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."

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