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January 25-31, 2006

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Wine Tasting Room of the Week

ZAP, You're It

By Heather Irwin

Zinfandel fans are the party people of the wine world. Whoop, whoop. Unfettered by subtle nuances and delicate flavors, Zinfandel is a big, hearty, lusty, son-of-a-bitch wine that isn't afraid of wearing the lampshade. It's the kind of wine that you'd imagine Papa Hemingway and Jack London knocking back together—I mean, if they actually drank wine and hung out together. A dark and lovely Zinfandel is the kind of wine that stands up to a blistering gumbo and says, "Bring it on." And it's the kind of wine you can describe as being "completely awesome" without totally losing face.

So it probably isn't all that surprising to learn that a tightly knit group of some 300 Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) put on a pretty kick-ass tasting event each year, attracting throngs of passionate Zin lovers to San Francisco. Taking up every last bit of space in the Herbst and Festival Pavilions at Fort Mason on Saturday, Jan. 28, is ZAP's 14th annual Zinfandel Tasting, a party worth every bit of the $50 price tag—and I don't say that lightly.

Because here's the sad truth: the vast majority of winetasting events are deadly dull. Cult wineries rarely show. Really good wineries get mobbed by adoring fans almost immediately. Painful displays of butt-kissing (on both sides) will turn your stomach, and all the good wine will be gone within the first hour—you'll end up getting the swill no one else wanted. At most of these events, bad wineries stand around looking bored and pitiful, and fledgling wineries send out their eager-beaver winemaker to regale unwary tasters with every excruciating detail of his cellaring plan. And for all this, you get a hangover and a free wine glass.

Unlike other events, the sheer numbers at Zinfandel Tasting (300 wineries!) make for a good diversity of high-end, moderate and low-end wines. It's possible to get an incredible tour of the current Zinfandel landscape, with producers from Napa and Sonoma (especially Dry Creek), the emerging regions of Lodi and the Central Valley, to Southern California and a handful of producers from out of state. Each region has very distinct characteristics and techniques that, if you're paying attention, you'll quickly be able to pick out: minerally, big and fruity, more refined, more complex, more oaked. Watch for old vines, especially from the region around Lodi, which are especially interesting. If you're planning to hit all of the 300 or so tables, or at least more than two or three, keep in mind that spitting—in a cup, not your neighbor's shoes—is perfectly acceptable.

But not to worry, at the Zinfandel Tasting, pretty much anything goes, including the occasional spitting faux pas (I once spat into a bottle-chilling container—oops). Often less pretentious and more easy-going than fans of the finicky wines, there's a casual, how-ya-doin' feeling that makes this event a great maiden voyage for novice wine drinkers and a perennial favorite for those who have long worshipped at the altar of Zinfandel. And if you're not careful, they may just convert you, too.

Wineries to watch for: Acorn, Amador Foothill, Brassfield Estate, Chateau Potelle, Camellia Cellars, Carol Shelton, Cline, De Loach, Elyse, Macchia, Pezzi King, Ravenswood, Ridge, St. Francis, Storybook Mountain, Turley Wine Cellars, Wellington.

The ZAP Festival occurs Jan. 26-29 with a series of events, culminating in the Zinfandel Tasting on Saturday, Jan. 28, from 1:30pm to 5pm. Ft. Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. $40-$50. 415.441.3400.

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