Thursday, October 31, 2013

ZAP gets smaller, with half as many people hopefully half as drunk

Joel Peterson has to go to ZAP, but I stopped going a few years back
The world's largest single-variety wine tasting is shrinking, and that's a relief.

At its peak 5 years ago, ZAP attracted 10,000 Zinfandel lovers to San Francisco, where they sampled 16% alcohol Zins without spitting until they were a loud, red-faced, staggering mob.

This year, the organizers hope to cut that crowd in less than half.

Next year, ZAP will not have a single big room of sweaty drunks elbowing their way toward the Ridge and Ravenswood booths. The public tasting is being split into three tracks, each in a smallish room, and each ticket is only good for two hours.

It would be nice to report that ZAP is changing because the ZAP board realized what a horror it had become. The irony is, they did realize it, but that's not why they're changing.

"Our hand was forced because we were yet again told we had to change the venue," says Mark Vernon, Ridge Vineyards president who is taking his turn this year as president of ZAP. "In the course of looking for a new venue, we decided to take a step back and do some hard thinking about the event. Get feedback from people. We reached out to people who had come to ZAP in the past but had not come in the past couple of years. We heard that they were tired of coming, it was too big, too noisy."

Twenty years ago, when ZAP started, its casual, drinking-friendly atmosphere was a breath of fresh air. And ZAP was important for regaining respect for the range and greatness of Zinfandel.

"The problem was that there was an element of marketing around Zinfandel that ZAP picked up on and reinforced," Vernon says. "It may have been a good idea in the beginning. Zin was going to promote itself as the anti-Cabernet. Zin was going to be about crazy fun. Maybe even a strain of hippie-ish, back to nature. Zin was about parties, about fun, about everything that is the anti position to the snobbish, full-of-themselves Cabernet world."

Now it's time for a new direction, both in marketing and in the wines. Ridge, for example, has an average alcohol level of 14.5% for its Zinfandels. That might have seemed potent in 1994.

"What's funny is, the alcohol level on Cabernet has caught up with Zinfandel," Vernon says. "If you take the average alcohol level on Napa Cabernet today and compare it with Zinfandel, the difference is much smaller."

ZAP has had side events for several years showing different aspects of Zinfandel that aren't always appreciated: its food-friendliness, the fact that some Zin comes from the oldest vines in North America (and some of the oldest in the world), its terroir-specificity. Zin has all of these qualities, but they got lost in the bedlam of ZAP.

Now, these are front and center.

In January at the Presidio in San Francisco, instead of one big Saturday tasting, there will be these three little ones, tickets to each sold separately:

1. A "sensory tasting" where you can taste Zinfandel from 80 wineries, and then walk over to a table with some scattered bits representing five taste groups -- barbecue sauce for sweet, nuts for salty, chocolate for bitter, etc. This sounds like the weakest of the three, because there's no real food, and I'll bet the great majority of people skip the sauerkraut-and-Zin pairing experience, though I'll bet the chocolate is popular.

2. A "terroir tasting." Not enough people credit Zinfandel for this, but it's arguably more representative of its terroir than any other variety in California. Dry Creek Valley, Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, Paso Robles, Lodi, Amador County: all these are very distinctive, whereas I challenge you to tell a Paso Cabernet from a Lodi Cabernet.

3. The most popular tasting so far, the "reserve and barrel tasting," and no wonder, as that sounds like where the expensive wines will be poured. It's almost sold out for the 1-3 pm time slot, whereas there are plenty of tickets left for the others.

Time slots: What a great idea!

"We had already been trying to stagger the entry time by saying if you're a ZAP member, you can get in an hour early," Vernon says. "No matter what we did, there was always this giant crush of people from 3:30 to about 5. Now we're selling tickets to three separate timeslots and when we sell out of tickets, that's it."

Three years ago, you couldn't pay me enough money to go to the ZAP public tasting. Now, it sounds like by getting a little more serious, it's going to be fun again. Turns out there is such a thing as too much fun, and ZAP is turning back from it.

If you want to buy tickets to ZAP, sounds like you better get a move on. Here's the website.

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kschlach said...

Who is the guy in the photo next to Joel. It looks like you, but he's not wearing red glasses, so I obviously is somebody else...

Unknown said...

There is hope yet!

W. Blake Gray said...

Kyle: I'm his evil twin.