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Zinfandel - Nose Wide Shut

Since graduate school, where I was working toward an master of arts in clarinet and conducting, I began my road of feverish interest and excitement about the world of wine. My creed has always been this: No matter how much you spend, be sure to get your money's worth. This goes for $6 to $160 bottles. If a wine costs $40, it can be a value if what's inside merits that expenditure. I've never been rich, so the inexpensive bottle that doesn't taste like one is always my fondest discovery. As for expensive wines, as a young man I split the cost with five friends so that we could all experience what a Chateau Margaux was all about. I still recommend this procedure. Some of you may know me as a musician, or the former wine manager of Fowler's in Durham and A Southern Season in Chapel Hill. I also had a radio spot on NPR for two years, wrote a column for The Herald-Sun for six, and now am pleased to be on The Independent's pages. Please join me in the adventure and thrill of good wine.

Zinfandel strikes fear and loathing in the hearts of many wine drinkers. Some have never gotten over their first experiences (and over-indulgences?), with a bottle of pink stuff inexplicably named "white" zinfandel. Blame Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery for that sobriquet--but, it stuck. If that stuff can be so vile, how much better will the red be? Well, zinfandel is a proud grape, engineered by nature to make a deeply colored, satisfying wine with considerable verve.

Even though it now has been definitively traced to Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak (wouldn't you rather say zinfandel?), this grape thrives and creates its most memorable incarnation in the fields and hillsides of California. It has truly found its home.

In 1985, Alexis Lichine, in his mammoth New Encyclopedia of Wine and Spirits, gave zinfandel an entire 35 words. Even the hybrid, minor grape named Baco got a lengthy 69 words by comparison. In an NPR commentary I did 12 years ago, I called zinfandel "the Rodney Dangerfield of wines." Still, respect began growing in the mid-'60s when such wineries as Ridge, Joseph Swan, Buena Vista, Martini, Mirassou, Edmeades and Souverain spotlighted this grape and let it step up and be counted. This chameleon of a grape produces a wide array of styles. From a light, Beaujolais style to an inky, heavy port-like creation reaching 17 percent alcohol, zin is a gifted, flexible show person.

Originally planted in the 1880s, its healthy constitution, hearty flavor and the large yields it produced made it popular. This spicy, blackberry tinged, rambunctious red is a cornerstone of Californian viticulture. For decades it was the primary choice of the early winemakers for their everyday consumption. One of the last vestiges of this old world and its ways was August Sebastiani, who loved zin in all of its permutations. Before his death in 1980 he stated, "Zinfandel is good to drink every day, but not so great that it wears you out." He also felt that zin drinks best after about four years of age. With some exceptions, August's feelings mirror mine as well.

I recently tasted 18 zins in a single blind tasting. I knew the names of the wines that were poured, but I had no idea which was which. Not influenced by name or price, these are the results.

The biggest disappointment of the tasting was the 2000 Chateau Souverain, Dry Creek; not because it was bad, but because it was a "corked" bottle. The wine was oxidized and spoiled. I'd love to try a healthy bottle from this fine zin producer.

Next were a bevy of bottles that I would not rush out and buy.

2000 Buena Vista, California ($9) has a mild cherry nose, but a wishy-washy flavor that is harsh and nowhere. Grade: D. How the once-mighty have fallen!

The most shocking, but healthy bottle was from Rancho Zabaco.

The 2000 Dry Creek Reserve ($14) has a wild cherry, herbal and burnt rubber bouquet. The flavors are bracing with little character of the grape and acidity that is way too high. Grade: D. I've enjoyed past bottlings of this.

Beringer's 1999 Founder's Estate ($10) has almost no bouquet. It's flat, boring and devoid of fruit. These "fighting varietal" bottlings, meant to be competitively priced, are often innocuous. Grade: C-

Beringer's 1999 Clear Lake bottling ($14) is dark and brooding on the nose. A smooth, understated, slightly homogenized mouth feel is followed by a raw, biting, tannic finish. It may settle down, but I have my doubts. Grade: C-

The next group had some definitive personality and flavor interests, but they too fell short because of various flaws.

