Zins for the BrokeAss
Zinfandel is among the most descript of red wine varieties, with its unmistakable bite of pepper, raspberry, vinegar, and other things sweet and tart. Its name, too, is a winner. After all, everybody likes a good letter Z to play with, and puns know no paradise like the Zinfandel business. Just listen: Artezin, XYZin, Seven Deadly Zins, Zinsvalley, Z-52, Poizin, ReZerve, Zig Zag Zin, Zip Zin 95240 (that’s Lodi), Zynthesis, Temptation Zin, Sin Zin, Zinetta, Za Za Zin, CIGARZIN, Zinzilla, Fro-Zin, Zen Zin, Zinful Delight Zin Port, and The Inzinerator.
Secondly, Zinfandel’s brief history is an endearing one. It came from Croatia, born in the Dark Age jungles of oaks, conifers and vines, and turned up mysteriously in the early 1800s in California, where it thrived in the hot, dry climate. The grape was planted widely in the delta region and the Gold Country in the mid-1800s and would become a favorite of the Miner 49ers, the star of the largest single-variety tasting in the state (the ZAP Festival), and the official state grape of California in 2006.
But then we get to the price tag, and Zinfandel tends to cost substantially more than other red wines. One reason is that the grapes on a given vine tend to ripen at different times, requiring vineyard staff to inspect the vines individually and selectively harvest the fruit. The grapes also grow quite fat, which can lead to mold growth within the bunch if any moisture creeps in. Thus, we see many $40 bottles on the shelves and $9 glasses on menus. Screw that.
It takes some digging to locate cheap ones (white Zin doesn’t count), and here are a few winning specimens of the category:
6) R &B Cellars Lodi Swingsville Zin, $11. Yikes, right? But the wine is a fantastic value and perfect for that once-in-a-while splurge. The wine hits you with its distinct cherry and red licorice flavors. Though it lacks the pronounced bite of many Zins, the basic elements – pepper and tartness – are there, with prominent flavors and aromas of pomegranate and mint.
5) Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend Sonoma Zinfandel, $9.99. Ravenswood owner and winemaker Joel Peterson, famed for his cowboy hat and penchant for looking rugged even with delicate stemware in hand, makes a characteristically peppery Zinfandel with his Vintner’s Blend at a price worth paying. The wine is acidic yet smooth, with all that zesty zing more common to high-priced Zins.
4) Mutt Lynch Sonoma County Portrait of a Mutt Zinfandel, $9.99. This is a fruity and particularly heavy Zinfandel, with cherries, mulberries and pomegranate thick on the nose. A filling mouthful of fruit, fudge and cigar smoke follows, all well-balanced and dangerously drinkable – and with the family’s squat little dog portrayed cutely on the front.
3) Smoking Loon California Old Vine Zinfandel: $8.99. One of the smoother Zins, this wine carries strong elements of burnt and toasted things, like meat and wood. The deep smell carries traces of cranberry, strawberry and peppery spices. It’s soft and mellow in the mouth, heavy on cherry and charcoal, with a suggestion of dried figs, and a wonderful smoked bacon character.
2) Forestville California Zinfandel, $5.99. This one is about as cheap as Zinfandels get, and it isn’t too bad. It smells of red fruits – don’t they all? – and the taste is best-described as black: black cherries, blackberries, and black licorice. You may even detect such subtleties as candle wax and prickly pear – wonderful notes in a wine so geographically blended as this. The name brand’s label won’t impress anyone, so keep this one far back in your cupboard, and when the hour arrives and your guests are wobbly-kneed on the good (well, better) stuff, slip this potion in their goblets. They won’t complain.1) Crane Lake California Zinfandel, $4.99. This one is as cheap as Zinfandels get and yet quite interesting. Okay: It’s a bit pungent on the nose, but you might get a whiff of chicory and blueberries. Fascinating stuff. The flavor packs a forceful punch of strawberries and raspberry jam while the astringent tannins cloy at the mouth – but that’s okay by me. I’m personally just impressed that Crane Lake produces a red Zin at this price, and for me just tossing the juice of this noble grape about my mouth is quite enough to send me to bed happy.