly bit. He was happy to suggest his wines as a pair for grilled sausage or carne asada tacos but added, "I believe that for a lot of Americans, wine is a cocktail. Wine consumption has passed beer consumption -- somebody goes to happy hour, and instead of ordering beer, they're ordering wine. You get home after a rough day of work and watch five minutes of CNN, and a nice big glass of heavy Zinfandel takes the edge off. I think it's a trend that's not going to stop."
Host Lukacs was delighted. "You're the first completely honest vintner I've met who says, 'Yes, in America, wine is a cocktail.' Much of the growth in American wine consumption is based not on drinking wine with meals but drinking it instead of Scotch. Whether that's a good or bad thing, I don't know, but it's something that's happening."
The Van Ruiten reps suggested that the controversy over high-alcohol Zin was "more of a problem for the wine press and the wine critics than for the actual consumers. It's something to talk about, but for consumers, if you like the wine, you like it."
Fair enough. However, attendee Steve Dryden (a member of the wine press but also a consumer) had a complaint. "When I drink wine, I'm not looking for a painkiller," he said. "I'm looking for elegance, finesse, and something that's reflective of the wine. Sometimes, with high-alcohol wine, elements of the wine get overpowered." (Lukacs, meanwhile, couldn't help noting that "a lot of what you hear people in the press say is that one of the reasons there's high alcohol in California wines is because of people in the press. I can think of one person, who lives in Monkton, Maryland, who tends to like big, jammy, fruit-bomb type wines." And at least one other attendee echoed Dryden's sentiments. "To me," he said, "the distinctive character of Zinfandel is that black pepper spice. I'm curious, because none of the six samples we've had here have really had that."
"I think it largely comes from the fruit we've had," replied Lock. "It's one of those things that you can't control -- it's there or it's not there." Again, fair enough -- I'm happy to bow to superior expertise in the winemaking department. But I'm looking at my hasty notes -- "candied raspberry; sweet fruit, incredible sweetness -- bubblegum [?]; huge but not syrupy." Only one hit the herbal/spicy notes loud and clear. It's tempting to wonder if maybe a little something gets lost amid all those gobs of sweet fruit.
Or, in at least one case, covered by a dusting of residual sugar. "The majority of our Zinfandel is in two products," said Potruch. "One is the Sunny Creek Zinfandel, and it has always been what I call Smucker's in a glass. It's just sweet, jammy fruit up front, but it does have that kind of traditional spice on the finish." The more robust Mountain Zinfandel also gets left with a touch of RS. "A guy named Jess Jackson has been proving that America loves sugar for a long time. A little bit of sugar in our Zinfandel has been a key to our differentiation from, say, a Dry Creek Zinfandel, which will have a more traditional pepper component."
Six producers is hardly a representative sample, but still, 0 for 6 in the black pepper department. Maybe the alcohol issue is not all in the press's collective head? Maybe the ripeness has a way of becoming all? Consider this final exchange about Zin's famously variable style. An attendee asked, "When you think Zinfandel, a lot of people think, 'Oh, that's going to be a bold, meaty red wine.' Is there any way you can kind of explode that myth?"
"You have to get the wine in front of people," replied Lock. "We've sat down with buyers and had them say, 'We don't really have room for Zinfandel on our list; it's big and bold, and we don't really have the food we want to serve with that.' You have to try to move them into it: 'We're here, it takes five seconds...' A lot of times, they're, like, 'Well, this is not what I thought it would be.' That's really the only way." Admirable persistence, but the buyer then has to be thinking, "If I'm in the business, and I had to be talked into this, what's it going to take to convince the consumer?"
Bourassa seemed to grant this point when he said, "I think America is starting to accept the fact that when they order a Zinfandel, they kind of know what they're going to get. Maybe a spice bomb, maybe a fruit bomb..." And Opolo's Potruch was even blunter: "I think America has accepted the high-alcohol Zinfandels, but the critics haven't, and some of the traditionalists obviously haven't."