Value Vino – Great wines for under $15

For nearly 20 years now, a troika of mad monks and their eager acolytes has gathered at the Grey Moss Inn in the month of January to celebrate zin. Yes, with a “z.” The Order of Original Zin was established by Grey Moss owner Lou Baeten, then Express-News wine writer Bill Stephens, and your humble scribe as a means of railing against the evils of white zinfandel. The ZinDin (complete with monks’ robes, foolish chants, and obligatory audience responses) was born as its principal forum, and it continues to this day, despite the fact that red zin, the one truly American wine, now rules and white zinfandel has long since been banished (mostly) to wine lists at Asian restaurants.

The ZinDin has always been a multi-course bacchanal worthy of designated-driver distinction, and of necessity, the zinfandels — usually three per course — have to be chosen by someone. Re-enter the mad monks: Every December the trio, with an occasional neophyte in attendance, assembles to whittle 50-60 wines down to 15 or 16. (Somebody’s got to do it). It’s not pretty; a lot of spitting is involved.

This year’s death march (zinfandel is not a wimpy grape) consisted of a relatively modest 50 wines, and it wasn’t the old standbys such as Ridge that necessarily stood out. Personal-favorite appellations did tend to do well, however, and Dry Creek was well-represented by the ’03 Mauritson Dry Creek, an elegant wine that both smelled and tasted like the spicy, berry-based brew we have come to love. Only slightly less potent was the ’03 Wilson Estate Reserve Dry Creek, whose primary virtue was its quintessentially “briary” aromas. A 2004 release from Dasche Dry Creek Valley already seemed more mature than the ’03s, suggesting a drink-now attitude, but it also made the cut.

Napa Valley is another prime zin source, and the ’03 Rosenblum Cellars Lyons Reserve (Rosenblum is a perennial winner) was selected for its beautiful balance — all the right stuff in all the right places. New to this writer was the ’03 Amici Old Vines Panek Vineyard, a wine with light body but big berry tastes. Girard’s ’03 Old Vines Zinfandel was a totally different critter (proving that zins haven’t yet been tamed into merlot-like submission) with tooth-coating tannins but impressive structure. Truchard’s ’03 issue from the Carneros end of Napa (a cooler region better known for pinots and chards) ventured even farther afield with a nose for days of unexpected spices such as cardamom.

Some zins from the lighter end of the spectrum are typically selected for the stand-around appetizers at ZinDin, and among this year’s choices were the lithe ’04 Lolonis from Redwood Valley and the nimble Folie a Deux 2003 from Amador County (a surprise, since this appellation usually produces bigger, jammier wines). And if more proof were needed to verify zinfandel’s range, the intense and blustery blackberry-blueberry bomb that is the ’04 Rombauer California Zinfandel became the designated dessert wine. Somebody’s got to do this, too — and besides, it wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.

For more information on this year’s ZinDin, to be held on January 18 at Grey Moss Inn (with yours truly looking really stupid in monk’s robe and dark glasses), call the restaurant at 695-8301.

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