We all have our guilty pleasures, regardless of the image we portray. And while everything pleasurable in my life comes with some sense of guilt due to my Catholic upbringing, big, red, juicy Zinfandel is a guilty pleasure I can embrace.
Now, you might wonder: Why would drinking Zinfandel be taboo? Well, being a wine educator and wine judge, I am supposed to favor Old World wines with higher acid and their endearing earthiness. At least, I am told, that is the expectation.
While I do love Old World wines, there is a void that only Zinfandel can fill. Big, powerful and forward, Zinfandel is the John Wayne of the wine world, although given the respect it is afforded by sommeliers, a Rodney Dangerfield comparison seems more fitting. Why?
Just as those in the haute culinary industry admit to having a yen for White Castle or In-N-Out Burger, why can’t those in the wine business admit to loving fruit bombs at times, too? Zinfandel usually offers a lot of bang for the buck, which provides the perfect drink to wash down those burgers and take-out ribs, while not quite scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Produced predominantly in California, the Zinfandel grape’s origin has now been tracked back to Croatia and also to the Primitivo of Italy. Its story is undeniably akin to the experience of many immigrants who arrived on the East Coast from Europe and moved West during the Gold Rush. Many of us with Italian- American heritage have sipped our grandfather’s home-made “Dago Red”—which, most likely, had Zinfandel as its base.
And, at this time of year, it is a great wine to have on the Thanksgiving table. Zinfandel not only has a uniquely A merican bent, it also is extremely versatile and can run the culinary gamut from turkey and gravy to sweet potatoes and cranberries.
“Classic Zin” is usually described as tasting of cherry and briar. For me, the hallmark of Zinfandel is intense brambly fruit, black pepper spice and a sort of baked-bread aroma, while, at times, pastry spices, herbs and chocolate are also common. As you travel down the coast of California, you might get raspberry/cherry flavors in Zinfandel from northerly Mendocino, full blackberry in Sonoma and blackberry, black cherry and currant fruit in Napa.
Traveling inward from the coast, the Central Valley produces mainly jug wines, but if you keep going east, you will reach the Zinfandel of the Sierra Foothills—deep, dark, jammy black fruit, almost cola-like. Back west, out towards the Pacific Ocean’s Central Coast, you’ll find brighter flavors once again, often redolent of cranberries and raspberries.
Are you smacking your lips yet? If so, that is exactly the effect good Zinfandel in your glass will have on you.
Zinfandel simply is what it is. And, like so many other things American, sometimes we hate to love it. And, not withstanding the ubiquitous jug-type wines or the pink versions made from this red grape (white Zinfandel), Zinfandel can stand up to the most hedonistic of all wine criteria: It just tastes damned good.
Like I said, this wine fills a void that the more refined cannot. While I do my share of fine dining, a night at the Twilite Lounge in downtown Salt Lake City—with a steak sandwich delivered from the Crown Burger next door—can be heaven. OK, not total heaven—for that, I would need to brown-bag my favorite Zin!
Gus Magann is a partner at Vine Lore, Inc., a local wine brokerage and doesn’t represent wines pictured here.