It was no coincidence that the first featured $20 Below wines were Zinfandels. Zins represent some of the best value wines that can be found for under $20. Also, the versatility of zin is astonishing. Wines can range from intensely fruity to subtle and food-friendly to rustic, earthy, and spicy.
Zin is truly an underdog varietal. Reds such as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, syrah, and merlot are typically more respected and command higher prices. If there is one culprit to blame for harming zin’s reputation, it’s white zinfandel, zin’s black sheep sister.
According to Napa Valley legend, white zinfandel resulted from an accident. A batch of zin became stuck during the fermentation process, leaving a sweet, pinkish wine as opposed to the dry, red wine that it was supposed to be. Rather than dump the wine, the decision was made to bottle it and sell it as white zinfandel. The public responded favorably to the sweet and easily approachable wine and white zinfandel has been around ever since. It can be found in most gas stations across the country in the cooler next to Icehouse, Colt 45, and Mickey’s.
Look, I don’t have any personal hatred towards white zinfandel. I certainly don’t drink it, but I view it as a gateway wine that will hopefully lead wine drinkers to better quality wines. What bothers me is that most people, unless they are somewhat experienced wine drinkers, associate zinfandel with the cheap, pink stuff.
My opinions on zin were forever changed on a trip to Sonoma County when my wife and I basically stumbled upon the Dry Creek Valley. We had visited the mega-producer Kendall Jackson Winery and asked a chef who worked there if there was a winery that he would recommend. After about 3 seconds, he smiled and said “Bella Vineyards, they know how to have fun there and their wine’s amazing.”
We pulled up to Bella and immediately knew what the chef meant when he said “they know how to have fun there.” All of the workers were dressed up like Elvis. It also happened to be Valentine’s day, so there was a certain Elvis who would be performing wedding ceremonies throughout the day (I’m not kidding and apparently there were couples that were getting married there that day). Once the Elvis in Bella’s wine caves poured us our first wine, a zin, I knew that all of my pre-conceived notions were dead wrong. The zin was awesome.
This past July, my wife and I found ourselves back in Dry Creek Valley, this time accompanied by my wife’s cousin and his wife. I kept telling them how amazing the zin was in this area, and I’m sure that they were thinking “if this guy knows anything about wine, he’d shut up about the zin.” After visiting some top-notch zin producers on that trip, including Rafanelli, Unti, Zichichi, and David Coffaro, I think they knew what I was talking about. Our last night of the trip, which we spent in San Francisco, we stopped in for a drink at a bar near our hotel. The bar had a nice wine selection, several beers on tap, and various spirits. Guess what all four of us ordered-Dry Creek Valley zin.
Zin is not native to the US, but drinking a quality California zin sure does make you think that it has found it’s new home. Several regions in California are producing outstanding zin, including but not limited to Sonoma County (Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley), Napa Valley, Sierra Foothills, and Paso Robles.
Another interesting fact about zins is that they are predominantly aged in American oak. For most red varietals, winemakers opt for French oak. With zin, winemakers have found that oak from the Midwest imparts a more favorable flavor profile.
As mentioned above, zins are great value wines. There are some really nice zins that can be purchased for under $20. If you are willing to spend $25-$50 for a bottle, you can buy many of the top zins out there. Compare these prices to Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. If you want to buy the top Napa Valley cabs, you’re going to have to shell out $100 to $400, maybe more. I’m not saying that the top zins are better than the top Napa Valley cabs, but you can definitely get more bang for your buck with the zins.
Over time, I have found myself becoming a flag-waving, card-carrying ambassador of zin. It’s an underdog varietal, a versatile and great value wine, and it thrives in the US, perhaps more than any place in the world. Approach zin with an open mind and remember that real zin is red, not pink.