But it wasn’t always like that. A couple of decades ago the country was still awash with pink colored “white zinfandel”; and focusing on the other two “fighting varietals,” chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, many of the mainstream California wineries went so far as to drop red zinfandel from their lineups. This may have been good thing, because all it did was dramatize the inevitable resurgence all the more; towards the end of the nineties, when artisanal producers began pushing their big red zins, recalling some of mammoth zins that came and went with the seventies. Like micro-minis, fondue, VW bugs and martinis, there are many things never really go away – they just come back with a vengeance.
But going back long before the grape’s pink wine heyday (remember, white zin wasn’t “invented” by David Bruce until 1969, then subjected to further experimentation shortly thereafter by Monteviña and Sutter Home), zinfandel was always a red wine, albeit an animal of different stripes. The previous generations - like Samuele and August Sebastiani, and the first two Louis Martinis (pictured below/left) - liked their zinfandel fairly soft, simple and restrained, yet with zesty fruit qualities practically begging for tomato sauced spaghetti.
But let’s not sell the old time zins short. It’s important to have good wine for spaghetti; not only that, but also for fettuccine tossed with mushrooms and Parmigiano, or linguine with clams, mussels, tomato, garlic, and earthy, grassy Pecorino. This is where the moderated zinfandel classics like Parducci, Louis Martini, Sebastiani, and coastal blends by Ridge Vineyards start to shine. If anything, ever since the days when spaghetti came to be called “pasta,” there hasn’t been enough of these lighter, snappier red zins to go around.
But let’s face it: as a variety of pure and distinct character different from anything else in the world, zinfandel really comes into its own when vinified into something big, huge, even humongous. The special characteristics of the grape – the sweet raspberry and blackberry jam, mixed as it often is with exhilarating whiffs of freshly ground pepper, cinnamon, clove, and oak like burning leaves of autumn – do not really become defined unless grapes are picked with enough sugar to reach alcoholic strengths of 14% at the least, and 15% or 16% to be even better.
I, for one, might prefer my red zin light and zesty, but I’m certainly no apologist for the big zins. I just take the logical course: drink the lighter zins with pastas, the bigger zins with the big meats, and the in-betweens with the in-between dishes.
To get a handle on the sensory components of latter day zins, let’s look at a one recent, widely lauded classic: the aptly named Earthquake Zinfandel made by Michael-David Vineyards in Lodi. What does an Earthquake have that most non-zins don’t?
1. A thickly corded musculature of tannin and alcohol (usually close to 16%). To heck with subtlety.
2. A heady nose, beginning with sweetly concentrated blackberry and bing cherry aromas, ripe without being overripe or pruny, underscored by pepper grinder spice and pungent, toasty, sweet oak.
3. A terrific balancing acidity – pushing the natural fruit qualities to the front of the palate – filled out by the wonderful feel of glycerol (a higher alcohol component), giving a velvety, viscous feel, and overall sense of balance despite the wine’s behemoth proportion.
For aficionados of this enthralling style, it’s gratifying to see Lodi’s ancient, fourth or fifth generation farmed vineyards – like that of Michael and David Phillips, Jesse’s Grove, and St. Amant – finally put to good use: turned into red rather than pink wines. Ridge Vineyards, among all others, deserves the credit for keeping the interest in full scaled Zinfandel alive during the dark days when pink zins ruled the roost; producing an uninterrupted series of single vineyard bottlings each year, notably from sites planted in the old Italian tradition of field mixing (zinfandel vines interspersed with grapes like petite sirah, mourvèdre, carignane and alicante bouschet, usually finding their way into Ridge’s final blends in varying yet generous proportions).
Taking up the torch, over the past twenty years Rosenblum, Ravenswood, Turley Wine Cellars, and Carol Shelton have been mining similar sources of old vines up and down the California coast, and are continuing to push the envelope insofar as zinfandel heft (16%-17% alcohol bottlings not unusual) and intensity. Still others – like Grgich-Hills and Robert Biale in Napa Valley, and Quivira and Nalle Vineyards in Sonoma – seem to consistently craft zinfandels of equal parts power and balance, while in the Sierra Foothills (Amador and El Dorado), fairly new names like Cedarville, Perry Creek, C.G. Di Arie, and Miraflores are leading the charge towards hitting that sweet spot intersecting raw power and varietal definition.
