Like maize, the wild turkey and blueberries, America also has its own grape, the Zinfandel. Okay,
so you’ve read that the Primitivo from Italy is probably Zinfandel’s long lost twin brother or
that Zinfandel may actually have descended from an ancient Croatian grape variety. In any case,
America put Zinfandel on the world map and continues to produce great renditions of this
varietal… even if it is an immigrant.

Perfect Companion to America’s Other Native Son

Zinfandel is the perfect companion to good old American barbecue. Its fruity, peppery qualities
perfectly complement most grilled protein whether it’s chicken, pork or beef. It fills that niche
that Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir or any white just can’t match. A young Cabernet has too
much tannin that clashes with the smoky qualities of the food, an aged Cabernet may be
overwhelmed by the same smoky flavors. Merlot just doesn’t have enough body for the bold
flavors of barbecue and Pinot Noir is like transporting lumber in your Mercedes sedan. Wines
with finesse require foods with finesse. And barbecue is not about finesse, it’s about big bold
flavors. Like Zinfandel.

Last of the Affordable Reds

Unfortunately with the advent of better wine making technology and subsequent production of
better wines, the prices for these bottled jewels have also increased – seemingly exponentially. I’
ve highlighted specific wines that I used to purchase for $10 to $15 that are now $60 to $80 or
more all in the span of a decade or so. Very good Cabs start in the $50 range, great versions at
$100 or more. Great Merlots start at $50 or so, likewise for Pinot Noirs with the best examples
exceeding $100. Even great Syrah can start at $50. Therefore Zinfandels are the great Red wine
bargain of America. You can find many good Zins at $30 or less and only a handful exceeds the
$50 price point.

Look for Your Own Personal Zin

There are many different styles of Zinfandel from the concentrated, fruit driven monsters to the
spicier varieties to the subtle, balanced versions that are made in the Pinot Noir style.
Depending on the average temperature of the vintage, some Zins even have hints of that raisiny,
Port quality since hotter vintages can cause raisin formation in a single bunch while other grapes
are left green in that same bunch.
Because Zinfandel is more resistant to natural pests, many vines in the California area are in the
75 to 100 year old range and these “Old Vines” tend to produce smaller even bunches that
produce corresponding concentrated wines.
Some wineries like Ridge Vineyards blend Zinfandel with other red varieties like Petite Sirah,
Carignane, Grenache or Syrah to give each wine a slightly different quality – more jammy fruit
versus spicy fruit versus bold fruit. Other producers like Hendry Vineyards grow grapes in pre-
designated blocks so that his Block 28 Zin has straightforward ripe red fruit and black pepper
versus his Block 7 which highlights the Asian spice flavors.
Just be forewarned that Zinfandel – especially those big, concentrated fruit monsters tend to
hide a lot of alcohol. They can get close to 17% (the point where yeast actually kill themselves
and fermentation stops) and because it’s masked by this ripe fruit, by the time you finish that
bottle by yourself you’re wondering why you’re getting such an intimate view of your carpet
fibers… if you catch my drift.

What I Eat with Zinfandel

Other than barbecued chicken, pork or beef, I also enjoy Zinfandel with lamb. Lamb? Isn’t lamb’
s natural partnering Cabernet? I find that the tannins in Cabernet often overpower the subtle
flavor of farm raised lamb (I disagree with diners who insist that lamb is too gamey. They’re
probably thinking of mutton) and that the peppery, jammy fruit qualities of Zinfandel
complement it perfectly (isn’t mint jelly a favorite accoutrement for roast leg of lamb)? When I
uncork a Zin with those subtle spice qualities like Hendry Block 7, I find that lamb either
roasted or braised with Asian spices like star anise, cinnamon and ginger create a perfect marriage
of flavor sensations. Try marinating lamb shanks that have had their silver skin (thin white
membrane) removed in a mixture of black bean sauce, Chinese five spice, garlic, ginger, fresh
cilantro and canola oil overnight then wrap each shank in aluminum foil along with a couple
slices of fresh shiitake, bok choy and a dash of Xiao Shin wine (or dry sherry). Bake for 2 hours
at 325 degrees and serve with steamed jasmine rice and a nice glass of Hendry Block 7 or
Chiarello Zinfandel. It’s also guilt free since one lamb shank provides about 4 ounces of low fat
protein.

The Un-Zinfandel

My two cents regarding one of America’s most popular, ahem… Zinfandels, then I’ll get off of
my soapbox. White Zinfandel seems to overshadow real… err, red Zinfandel. While they share
the same varietal name, white Zinfandel is about as related to its rubier relative as Gallo Hearty
Burgundy is to Romanee Conti Burgundy from France. While the pink version is another
alternative to fruit infused wines and wine coolers, it is NOT the same as red zinfandel! That
being said, if you do enjoy White Zinfandel, I suggest you continue partaking in the sweet
“rose’” as the most important factor in wine consumption is not wines that I like, but wines
that YOU  like. And it’s not that I dislike sweet wines. I enjoy a glass of dessert wine after dinner
as much as the next oenophile. I just don’t view Zinfandel as a dessert wine. Unless it’s Fritz
Winery’s Late Harvest Zinfandel which pairs with chocolate as well as any Port. But that’s
another column.


The Gochiso’s Short List of Zinfandel

Less than $20                         Less than $30                    More than $30
Renwood                                Ridge Vineyards                Turley
Ravenswood                            Hendry                             JC Cellars
Rabbit Ridge                           Downing Family               Chiarello Family        
Rosenblum                              Karly                                Fritz Late Harvest
America’s Red But its White Gives Me the Blues