As snapshots go, this one was taken with a camera with a rather narrow field of vision, not a wide-angle lens. Nonetheless, it could say something of the state of zinfandel in California these days, and the picture isn't particularly encouraging to those of us who are especially fond of the varietal.
Today, our panel at the West Coast Wine Competition in Rohnert Park considered two classes, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, both priced up to $20. Of the 44 cabernet sauvignons we tasted, seven got gold medals, a fairly high return. We were especially gratified that so many of the wines showed clearly that vintners truly appreciate the grape's inherent potential and are eager to wring as much natural personality as they can from it, without overlaying it with too much oak, sugar, tannin and alcohol.
The opposite was the case with the 51 zinfandels we weighed, only three of which were awarded gold medals. As a whole, the group was obese with sugar, alcohol, tannin and oak. "Clumsy" and "awkward" appeared in my notes much more often than usual for any varietal or style. I don't think I jotted down "charming" once, an attribute I've come to associate with zinfandel at its freshest, clearest and most balanced. Too often, grapes tasted as if they were left hanging on the vine well beyond when they should have been picked, yielding flavors tired and raisiny. The vanillin and smokiness of oak barrels often was the first smell to register in the nose, not the sunshine and freshness of raspberries and blackberries. Several were so offensively stinky that my only note was the dreaded "DPIM" - "don't put in mouth."
As I left the conference center where the competition is being held I had to wonder whether zinfandel's discouraging showing was due to a poor vintage - most were from 2008 - or whether vintners are taking the varietal for granted, assuming consumers never will regard it with the same esteem given cabernet sauvignon, and thus aren't giving it the same tender loving care. If that's the case, who can fault consumers for not thinking as highly of zinfandel as they do cabernet sauvignon?