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Try a classic American red wine for July Fourth

TODAY wine columnist Edward Deitch discovers a superb $11 zinfandel that doesn't pack too much of an alcoholic punch and pairs well with standard Fourth of July grillables.
/ Source: TODAY

You may have noticed: I don’t write very often about zinfandel. It’s not that I have anything against the grape; it’s just that the alcohol levels tend to be on the enormous side, often approaching or exceeding 15 or even 16 percent. For one thing, these massive wines can be tiring and can make you feel like drifting off after a glass or so. There’s also a food challenge. Beyond hearty meat dishes, the wines are not especially versatile.

The big-fruit, high-alcohol style goes beyond zinfandel, of course. For a generation or more, alcohol levels have also been creeping up in California cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and even pinot noir, which I used to think of as a “lighter” wine. No more. While I sense that some wine drinkers are tiring of this style, I see few signs of change.

What got me thinking about all this was a call I put in to Jamie Wolff, one of the partners at Chambers Street Wines in Manhattan. For July Fourth, I suggested, I was interested in a “leaner” American wine or two that wouldn’t break the recessionary bank and that wouldn’t bang me over the head with an alcoholic two-by-four.

Among the wines I brought home was a delightful bottle of — zinfandel! While “delightful zinfandel” might seem like an oxymoron, Sobon Estate’s 2007 “Hillside” Zinfandel from Amador County doesn’t fight the term as so many others would. Its 14.4 percent alcohol is still high in absolute terms, but toward the low end for zinfandel. More importantly, the wine has excellent balance. And it happens to weigh in with a lightweight — and bargain — price of $11.

In fact, I am sipping it, slowly and contently, as I write this column, thinking that it would not only match well with big meat dishes like steak and lamb (and accompanying drippings or sauces), but with just about anything you might offer at a Fourth of July cookout, from burgers to hot dogs to barbecue chicken and ribs. I wouldn’t rule it out for grilled tuna or salmon, either. Who said that zinfandel couldn’t be versatile?

The wine is actually a blend of 91 percent zinfandel, 6 percent barbera, 2 percent petite sirah and 1 percent sangiovese. It has a bright berry mix in its aromas and tastes suggestive of  blackberry, raspberry and red cherry, plus it has some leather, cocoa and mineral notes as it lingers in the mouth.

What it doesn’t have is the hotly alcoholic quality of some of its bigger cousins or an overemphasis on oak. It is gently tannic with refreshing acids. The latter quality gives it a nice “lift” that invites you back for a next sip and is achieved, I imagine, by the addition of the more acidic barbera. I enjoyed it chilled slightly on a warm night, giving it 10 minutes in the freezer. (Warning: Do not forget that you put it there.)

Amador County lies in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento. This was Gold Rush country and today, zinfandel is the area’s liquid gold, accounting for about three-quarters of Amador County’s vines. The Sobon family has been making wines there since 1977 and for the last couple of decades has farmed sustainably. The grapes are grown organically and sulfite use (for preserving the wine) is minimal.

The winery makes a range of zinfandels, and a look at its Web site shows that the wines tend to be somewhat bigger (higher in alcohol) than the ’07 Hillside zin. But based on my appealing introduction, I wouldn’t be surprised if they taste lighter than they are. In zinfandel, that’s something that I — and more than a few others — would welcome.

Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at