Muscat Love 

After-dinner inspiration, courtesy of Muscat and Zinfandel.

I smiled in recognition when a character on a recent episode of my favorite TV show explained her strategy for "quitting" smoking to her boy toy du jour: limiting herself to a single cigarette each day. "Great!" the boy toy said as he pulled out a lighter and eagerly prepared to join in her daily indulgence. "Oh ..." she responded apologetically, "but I smoke it alone!"

Subtract a boy toy, add a Token Winemaker, and this is me with my nightly glass of wine. Often, it's a Zinfandel — a tradition that began when Token Winemaker was working at a winery that specialized in big, high-alcohol, old-vine Zins. After a visit, he'd leave me with a few bottles, and my daily glass of Pinot or Merlot was soon replaced by Zinfandel. The difference in alcohol didn't really occur to me until I found myself regularly going to bed in a bit of a haze, and waking up with an ever-so-slight hangover. My solution: smaller glasses.

This week, we happily returned to an old bargain-Zin favorite: Ravenswood Vintners Blend California Zinfandel ($7.99; widely available at convenience and grocery stores). Blind-tasting the 2006 vintage against a Zinfandel blend, we actually pegged the Ravenswood as the blend — thanks to the depth of an aroma laced with smoke and spice. On the palate, this wine was big and tannic, and a more classically Zin berry flavor emerged in the taste. Ravenswood's Vintners Blend line tends to vary radically from vintage to vintage, and while I had high praise for 2004 and 2005 as well, I think this one's my favorite.

We found Ravenswood's competition this week, the nonvintage promisQous California Red Table Wine ($11 at Target), to be somewhat lacking. Amidst the obvious dark fruit in the aroma (Token Winemaker also detected cherry), there was a mustiness I didn't care for. A surprising dark-cherry sweetness on the palate made a case for choosing promisQous in lieu of dessert. But while it certainly wouldn't be embarrassing to serve, it's also not a must-buy.

No matter, we consoled ourselves with a glass (just a small one!) of this week's great discovery: the 2007 Elysium California Black Muscat Dessert Wine ($11.29 on The aroma on this wine really couldn't be more floral — it's like bathing in rose petals, with violets, oranges, and guava juice thrown in for good measure. Make no mistake that this is one sweet, alcoholic (15 percent) wine, but if that's what you're looking for, you're sure to savor its velvety mouthfeel and delightfully fruity, "five-minute" finish. Made by the Central Valley's Quady Winery, the Elysium is crafted from Muscat Hamberg, which is sometimes dismissed as the lowest-quality Muscat grape but is still capable of producing lovely nectars such as this one. Bring on the dark chocolate.


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