Many of us of a certain generation or two (thinking Boomers and Gen X) have Zinfandel as an “epiphany” or “gateway” wine. That’s not too surprising as, until 25 years ago, Zinfandel was the most planted grape in California, with an excellent price to quality ratio. Then, in 1998, Cabernet Sauvignon plantings overcame Zinfandel. In third place today, there is still a lot of Zinfandel grown in California, with many of the old vines saved because of the popularity of white zinfandel (invented supposedly by accident in 1972!) and which going into the 1980s was the most popular wine in the US (stats from Karen MacNeill on WineSpeed).
Zinfandel, and specifically Ridge Zinfandel, are important to my wine story, and for this I am very grateful: I was working at Peet’s coffee in Menlo Park where customers came from SRI (Stanford Research Institute), from Stanford University, from former UC Berkeley students, and from those who worked what became known as Sillicon Valley to buy their coffee beans (I even sold beans to Stephen King one time! I thought it was him and then he signed the credit card resepipt and I knew! And I was advised to buy “Apple”…and they had to explain not the fruit!)
With my extra-ordinary taste buds, whenever there was a mixup with coffee beans, I was the main person asked to figure out what was what. How did coffee beans get mixed up? The coffee beans came in trash bins marked with tape on the lids identifying what was inside the barrel. If someone was careless with the lid, or more than one lid was off of the same size barrel, which occurred when we were out of coffee and coffee was arriving, and people WANTED their coffee, and COULD NOT WAIT etc well, then we sometimes had a problem… and I was the one who would look at the beans, smell them, crunch them in my mouth, and at times even French press a cup to figure it out, sometimes tasting with a manager, and often not. PS I was also the top salesperson and educator, demonstrating the espresso machines and creating the displays.)
I’m also a poet, so when we’d get in a new coffee vintage or new blend, people loved talking with me to learn about it, including some folks who worked for a winery. When the fifth or sixth person told me that with my palate and descriptive ability I should work at a winery, and specifically at THEIR winery, one day I finally asked which one, and another day, when I finally got Saturdays off, I’d pick up baguettes at the Paris bakery in Palo Alto, then head up the hill above Steven’s Creek reservoir, up the steep narrow mountain road to Ridge Winery on Montebello where I helped pour wines standing at a wooden picnic table under the shelter of a deck.
Tastings were free, and only on Saturdays from 10-4pm. People brought picnics and bought a bottle to enjoy among the gnarled vines with the stunning view of the San Francisco Bay below their feet. And yes, there was White Zinfandel among the many bottles of Zinfandel.
While White Zinfandel gets most of the credit for preserving those old vine zins, a fair amount should also be heaped on Ridge which not only made lots of Zinfandel but celebrated the individual vineyards and regions by naming them on the labels.
That’s how, in my 20s, I could blind taste Zins from different parts of California and know which wine came from the Sierra Foothills, which from Sonoma, which from Paso Robles, etc. We usually had at least two Zins of the five on the tasting table at anyone time, plus more were open in the cellar where people paid for their purchases and picked up their club shipments. I would usually bring an open bottle or two home with me to enjoy during the week, and that was about all I drank in those days when I was a starving college student: a steady diet of Ridge along with the occasional roast chicken to go with a lot of burritos and stir fry.
Because not only was I a newly married community college student holding down 2-3 jobs at a time, we were preparing to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. And so that’s how I came to leave Ridge: I left to hike the PCT, and then to attend UC Santa Cruz where I earned BAs in environmental studies and literature/creative writing. I would never have imagined then that I’d be writing about wine and sustainability now!
So of course I had to include a bottle of Ridge in this line up, even if it only has 68% Zinfandel in it, making it technically a blend that’s not eligible according to this month’s Wine Pairing Weekend host Martin Redmond.
A HUGE shout out to Ridge for encouraging me to get into wine; for that, I will always be grateful.
Happy Zinfandel Day coming up this third Wednesday in November, this year, Weds. November 16, 2022! “Back in 2012, the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) team created National Zinfandel Day. On the third Wednesday of every November, we connect with thousands of other wine lovers to celebrate Zinfandel. We chose the third Wednesday of November because the Autumn season is the perfect time to enjoy a glass of this fruit-forward wine and Zinfandels of all flavors pair well with fall foods like turkey, Winter-squash, BBQ, and pasta.” writes Shana Bull at ZAP. https://zinfandel.org/a-celebration-of-national…/
Here’s a few paired with vegetarian fare that we’ve purchased over the past few years that we can recommend to go in your glass to celebrate Zinfandel Day and any day!
California Zinfandel Wines
2016 Steele Wines “Writer’s Block” Zinfandel, Lake County
2017 Chateau Davell Estate Zinfandel, El Dorado County
2017 Seven Oxen Zinfandel Reserve, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County
2017 Ridge Zinfandel Blend, Geyserville, Sonoma County
2020 Clos de Amis Block F Zinfandel, Ventura County
Vegetarian Holiday Menu
Cheeseboard; mushroom brie, manchego, cranberry stilton
Winter Squash Spiced Soup
Festive Fall Salad with Pomegranate and Apple
Vegducken (aka vegetarian turducken)
2016 Steel Wines “Writer’s Block” Zinfandel, Lake County
With an ABV 15.2%, this is a blockbuster of a wine. As a writer, I had to buy it. With a fellow poet in the house for the evening’s tasting, one who I knew would appreciate this wine and it’s story, I opened it right up, and indeed Nila NorthSun enjoyed it! This is an affordable wine (around $15 but I got it on sale for less) that many at the table will enjoy.
