Original Zin 

One version of Eden: fig leaves and cheap California Zinfandel.

On our third date, our Token Winemaker brought me fig leaves and Zinfandel. Now, the wine alone could have passed for standard third-date fare, but the leaves? There was an explanation — they grew in abundance on a giant tree near his workplace; I was having a dinner party, and what's a dinner party without fig leaves? ... But still. How could an overthinking singleton not make the obvious allusions to Adam and Eve? Or to the ancient Romans, who believed that Bacchus, their beloved god of wine and intoxication, gave them the fig tree and that its leaves were a sacred symbol of his greatness? Or, in a more sinister interpretation, of the asp that offed Cleopatra, said to have been delivered in a basket of figs and concealed by the fruit's plentiful leaves?

Since things didn't turn out well for Eve or Cleopatra, I chose instead to channel Martha Stewart, and used the leaves as decorative place settings for my dinner party. They were a big hit, as was the Zinfandel — a 2003 vintage from a winery in the Sierra Foothills. It was fragrant and full of the raspberry, cherry, coffee, and spice notes that make Zin lovers swoon.

A standout grape in California dating back to Gold Rush days, Zinfandel has had to fight for respect over the years thanks in part to its lack of noble origins and its denuded sister, White Zinfandel. Still, Zinfandel perseveres, and although the price of a decent bottle has crept up, most producers have lower-cost offerings in addition to their premium Zins.

Ravenswood is just such a producer, with nearly a dozen Zinfandels on the market that vary drastically in terms of both case production and price. The 2004 Vintners Blend ($8.99) was the favorite of the three bargain Zins we tried this week. A toasty aroma with a hint of burnt rubber gave way to a nice dark-fruit taste and a stemmy aftertaste. Its dry finish promised that this one would be excellent with food — think meats and salty cheeses.

We also liked Shenandoah Vineyards' 2004 Zinfandel ($7.99) from Amador County — particularly its deep, intoxicating aroma of violets and its elegant, full-bodied mouthfeel. I found the aftertaste slightly harsh, with a bitterness that might not pair so well with food. It's a robust wine that would be great on its own.

Finally, there was the 2005 California Zinfandel from Cline Cellars ($9.49), a winery in the Carneros region of Sonoma. The Cline wasn't objectionable to me — I liked its understated, pleasantly bitter taste — but I was alone in finding redeeming qualities. Our Token Winemaker slammed its overwhelming aroma of prune juice. He also saw its overripe flavor as evidence of an unfortunate but common practice in Zin-making. And while he did pause to praise the gritty tannins, he ultimately lamented, "I just can't get past the prunes." Guess he's a fig man.


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