While all the noble grape varieties are successfully grown in California, the varietal which is arguably most specifically associated with the region is the popular and, putting it bluntly, rather less noble Zinfandel. Anne Brockhoff caught the Zinfandel roadshow, a tour organised by the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP), when it came to Kansas City recently.

California vintners were upbeat about US demand for Zinfandel as they showcased their wines during a five-city tour sponsored by Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP). The annual tour kicked off in New York and includes stops in Kansas City, St. Louis, Denver and Houston.

While Zinfandel's European origins remain obscure, the grape was established in California during the 1840s Gold Rush. By 1880, it was the state's most widely planted grape, and Zinfandel in 2003 accounted for 20% of all the red wine grapes crushed by California growers.

Zinfandel gained fame (some say notoriety) as the blush-colored white Zinfandel. Only in recent decades has the red, full-bodied style with its spicy, fruity flavours become well-known outside of California, and demand continues to grow, winemakers interviewed during the Kansas City leg of their tour said.

"Zinfandel is now becoming more mainstream," said Grady Wann, general manager and winemaker for Quivira Estate Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg and a board member of ZAP, which has 300 winery and 6,000 consumer members. "It's moved from being a poor man's Cabernet into its own place."

That demand sparked the creation of more single-vineyard and reserve wines, with higher prices to match. Then came September 11 and the resulting economic slow-down. Retail prices stagnated, and were then further depressed by the so-called "grape glut."

An overabundance of grapes and juice pressured bulk prices - Zinfandel prices alone fell by 10% in 2003 to $427.83 per ton, according to the California Agricultural Statistics Service - and many producers passed the savings on to consumers.

Bulk prices are now starting to level off, in part because adverse weather conditions in some regions pared production, Wann said. Growers crushed just 327,701 tons of Zinfandel grapes in 2003, 11% less than a year earlier.

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At the same time, a stronger economy means consumers are again spending more money on wine, even as lower retail prices tempt value-conscious shoppers to try unfamiliar varietals. Many are happy to find Zinfandel offers a high quality-to-price ratio, said Rebecca Robinson, ZAP's executive director. "We're finding broader acceptance for Zinfandel," Robinson said. "Demand is picking up steam."

Retail prices are also beginning to inch back up, said vintner Doug Beckett of Peachy Canyon Winery in Paso Robles. "Now they'll put down US$20 and want a little change back," Beckett said. Most wines displayed at ZAP were in the US$18 to US$30 range.

This view was echoed by Kirk Tomiser, Midwest sales manager for the Santa Rosa-based winery, Barefoot Cellars. "The market's as strong as it's ever been," Tomiser said.

So clearly the market in the US for what can legitimately be claimed as California's own grape variety is on the up. But while there has been some development of Zinfandel in international markets, the export potential for the variety is arguably yet to be fully exploited. But one wonders whether that will remain the case if ZAP has anything to do with it.