But are contemporary big Zs good enough for food? I wouldn’t argue if you say that beef is always best with cabernet sauvignon, but I’ve been amazed by how well a sturdy, sweetly berryish zinfandel goes with roasted prime rib bathed in horseradish tinged natural jus, or a simple charred sirloin doused in Tabasco. But how about this: thin slices of beef steeped in soy, palm sugar, sesame, garlic and ginger in the fashion of Japanese, Mongolian and Korean marinades, charcoal grilled or seared on a smoking hot iron, and plopped on steamy white rice. It is, in fact, the spicy, sweet berry concentration of typical big zins that allow these wines go where no cabernet sauvignon ever can on the table: with fusion or Asian style treatments of beef, in sauces based on soy rather than demi-glace or ketchup.
It’s also said that lamb calls for cabernet sauvignon, or else classic red Bordeaux. In the late seventies wineries like Clos du Val, Monteviña, and Carneros Creek made a number of positively black, jammy, cinnamon-and-pepper spiced Zinfandels, with pumped up body, oak and tannin; and that’s when I first discovered the joys of such wines with legs of lamb caked with sweet mustard, lamb chops grilled on the barbie with chunks of eggplant, and entire racks coming out of the roaster dripping with buttery bread crumbs and slathered with sweet mint jelly.
Then there is the “other” white meat: almost any variation of pork; from Italian sausages to chorizo, or from chops pan fried with pungent herbs (like rosemary and herbes de Provence) to roasts smothered in wine, herbs, or zesty barbecue sauces. Big zins and pork are such natural partners, you’d have to be either blissfully ignorant or a hopelessly effete snob to say that big, bad zins don’t make good “food” wines.
But will big zins age? The more pertinent question: who cares? After years of trying zinfandels cellared for ten or more years (including one marathon wine/food tasting, involving ten to twenty year old bottles of Ridge zinfandels with Ridge’s longtime head cheese, Paul Draper), I’ve reached this conclusion: there is nothing more delicious than a good, three to five year old red zin. After that, I just don’t think they get any better (older maybe, but not “better”).
In fact, I think I may prefer big zins right out of the barrel, having gone so far as purchasing full barrels over the years and serving them to my guests completely unbottled, in order to get wildest, most pristine zinfandel berry taste possible (being a part owner of multiple restaurants gives you that advantage). If anything, it’s safer not to lay down big zinfandels. After eight years even the finest begin to shed the explosive fruitiness that defines the grape.
THE IDEAL ZINFANDEL FOOD MATCHES
A few more remarks on the food possibilities of zinfandel:
- For bigger sized zinfandels (closer to 15% or 16% alcohol), bring on the fattiest or wildest, full flavored meats – venison, boar, buffalo, elk, and maybe even squab or goose – and slather them with the seasonings and spices (including hot chilies, if balanced with ingredients that are mildly sweet, salty, sour, etc.) you like, because zinfandel’s combination of tannin, acidic zest, and sweetly fruit forward flavors go where few other reds can.
- The zesty fruit quality of moderately scaled (softer tannins and less than 14% alcohol) zinfandels actually makes it a good candidate for red-wine-with-fish combinations (providing you grill, sauce, or season the fish with zin-friendly methodology).
- Variations of earthy tastes such as mustards and mustard greens (as underlying components that help reduce bitter tannins), bell peppers and chile peppers (can heighten grape’s peppery spice), peppercorns and corning (the grape’s “jammy” sensations can handle some salting), garlic and onions (accents the grape’s sweetness), caramelized beets (embellishes zinfandel fruitiness, as well as mushrooms and goat cheeses (zinfandel has just enough zest to balance acidity in Chèvre) all get along famously with zinfandel’s unique multifaceted profile.
- Marinades in combination with wood or charcoal grilling, smoking and roasting to create caramelized flavors can “sweeten” the briary, berry taste of zinfandel, and round out its rougher edges.
- Use of sweet/acidic fruits like tomatoes, berries, and cherry can also match the varietal profile and reduce the effect of tannins in young, unruly zinfandels.
