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Beloved Zinfandel : A Masterful Mimic, It's Also California's Most Popular Red Wine Grape


It was the first week in December. A festive spirit was abroad in the land. At the Los Angeles Convention Center, the third U.S. International Food Show was the setting for the Great Wine Challenge: Two teams--one from the United States and one consisting of experts from France, England, Australia and Japan--would attempt to identify seven groups of wines, with myself as moderator. An audience had assembled to watch as glasses of wines were set before the two teams and the deliberations began. Aides handed the scoring sheets to me, the results were tabulated and the totals chalked up on a large score sheet for all to see.

Through the first three groups, the teams were tied; then the international team began to pull ahead. Soon we were at the fifth question, which read: "Before you are four red wines of the same varietal. They come from three different regions. Two of them are the same wine. (a) Name the varietal. (b) Name the district or county of origin of the two wines that are the same. (c) The remaining two wines are from the following districts or counties. Name the correct district or county of each: Amador, Beaujolais, Central Coast, Central Valley, Cote de Beaune, Cote de Nuits, Medoc, Mendocino, Napa, Rhone Valley, St. Emilion, Sonoma."

To my amazement, as the score sheets were handed to me, I saw that every one of the experts had incorrectly identified the varietal. Thinking that perhaps the wrong wines had been poured, I asked for a set of glasses. Glass No. 2 was Zinfandel--Ridge 1982 Paso Robles (Central Coast). The two wines that were the same were Chateau Montelena 1982 Napa Valley Zinfandel. The third wine was Lytton Springs 1982 Sonoma Valley Zinfandel. All eight experts identified the variety as Cabernet Sauvignon. All were wrong. A few correctly identified the appellations, none 100%.

A crowd assembled as the final scores were tabulated: 74 points for the international team, 60 1/2 points for the U.S. team. After bestowing the Prix d'Honneur upon the visiting experts, I observed that I had been shocked that all the experts had failed to identify the wines presented in Group 5 and explained why I had asked for my own set of the wines.

In the front row of the audience, I recognized two of my students; both had only the night before received certificates of completion from my eight-week wine-appreciation class (their first class in the subject). With the wines still unidentified to the audience or the teams, I asked the two to step forward and attempt identification of the variety, assuaging their fears that this was a trick.

Elizabeth Castagna picked up each glass, swirled, sniffed, tasted and said she wasn't sure. Leah Yamauchi then tasted, pausing briefly at wine No. 2 to smile. After the last, she put it down and, tilting her head, smiled and said: "They're all Zinfandel!" I laughed and announced: "She's absolutely right." The panel was dumbfounded. The audience cheered. The show had a dramatic conclusion.

Years ago, Louis M. Martini told me: "The trouble with Zinfandel is that when it loses the fruitiness of its youth, it takes on a Cabernet-claret quality." Charles A. Wetmore, California's first chief executive viticultural officer, wrote in his "Ampelography," published in 1884, that not only did fine aged Zinfandels have "resemblance to high-classed Medoc (Bordeaux) wines" but that he would continue to recommend Zinfandel "to assist us in rivaling the most popular of the French wines."

Zinfandel is far and away the most popularly planted red wine grape variety in California, with more than 28,045 acres in bearing as of 1983, with Cabernet's 22,042 acres in second place and Carignane in third with 21,166. It is interesting to note that Wetmore wrote in 1884 that "Zinfandel . . . should be classed as a white wine grape of importance." Today's wonder wine is, of course, White Zinfandel with its intriguing blush-pink color.

Because of its abundant yield, the grape is still the pagadebito, or "debt-payer" for both Italian and California growers. For many wine lovers, it remains among the best buys, but the knowing consumer will still look to region: Cooler areas, such as Amador County in the Sierra or the northern coast of California, produce the finest grapes to make the finest wines.

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