Cost: Average price $9
Where buy now: Haskell's - $7.99
Grapes: Ravenswood Vintner's Blend: 76% Zin, 15% Petite Sirah, 6% Carignane, 3% Syrah
Gnarly Head: 77% Zin, 23% Petite Sirah
Recently, I’ve received several requests for Zinfandel recommendations. To that I say: get your butt on a plane to San Fran, drive up to Sonoma County and drink yourself stupid with Zin. Actually, wait until early October for three huge reasons. 1.) Fall Crush- harvest season of a new vintage year, 2.) Fewer crowds, 3.) Hardly Strictly Bluegrass [HSB]- a FREE 3-day music festival in Golden Gate Park. Acts such as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and The Flatlanders are annual staples, and we’ve seen everyone from Steve Martin to John Prine to Mavis Staples. I cannot tell you how magical this festival is. You never feel you’re in a park with 350,000 others, though they do make it clear that there is no smoking CIGARETTES in the park (read: anything else is A-OK). This is how I fell in love with San Francisco; this is how I fell in love with Zinfandel.
The Zinfandel grape is originally from Croatia and managed to find its way to the US sometime in the mid-1800s. For wine to bear the name “Zinfandel”, 75% or more must be of the Zinfandel grape. I picked up two: Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend and Gnarly Head. Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend is a combo of award winning wines and carefully selected bulk wines, blending four different grapes. Gnarly Head is produced in Lodi, CA, known for its hot & dry climate. The grapes are exposed to more intense sunlight than typical wine grapes, which increases the fruit’s potency. Also, these grapes hail from free-standing 35-80 year old gnarled vines, unlike being grown on a trellis.
Back in Minnesota on a cold Valentine’s Day, I was craving ribs, and my husband didn’t put up a fight. He went to pick ‘em up, so I hit the wine store for Zinfandel [teamwork!].
Drooling head first, I dove right in to the ribs. We adore the ribs from Ted Cook’s BBQ Hole in South Minneapolis, so we got a full rack with medium sauce. [Yes, a FULL rack- we don’t eff’around!.] Smacking our lips and licking our fingers raw, we alternately sipped each wine to judge how they stood up to BBQ.
Both wines were pleasant. They each have an intense ripe berry aroma, deep ruby hues in color and decent legs [“legs” are judged by how far it seeps down the inside of your glass and refers to alcohol content]. These were both concentrated, flavorful wines with a hint of oak and spice often found in Zin. However, the wines differed in tannin strength and finish. The Ravenswood had a softer finish, a more rounded tannin structure, and a hint of smokiness. The Gnarly Head had more tartness, stronger tannins and a longer finish. It seemed to have a few other characteristics like a toasted oak and peppery spice to it. The stronger finish could hold up to the intensity of the BBQ, and thus paired better.
I suggest pairing the Gnarly Head with BBQ over Ravenswood, but if I was just casually sipping, I may choose the Ravenswood. In truth, I’d buy either one again, but likely gravitate toward the one with the better price. You can’t go wrong either way now, as they are both $7.99 at Haskell’s. Both of these wines are fairly common around town [I also saw Gnarly Head for $7.99 at Costco] so again, choose the one that costs less.
Zinfandel is a peculiar, somewhat polarizing grape. I noticed that West Coast folk seem to have the type of pallet to really dig Zin. I’ve also noticed that wine newbies find it a bit strong and tannic. Keep trying, I say: practice makes perfect! Try picking up 2-3 from the same year around the same price range and start forming your own opinions. Or, hell, zip out to San Francisco (say hello to my cuz Mark and his gal Rach) and shoot up to Sonoma. Just be sure to get a hotel room so you can happily collapse in your Zin-induced coma.