About five years ago, I hit a wall with zinfandel. Up until then, I had attended, with great anticipation, the annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers' (ZAP) Zinfandel Festival, a huge wine tasting extravaganza that filled San Francisco's Fort Mason tighter than a tuna can, drawing 10,000 people over three days.

I respect America's heritage wine, but the event was just too rowdy, so I stopped going. When alcohol content starts at 15 percent, it's inevitable that you're going to get bumped, elbowed and stained.

Last year’s Zinfandel Festival has been redesigned with a focus on smaller, more intimate tastings.
Last year's Zinfandel Festival has been redesigned with a focus on smaller, more intimate tastings. ( courtesy of ZAP )

Turns out I wasn't alone. After 22 years, ZAP has redesigned its annual event, the largest wine event in the country devoted to a single varietal, and given it a new format and venue so attendees can discover zinfandel in a more intimate way. The Zinfandel Experience takes place Jan. 23 to 25 at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel and various locations throughout the Presidio. Tickets just went on sale at www.zinfandel.org.

The most significant changes occur during Saturday's Grand Tasting, which now will be divided into three themed tastings in separate buildings at the Presidio. No more long lines. No more cold, noisy hall. And each session will cap at 350 people, instead of thousands.

"A lot of people felt it was overwhelming. Too many wines to taste. Too many crowds," says Mark Vernon, ZAP president and president of Ridge Vineyards, which makes zinfandel from a dozen sites in California.

Now, the 200 or so wineries will be divided by theme, with a Sensory Tasting, Reserve and Barrel Tasting, and a Terroir Tasting. Pick one or visit all three. The point is, you'll actually have a chance to interact with the winemakers instead of just waiting in line for a pour.

Eighty wineries will host the Sensory Tasting, aimed at wine lovers who want to explore zinfandel's various styles, from lighter rosé to refined and peppery zins and intense fruit bombs with more structure. Since zinfandel is grown all over California, the Terroir Tasting will highlight how much location contributes to the style and ripening pattern of zinfandel, whether it is grown in Napa, Lodi, Sonoma or Paso Robles.

Want to get a crack at the new vintages? Try the Reserve & Barrel Tasting, where 44 wineries will showcase what's yet-to-be released.

"By January, a lot of wineries have their wines in pretty good shape, whether they are still in barrel or in the bottle, so, historically, a lot of people come to this event to get a sneak peak of the new wines," Vernon says.

The rest of the zin-tastic weekend includes an Epicuria Pairings event on Thursday night featuring 30 wine producers and restaurants; a tasting seminar Friday morning that is focused on limited production zinfandels made from old vines; and a winemaker's dinner and benefit Friday night.

"We listened to the feedback," Vernon says. "I think we've created an event that will provide a more meaningful experience to consumers and producers."

Contact Jessica Yadegaran at jyadegaran@bayareanewsgroup.com.

zinfandel experience

ZAP's annual Zinfandel Festival has been replaced by the Zinfandel Experience, which takes place Jan. 23 to Jan. 25 at the Four Seasons Hotel, 757 Market St., San Francisco, and locations throughout the Presidio. The Grand Tasting takes place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Jan. 25 and will be split up into three separate tastings. Choose one or attend all three. For tickets ($60 and up) go to www.zinfandel.org.