The Journey Continues (II) - Zin Is In!
© by Linwood Slayton

I have penned over 30 Wood On Wine columns describing my exploration and fascination with wine over the last several years,. I termed this continuing experience of enlightenment "my wine journey". Indeed, it has been an odyssey of sorts as I encountered peaks and valleys, bumps and grinds, twists and turns along the path to understanding.

Early on, we looked at wine with a nostalgic lens (The Evolution of an Oenophile and The Wine We Grew up With) as we recalled the days of Ripple, Bali Hai, Boone's Farm and Thunderbird. We reminisced about the discovery of Blue Nun, Riesling, Piesporter and other German white wines. We talked about the belief that Chardonnay was the apex and the belief that we had finally arrived only to discover that the journey had just begun. (Take the Chardonnay Challenge and Diversity - Thy Name Is Chardonnay)

We transitioned from white to red and extolled the virtues of discovering the subtleties and nuances of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir in Moving from White to Red. In the first column I wrote using the title The Journey Continues two years ago (May 3, 2002), I shared my growing dissatisfaction with and general apathy for Merlot, a wine that I had enjoyed for a number of years prior thereto. I went back and reread that column I wrote in May 2002 and was shocked and pleasantly surprised to see these words in the ending paragraph:

"I read somewhere that it is indeed ironic how "grape expectations pop." So it is with Merlot and one wonders what will be the subject of this kind of column a few years down the road. That's what makes my wine journey so intriguing: I don't always know where I am going but I do know the fun is in the trip."

As I continued to write about my wine experiences- tastings, wine dinners, wine expositions - we also began to look into the fascinating subject of wine-and-food pairings. I have always said that I am by no means a "wine expert" but rather a wine enthusiast who likes to write about the social aspects of enjoying wine. In this context, I enjoyed penning several columns including The Etiquette of Wine; Entertaining with Wine; The Morning After the New Year, and The Color of Wine ...

So, what's left?

Once you understand that one's wine education is ongoing, you have to decide that there are no boundaries - no closed doors. For some, this is more difficult than you might think as many people still stubbornly insist that they "just don't like red wine". Others may politely sip an excellent Barolo having already decided that they prefer California Cabs to Italian or French reds. Or, you may have those diehard Chardonnay fanatics who simply refuse to drink a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Grigio.

I have long since abandoned my earlier efforts to "show these people the light" and accept their refusals, explanations and denials. After all, who am I to try to force someone to change their mind about wine?

At this point in my personal wine evolution, I am enjoying experimenting with "other" reds. I have had my Cabernet and Merlot phases and am still knee-deep in the midst of my Pinot Noir period. But, I am slowly getting into Zinfandel and am discovering that this variety has a rich and diverse complexity.

A recent issue of Wine Spectator devoted nearly the entire issue to Zinfandel and made a big deal about telling the readers that this was the first time it had done so. One thing that rang clear is that Zinfandel may be California's "signature grape." I discovered that Zinfandel grapes date back to 1849 in California and have been used over the years in jug wine blends, in the once (and perhaps still) popular pinkish White Zinfandel, in rich, zesty and spicy reds with berry and fruit flavors and even in Port-like fortified dessert wines (late Harvest offerings).

One of the consistent things I have discovered about Zinfandel is that it is a diverse and often unpredictable wine. Depending upon the vintner, it can be high in alcohol content, bold and peppery or it can be quite smooth and fruity with distinctive flavors of berries and the only way that you will know what you have in your glass is to "go for it!"

I like that! It's often appealing to open a bottle and not know what to expect and then to discover that this Zin tastes distinctively different than the last bottle I tried. Of course, this also embraces the notion and possibility that this Zin will have a ruddy and overly tannic taste with way too much of an after taste as I recently found out when I proudly opened a bottle of "expensive" Zin at the home of one of my good friends who shares my passion for a good red and who hastened to tell me (and a lot of other friends) how disappointed he was with my choice of wine for the evening. Therein lies part of the uniqueness of Zinfandel - you may not like a particular bottle even though someone else might find it wonderful. It is also noteworthy that price is by no means a significant determinant of quality - that "bad" bottle I had such high hopes for cost about $35.

I visited several of my favorite Atlanta wine merchants and noted that the range of Zinfandel offerings was from $8 to as much as $40- the most prevalent labels on the shelves here were Seghesio, Cline, Ravenswood, Rancho Zabaco and Cardinal Zin.

Zinfandel can be blended regionally or by appellation meaning that the grapes in a particular bottle may have come from one particular county or location (Sonoma County). Some vintners prefer to bottle single vineyard Zins which will feature selected grapes from one of the vintner's vineyards. I have also seen labels designating "old vines" Zinfandel.

I have enjoyed a good working relationship with Gallo wines over the last few years and always appreciate receiving their new releases and the accompanying information on each new bottle. As I write and conclude this column, I am sipping a Rancho Zabaco 2001 Stefani Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel with a 13.9 percent alcohol content that has a suggested retail price of $28.

This wine has a lot of character. The color is dark with distinctive highlights yet clear enough to enable me to see through it to the bottom of my glass. The wine has flavors of cherry, cranberry and leaves you with a nice finish- not bitter nor overly lingering.

I also tasted another Rancho Zabaco Zinfandel for comparison purposes: a 2002 Chiotti Vineyard Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley with 14.8 percent alcohol content and also a suggested retail price of $28.

This wine is noticeably bolder, spicier, and more robust than the Stefani Vineyard Zin. Higher in alcohol content, it bursts with flavors of blueberry, black cherry and a suggestion of licorice and vanilla. The color is dark and deeper than the Stefani Vineyard and the finish is stronger and more defined yet soft enough to be pleasant. As I drank this wine, I found myself wanting to taste it with some good barbecue or grilled and highly seasoned meat. it is a bold wine that requires a bold food selection to match well.

Both Zinfandels, both under the Gallo/Rancho Zabaco umbrella, both from the Dry Creek Valley yet each distinctively different and noticeably unique in character.

Imagine the range of distinctions and nuances available among Zinfandels created by other vintners in other locales- the possibilities are many and therein lies the fascination that Zinfandel brings to the table.

Life is good as my wine journey continues!


April 25, 2004

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