Appearance: Plum and Ruby, mauve rim, medium density
Aroma: Plum, cherry cola, sweet vanilla, cinnamon, cherry pipe tobacco, clove, menthol,
Palate: Bold oak treatment, fruit forward, plum, big tannins from the oak, sweet finish, Dr. Pepper, vanilla, cherry. Plum and prune vs. bramble
Pairing: The wine is so perfect with the sweet squash dish. It is also quite nice with the mushroom brie, olive bread, enhances the nutty manchego, Zinfandels are rich wines that love rich foods which is what makes it such a great Thanksgiving wine. It loves rich dishes. Perfect with the savory spicy squash soup. It loves the spices and the creamy richness.
2017 Chateau Davell Estate Zinfandel, El Dorado County
I bought this shiner at the winery when Sue and I visited in 2021; Sue bought one too! They grow and purchase organic fruit, and they practice biodynamics on their property. This winery is featured in Slow Wine guide.
Appearance: Dirty, brown, brackish, garnet, copper rim, it is quite pretty though, medium density
Aroma: Bramble fruit and baking spices, raspberry, cola, forest, duff, Sierra spice, reminds one of the holidays, spicy peppers,
Palate: Raspberry, plum, cherry, ponderosa pine finish, cinnamon spice on the finish as well, Christmas tree, silty mud, nicely textural, beautiful richness,
Pairing: Sue wanted the mushroom brie all day long with this wine. Think of the mushrooms growing on the forest floor and how they go together. It was a perfect partnership. It makes the wine a beautiful sweet fresh fruit experience and the cheese becomes the opposite so salty and savory. Earth and Earth, sweet and savory, it was clearly a wow moment for both of us. The soup becomes very spicy with the wine. The kick of cayenne in the soup enhance the fruit in the wine. Really a fun combination. The caramelization of the roasted squash brings out the sweet fruit in the wine. It works well without the toasted outer skin of the squash. Earthen and savory work much better with the wine than caramelized and sweet.
2017 Seven Oxen Zinfandel Reserve, Paso Robles
Only three barrels produced of this wine which Sue purchased at the winery. I tasted these wines at the Garagiste Festival and really wanted to write about them for the 2023 Slow Wine Guide but I just didn’t have time to get there — or even have them send me wines and to do a phone interview!
Appearance: Unfined and unfiltered, garnet with a very brick rim, medium plus density
Aroma: Big overwhelming fruit, then a savory richness, almost like bacon, black pepper, pink pepper corns, plum, rich ripe plum, cherry pie, or mixed stone fruit pie,
Palate: Super spicy palate, textural and tart, it zings with pepper spice, schezuan spice, raspberry, then a beautiful plum finish, very clean and dry, pine resin, this wine seems like it is going to be a big fruit bomb, but it is not, it textural and layered,
Pairing: So great with the Manchego, mushroom brie, and cranberry stilton, as well as the olive bread. This wine would be a perfect pair with just a cheese plate, there are too many sweet baking spices in the soup to marry well with the wine. They just fight. Not the perfect pairing. Very good with the grains in the salad. Very nice with the veduckin. The wine has intense fruit and intense herbal qualities which go so well with an intensely rich Thanksgiving meal.
2017 Ridge Zinfandel Blend, Geyserville
A field blend of 68% Zinfandel, 18% Carignan, 12% Petitte Sirah, 2% Alicante Boushet, in the past this might have simply been called Zinfandel but Ridge had researchers figure out what each vine was– and now they know exactly what is in each bottle. I purchased this when I visited their Sonoma tasting room and took a tour in 2019. With its excellent pedigree and farming practices, Ridge Winery is annually featured in Slow Wine Guide.
Appearance: Very plum, rich deep and dark, so cloudy you can’t see through it. Garnet rim
Aroma: Potpourri, chamomile, sandalwood, bramble fruit, blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry, mountain roses,
Palate: So juicy it makes you salivate, tart juicy fruit, iron rich, tart cherry. This is a big wine with a clean finish, rich minerals, it does not evaporate, the herbal qualities shine through on the finish, oxalis, sour grass green, a bit of grippy tannins, raspberry. It could lay down for while longer!
Pairing: If you’re not just serving vegetarians, put salami on the cheese tray; it’s perfect with the wine. The nutty characteristics of the Mancheco are elevated while The salad is too sweet. The soup becomes a completely different; It is so much more savory, and loves all of the baking spices in the soup. Such a great combination. The Veducken was a fantastic combination as the roasted vegetables in the dish are so perfect with the Ridge Zinfandel, as it loves the caramelization of the roasted vegetables.
