Zinfandel used to be known as an inexpensive alternative to other California red wines. Josh Greene, the publisher of Wine and Spirits magazine, said in the 1990s that zinfandel was undervalued. Many others shared this view, especially producers, and as its popularity has risen, so have the prices.
Granted, there are not too many zins priced at more than $40, yet the days of under-$10 bargains — or even $15 — largely went away when “Melrose Place” called it a day.
What happened? In part, high ratings created demand, with producers such as Turley leading the way. If you were a buyer, it was considered an honor to be lucky enough to be allocated a case of a single-vineyard Turley or Ravenswood zin. Since the “top” bottles were becoming less accessible, producers such as Ridge and Rosenblum started making inexpensive wines from purchased grapes.
Some of these wines were quite good. Ridge Sonoma Station was one of them (I actually remember paying $15 for Ridge Geyserville; and with that, I date myself to the Stone Age). Ravenswood had the Vintners Blend, which was good while Joel Peterson owned the winery, but has become less than remarkable in the past 10 years.
It seems the best zinfandel values nowadays are not from the benchmark producers, but from others who have been in the game a while yet somehow go unrecognized. Here are three:
Viano Vineyards, Private Stock, 2010 (Contra Costa County): The Viano family purchased its property in 1920, but the original vineyards were first planted in 1888. Every year, there is one Viano wine that grabs me — certainly for the price. It started in 2007 with cabernet sauvignon. This year, it’s zinfandel. With high-toned red berry, cherry fruit, a couple of dashes of cinnamon and pepper, and a lively finish, this is a straightforward, fruity wine that will satisfy a craving for the grape. Available at Arlequin Wine Merchant, Canyon Market, Econo Market, Ted’s Market, Golden Gate Market and Other Avenues. Suggested retail: $8
Ca’ Momi Zinfandel, 2011 (Napa Valley): Ca’ Momi is owned and run by three young, passionate Italians. Named after their ancestral home in Italy and the previous owner, Momi dea Bionda, Ca’ Momi is an enoteca (a wine bar that serves food) as much as it is a winery, and you can sample its food at Oxbow Market in Napa. This is a pretty down-home zin. Relatively low in alcohol at 13.9 percent, it has a dark-fruit character with a little spice and mint. A perfect pairing with a sausage pizza! Available at Castro Village Wine Co. Suggested retail: $10
Peachy Canyon, Incredible Red, 2010 (Paso Robles): Born in 1988, Peachy Canyon has continued to make reliable zinfandel for as long as I can remember. Incredible Red is made from a variety of sources in Paso Robles, and it is a wonder that winemaker Josh Beckett (not the Boston Red Sox pitcher) is able to make a wine of this quality and offer it for under $15. Bright with soft tannins, but surprisingly good acidity, it is a feast of strawberry jam and white pepper. Available at BevMo, Piedmont Grocery, Bianchini’s and The Jug Shop. Suggested retail: $14
Pamela Busch was the founding partner of Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bars, and is a wine educator and writer.