The 2000 Quivira, Dry Creek ($20) has an odd, vegetal, alcoholic nose with unattractive flavors that hold only slight interest. It gets a C/C- grade, but holds a bit of uniqueness.

Cline Cellars' 2000 California ($10) bottling has a cardboardy nose with truffles, damp woods and spice creeping in. Flavors are gamey, powerful and alcoholically hot. Needs a spicy dish. Not bad and a decent buy. Grade: C

The 2000 Chateau Potelle, Paso Robles ($22) has olive, iodine, berries and a touch of green vegetables in the bouquet. A nice mouth feel, lip smacking and "cool," crisp flavors. Interesting with a number of complexities that make it a pleasant drink. Grade: C+

Next are wines that will please to some degree, and just maybe quite a bit.

The 2000 DeLoach, California ($10) has a sweet, penetrating, lean nose with violets, incense and a bit of rubber creeping in. Attractive fruit flavors, brisk and a bit tarry. Short term cellaring will round it out. Grade: B-/C+

Olives, herbs, root vegetables and spice all contribute to the nose of the 2000 St. Francis, Old Vines, Sonoma ($16). Good, direct flavors with plenty of sass, body and richness. All around good with earthy overtones and a fine finish. Grade: B

Best Buy: Ravenswood 2000 Vintner's Blend, California ($10) is delicious. Pure zinfandel character with spice and brambly fruit in the bouquet. Elegant, lean, saucy, with polite and polished flavors. Grade: B

2000 Cline Cellars Big Break ($28) is a wall full of spice gushing into your nostrils. Cola, berries and smoke inhabit the thrilling, round, soul satisfying flavors. Drink now-2004. Grade B/B+

A fine quartet end the tasting on an upbeat note.

2000 Clos Du Bois, North Coast($14) is deep, fruity and pretty, with bramble and berries on the somewhat delicate bouquet. A characterful texture and aftertaste. A nice style with plenty of flavor, but not knock-out drops. Grade: B+

Good Buy: Niebaum-Coppola's 2000 Edizione Pennino, Napa ($40) is our most expensive entry, but you'd expect this from a million-dollar filmmaker. The wine doesn't disappoint. Plums, cedar, and good, deep fruit which needs to be coaxed out. Fine integration of all the elements. A brisk, chunky mouthful that's a touch high in acid. Bring on the baby backs! Grade: B+, but wait two years to drink it.

Another Clos Du Bois entry makes two wines with excellent reviews.

Margaret Davenport is a beautiful winemaker. This 2000 Reserve, Dry Creek ($22) is deep, briery and woodsy on a beguiling bouquet. Chewy flavors, full of extract yet with grace. Gorgeous. Grade: A-

Finally, 2000 Storybook Mountain, Mayacamas Cuvee ($29) has such pretty, ripe fruit which oozes berries and a briery explosion. Excellent construction and balance. This is a tender hearted wine beneath all the richness. It just makes you smile. Grade: A

Best food match ups with zinfandel include: Tex-Mex dishes, beef stew, lamb in any form, spicy sausage, chicken paprikash, and fruity glazed dishes. Don't forget fresh, crusty bread with camembert, gruyere or stilton cheeses. EndBlock

Ciompi's Grades

I use the old, public school grading system.

A: A wine that seems to give all it is capable of. It offers a myriad of complexities and memorable attributes that make it a standout.

B: Very good with real flavor interest and a number of highlights that make a fine wine.

C: Average. No true defects, but minor flaws that hinder its charm. It is OK and is recommended.

D: Many irritating flaws take away most of the wine's pleasure. The wine is drinkable.

F: Undrinkable, with unacceptable defects and no pleasure factor. A failure.


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