All my life, I seem to have had a soft spot for the underdog. So California Zinfandel has long been my favorite red wine, while most consumers flock to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
Zinfandel should be the most popular California red for many reasons. It can be made in different styles - from big and jammy with high alcohol to fresh and lively with lower alcohol. (The wines in this report, except the Opolo, range a modest 14 percent to 15 percent alcohol). It's exuberant berry fruit, spice and approachable tannins are irresistible.
Zinfandel is the quintessentially American grape: an immigrant that succeeds here better than elsewhere, grown successfully all over California. It is versatile with food, shining with meat and spicy dishes. It demonstrates the quality of old vines more than any other grape. And it can be one of the best values in wine. Below are many fine options for you.
Amador County east of Sacramento is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in California. Try these wines planted in the mid-1800s: the dense, jammy 2014 Renwood Special Reserve Grandpere ($50) and highly structured, minerally 2015 Terra d'Oro Deaver Vineyard ($30). The hearty 2014 Renwood "Premier Old Vine" ($20) is a good value.
California's northernmost wine region, Mendocino, also offers these very good values: solid but soft 2015 Artezin Old Vine ($18) and juicy, woodsy 2014 Ravenswood Old Vine ($18).
One could argue that Sonoma is the premier source of superior zinfandel in the state. As evidence: fresh, weighty 2014 Ravenswood Old Vine ($18), balanced, intense 2015 Decoy ($25), and pure, brambly 2014 Kunde ($22). And the following gems from Dry Creek Valley: intense, firm 2014 Dry Creek Vineyard Old Vine ($32), inviting, concentrated 2014 Sbragia Gino's ($34), briary, soft 2015 Dry Creek Vineyard "Heritage Vines" ($25), juicy, herbal 2014 Martin Ray Puccioni ($30), and dry, woodsy 2015 Pedroncelli Mother Clone ($16).
Though it is best known for world-class Cabernet, the Napa Valley is surprisingly reliable for Zinfandel. Here are four really good ones: zesty, complex 2015 Robert Biale Black Chicken ($48), luscious, earthy 2014 Frank Family ($37), rich, supple 2014 Chateau Montelena ($39), bold, zesty 2014 Ravenswood Old Vine ($18).
The Central Coast also is in on the Zinfandel parade with the brambly, lively 2014 Saucelito Canyon Arroyo Grande ($35) and super ripe 2015 Opolo Paso Robles ($29). At 16.3 percent alcohol, the Opolo is unabashedly big and sweet but reasonably balanced.
According to the Lodi Winegrape Commission, this region grows more than 40 percent of California's zinfandel grapes. Many of the wines made with those grapes are lower priced but, like the easygoing 2013 Scotto ($14), are good everyday values.
Lodi also wants to showcase the largest acreage of old vines in the state. The Lodi Native Project celebrates these heritage plantings by pairing six winegrowers from six distinct vineyards with six different winemakers who followed strict, minimalist protocols for the 2014 Zinfandel release.
I have no experience with these vineyards, so I can't say definitively that the wines reflect their terroir. But I can say each wine demonstrates the elegance and purity of Lodi's best. You can taste these distinctive terroirs by purchasing the six-bottle wood box ($180 plus tax and shipping) for yourself or a holiday gift at www.lodiwine.com or 209-365-0621.