- The aromatic Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, bay leaf, oregano, thyme, sweet basil, marjoram and savory add contrasting notes to zinfandel fruitiness (but not so much fragrant herbs like mint, cilantro, dill and tarragon); arugula, cress, dandelion and other peppery/nutty greens play to the grape’s spiciness; and spare, thoughtful use of star anise, juniper, mace, ginger, caraway, clove, and seeds of anise, poppy and sesame can all work with peppercorns to embellish the sweetly spiced varietal character.
- Plump sausage meats, with black or red peppers and seed spices; especially when used as meat stuffings (or plopped between buns, for that matter).
- As with all fine wine and food matching, avoid extremes (like overdosing with herbs or overly complicated, multiple saucing) and imbalances (especially over-salting with rock salt or seafood stocks, heavy handed sweetening with sugar or fruits, or acidifying with vinegars, etc.). No big, burly red wine is 100% forgiving. In the end, it makes as little sense to detract from a zinfandel’s obvious charms as it would to clobber a simple dish with a super-sized wine.
- Finally, while like most deep flavored red wines, zinfandel is easily complimented by deep flavored, firm, aged cheeses like Parmigiano, Pecorino, Manchego, Cheddars and Goudas, they will cross lines to softer cheeses given specific zin-friendly components. For instance, Italian herb crusted Chèvres and white truffle specked Boschetto al Tartufo merge effortlessly with the sweet berry jam qualities of even the biggest zins. By the same token, a Chili Pepper Pecorino’s subtle spice and grassy edge brings out the peppery spice in the varietal, while the deep, crystal-caramelized taste of "super-aged" Goudas (Beemster 18 Year Old or XO) underscore the richest zin's oak laden fruitiness.
STRETCHING CULINARY BOUNDARIES: ZINFANDEL MENUS PAST
The nineties were a zin-fruitful time for our restaurants. For a good ten years running we would visit De Loach Vineyards (in those days still owned by Cecil De Loach; but today, by France's Boisset Family) in the early spring following each vintage to taste, select, and then purchase a full barrel of one of their super-powered single vineyard old vine plantings from the Russian River Valley. The idea was to give everyone back at home a chance to taste a wine that had never been bottled, in all its wild, pristine, unrestrained splendor.
Because it normally took four to five nights for our guests to consume an entire barrel, we would pick the biggest (usually approaching 16%), blackest, spiciest De Loach zinfandel made each year – the essence of autumn! It was always an event, and a cloth staining mess, to pop in the spigot, and it was also the only day of the year when we would clear out space in the dining room for a live band. During the first few years, we focused on zinfandel and jazz combinatons, giving our guests a potpourri of choices – dishes loaded with zin-friendly components to savor and swing to.
Our menu in October 1995:
Jazzed Up Menu for the 1994 De Loach Pelletti Ranch Zinfandel • Wood oven pizzette of braised lamb, artichokes, Feta and olives
• Cassoulet of Hawaiian escargot with oxtail, potatoes and spinach
• Cold smoked oysters with salmon roe, horseradish and sour cream
• Half moon pasta of beef shortribs with baby greens and roasted shiitake jus
• Fresh sautéed clams and New England lobster in zin laced natural stock
• Pan roasted pork medallions with vine ripened Big Island tomatoes, bitter mesclun and black pepper olive oil
• Herb roasted rack of lamb with sun dried tomatoes, capers and dill
• Imu oven baked ‘ahi tuna steak crusted with pancetta corn duxelle
• Tapenade grilled ribeye of beef with red pepper aioli
After a few years we began to move away from sophisticated jazz, cutting loose with other themes as much for our musical pleasure as to expand on our culinary thoughts on zinfandel/food matching. I was particularly happy with our Spanish themed menu in 1996, matched to a ten-piece salsa band; all courses (except the dessert) focusing on how brightly the zinfandel fruit shines when contrasted by earthy, at times garlicky and even oily, ingredients:
Salsa Menu for the 1995 De Loach Pelletti Ranch Zinfandel
• Champinones marinated wild mushrooms
• Almejas en salsa clams in garlic, olive oil and Nalo Farm herbs
