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Sip and Savor: Zinfandel takes center stage at Vintage Festival 

At Villa San-Juliette, winemaker Dan Smith, chef Charlene Sanchez and grillmaster Casey Rideout behind the Santa Maria grill Photos by Mira Honeycutt

At Villa San-Juliette, winemaker Dan Smith, chef Charlene Sanchez and grillmaster Casey Rideout behind the Santa Maria grill
Photos by Mira Honeycutt

140 local wineries participated over the three-day festivities

–Paso Robles zinfandel was the hard focus of the big bold red wines at the three-day Vintage Festival held from March 17-19. To sip and savor these teeth-staining wines, I started my sojourn armed with a good supply of “wine wipes” (little towelettes that wipe the wine off the smile).

“Zin’s all the rage,” said maverick winemaker Christian Tietje, whose goal is to push people out of their comfort zone. The winemaker for Rotta Winery proudly poured a zinfandel/cabernet sauvignon blend from a new retro-style jug packaging at the Friday Z-Nightcap After Party. Are jugs back and now cool?

mira-sip-and-savorIn a zin-centric weekend winemakers got creative — there were chocolate and brownie pairings at River Star and Summerwood, barbecues at Rasmussen and Red Soles and Halter Ranch went for paella.

Honoring St. Patrick’s Day Le Vigne offered an Irish-inspired winemaker dinner paired with their wines. Meanwhile, Croad Vineyards created a Kiwi-style down-under soiree while Spaghetti Western fare was served up at August Ridge Vineyards. The late Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone would’ve loved it.

The festival kicked off on Friday at the Paso Robles Inn ballroom with the traditional Zinposium. At the symposium, moderated by Master of Wine Peter Neptune, six winemakers discussed their wines from Paso’s different sub-appellations.

From the Adelaida region, we tasted Damian Grindley’s Brecon Estate 2014 zinfandel blended with tannat and Neil Collins’ 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel from his Lone Madrone Winery.

David and Debbie Hunt at Hunt Cellars

David and Debbie Hunt at Hunt Cellars

Rotta Winery’s Tietje showcased the high octane 2014 zinfandel (hovering at 16.5 percent alcohol) from the Willow Creek district. Mike Sinor, director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery, presented the luscious 2014 zinfandel blended with syrah from Santa Margarita.

From Dusi vineyards we savored two wines. First J Dusi Wines’ 2013 Fiorento, a zinfandel blended with petite sirah and carignane. “My wines are fruit forward but they are also food friendly,” said owner/winemaker Janell Dusi. Then came Tobin James Cellars’ zesty 2013 Blue Moon zinfandel also from Dusi’s vineyards. “Most of the (Paso) zinfandel grapes are from the west side,” remarked James. “It has more history.”

“There’s a new brand of winemakers making an effort to make elegant and vibrant zinfandels,” Collins noted. Indeed all these wines were bright and fresh, showing a range of characteristics from earthy and spicy to exuberant red fruit flavors.

Following the seminar, the Z-Nighcap After Party brought out zin-festers eager to taste wines poured by some 20 wineries. From Field Recordings, I tasted their crowd pleaser, Fiction, a concentrated blend of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, mourvedre and carignane. In contrast were a mellower expression of the grape from Pomar Junction, the 2014 Estate zinfandel, and a delicious blend of zinfandel and petite sirah, the 2013 Old Hat from Lone Madrone.

Winemaker Anthony Yount at Denner Vineyards

Winemaker Anthony Yount at Denner Vineyards

Amongst the rebels pouring non-zin varietals, Bill Powell of Powell Mountain Cellars offered a Bordeaux blend while there was an elegant tannat from Alegretto and a delicious 2013 Caliza Primitivo (Italian granddaddy of zinfandel).

The wines showcased well alongside cheeses from Fromagerie Sophie and cookies from Apple Farm. Chocolatier Kellymarie Otto, owner of the Chocolate Stache, suggested pairing her espresso-flavored chocolate with Zenaida winery’s 2015 zinfandel. Two Port-style zinfandels from Vino Vargas and J. Dusi turned out to be excellent partners with the chocolates.

