Although my strict diet of summer whites and rosés forbids it, I binged on red zinfandel. A nearby zinfest tempted too much, so I ditched the diet to down some big, beautiful, fruity red. This bender bent all imagination … over 50 wines in attendance, and not a one sucked. Really. For two hours, I basked in the gorgeousness that is zin, remembering once again why I love it, even in the heat of summer. Most people think sweet when zinfandel is mentioned, owing to its blushing cousin, white zinfandel. Originally planted by Italian immigrants, the zinfandel grape almost went extinct until Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home created this wildly popular blush wine in the early '80s. But zinfandel also sires gutsy, red juice, jammy and full of personality. The 1990s saw a resurgence in the popularity of dry, red zinfandel, and pioneer wineries such as Ravenswood and Ridge began releasing full-bodied wines, ready for the big time. At first, snooty cabernet lovers shunned them, calling them brash and untamed, but zin, with its wafting fruit and irresistible charm, won many over. One smell of its raspberries, blueberries or cherry, and you're hooked.
Since then, winemakers have gotten creative with zinfandel, crafting 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. Here are many of the best ones I discovered while gorging at Zinfest. May you fall in love again as well.
2001 Robert Biale Zinfandel Napa Valley The lower tier of the fantastic Biale line of wines, this one packs a fruit wallop of jammy blackberry and cherry. Mixed with some earth and cedar. $29. 1/2
Cellar #8 2001 Zinfandel North Coast Like having a fresh, tart raspberry explode in your mouth. Follows up with a touch of vanilla oak. A fantastic deal. $11. 1/2
Chase 2000 Zinfandel, Hayne Vineyard Napa Valley Unbelievably kick-ass wine. Like dipping a cherry into chocolate fondue, but better, if you can imagine. Elegance and grace, silk and leather. At this price, it better be good, right? $48. 1/2
Edmeades 2001 Late Harvest Zinfandel Alden Vineyard Mendocino Ridge The grapes on this one must've been super ripe, cause the alcohol is noticeably high (almost 17 percent). A dessert wine sweet with raisins, toffee, and lasting flavor long after the sip. $28.
Joel Gott 2002 Zinfandel California Smooth, fun zin-drinking at a great price. Earthy on the nose, with cherry and blackberry on the tongue. A nice touch of oak in there too. $15. 1/2
Noah 2002 Zinfandel Duarte Vineyard Contra Costa The dark fruit sneaks up on you in this wine … swirl it a bit before enjoying the burst of ripe, stunning dark cherry and chocolate. Elegant and suave. $24.
Rombauer 2001 Zinfandel El Dorado Vineyard Napa Valley Damn, these guys are consistent. Every year, another great zin. Concentrated blackberry jam and ripe plum, hint of caramel and a spicy black pepper thing. $20.
Rosenblum Cellars 2000 Zinfandel Annette's/Rhodes Vineyard Redwood Valley Buy anything with Rosenblum on the label and be assured of great wine. As close to port aroma as you can get, this wine is dark, chewy and offers plenty to mull over. Chock-full of baked plums, blackberry, coffee and chocolate. $28.
Tobin James 2002 Ballastic Zinfandel Paso Robles Might be hard to find, but worth the effort. Somewhat astringent tannins, but you won't really care, because bright, sunny red fruits balance it out. $19.
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THE WINE LIST
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TASTING TOUR During the month of August, Mise en Place offers food and wine pairing menus from various places around the world. The week of Aug. 17 is Europe. Priced from $35 to $44. Mise en Place Restaurant, 442 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa (813-254-5373).
WINE GEEK GAMES Join in the wine geek games of guessing the grape. David Black leads a class through a blind tasting of cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and merlot. Class format. $25. 6:30 p.m. Mon., Aug. 23. SideBern's Restaurant, 1002 S. Howard Ave., Tampa (813-250-9463). Reservations requested.
AMERICAN SPIRITS WINE TASTING American Spirits hosts a free wine tasting every Thurs. 5:30-7:30 p.m. American Spirits, 280 Third St. S., St. Petersburg (727-895-8700).