• Caracoles snails in onion, garlic and concasée
• Wood oven filet of ‘ahi tuna in big zin sauce
• Saffroned paella with mussels, clams and opakapaka (pink snapper)
• Cinnamon grilled rack of lamb in fresh mint butter and jus
• Bacon wrapped filet of Kulana beef in wild game offal sauce
• Caramelo Miranda exotic fruit flan
In 1997 we made room for dancing and a Cajun-Zydeco band, well knowing what a rollicking accordian, soaring fiddle, spoons and frottoir (rubboard) does to heighten the blood pressure, which a black, unfiltered, unfined, unfettered zin does without any help at all. That year I think we had to pull some guests down from atop tables. But as in the previous year’s menus, the ingredients were particularly earthy; this time, in a thickened plethora of reddish/golden brown ingredients (like the color and texture of good roux), giving delicious contrast to the spiced-up red and black berry qualities of that year’s barreled zin:
Fais Do-Do Menu for a 1996 Three-Barrel Blend of De Loach Old Vine Zinfandel
• Blue Plate Spéciale of barbecued shrimp with Creole tartar, bourbon stewed oyster, marinated calamari and crispy Louisiana style crab cake
• Crispy panéed veal with crab béarnaise and roasted red pepper sauce
• Y Ki Ki style etouffée of shrimp, mussels, lobster and scallops with red beans N rice
• Bronzed baby Hawaiian swordfish with roasted pecans, jalapeño and brown lemon garlic butter
• Blackened rare filet of ‘ahi tuna with andouille, corn and creole mustard sauce
• Terroirized bone-in ribeye of beef with rustic spice rub and natural blood jus
• Oven warm Hawaiian sweetbread and raisin bread pudding in bourbon sauce
Jumping to 1998, we brought out the oversized caps and tropical shirts for a reggae rhythmed culinary theme, highlighting a barrel from De Loach’s Gambogi Ranch – the biggest, blackest, juiciest, yet plainly delicious zin we could find:
Ska Menu for the 1997 De Loach Gambogi Ranch Zinfandel
• Z-Rad dutchy of scallion wrapped U10 scallop in ginger plum sauce, green zebra tomato carpaccio with mozzarella di bufala in caper mustard seed vinaigrette, half moon of ‘ahi tuna and grilled vegetables in sweet Maui onion jus, and Hangtown Fry oyster in lardon zin sauce
• Jerk chicken sausage rasta pasta with autumn root vegetables
• Tortellini of shrimp and prosciutto in roasted garlic jus and pesto butter
• Green herb stuffed baby artichoke and wilted spinach salad in warm balsamic vinaigrette
• Miso marinated hamachi (yellowtail) with wasabi mash in shiitake oyster sauce
• Mixed grill of peppercorn ‘ahi tuna, Hudson Valley duck, baby back ribs and Waimanalo corn
• Napoleon of lamb loin, truffled potato and portobello in zinfandel beet sauce
• Tropical fruit napoleon with guava jelly sauce
In 1999, our theme was Disco Zin, complete with flared, hip hugging slacks and disco balls. But it was also an even more serious night for zinfandel drinkers to not only experience just how food versatile this grape can be, especially when its pepper, clove, and berry jam qualities are allowed to explode straight from a barrel and into the glass. But in this particular year, Cecil De Loach also decided to bring some library bottlings from previous vintages of our barrel selection – a '98 from Gambogi Ranch – which prompted us to devise courses building up from older bottlings to the budding barreled zin. As it were, dishes focusing on the black-as-moonless-night, essence-of-blackberry jam qualities for which the Gambogi has long been known:
Disco Zin Menu for a Vertical & Barrel of De Loach Gambogi Ranch Zinfandel
• Fresh ‘ahi tuna tortellini in natural beef broth - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1994
• Disco Wild risotto of wild mushrooms, wild rice and aborio with Parmigiano and truffled vegetables - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1995
• Nalo Farm mesclun salad with crispy gizzard croutons in warm balsamic vinaigrette - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1996
• Wood roasted salmon in “drunken” saké sauce with Waimanalo eggplant, tofu and scallions - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1997
• Rosemary pork loin skewers in fresh basil zinfandel essence - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1998 (barrel)
• Bittersweet Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate petits fours - De Loach, Gambogi Ranch 1998 (barrel)