A Question About Zinfandel

I was at the local wine shop the other day… I wonder how many blogs, twitter comments and potentially great novels have started with that sentence? Anyway, I was looking for a few bottles to stock up for the week. Just some mid-range wines to pass enjoy with my evening meals. I had notice many people discussing Zinfandel twitter and various blogs. Now, I do not pretend to be a know-it-all about every type/style/production method of wine. Nor will I turn my nose up to just about anything. I know enough about wine to enjoy myself, but wines produced in the US I know even less about. Therefore, I wanted to know what the fuss was about. I have tried the varietal before; at restaurants when I have been in the US, however I never got over excited by it. ‘Maybe I just haven’t tried the right one’, I thought to myself.

I asked the owner of the wine shop if he had any. He looked at me a little strangely. As any good wine shop own does with regular customers, he has got to know my taste and preferences. He pointed me in the direction of the back corner of the shop and carried on with what he was doing. ‘Not a good sign’, I thought.

My local shop is your normal little store in Europe. It has a large section for French, Italian and Spanish, Portuguese and German wines. Further back in the shop are many of the new world producers from Oceania, South Africa and South America. In a little corner near the new world wines is the very small North American section. I have had a quick look here before to find a few North American Pinot Noirs, which I enjoyed. ‘But where is the Zinfandel?’ I almost had to get on my knees to find the only 2 bottles left on the very bottom shelf. “Ravenswood Vintners Blend 2005” read the label. The price seemed to indicate it was a reasonable wine at €10.99. I figured in the cost of importing, as well as the fact the shop obviously didn’t buy it in bulk. Still, other new world wines I have tried for around the same price have been good to very good, so I took it. I also grabbed a couple of dependable inexpensive bottles on the way to counter to pay.

When I got home, I looked at reviews I could find on the wine on the internet. I found a couple. From what I could make out it wasn’t the best purchase I have ever made. According to the information available, it was “good for the price” or “not a bad wine, but others are better”. The bottle, therefore, was put in the “it’s cheap so what the hell I will buy it” area of my wines. You know… the bottles you open out of curiosity and trepidation rather than glee. The problem is, at the price of the bottle, it should not really be sitting in that area. It should be sitting in the “dependable” area at least.

After a while my “dependable” stocks begin to run low. That evening I was not cooking anything too special for dinner to warrant going to the “good wine don’t waste it/better in 5 years” area. I was definitely not going to the “very good wine and I have a dent in my bank account to prove it” area. At these times, I either go to the shop, or open one of the curiosities. I looked at the Zinfandel and shrugged. “May as well give it a try”.

To get an idea of what I should expect, I asked around on Twitter. Thankfully a couple of people mentioned that it was not the best example from the winery, let alone a good example of Zinfandel. Josh from Drink Nectar, was virtually if not literally LOLing from behind his computer. Not good. ‘Another bad sign’… A trip to the shop was required.

When the bottle I had purchased had finished, I decided to open the Zinfandel, purely out of curiosity. That combined with a strange compulsion for 1 more glass of wine. ‘It should be better than the €5 French blend’, I thought, however, in terms of quality, it was about the same. It would have been ok with my meal, but I wasn’t going to pour myself another glass that night. Most importantly, it did not improve my ho-hum opinion of the varietal.

I am sure I can find an outstanding Zinfandel from the USA for €30 to €40. At that price however; as a consumer, there is a long list of wines I would much rather buy. This leaves me with an interesting question…. Who buys this wine outside of North America?

I know it is distinctive and from what I have tried, goes quite well with food, but you have so many European varietals to match so many foods perfectly. For the price, I think you can get a better quality In Portugal alone, not to mention the rest of the European, Australian, South African, or South American wines on offer in Europe.

Please share your ideas on the subject with me, because I want to like the wine and have noting against it. I just can’t find a good reason to recommend it. Especially compared to other very good wines of other varietals; for an equal or lower price here in Europe.


10 comments to A Question About Zinfandel

  • Bruce

    So – interesting post. Being a Zin fan from Calif, I certainly know this label and bottle. It is Ravenswood’s “cheapest” and not a good representation of them. I don’t know what you can find over there, and even here the wine snobs often are down on Zin. It is a great people’s wine, though, if you ask me. I would compare it to some of the strong reds of Rioja and Montsant, and to the bigger south Rhones. Here, I can find very enjoyable zins for $15 and really nice ones for $25. Sorry that bottle was your first attempt. Better hunting next time.


  • Thanks Bruce! I, in no way, want to be a snob about the wine or wine in general. As I said I would like to experience a very nice Zinfandel to understand and appreciate it. I will try anything more than once… I am just trying to work out how many people drink it in Europe, where there are a lot of wines, without so many taxes involved, on offer to compete with it.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wine Lovernews and Chris Metcalfe, Arts Infinite. Arts Infinite said: Wine of the day: A Question About Zinfandel: http://bit.ly/5eCokx [...]

