Zinfandel is a medium-bodied red wine that's considered uniquely Californian, one of the most widely exported products of the wine country. Zinfandel is made by a wide range of winemakers, from some of the largest to some of the smallest. The arrival of the zinfandel grape dates to the late 1800s. It's been planted widely in many different parts of California, which is reflected in a number of the very specific vineyard references on the higher quality wines.
One of the most fascinating things about zinfandel is the wide range of styles available for various palates.
Zinfandel has a little something for everyone. Some zinfandels are lighter in style, others are very fruit forward and jammy (or as my friend Tom says, "fruit bomb"), while others are very dense and robust, tasting more like a quality cabernet sauvignon. The last few years have been good for zinfandel. Look for 2001, 1999 and 1997 where you can find them.
Then there's the confusing issue of white zinfandel. Made from the red zinfandel grape, the hugely successful style of wine is made when the grape skins are quickly removed from the grapes upon pressing which provides for a slight pinkish tint.
When winemakers really want to dial up the flavor and intensity of zinfandel, it's made as a late-harvest wine which means the grapes have been allowed to sit longer on the vines to really ripen, driving up the residual sugar and, thus, the alcohol levels.
There's a whole host of zinfandel producers. You can always count on the those referred to as the "Four R's" -- Ravenswood, Ridge, Rosenblum and Rabbit Ridge. These wineries create a wide range of quality zinfandels, with a range of prices for every budget. Also check out Hendry Vineyards and The Zin, made by winemaker Michael Cosatino for additional offerings. The wines that reference a specific vineyard or geography are a cue for a higher-quality wine using a specific selection of grapes.
The real fun for wine wonks is to hunt for those smaller wineries that produce high quality zinfandels that offer great buzz without large marketing budgets. These wines are sometimes priced a bit higher than those found in your local store; they might need to be ordered. If the zinfandel bug bites you, explore choices from Robert Biale and A. Rafanelli Winery for excellent offerings.
Finally, if you're interested in learning more about this very dynamic wine, check out a listing of Zinfandel advocates and producers online at www.zinfandel.org.