Grape of the Month: Zinfandel

I’m so sick of white wine I could puke. I’m sick of drinking them, talking about them, looking at them, and selling them. Enough! It’s time to get down and dirty, to break out the big hefty reds, to start thinking about fall. And, most importantly, it’s time to ring in a new season of football and tailgating.  And frankly, there’s no better grape to do it with than the one grown best right here on our home turf.

Zinfandel is considered by most America’s heritage grape. We made it our own, and you can’t find it like this anywhere else in the world. Sure, DNA reports have proved Italy’s primitivo is its ancestor. So what? Zinfandel is ours, and no lame scientist is going to take it away. Call it home field advantage. It is saucy, sultry, overstated and just downright American. Like Monday Night Football, apple pie, Bruce Springsteen, and childhood obesity.

Zinfandel grapes generally don’t need too much attention.  In fact, this grape is best grown in dry, hot conditions, where the roots have to work extra hard to produce healthy fruit.  The warmer, sunnier parts of California have turned out some awesome zins over the last two decades, specifically Paso Robles, Lodi and Dry Creek Valley.  These wines are in-your-face, full-bodied, full-throttle and just plain sexy.  In recent years some zin producers have shied away from hefty, overripe styles; leaning more toward soft and elegant wines.   These zinfandels may have complexity and longevity; but in my opinion, are lacking in real style.  For me, the best zins are ripe, spicy, fruit driven, and outrageously flashy.

Sight: This wine is very dark, maroonish, almost purple in hue.  It shows slow-moving, thicker legs due to its usually very high alcohol content.

Smell: On first take the wine shouts “Beware!” It reeks of ripe, sensual blackberries and raspberries.  Then, faint at first but accelerating into prominence are the discernible hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, cedar, and smoke.

Taste: Even the first sip of a great zin is extraordinary.  This wine is everything an American palate dreams of: big fruit, intense spice, deep, rich flavors, and soft but supple tannins.  Good zin really grabs you by the collar, shakes you a bit, and slaps you in the face with its substantial flavors.  It tastes of raspberry jam, strawberry rhubarb pie, licorice, pepper and cinnamon.  And the best zins balance all these flavors in one (albeit big) sip.

Pairing: Pasta with spicy tomato sauce, chili, barbeque ribs or slow-cooked pulled pork.


  • $10-15: Gnarly Head, Rosenblum Vintner’s Cuvée, Cantele Primitivo
  • $15-30: Four Vines Biker, Hartford, Dashe, Quivera, Pezzi King
  • $30-50: Old Ghost, Robert Biale Black Chicken
  • Before you die: Martinelli