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The Drinkin' o' the Zin


I have a confession to make: I am not a Californian by birth. I grew up in Boston, and one day a year, everyone in Boston is Irish. True it is that the Sweeneys, the Maguires and the several Sullivans and I all played on the same basketball team, and when we celebrated St. Patrick's Day together, all 12 of us--from Chinese to Jewish, with all the stops between--became Irish.

Back in those days, we were not drinkers, of course, but we did partake heartily of the corned beef and cabbage. And now, decades later, the Boston in me lives on when St. Paddy's Day rolls around. We get ourselves a bucketful of the best, spiciest brisket around. It gets boiled and then slowly baked to keep it moist and tender. And when the friends and neighbors come in, we serve up heaping plates of the stuff.

Now, if you're like me, you start the festivities with a small tot of Irish whiskey. And then it is on to beer (Guinness or Murphy's Stout) or a big, rich, mouth-filling Zinfandel. I will admit that the last is not a traditional accompaniment, but there is something about the spices, the long cooking and my own sweet, hot mustard sauce that allows corned beef and Zinfandel to be happy together.

Two kinds of Zinfandel seem to work best. My brother Richard, the "bigger is better" fanatic, almost has me convinced that brash, ripe, rustic Zinfandel is the only style to drink with corned beef. Of course, he would have the same opinion if the food were roast loin of pork or duck a l'orange. My wife, the lover of soft, slurpy wines, makes the point that corned beef is not mutton nor a sturdy roast and thus does not need a tough, brawny wine as its partner. She also is right, and I am grateful that she does not ask me to pull out an expensive Merlot.

At least both worthies agree with me that Zinfandel is the wine of choice. And, while they disagree on the style of wine, they do accept that any Zin worthy of our corned beef must be full of ripe, succulent flavors. The wines recommended below are not the fanciest Zinfandels around. They just taste good, and they have the stuffing to stand up to the meat, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, Irish soda bread, mustard, horseradish and noise that accompany St. Patrick's Day in our household.

$ * * 1997 Beaulieu Vineyard "Beauzeaux," California, $18. When Beaulieu playfully labeled this blend of grapes as "Bozo," they had no idea how popular it would become. Now, they have a hit on their hands. Its mix of Zin with six other varieties makes an outgoing, fleshy, complex brew full of concentrated ripe fruit flavors and just enough tannin to give it the "grip" necessary to hold its own with a platter of corned beef--or any other savory, long-cooked meat for that matter. It is a real favorite in these parts.

* 1998 DeLoach Vineyards, Russian River Valley, $16. Each of DeLoach's Russian River Zinfandels (there are seven this year) shares the common traits of youthful exuberance and high levels of ripeness. Here, that ripeness is sufficiently tempered to balance power and concentration with fruit and accessibility. It will clearly appeal more to those who relish powerful wines than to those who like more mellow Zinfandels.

$ * 1997 Dry Creek Vineyard "Heritage Clone," Sonoma County, $13. This bright, berry-focused Zinfandel is a little lighter in composition than most of the others recommended here, but its balance and lighthearted fruit make it worth considering. Some folks like their Zins to be pert and fruity rather than studies in concentration, and this one will call out to them.

$ 1997 Gallo of Sonoma, Dry Creek Valley, $10. I will confess a sweet spot in my vinous heart for this wine. Nowhere else on this list can you find as much depth and personality for a sawbuck. Its fruit is tilted toward ripeness and it is on the tannic, rustic side in construction, but it will never disappoint at the price if it is the style you want.

* 1998 Green and Red Vineyard, Lodi and Napa, $15. Most years, Green and Red succeeds in offering very tasty Zinfandel to a thirsty world. Here, it has blended the focused, sometimes youthfully tight Zin of Napa with the fleshy, ripe, open style found in Lodi. The result is an easy-access wine that is a little high in alcohol and bears complex notes of pepper and game that are uncommon in Zinfandel. Yet I predict this wine, along with BV's Beauzeaux, will be among the surprise hits of St. Patrick's Day festivities chez Olken.

$ * 1996 Charles Krug Winery, Napa Valley, $10. This ripe, raspberryish medium- to full-bodied Zin has substance and reasonable depth without leaning toward heaviness, coarse tannins or over-ripeness. Like the Dry Creek Heritage Clone above, it will appeal to those who like a little restraint in their Zins but still want more personality than a simple, palate-cleansing quaff can offer.

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