Zinfandel devotees have the slightly off-kilter mindsets of perennial underdogs. Perhaps that's because their favorite grape, long considered an American original, has now been genetically identified with Italy's primitivo and a Croatian variety whose name crashes my spell checker. Or maybe it's because zin owes its survival to white zinfandel, pink plonk that hit the sweet spot for consumers in the 1970s and has tarnished the grape's reputation ever since. White zin nonetheless saved acres of old-growth vines from being torn out at a time when the market for red zin had tanked.
The grape may never attain the cachet of cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, but zin lovers enjoy celebrating quirkiness. They've formed an association named ZAP-Zinfandel Advocates and Producers. They've become inveterate punsters, producing brands like Artezin, Brazin, Cardinal Zin, and Zen of Zin. Their bottle labels are colorful, often a bit wacky, sometimes risque. "I'm not sure why," shrugs Michael Phillips, co-owner of Michael David winery. "Zin people are just like that."
Phillips would know. For five generations, his family has farmed in Lodi, Calif.-self-proclaimed "Zinfandel Capital of the World"-producing wine from century-old vineyards. Lodi may lack the prestige of Napa or Sonoma, but it makes up for that with exuberantly ripe fruit and consistent vintages. A small family winery in a region dominated by goliaths, Michael David hit the big time with Seven Deadly Zins. Launched a decade ago with modest production, sales now eclipse the 200,000-case mark in a red zin market that moves 5.3 million cases annually. The 2010 bottling ($13-ish, 15 percent ABV) features aromas of baked berries, earth, and tobacco. Black-fruit flavors finish with hints of menthol and charcoal. Ripe and rich, it keeps its alcoholic heft well balanced.
Michael David's extensive portfolio includes popular varietals like the sanguine, peppery Sixth Sense Syrah 2010 ($16-ish, 15.5 percent) and a lush, layered Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($21-ish, 14.5 percent), pictured. But the winery clearly harbors a soft spot for oddballs. Petite Petit 2010 ($16-ish, 14.5 percent)-an inky blend of 85 percent petite sirah and 15 percent petit verdot-exudes smoked meat, blackberries, and rose perfume over a palate packed with roasted plum, tar, and fresh pepper. From a vineyard planted in 1885, Ancient Vine Cinsault 2010 ($25-ish, 13.8 percent) delivers raspberry, black cherry, and spice with old-vine elegance and intensity. It's a survivor with a lesson: Sometimes underdogs triumph.