Meanwhile, the weekend was packed with seminars, vineyard tours and winemaker dinners. Anthony Yount, winemaker at Denner Vineyards, led a one-hour Vineyard to Glass tour and seminar. Starting with a walk through the grenache and syrah vineyards, he explained the different trellising systems and the knee-high cover crops beneficial to the soil.

Next, in the barrel room, we sampled the 2016 syrah and grenache from the two vineyards we had just visited. The grenache was fruity at this stage “but fruitiness will drop over time,” Yount explained. On the other hand, the syrah was inky and intense due to the drought.

The sit-down tasting of four Denner wines included the 2015 zinfandel that showed traces of mint, followed by two vintages of the Rhone blend, Ditch Digger — the seamless 2009 and the fig-flecked 2014. We finished with the 2014 Mother of Exiles, a complex Bordeaux blend.

Lisa Pretty, owner/winemaker of P.S. Cellars winery

Lisa Pretty, owner/winemaker of P.S. Cellars winery

Turley Wine Cellars’ well-attended and informative zin-focused seminar compared the varietal from several of the brand’s appellations, from Napa and Sonoma to Paso Robles and Amador County.

On the Saturday open house drive around, I explored the Pleasant Valley Trail, stopping at Locatelli for the 2015 barrel tasting of zinfandel set for a spring 2018 release; sampled the tri-tip and corn salad paired with Villa San-Juliette’s 2014 zinfandel; and sampled Pretty treats with a variety of wines at P.S. Cellars.

In her newly designed tasting room, owner/winemaker Lisa Pretty served mini wine gummy bears and savory rosemary cookies with her seven wine lineup among them a 2015 crisp arneis, silky 2015 grenache/syrah blend and an intense 2014 Bordeaux blend.

Over at the very busy Grey Wolf and Barton Family Wines’ tasting room on Sunday, chocolate cupcakes were suggested as a pairing with the 2013 Simple Man zinfandel. There was plenty of delicious food available at the Barton’s Kitchen Window, run by chef Jeffrey Weisinger, known for his classic twists on wine country comfort food.

Chef Jeffrey Weisinger runs Barton Kitchen Window cafe at Grey Wolf winery

Chef Jeffrey Weisinger runs Barton Kitchen Window cafe at Grey Wolf winery

The menu displayed dishes like St. Paddy’s Day corned beef Rueben tacos and meatball sandwich with suggested wine pairings. However, the chef mused that his signature dishes have become the award-winning Paso Mac n’ Cheese and the Steak Mac n’ Cheese.

“When I got my culinary degree from Johnson and Wales College in Providence (Rhode Island), I didn’t know I’d be known for mac n’ cheese,” laughed the chef.

It was time to explore the zin-free-zone. Wineries such as Tablas Creek Vineyards, Bon Niche, Asuncion Ridge, Anglim and McPrice Meyers offered ABZ (anything but zinfandel). At Four Lanterns Winery, a taste of picpoul blanc was a welcome palate cleanser.

At Hunt Cellars, known as a Bordeaux house, owners David and Debbie Hunt poured some knockout zinfandels as well as cabernet sauvignon wines. David suggested a taste of Rocket Man, leftover from the previous night’s dinner. The 2003 magnum-size zinfandel was intensely beautiful nuanced with cherry and spice notes.

“Can you believe Paso zinfandel can last like that?” remarked the vintner, clearly pleased with his vintage zinfandel.

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About the author: Columnist Mira Honeycutt

Honeycutt has more than 20 years of experience as a wine consultant and wine journalist. Currently, she is the California contributor to Sommelier India Wine Magazine. Her wine and food coverage has been published in the Harper’s Bazar India, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong Tatler, The Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, Los Angeles Magazine, Los Angeles Times and www.zesterdaily.com. She was a contributing wine blogger on the highly popular Los Angeles radio station KCRW’s Good Food blog. Honeycutt is also the author of “California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles,” as well as the curator of the soon to be published book, The Winemakers of Paso Robles.