Growers, wineries insist on Paso Zin Fest

When officials of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance suggested canceling the 2010 Zinfandel Festival’s grand tasting and auction, it prompted a rally of wineries and growers in support of the celebration.

“The auction got fairly mixed reviews, as did the grand tasting” in a survey of alliance members, executive director Stacie Jacob said. “There was some discussion about how we can reposition the event to answer the needs of our customers and the needs of our wineries. But there was a lot of interest in protecting the grand tasting.

“I believe it goes back to the heritage of this area,” she added. “Zinfandel was the first varietal to put Paso Robles on the map in a big way.”

The result was a facelift for the organization’s only varietal-specific event. The changes, members hope, could make the event more successful.

Brought to the United States by European immigrants and considered the only “American” wine grape, zinfandel is one of the oldest grown in the Paso Robles region. Its recorded history in the area dates to the late 1850s.

In the early 20th century, the region gained a widespread reputation for zinfandel, in part due to Polish statesman and pianist Ignace Paderewski and his vineyard in the Adelaida area west of the city.

Today, the North County boasts some of the largest old-vine zinfandel plantings in the state, prized for the complex flavors of their grapes.

Paso Robles also has become known internationally for its cabernet sauvignon and Rhone-style wines, which tend to be more commercially successful. However, zinfandel-based blends incorporating these other red wines are seeing new growth in popularity, say local winemakers.

“The Zinfandel Festival has always been about our history,” said Doug Beckett, owner of Peachy Canyon Winery in Templeton. He has produced zinfandel locally since the early 1980s.

“It’s hard when you have a varietal-driven tasting,” Beckett said. “You have an organization in a community that supports it, but not all of its members are zin producers.”

Wineries can pour only zinfandel at the grand tasting, which excludes those that don’t produce that particular varietal. Several wineries that don’t focus on zinfandel, however, report increased sales during the festival weekend.

In 2009, the Zinfandel Festival’s then-separate events — the grand tasting and the live auction — together sold 850 tickets, Jacob said. But she estimates winery events throughout the weekend attract as many as 5,000 to 7,000 people.

In 2001, the organization ended its annual Harvest Wine Affair dinner and live auction, held each autumn to promote individual events at member wineries during Harvest Wine Weekend.

A similar approach was considered for the Zinfandel Festival, members said. The primary goal, according to Jacob: “Increasing and impacting direct-to-consumer sales.”

This year, instead of a live auction, silent auction lots will be displayed at the tasting booths of the wineries that donated them, so representatives can encourage bidders. After paying expenses, proceeds of the auction will be donated to local charities.

“Now the consumer can make the better connection to the face behind the label,” Jacob said. “The idea is really to get the wineries behind the auction in a bigger way and give the customer a more authentic experience.”

Typically, the highlight of the live auction was the tasting and sale of a collaborative blend, made with zinfandel contributed by dozens of local producers.

Now to taste the collaborative blend, visitors must buy a “Zinfully Important Person” (ZIP) ticket that allows them early entry to the tasting for an extra $15. Early birds will also enjoy appetizers and wine samples not available after 7 p.m.

All festival-goers will have the opportunity to sample a variety of zinfandels, including late harvest dessert and port wines paired with chocolates from nearly 60 local producers. Also new this year are cooking demonstrations in the Paso Robles Events Center’s new Wine Plaza Kitchen and the chance to relax with a cigar in the Plaza Lounge.

“I think the Zinfandel Festival is going to be better than ever,” said Malani Anderson, tasting room manager for Turley Wine Cellars in Templeton. “It’s taken on a life of its own. I don’t think it will ever go away.”

The zinfandel festival at a glance

The 18th annual Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival runs Friday through Sunday. For a full slate of events ranging from seminars and cooking classes to winemaker dinners at more than 140 area wineries, visit www.pasowine.com.

The central event, the Zin Tasting & Wine Country Auction, takes place Saturday from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the Paso Robles Events Center. Tickets are $60. For $85, ZIP tickets allow visitors entry at 5:30 to taste the 2010 Zinfandel Collaborative Blend, along with barrel samples and other rare local wines.