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Only in America: Great Zinfandel


This story may be apochryphal, but it says a lot about the current state of the wine business.

A woman in a San Francisco restaurant asks the waiter for a glass of the house Zinfandel. He brings her a glass of red wine. She pushes it back toward him and says, "Oh, no, I ordered Zinfandel and this is red."

The "Conventional Wisdom" of the last decade is that Zinfandel is white, or blushing because it isn't red. Red is the legitimate color for the variety, but the white version became so popular that everyone began making it. The red version sold more slowly, so only those who made it very well kept at it.

Today the only ones producing Zinfandel as a red wine do so with style. It's nearly impossible to find a bad bottle. And prices are fair: even the best are about $10 a bottle, half the price of Cabernet Sauvignon of comparable quality.

"We had a shakeout about 10 years ago when Mondavi and Cakebread and a few others dropped out of the Zin business," says Paul Draper, winemaker at Ridge Vineyards. "They quit making it because it didn't sell, but also the quality of a lot of the Zins back then varied widely."

Draper says the shakeout was caused by production of "a lot of heavy, clumsy wines, some of which were, frankly, lousy. The people who came into the industry, or those who kept making Zinfandel, picked the grape within the window of its ideal ripeness and didn't treat it as an afterthought."

Two weeks ago I was a judge at the San Francisco Fair wine competition, and the high quality of Zinfandel was revealed in a dramatic manner. In the sweepstakes round, judges facing 21 red wines were asked to find the best.

Seven of the 21 were (not unexpectedly) Cabernets. Surprisingly, five were 1989 Zinfandels, each superb and, amazingly enough, all from different growing regions. The sweepstakes vote took four ballots before a 1989 Franciscan Zinfandel was declared the winner. It was my favorite wine of the last round--but just a bit better than the other Zinfandels.

The Franciscan ($10), from the Napa Valley, has a wonderful spicy, violets and black-cherry aroma with a hint of nutmeg or clove. The others:

* Rosenblum, Sonoma County ($10.50), largely from Sonoma Valley, a wine of more blackberry and spice, slightly more tannic than the Franciscan.

* Storrs, Beauregard Ranch, Ben Lomand ($12.50), a little more jammy and floral with a fascinating tropical fruit note not unlike coconut. Softer than a couple of the others.

* Peachy Canyon, Paso Robles ($12), with stylish fruit and a faint toasty note.

* Rafanelli Dry Creek Valley ($11), from the northern end of Sonoma County, a jammy, almost cotton-candy note to a strawberry-like aroma, and a soft, appealing taste.

Not long ago I recommended some of the current Zinfandel releases, among them wines from Nalle, Frog's Leap, Quivira, Kendall-Jackson, Haywood, Pedroncelli, Gundlach-Bundschu and St. Francis.

Now I have found a new group of stunning wines, including the marvelous 1989 DeLoach from the Russian River ($11.36), a grand example of completeness in a lighter package. The wine is packed with raspberry fruit, has a light roasted note and a mouthful of fruit in a not-very-tannic package.

Also terrific, in a more restrained, claret-like style, is the 1988 Clos du Val ($12), with stylish violet and black-cherry notes that will be wonderful with a few years of bottle age.

Ridge has always been identified with great Zinfandel. The winery makes five vineyard-designated Zinfandels--from Paso Robles; York Creek and Howell Mountain (opposite sides of the Napa Valley), and Lytton Springs and Geyserville (both northern Sonoma County).

The latter wine, a relative bargain at $14, has depth and spice and a wonderful richness of fruit. Beginning with the 1989, Ridge will remove the word Zinfandel from the label, because in some vintages the Geyserville vineyard makes a better wine with the addition of more than 25% Carignane and Petite Sirah. At less than 75% Zinfandel, the wine wouldn't qualify for the designation on the label.

"After making that wine for 25 years," Draper says, "I feel it has become well enough known as just 'the Ridge Geyserville,' so we don't have to call it Zinfandel any more."

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