For years, zinfandel has been the golden retriever of the wine world: a large, embraceable, super-friendly spreader of good cheer, impossible not to love.
Oh, sure, there are a few sommelier types who eschew the state grape of California, but they probably don't like golden retrievers, either. And that leaves more zin for the rest of us.
Including a local wine-geek friend known to his pals as "Burgundy Bob" or "Barolo Bob" because he spends most evenings sipping super-spendy wines of those varieties. But he also loves zinfandel.
So do many other cork dorks of my acquaintance, who like Burgundy Bob exult in gathering and slathering robust sauce on a mess of grilled ribs and washing them down with spicy, zesty zins.
Indeed, for a wine that tends to be higher in alcohol, zin is a fantastic pairing for all manner of popular items, including burgers, brats and pizza. In a very real sense, it's an All-American wine for All-American food. (While it's a genetic twin of Italy's primitivo and Croatia's crljenak kastelanski grapes, zinfandel is widely considered a distinctly California product.)
Zinfandel is far from a one-note grape. It can be big and rich like Martinelli's voluptuous Giuseppe & Luisa (16.4 percent alcohol) or lean and nervy like the Broc Cellars' Vine Starr (12.5 percent). Remarkably, both these bottles can age for half a decade or more.
But most of the wines can fit fairly readily into categories, either by region or style. Here are what I consider the best brands:
Mainstays: I've been loving Ridge zins for decades. They're sturdy but approachable with fabulous, near-endless finishes. Two things have changed: It doesn't always say "zinfandel" because in some years the Geyserville, Lytton Springs and other bottlings dip below 75 percent needed to use the grape name on the label. And Ridge became the first major brand to put a full ingredients list on the back label. Bravo!
Seghesio has been making earthy gems forever, and Turley does a fantastic job of juxtaposing beautifully ripe fruit and sturdy backbone.
New kids: A couple of my longtime favorites (Brown, A. Rafanelli) are still not in this market, but in recent years, several stalwarts have entered the local market. Carlisle (my very favorite, comprising three-quarters of the zins in my cellar) just reached the Twin Cities with its full-bodied but tangy Mancini Ranch zin. Bedrock — like Carlisle a great source for old-vine (really old, as in a century, give or take), concentrated wines — Carol Shelton, purveyors of zingy, lusty zins and Benovia, whose zins are sleek but multi-layered, have enriched the local scene of late.
Napa: From the land of often-overpriced cabernets come some stellar zins with friendlier price tags. Green + Red is a rarity: an under-recognized Napa winery, thanks to its dusty but fruit-packed and tasty offerings, priced around $30. For a few dollars more, the Terraces' complex, dark-fruit delights, a Haskell's exclusive, are absolutely captivating.
Dry Creek: This Sonoma region's zins are truly distinctive, usually featuring a pas de deux between red fruit and briary herbs. I adore the firm, hearty zins from Pedroncelli, Dashe and Dry Creek Vineyards. These wines warrant the same collective reputation as the pinot noirs from the adjacent Russian River Valley appellation.
Lodi: This area gets slammed by many cork dorks for often overripe fruit bombs, not to mention groaner puns such as Seven Deadly Zins. But some folks are showing nice restraint and taking advantage of reduced grape prices to make choice stuff for under $20. Lodi bottlings from Montoya and Four Vines as well as Tortoise Creek's "The Chelonian" are well worth seeking out. And just to the east, in Amador County, Terra d'Oro makes swell lighter-bodied zins.
Minnesota connections: It never ceases to flummox and gratify me that so many Gopher State natives are doing great work Out West. Scott and Lynn Adams decamped in the 1990s and opened Bella, whose cave is Party Central at the top of the Dry Creek Valley, but whose wines have gotten more refined in recent years while retaining their brawniness. Elsewhere in Sonoma, Edina native Dave Ready Jr. continues to concoct a juicy crowd-pleaser with his Murphy-Goode Liar's Dice Zinfandel.
A decidedly different zin — firm and focused — emanates from Napa's Frog's Leap winery, co-owned by Twin Cities real estate mogul Bob Greenberg. Up Amador way, Jeff Runquist's zinfandel is among countless stupendous options forged by this Minnesota native.
Runquist might have spent only the first three years of his life in Minnesota, but we still can claim him — and anyone else with local ties getting the most out of this truly All-American grape.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.