The Balance of Zinfandel

By Dan Berger

I have long argued that Zinfandel, with its high-alcohol image, was quite a challenge, that instead of being a food match, it had become an ingredient in a sparring match.

     Such a stance clearly marks me as a Zinfandel hater, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Love the stuff. Love its fruit, its raspberry aroma and texture that usually pairs so well with pizza and pasta. So I guess I have been a bit hard on Zinfandel. Perhaps it’s turnabout, since Zin has been a little hard on me.

About a decade ago, after a particularly curmudgeonly column I wrote on the errors of Zin with excessively high alcohol, a reader replied with a lot of invective.

The Balance of ZinfandelIn a particularly vitriolic note, a Napa wine maker who happens to make Zinfandel (no shock) took my remarks to task. I do not shy away from my own beliefs, so I replied to him.

I noted that since Zin isn’t very friendly at my dinner table, I had a perfect right to vent my spleen. Some people like these alcoholic things. I usually do not.

     And I’m not alone in my belief that alcohols long ago reached too high a plateau. Testing this thesis more than a decade ago, I attended a tasting of Zinfandels in San Francisco. As I was leaving I ran into brilliant Bonny Doon guru Randall Grahm.

I said, “What do you think of the alcohols in this room?”
After a moment of thought, Grahm said high praise for high high-alcohol Zinfandel mystified him, too: “It’s kind of like judging the quality of the orchestra based on how loud they play,” was his response.

     It is now a decade later and we still see a lot of high-alcohol Zin, though some wineries are toning down this strident chord.

I like well-made Zinfandels, but have taken to a rather simplistic, two-pronged approach: I look for Zinfandels that are $20 or less, and for those with an alcohol level of 14.5% or less.

     It’s my experience that most of the great, food-friendly Zins aren’t too expensive; high prices are reserved for over-the-top wines. I don’t mind trying those with higher alcohols, but it seems to be a game of diminishing returns. Most at 15% or more are hot and hard to pair with any food.

     Yet these same wines have been praised highly by some other writers. That is what horse races are all about. Still, many such wines still work well with roast leg of lamb, meat loaf, burgers, and pizza. And others? I often put an ice cube in them.

     And to the angry Napa Valley wine maker: do you really think I ought to apologize for my remarks? How would it be if all critics liked the same wines?

Isn’t there room for legitimate debate here?

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