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Zin Is In

Whether the prince or queen of wines, zinfandel is royalty

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I'm a self-admitted Zin Bitch. I even have the T-shirt to prove it. This means I hoard my red zinfandels, only bringing out the best ones when people "worthy" enough are around and on special occasions, like the season opener of Grey's Anatomy. When I'm alone, I savor every drop, growling like a dog with its favorite chew toy if anyone comes near, and licking the sides of glass if any drops deign to spill. Yes it's pathetic, but, hey, passion is passion. It's the gutsy, berry-jammy thing that grabs me and holds on. I gladly surrender.

Zins still don't get the respect they're due. Austere Cabernets may be king, but because zins have the peppery personality and zingy zip, they deserve to be at least the prince. However, many people might think it should be the queen, since zin is often associated with its sweet cousin, white zin. But I thank this blushing relative every day since without it, I probably wouldn't have zin in my glass right now. In the '70s and '80s, grape growers were yanking out the zin vines because they couldn't sell the stuff. Then Sutter Home accidentally created a fruity blush wine from this hearty grape and consumers went apeshit for it. Some 100-year-old vines were saved from death by their ability to be sweet on people. Versatile and delicious -- just what I love in a grape.

The 1990s saw a resurgence in the love for dry, gutsy red zinfandel, and pioneers such as the five "Rs" (Ravenswood, Renwood, Ridge, Rombauer, Rosenblum) began releasing these full-bodied beauties. At first, snooty cabernet lovers shunned them, calling them brash and untamed (many hit a head spinning 16 percent alcohol), but zin, with its wafting fruit and irresistible charm, won many over. It's now kinda hip to like zin -- like you're "in the know" or something.

The areas that are churning out the best these days are the warmer areas, since zinfandel takes a lot of heat to get ripe: Paso Robles, Dry Creek Valley, Lodi and some from a cooler area, Russian River.

Zin's versatility allows winemakers to get creative, crafting both lighter styles as well as late-harvest dessert wines and ports. By definition, zinfandels are heavier than merlots but not as tannic as cabernet sauvignon. Many "bigger" (heavy tannins and high acid) zins are amenable to aging, capable of growing smoother and more complex with a few years of lying on their side. But most of them are fine for guzzling as soon as you hit the door.

And guzzle you should. Try a couple of these wines and tell me they aren't beautiful.

Recommended Wines

Ottimino 2002 Rancho Bello Zinfandel Russian River Elegance defined, with flowery scents of violets and roses, and ripe blackberry, blueberry and earthy tobacco follow. Sw = 2. $29. **** 1/2

Clos La Chance 2003 Buff Bellied Zinfandel Central Coast Named after a hummingbird found in Northern California, this wine is rich, hearty and fruit-forward. It impresses with its luscious black cherry, blackberry combo. Subtle hints of herbs and white pepper, too. Multi-layered wine that keeps giving the whole sip. Sw = 3. $15. **** 1/2

Artezin 2004 Zinfandel Mendocino/Amador/Sonoma Counties Funky aroma when you first pour it, like stinky socks, but wait it out. Silky raspberry, wild cherry and vanilla introduce a soft texture on the tongue. Sw = 2. $15. ****

Meeker 2003 FroZin Mendocino A dessert zin for those who love them. Liquid sugar, laced with orange peel, strawberry and raspberry. Delicious. Sw=9. $27 for half bottle, but it's all you'll need. ****

Hayman and Hill 2003 Reserve Selection Zinfandel Dry Creek Bright and lighter than the others I tried. Bright cherry, eucalyptus, and fresh sage take the stage. The zin to try if you like them more acidic and less sweet. Sw=1. $15. *** 1/2

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (*) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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