  • Good news! A friend of mine (from San Fransico, but living in Europe) said he can find a bottle of Zinfandel at a local wine shop. He agrees with Bruce above that they are hard to come across though. My friend has offered to open a bottle with me. I will bring a similarly priced bottle of Portuguese wine and see what we can conclude. Whatever the result I am sure it will be a good evening!

  • I work in a wine store in Denmark, Europe and we honestly don’t have too many Zinfandels in our store either. It’s a decent grape varietal that can provide amazing wine, but we only have 2-4 different of them, despite our massive selection.

    But! I have experienced an increased buzz about zinfandel after James May and Oz Clarke’s wine tour of California, where they talked very warmly of Zinfandel.

    We carry a Zinfandel called Cline, is that a good bottle?

  • Thanks for the reply Chris. I agree there is a demand for Zinfandel in Europe. You are right the Oz Clarke/James May program could have a lot to do with it. I have talked to a few people on the subject recently, some Americans living in Europe, some people like yourself who are in retail and some wine loving Europeans; we each come to a similar conclusion though. The grape varietal is good when done well, the problem is finding a good example of it without paying far too much for it in Europe is almost impossible. I hope my friend comes through with a good example as I said above.

  • Christina Pickard

    Ah such a shame your first experience with Zinfandel wasn’t a positive one! I am an American who has lived in Britain for 8 years. I work in the wine industry and my frustration over the lack of decent North American wines over here is ongoing. Zinfandel can be a wonderful variety (and many Brits seem to know it). Like most varieties, if done poorly, then yes it will not be pleasant. But even a mediocre Zin can be a great match with pizza, red sauces, and stews–it’s always very fruit forward (of course it is, it’s ‘New World’!) but brambly and a bit spicy too. To Chris B.: Cline Zinfandel is NOT a good representative of Zins. (Cline’s ‘Ancient Vines’ is decent, and so is their pinot gris though) When choosing a Zin (if you have any choice) look out for ones made in Northern Sonoma, like the Russian River Valley, where it’s cooler and the grape it at its most expressive. I would recommend Seghesio’s Zinfandel. The cheapest I’ve found it for is £18 (their Old Vine Zin is even better but you’ll pay for it!) but it’s American and unfortunately because of the tax/shipping regulations, cheap GOOD American wine is almost impossible to come by in this country. Another fun ‘test’, is to compare a Zinfandel with a Primitivo from Southern Italy. They’re the same grape, but made totally differently. Ok there’s my two (or ten) cents! –winewithchristina

  • Thanks Christina! I can empathise with your frustration on searching for wine from your home country. I am from Australia. Although there are hundres of Australian wines around in Europe, the ones I would like to share with friends are usually from smaller wineries, who are doing great quality inventive wines. These are almost impossible to find, and if I do find one, then they are always over-priced. As Chris B (too many Chris’) noted, there is a bit of a “buzz” about Zinfandel, do you think it is a gap in the market? Would a few more good 20 euro/18 pond Zinfandel’s sell well?

  • Also Christina, great idea on the Primitivo, I was actually thinking of comparing the Zinfandel to a couple of native Portuguese varietals to see if I can find a common ground there. I have to wait until I get my hands on a reasonable Zinfandel first though…

  • Years ago, I did a tasting in Chicago, pouring massively awarded red wines, wines that took at least a gold at at least 4 competitions. I ended up sharing wines with some producers from Bordeaux who matched me nearly bottle for bottle. We drank Cabernet, St Emilion, Merlot, Pomerol, and loved them for all for their quality, their similarities and their differences. When I poured them the Zinfandel these French wine producers had no frame of reference. It wasn’t like a Bordeaux, it wasn’t like a Burgundy. It wasn’t like anything they had ever tasted. I poured them a varietal I grew up with, I was crushing Zinfandel grapes for wine when I was 12. The Zinfandel I was pouring for them was a great bottle, from one of the most highly acclaimed makers of Zinfandel; I loved this wine. My new French friends did not. They preferred wines that were from grapes they knew. Sadly, they were somewhat too bound by a desire for the comfortably familiar, the safe, the standard., the same, the old, to enjoy something new and every bit as good, but different, than the things they were used to.

    The biggest and best Zinfandel tasting, a whole weekend of events really, is next weekend. I’m running a contest, giving away tickets to it to two readers of my wine blog, and I will write about a couple of the events after it. Check in, and you can read about my favorite Zins of the year after I hit the Grand Zinfandel Tasting at ZAP.

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