There's nothing like a fragrant, high-alcohol berry-bomb Zinfandel to chase away winter doldrums. So with that mission in mind, we headed to San Francisco's 18th Annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers Tasting on a recent Saturday to scout out the best bargains among the hundreds of California Zins on offer. At last year's festival, Lodi stole the scene, at least among value wines: nearly every wine under $10 was made with grapes hailing from that Central Valley appellation. This year the Central Valley once again showed up on many a label, but a couple other surprise regions appeared at this price point as well. We can only hope this marks the beginning of a fruitful trend.
One geographically confused but delightfully intriguing wine was the 2006 Clockspring Zinfandel ($9) produced by Mountain View Vintners of Novato. Yes, Novato. Fear not, the Mountain View folks have wisely sourced their organically grown grapes from Zinfandel capital Amador County, and they've created a smooth, plummy wine that's far lower in alcohol (13.5 percent) than the average Zin. Bad news for those who count on a glass of this varietal to get them schnockered during Must-See TV, but great for anyone hoping to pair a Zin with food and avoid drowning out all competing flavors in the process. At $5.50 a bottle by the case, this value is hard to beat.
Monterey County, an area not known for much success with Zin, was the other surprise. Napa's Beaulieu Vineyards has produced a Coastal Estates Zinfandel ($8.99) that offers raspberries, black fruit, and caramel on the nose and mellow, plum flavors on the palate. The finish was a bit overly tannic, but to me that's just a fine excuse to haul out the stinky cheese.
Returning to Lodi, our favorite from last year still held up: the nonvintage Barefoot Zinfandel ($5.99) is a berry hit parade, with raspberries and blackberries on the nose, and more berry still on the palate. A smooth, easy-drinking wine. Our Token Winemaker found the 2007 Ironstone Kautz Family Vineyards Zinfandel ($9.99) from Lodi overripe and a bit too sweet, but I think this wine represents what a lot of people seek in a Zin: a strong aroma of black fruit, cherries, and spice upon sipping, and a strong finish. I was also on the defensive with the 2006 Oak Ridge Vineyards Silk Oak Zinfandel ($9) from Lodi, which our Token Winemaker complained was "super sweet." Again, if your tastes run in that direction, the Oak Ridge's hugely floral and blueberry aroma, flavors of red fruit, earth, and spice, and rich finish just might be your thing.
Spice was also a theme in this year's offering from Alameda's R&B Cellars. The 2007 Swingsville Zinfandel ($11), made with Lodi-grown grapes, had an aroma of black fruit and spice and a rich, dry, big mouthfeel offering still more spice. Bothered by the heavily tannic finish? Break out the Taleggio.
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