Wine-tasting fun: Match some juicy grilled ribs with the West's house wine. See the whole menu and our top picks
Herb-rubbed Baby Back Ribs
The black pepper in this rub picks up on the black-pepper notes in Zinfandel. The fruitiness of the wine and its juicy character cool the heat.
Cherry-Zinfandel Barbecue Sauce
We've shamelessly put the flavors of Zinfandel into this sauce: dried cherries, anise seeds (Zin often has faint licorice flavors), black pepper, and lots of the wine itself.
Fennel, which tastes faintly of licorice, makes a great base for a Zin-friendly salad.
Chocolate-chip Shortcakes with Berries and Dark Chocolate Sauce
The berry and chocolate flavors in Zinfandel pop in sweet, late-harvest versions. You can't go wrong when your dessert includes them too.
So you have a backyard grill looking for an easy job, a few friends who love wine, and a long, balmy evening coming up? Throw a wine-tasting party. Just capitalize on a basic truth about wine ― that two glasses at a time are more interesting than one ― and you can turn a simple dinner into serious fun.
The two glasses we have in mind for this party are both Zinfandel, but from different regions. Full of juicy berries and black pepper, it's a variety that loves to consort with grilled food. And no one else in the world makes Zinfandel as well as the West's winemakers. We picked two regions that produce exciting versions ― one bright on the radar (Northern California's Dry Creek Valley), the other tiny and obscure (Mendocino Ridge) ― collected bottles, devised a special Zin-friendly barbecue sauce for some baby back ribs, and kept a glass from each region in front of everyone all through dinner.
In the end, there was no shortage of opinions about the wines and the regions. And no one was quick to leave.
HOW TO SET UP THE WINE FOR THE PARTY
Choose two wine regions Ask each guest to bring a bottle of Zin from one of them. (Coordinate so that you end up with the same number from each region, and no duplicates.) One of the regions we chose ― Mendocino Ridge ― produced an idea for an appetizer wine that we couldn't resist: a slightly sweet late-harvest Zin from Edmeades. We had it pegged for dessert, but winemaker Van Williamson said, "I drink way more of that before dinner than after ― on the rocks, with a twist." After appetizers, open the bottles and organize them by region on the table.
Offer each guest two different-size glasses This is to distinguish between regions. If you don't have enough glassware, feel free to ask someone to bring a set ― almost guaranteed to be different.
Help guests focus on the regions Make sure a Zinfandel from each region stays in front of everyone throughout dinner.
Collect opinions Is there a consensus on differences between the regions? A favorite?
Pour more late-harvest Zinfandel This time it's for dessert. Use the same one you started out with, or another one ― why stop comparing now?
An unusual region made up of the peaks that rise above 1,200 feet over the Anderson Valley ― "islands in the sky," they've been dubbed. While Pinot Noir loves the cool valley, Zinfandel thrives in the warmth above the fog.
Edmeades Alden Vineyard Late Harvest Zinfandel 2003 (375 ml, $13). Minty, brambly blackberries with a touch of mocha come with just enough late-harvest sweetness to make this an interesting aperitif as well as a lively dessert wine.
Edmeades Ciapusci Vineyard Zinfandel 2004 ($28). Intense, complex, and fascinating, with layers of brambly berries and herbs and lively acidity.
Handley Cellars Gianoli Ranch Vineyard Zinfandel 2005 ($25). A big, earthy, mouth-filling Zin, heavy on pepper and berry jam.
Mariah Zinfandel 2003 ($29). A bright, juicy Zin that pairs interesting herbs with its berries and mocha aromas.
Dry Creek Valley
Slanting northwest from Healdsburg in Sonoma County, the warm valley was planted with quite a bit of Zinfandel in pre-Prohibition days. A few of those old vines survived the valley's subsequent orchard era, and in the late '70s and '80s, more Zin vines displaced orchards.
Amphora Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2005 ($24). Generous up-front fruit (blueberries lurk under blackberries and plums), with tobacco, herbs, and hints of chocolate.
Lambert Bridge Winery Ranch Block Zinfandel 2004 ($30). Deep layers of peppery plums and blackberries, plus a haunting floral quality.
Bella Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2005 ($25). A big, earthy Zin ― plums cooking down to jam on the stove.
Resources: Nora wineglasses ($8.95 each) and Orrington flatware ($30 for a five-piece place setting) from Crate and Barrel (800/967-6696). Stemless wineglass from Pottery Barn ($42 for six; 800/922-5507).
More: Fire up the barbecue