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By Stacy Drake
Saving a wine for our time

Zinfandel has long connection to Nevada County

Nevada County never disappoints when discoveries are made that reinforce the contributions this area has made to national history.

This time it is the role that the Sierra Nevada’s played in the development of a wine that continues to capture the imagination of vintners all over the world. That thirst for wine from California gold miners was all the impetuous needed to turn an ancient Croatian table grape varietal, known as Zinfandel, into the fine wine that tantalizes palates today. But it has been a bittersweet journey for the Zinfandel grape to rise to its current lofty status.

A locally based nonprofit organization, Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, or ZAP, was founded in 1991 to stop the destruction of the “old vines” and educate the public about the many virtues of Zinfandel. Interest in vineyards had ebbed when the French wine Cabernet became more in demand. In California, home to 99 percent of the U.S. Zinfandel production, a mere 3 percent of the Napa vineyard acres are now dedicated to Zinfandel.

In part to the efforts of ZAP, old vine vineyards still exist in Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras counties and Zinfandel acres are being planted. In the 1970’s, Zinfandel wine enjoyed a resurgence when a mistake in fermentation produced a white wine, known as white and pink zinfandel and wine coolers. Those products were very sweet, however, and not representative of the potential of the Zinfandel grape. But they were popular enough to stop the pulling of the Zinfandel grapevines.

Now, Zinfandel is highly regarded as a fine red wine and widely accepted among wine connoisseurs as America’s heritage grape.

ZAP is a membership organization that promotes and educates the public about Zinfandel. Its members are now working with UC Davis on a “100-year project” called the Heritage Vineyard Project to better understand the varying characteristics of the Zinfandel grape, which may explain why it is so adaptable and consistently high quality no matter where it is grown or the conditions, which can even include a drought.

“The project is in the 20th year and so far old vine vineyards throughout the state have contributed selections and researchers have planted them next to each other in Napa to check the outcome,” said Robert Trent of Nevada City, the ZAP membership and development director. “The next step was to replicate the UC Davis vineyard in other locations to research how they adapt to those conditions. Ridge and Bedrock Vineyards in Sonoma are doing that now. There are now virus-free named selections with research data that a farmer can reference when choosing the Zinfandel grape they want to plant. This information has never been available to growers before.

But it’s not just scientists and researchers who are interested in Zinfandel. There are also those who love it simply because it is delicious. ZAP holds single varietal (Zinfandel-only) tastings around the state and bring winemakers and Zinfandel advocates together for a fun and tasty experience.

Their annual event in San Francisco is now the largest single-varietal tasting event in the world. On June 10 in Sonoma, there will be a Heritage Vineyard Zinfandel Release party at Ridge Vineyards. The event is open to ZAP members and the public. Ridge Vineyard’s East Bench Zinfandel was served at the last Obama administration state dinner at the White House on Oct. 18, 2016. It also was one of the U.S. vineyards responsible for upsetting the French from their long-held domination in producing the world’s best wines at the now infamous 1976 Judgement of Paris.

In May 2017, Zinfandel winemakers and members of the ZAP organization will travel to Split, Croatia, for eight days with bottles of wine in hand to meet with Croatian winemakers for wine tastings and seminars.

Rebecca Robinson, executive director of ZAP for the past 20 years and a resident of Rough and Ready, said, “The history of the Gold Rush in Nevada County, in particular, is integral in telling the story of California winemaking and the story of Zinfandel.”

For more information about ZAP, visit zinfandel.org or call 530-274 4900.