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Thursday Thorns
Celebrate Zinfandel Week With These Remarkable Best Buys

By Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine

Zinfandel may get the starring role in these parts this week, but around the CGCW family table, it has been an important player for a very long time.

On Tuesday, we waxed on Zinfandel’s remarkable affinity to the kinds of hearty foods that we so like to cook on a regular basis – tomatoey pastas, barbecued meats, savory stews and the like – and I can only offer a very loud amen to his sentiments, so long as we understand that we are not talking about the pruney, port-like, ultra-ripe, late-harvest monsters that have too often been seen as the varietal standard bearers over the last decade or so. No, we mean the spicy, brightly balanced, berry-like versions that once were the norm. Once upon a time, Zinfandel ranked among the very best red-wine values to be had as well, yet, as the wines began to heat up, those that delivered the right kind of bang for the buck became increasingly hard to find. Fans of old-fashioned, affordable, food-worthy Zinfandels were left with fewer and fewer options as the varietal went through a thorny patch. Today, it is easy to make the case that Zinfandel is back.

There may, in fact, be no shortage of high-ticket, high-alcohol bottlings to be had, but even a cursory tasting of recent new wines offers encouragement to those of us who would have a glass or two of Zinfandel with a meal. It may be that the series of cooler vintages hereabouts has had something to do with reining in runaway ripeness, and it may be that winemaker sensibility is at work. It is in all likelihood both. Significant, too, is the number of good wines to be had at reasonable prices, and that trend most assuredly cannot be blamed on global warming, rainy harvests, the weakening Euro or anything else other than a responsive market.

Featured today are eight recently reviewed Zinfandels that hit both of the right marks. They are honest, tasty, well-balanced wines that will be welcome at the table, and they collectively prove that very good bottlings are to be had for less than a couple of sawbucks. We think that it is about time.

89 DOWNING FAMILY Fly by Night Oakville Napa Valley 2008 $17.00
Distinctive top notes of nutmeg, vanilla and briar are met by a good measure of well-defined, optimally ripened Zinfandel fruit in the nose here, yet the wine seems to let up a bit in the mouth and, while pleasant, is never quite as deep and complete as billed. It is, however, supple and nicely polished in feel, and its lack of angles, edges and heat makes it an easy Zin to marry with food.

89 TRENTADUE Estate Alexander Valley 2009 $15.00
True to Zinfandel in its berries-first focus and pushing notes of brownies and caramel to the rear in a supportive role, this ripe, rich effort is fairly open at the front of the palate and supple on its texture. Rich, juicy and ripe in flavor with latter-palate tannin coming into play, the wine could smooth out with a bit of aging, but it has so much direct energy right now that we would opt to serve it with savory red-sauced pastas or barbecue today.

88 STEELE Old Vine Pacini Vineyard Mendocino County 2007 $17.00
Bound to recall the "good old days" for long-time fans of Zinfandel, this nicely balanced middleweight is damped-down in ripeness and keyed on lively young fruit. It is rounded in feel yet finds a welcome note of snappy acidity on the back end, and its temperate alcohol (13.5%) makes it easy to match up with a fairly wide range of foods.

88 BUCKLIN Old Hill Ranch Bambino Sonoma Valley 2008 $18.00
Born of younger vines planted in the storied Old Hill Ranch, this ripe and sinewy take on Zinfandel smacks of raspberries, stony soils and a hint of peppery spice in both scent and taste. Its nominal tannins are driven to prominence by fairly obvious acids, and it winds up more rigid than rounded, but it is deep and should age very well. Baby Old Hill, indeed.

87 CASTLE ROCK Mendocino County 2009 $12.00
Kudos to Castle Rock for this oh-so easy-to-like, medium-bodied Zinfandel whose nicely ripened berryish aromas are geared first and foremost to youthful, friendly varietal fruit. Somewhat round and open on the palate with more than enough acidity to carry its flavors into a mid-length, fairly zesty finish, this wine is perfect for red-sauced pastas and lighter meats hot off the grill.

87 FRANCIS COPPOLA Zinfandel California 2009 $16.00
There is no breathtaking range or richness to be had here, but there is a nice bit of clean-as-can-be Zinfandel fruit, and, when combined with the wine's friendly balance and wholesale lack of heat, it earns this temperate, very easy-to-use offering an unqualified recommendation. The wine is ready to go now yet is balanced to keep, and it comes at a very fair price.

87 RAVENSWOOD Zinfandel Lodi 2009 $13.00
The best of the three large-production Ravenswood Zins, this one from Lodi keys on ripe berries and plums from beginning to end and is both balanced and fairly substantial in real varietal fruit. It may not compete with the winery's best when it comes to depth and layered richness, but it is an honest and thoroughly likeable Zinfandel with very few rivals at the price.

85 CARTLIDGE & BROWNE Zinfandel Sonoma County 2009 $10.00
It gets a bit overwhelmed when directly compared to the high-ripeness crowd, but this rounded, pleasantly balanced wine has a good sense of real Zinfandel fruit at its heart, and it does not give in tannin or heat. It may not be the deepest version around and it tends to dry out a little at the finish, but it is both friendly and food-worthy. It is a very likeable wine at the price.

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