Zin fan delighted at first, now paying the price for wine's success


Have we zinfandel fanatics created a monster?

As a lonely band in the early 1980s, we stuck by California's most underrated red wine grape at a time when most of the industry was trying to turn it into -- horrors! -- a white wine.

We believed in it even as producer after producer dropped zinfandel from their programs. We pursued it even when snotty-nosed tasting room staffers started looking at us as if we were idiots when we insisted zinfandel could indeed be a red wine.

And slowly the tide turned our way. The keepers of the zinfandel flame, notably Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards and Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, began to get the recognition they deserved for their monumental old-vine zins. Once shamefully under-priced, red zinfandel began to fetch prices that made growers think twice before they dug up historic vineyards.

For longtime zin fanciers, this has been most gratifying. Finally others take us seriously when we praise the concentration, the intensity and the pure berry flavors of a great zinfandel from a top producer.

And yet . . . .

Maybe things are getting a little out of hand.

Prices for the better zinfandels are skyrocketing, with some of the best single-vineyard wines well on their way to $30 a bottle.

And so, it seems, are alcohol levels. A series of ripe vintages, capped by the current 1993 releases, have produced an abundance of zinfandels that shatter the 14 percent alcohol barrier. Some are flirting with 15 percent -- a far cry from the 12 percent to 13 percent in the typical California table wine.

That does not mean the wines are unpalatable. Many high-alcohol red zinfandels are exceptional wines that artfully conceal their alcohol under layers of complex, rich fruit.

But wines with 14.5 percent or 14.9 percent alcohol pack quite a wallop, and walloping is not what wine is all about.

Take it from a friend of zinfandel: 14 percent is enough. And $25 price tags look unseemly on a grape of such humble origins.

This rant has been inspired by a recent series of zinfandel tastings involving the 1992s and 1993s from some of the most respected producers in California.

Prominent among them, as always, is Ridge Vineyards -- a hallowed name among zin-fanatics.

Ridge's 1993 Pagani Ranch Zinfandel ($22.49) is a perfect illustration of the dilemma. Its 14.9 percent alcohol is too much to fully conceal, but the blackberry, herb and chocolate flavors are so intense and so lovely you can't help but forgive it.

The 1993 Ridge Lytton Springs ($24) is a little more subdued at 14.5 percent alcohol. But while it is an impressively concentrated, complex wine, there are rough edges that leave it short of past performances.

Another wine that can't quite conceal its 14 percent-plus alcohol is Ravenswood's 1993 Sonoma County Old Vines Zinfandel ($19). The flavors are wonderful -- black raspberry, red meat and black pepper. Match it with a generously topped pizza and the rough patches smooth out quickly.

The 1993 vintage brings us another bruiser from A. Rafanelli Winery, perhaps the most controversial producer in California because of its uncompromising devotion to traditional winemaking methods. Rafanelli's 1993 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($19) is loaded with blackberry, blueberry and chocolate. The acidity is high, bordering on volatile, but somehow the fruit balances it out. The 14.4 percent alcohol is hardly noticeable in this mix -- until the next morning, perhaps.

The 1993 Topolos at Russian River Vineyards Zinfandel from the Rossi Ranch ($22) is a flavor bomb that drops on innocent palates with thermonuclear force. Made from late-picked grapes from 80-year-old vines, it registers 15 in alcohol percentage and maybe on the Richter scale, too. Imagine vintage port vinified dry. You have to admire it, but what food can match it?

These brutes are all honorable wines, but there are equally appealing zinfandels on the market that make me wonder whether all that thunder is necessary.

Two of those wines come from Elyse Wines in the Napa Valley, both of which weigh in at a restrained 12.9 percent alcohol.

The 1993 Elyse "Couer du Val" Zinfandel ($18) is a winning style of zinfandel with intense raspberry flavor and hints of black pepper and blackberry. The finish is long and satisfying, without any hotness.

Even better is the 1993 Elyse Howell Mountain Zinfandel ($20), a lush, concentrated wine with layers of blackberry, black pepper and chocolate flavors. It's a powerful wine, but the power comes from fruit, not alcohol.

The 1993 Rosenblum Cellars Contra Costa County Zinfandel ($13) takes a similar approach. It's a balanced, nuanced wine that wears its 13.4 percent alcohol easily. There's a cedary component reminiscent of cabernet, but the black raspberry and herbal flavors are characteristic zinfandel.

It's not just the flavors that make me like these three wines. It's the fact that they complement food without losing their own personalities. It's that you can split a bottle with another person and still have a prayer of being good for something other than sleep after dinner.

The Wine of the Week will return next week.

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