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A zin-zin situation
Red zinfandel: Still delicious after all these years

After popping corks for the Patriots and tasting however many hundreds of vintages at the Boston Wine Expo, you may be wondering what’s new in wine. Recently, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Zinfandel Festival and Tasting in San Francisco. My teeth are still purple. And I’m happy to say that zin is still in.

First, a quick disclaimer: we are not talking about white zinfandel, the sickly sweet blush wine that tastes like a fruit-soda beverage. When we say " zin, " we mean red zinfandel, which is almost uniquely American (of the handful of zinfandel producers outside the US, none is too successful). Often high in alcohol (rarely less than 14 percent), bold in fruit, and deep in color, zinfandel is called America’s " heritage " wine by the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the varietal. ZAP, which throws the big tasting every year, is the informal governing body of all things zin.

Wherever zinfandel may have originated (this is in dispute, but much evidence points to Croatia — not Italy, as some previously thought), it first came to prominence toward the end of the 19th century in California; today, 99 percent the world’s zinfandel is still grown and made in the Golden State. (Ironically, the word " zinfandel " was first used by Boston nursery owner Samuel Perkins in 1832, in an advertisement for cuttings of the varietal.) Zinfandel began as a popular table grape grown under glass in the Northeast; it migrated to California in the 1850s following the Gold Rush. By the 1880s, it was California’s leading wine varietal. (In 1998, zinfandel reestablished itself as California’s leading red varietal. This may be misleading, however, since the statistics include zinfandel grapes used to make the wildly popular white zinfandel, which is really a rosé.) For more info on the history of zin, visit ZAP’s Web site at

Outside the US, critics and drinkers are also taking to zinfandel. The British appreciate it, Aussies love it for its similarity to shiraz, South Americans like its resemblance to malbec, and even the South Africans are trying their hands at producing zin. The 1990s were particularly good to zin, which in the ’80s had been relegated to " hobby " wine or the white-hot hell of blush. ZAP’s first tasting, in 1992, featured the exceptional bottlings of ’90 and ’91. The zins of ’92 and ’93 were variable, but ’94 and ’95 were back-to-back blockbusters. The Parker-ization of American tastes was in full effect (Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic, loves big, fruit-forward, powerful wines — read: zin), the American wine industry had hit its stride, and zin became one of the big vessels in the US fleet as it sailed the great wine seas.

Hit-and-miss years were ’96 through ’98; many wines were overripe or too powerful. While zinfandel almost makes itself in good years, vintners sometimes overdo it and go for power and fruit over finesse. Then the wines become overwhelming, harder to pair with food, and less versatile. People liked the high-alcohol wines, and many zins seemed to become near-caricatures of themselves. Prices soared; where once you could buy exceptional zinfandels for $10 to $20, now most of the good stuff was at least $20, and many were more than $30, with cult-status wines like Turley and Martinelli costing $50-plus on release.

Today, however, the zinfandel makers seem to have righted their ships. Prices have stabilized (or dropped ever so slightly), and many producers are achieving an ever-elusive " style. " (Style is elusive in a winery’s early stages because it doesn’t necessarily know what to do with the fruit, or the fruit has not fully matured, or the winemaker lacks experience. European wineries often take centuries to establish their styles.) Some examples are Peachy Canyon (with its brambly, outdoorsy, approachable, laid-back Paso Robles style), Ridge (each-vineyard-is-its-own-world intellectualism, minimalism, balance, purity), Rosenblum (fruit, fruit, fruit), Turley (brute force, big oak, over the top), and Cosentino (adventurous, poetic, artistic flights of fancy). It’s good to see that, despite some less-than-stellar years, demand for zin remains strong, and the people who make and drink it still have such passion for it.

After tasting more than 150 zins from 1999 and 2000, I found ’99 to be a pretty solid year, not quite ’94 or ’95, but right up there with ’91, and ’00 will be reminiscent of the wines of ’90: not over-powering, but full. I like the trend of reeling in the fruit and dialing down the often-overpowering American oak. Some makers are using French oak, and not everyone feels compelled to use entirely new oak barrels for aging.

Each of the wineries I’ve mentioned (along with another favorite of mine, Cline) releases a handful of different, excellent zins. Beyond those, here are some zins that I’ve loved; most are available locally, either in restaurants or stores. If not, let your merchant know, or look online.

Acorn 1999; Amphora 2000; Benson-Ferry 2000; Bella 1999; Bradford Mountain 1999; Charter Oak 2000; De Loach OFS 2000; Easton 1999; Edmeades 1999; Joel Gott 2000; Grgich Hills 1999; Howell Mountain Vineyards 1999; Mara Reserve 1999; Marr 1999; Stryker 1999; Pezzi King Estate 1999; Seghesio 1999; Storybook 1999; Terraces 1999.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: February 14-21, 2002
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