Zinfandel: The New Budweiser?

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By Courtney Cochran

zap.JPGThe first time I attended the ZAP festival (zinfandel.org ) – the annual tasting hosted by the trade group Zinfandel Advocates and Producers each January at San Francisco’s Fort Mason – I couldn’t get over the sheer enormity of the gathering.  Press materials peg attendance at the multi-day festival somewhere around 10,000, an astounding figure for a wine event.  And while the size of the event is itself noteworthy, what I find still more interesting is the makeup of the tasting’s attendees (and I’m talking demographics - not cosmetics - here).

The Everyman Tasting
The beer and burger crowd is at ZAP.  The barely-old-enough-to-drink crowd is at ZAP. The fashionistas are at ZAP.  The gays are at ZAP.  The hippies and the yuppies are at ZAP.  It’s the most eclectic gathering of wine drinkers I’ve ever seen in one place, and it’s also the only major wine event I’ve attended where casual may just be the best word to describe the guests.  This diversity, in and of itself, is exciting and worth checking out, particularly in light of the Wine Market Council’s recent announcement that 2007 was “a tipping point” for wine consumption in America, a phenomenon triggered in part by a shift among many wine drinkers from marginal to regular wine consumption, as well as a dramatic increase in the number of twenty somethings (holla!) drinking wine.  

Many of these so-called marginal drinkers are folks who used to choose a beer or a cocktail over wine, but whom statistics show are increasingly opting for a glass of wine when selecting a drink.  And, to lots of these newbie wine enthusiasts, Zinfandel is a fruity, easy-to-like wine that doesn’t intimidate.  After all, Zin is the wine most often associated with casual foods like pizza, burgers and ribs, and its low acidity when compared with other popular varietals (think Pinot Noir & Sauvignon Blanc) makes it a palate-friendly option for someone who may not be accustomed to wine’s signature strong acidity.  

A Gateway Wine
This weekend’s ZAP festival is the perfect occasion to check out these casual drinkers in action, not to mention a great opportunity to knock back some seriously good Zin.  And, I would be remiss as a sommelier if I didn’t note that, in spite of Zin’s casual reputation that I’ve emphasized here, it can also be a serious wine, one worthy of connoisseurship and all the other hallmarks of a “fine wine” tossed about in the stuffy-wine-speak lexicon.    

But really, at the end of the day, what’s most important about Zin is its accessibility to the legions of new drinkers we’re seeing leap, many in jeans and t-shirts, onto the wine bandwagon.   And what a merry bandwagon it is.    

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