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Words About Wine
A feature of Robin Garr's Wine Lovers' Page

Zinfandel:
California's Unique Offering
to the World Wine Map

By Leigh Pomeroy

© Copyright 1996 by Leigh Pomeroy. All rights reserved.

Not too terribly long ago I was driving through Nebraska -- you know, home of "The Big Red" -- and stopped at what seemed to be a nice Italian-style restaurant for dinner. I sat down and asked the waitress for a glass of wine.

"Chablis, rosé, burgundy, or Zinfandel?" she replied.

"Zinfandel," I sighed, tired from a long day on the road.

A few minutes later she arrived balancing a glass of something pink on her tray. She put it down in front of me.

"What's this?" I asked.

She looked at me quizzically. "Zinfandel."

I immediately recognized the error and tried to think of a diplomatic to correct it. "Do you have any red Zinfandel?" I ventured.

"Red?" she asked. "Zinfandel comes in red?"

Not So in Minnesota

Fortunately, Twin Cities restauranteurs do not commit this faux pas, indulging their clientele with an excellent selection of the right stuff. Yes, Zinfandel is truly California's unique red wine, and though its origins are obscure, its universality is not. It can be grown throughout the Golden State's temperate to tepid climate, yielding wines as diverse as the ubiquitous White Zinfandel to massive, opaque, olallieberry-red monsters that leave teeth stained for days.

Among this varied group our noble restauranteurs generally choose the middle ground -- wines that exhibit the bright, zesty, raspberry-like spice of the grape, vinified to be enjoyed within five or so years after the vintage. A textbook example is the Rosenblum Zinfandel Vintner's Cuvée, a wine that sells for $10 or less in retail stores. Winemaker Kent Rosenblum, a veterinarian by trade and St. Paul native by birth, masterfully blends Zins from various geographical areas with small amounts of Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon to create a classic cuvée in the tradition of Bordeaux, Chianti, or Chateauneuf-du-Pape -- all fine examples of blends whose sums are delightfully greater than their parts.

Brenda Langton, the "Brenda" of Café Brenda, so likes the Rosenblum Vintner's Cuvée that it's just one of two Zins on her succinct, well-chosen, and sensibly priced wine list. It goes well, she says, with her Mediterranean-themed "almost vegetarian" menu. "I serve organic chicken enchiladas," she admits.

What to match with the Rosenblum Zin? "Well, I hate the word 'sampler' plate," she says, "but I serve a dish that includes artichoke, walnut, and parsley pesto on sundried tomato focaccia, complemented by a French lentil and saffron tomato salad, and arugula with Santa Rosa plums bathed in a raspberry dressing." Very few wines would stand up to such a melange of flavors. Subtle? No. Memorable? Yes. That's Zinfandel all the way.

As for the French ...

Michael Morse of Café Un Deux Trois is also a Rosenblum fan. But Zinfandel in a French restaurant? "Why are there French wines in American restaurants? Or Italian wines? Or Spanish?" he says. "I don't care where it comes from. I search for the best wines that complement my food."

"Zinfandel is too often overlooked by those searching for nirvana," says Jack Farrell of Haskell's Wines & Spirits. "Yet it is the one grape where a winemaker can really be expressive." He too is a Rosenblum fan, describing the Vintner's Blend as an "earthy, fleshy" style of Zinfandel created by an "absolute wizard".

As for other fine examples, he lists Zins from Napa Valley's Storybrook Vineyards, the many offerings from Ridge Vineyards (perhaps the one winery most responsible for putting Zinfandel on the world wine map), and the Howell Mountain Zinfandel from The Terraces. Then, of course, there are the single vineyard bottlings from "the wizard", Kent Rosenblum.

Affirmative Action

Meanwhile, at Palomino Euro-Bistro, wine guru Janor Bourgerie admits that White Zinfandel outsells all other offerings on the wine list. "That's what people want," he sighs, "but I wouldn't recommend it with any of our food." He should know, having sculpted Palomino's list well enough to receive a coveted Wine Spectator "Award of Excellence".

As for true Zinfandels -- the red stuff, in case you've missed the point by now -- he echoes Jack Farrell's praise for its versatility. On the lighter end he offers the Ravenswood Vintner's Blend, in philosophy much like the Rosenblum -- produced from a selection of "cuvées" and designed to give maximum Zin impact at a reasonable price (also under $10 retail). For the more serious oenophile he has "whatever Ridge is available. Just as one is runs out, fortunately another is released. Today it may be the Lytton Springs, next month the Geyserville, then the Paso Robles or the Pagani Ranch."

Frankly, he says, "I'm a big fan of Zinfandel. I'd like to have more on the list. But a wine list reflects the culture."

Which brings us back to White Zin, ironically pioneered by such serious California winemakers as David Bruce at his own winery and Paul Draper at Ridge. They made the first White Zins in the late 1960s as a way to use lower sugar grapes not suitable for the high alcohol, massive Zins they were attempting to make at the time. It wasn't until Bob Trinchero at Sutter Home Winery perfected the formula a few years later, bottling his White Zin with a modest amount of residual sugar, that the concept took off.

Meanwhile, back in Nebraska, I hope they soon discover the truth about California's unique mystery grape. Missing out on "the real thing" certainly puts Nebraska wine drinkers -- and Minnesota travelers -- at a loss. But perhaps more distressing are the social implications. For some wine drinkers, my waitress's naiveté about Zinfandel might be considered as egregious an error as yelling "Go Big Pink" at a Cornhuskers football game.


Writer Leigh Pomeroy was once kicked out of an elite wine tasting group at a well-known Napa Valley winery. His article, reproduced above with permission, appeared in the August/September 1997 issue of Midwest Home & Design, a publication of Minnesota Monthly and
Minnesota Public Radio.


A Word About 'Words About Wine'

If your love of wine inspires you to want to write an article or essay about the subject, or if you've had a wine-related article published in print that you'd like to share with wine lovers on the Web, I'll be happy to consider placing it on the Web in this new feature of my Wine Lovers' Page.

Although I can't offer to pay for submissions at this time, I'd like to see this feature become a showcase for serious wine journalism and essays in a format longer, more thoughtful, and less transient than message board discussions.

I'll be happy to consider both previously published work (as long as you retain copyright rights) and unpublished work, and while I reserve the right to reject submissions on the basis of content or style, I'll make every effort to be generous in those judgements and err on the side of inclusiveness, in order -- I hope -- to build a good collection of quality Words About Wine. If you'd like to propose an article now or show me one that you've already written, please feel free to send me E-Mail.


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