2020 Clos de Amis Block F Zinfandel, Ventura County
Clos des Amis only makes about 600 cases a year; this wine was made in a pickle barrel using carbonic maceration with a lot of nicely lignified stem inclusion to balance out the range of very ripe fruit with barely ripe fruit as is often the case with Zinfandel. The name Block F refers to the grapes coming from the Block vineyard in upper Ojai which was originally a UC Davis clone experimental vineyard planted almost 40 years ago, and a youthful head trained vineyard planted below the “F” on the hillside above Fillmore in the Heritage Valley.
I helped pick these grapes which you can read about here. And I absolutely adore this wine.
Appearance Very bright, Deep ruby with a magenta rim, cloudy, unfined and unfiltered
Aroma Smells like the whole plant, stems, fruit, earth, baking spices, bramble fruit, raspberry, caramel, cocoa, river moss, mud,
Palate So bright and lively, such a zing, jolly ranchers cherry, jolly ranchers raspberry, so tart, it wakes up the palate, such a beautiful sweet tart, a bit of koolaid, citric acid, cherry phosphate, this is such a fun wine
Pairing Fabulous with the soup; it loves the moroccan spices and the pick of the pinch of cayenne. While the wine pairs well with the Vegducken, it goes with the soup so much better. The salad is good with the wine as the grains balance out the sweetness of the pomegranates and apples in the salad and ground the fruit in the salad with the wine.
Recipe: Vegducken– A Vegetarian Turducken
- 1 large butternut squash
- 1 parsnip
- 1 sweet potato or yam
- 1 zucchini
- 1T olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1T fresh thyme
- 1 T fresh sage
- 2 oz crimini mushroom
- 2 oz shitake mushroom
- 2 T butter
- 1/4 cup pistachio
- 2T ground flaxseed
- 2T nutritional yeast
- 1/3 cup dried cranberry
- 1/2 cup cooked brown, wild rice, or other leftover grains
- 1/4 cup breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan
- 1 egg
- Preheat oven to 400
- Cut yam, zucchini, and parsnip in half lengthwise.
- Scoop out seeds and excess flesh from the middle of the yam and zucchini with a melon baller or spoon. Set aside the flesh for later
- Place yam and parsnip on a baking sheet and pre cook in oven for 10 to 15 minutes
- Cut butternut squash in half lengthwise. Scoop flesh out from the middle so there is about 1/2 inch flesh left on the outside of the squash. Save the flesh for use later.
- Pulse garlic thyme sage and olive oil in food processor. Scrape mixture into a large bowl
- Pulse mushrooms and scooped out flesh from veggies in food processor. Add to large bowl
- Saute the vegetable and herb mixture in butter about 5 minutes and return to the bowl
- Add and combine cooked rice, flaxseed, nutritional yeast, cranberries, bread crumbs, grated parmesan, pistachio, and egg.
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Place squash halves on a parchment lined baking sheet
- Fill each half with stuffing mixture pressing it in so it is 1/2 inch thick covering side walls and bottom.
- Place sweet potato into the squash and press.
- Place more stuffing mixture over the sweet potato.
- Place the zucchini over the top pressing in slightly.
- Place more stuffing mixture over the top.
- Place parsnip on top pressing in lightly.
- Place more stuffing mixture on top of the parsnip.
- Carefully join the two squash halves together and tie together with kitchen twine.
- Bake 1 hour and 20 minutes.
- Let rest 15 minutes and serve.
Recipe: Winter Squash Soup
1 medium sized winter squash
1 qt vegetable stock
1/2 cup cooked rice
1 t ground ginger
- 1 tsp cardamom
- pinch of cayenne
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt to taste
Peel and clean out seeds of 1 winter squash.
Cut into 2 inch cubes.
Boil cubed squash in 1 qt vegetable stock with 1/2 cup cooked rice, 1 t ground ginger, cayenne, cardamom, and 1/2 t ground nutmeg for about 20 min.
Blend with immersion blender.
Add 1/2 cup heavy cream.
Salt to taste
- Additional rice can be added for texture, for thickness, or to tame the spice
For more ideas about Zinfandel and how to pair it, check out these articles:
- Camilla of Culinary Adventures with Camilla is Inspired by Notes of Asian Spices: Braised Spareribs + Brown Estate Zinfandel 2021
- Wendy of A Day in the Life on the Farm shares Pasta with Sausage and Eggplant in a Zinfandel Wine Sauce
- Gwendolyn of the Wine Predator is all in with A Vegetarian Feast For The Holidays: “Vegducken” + 5 CA Zins
- Terri of A Good Life pairs Bucklin Bambino Zin with French Onion Soup
- Nicole of Somm’s Table is Cooking to the Wine: Slightly Aged Mazzocco Zinfandel with Spiced Pot Roast with Mushrooms and Sweet Potatoes
- Martin at ENOFYLZ Wine Blog shared Roasted Salmon Glazed with Brown Sugar and Mustard + 2013 Under The Wire Sparkling Zinfandel Rosé
I love your trip down memory lane with so many fun vignettes — thanks for sharing! This is a fun round-up of Zins as well with lots of variety.
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Thanks Nicole! Wine is a time machine as well as travel! We love doing these comparisons, and seeing how they go with for.