ZINFANDEL is California's "own" grape varietal. After cabernet sauvignon, it is the most popular red wine produced in California. Despite the chauvinistic urge to promote the virtues of zinfandel, after tasting numerous zinfandels over the last years, I am convinced that only a handful of wineries are committing the financial resources and technical skills necessary to make a better zinfandel than existed five years ago. This is not to say that the persistent consumer cannot purchase a good zinfandel. But, while the quality of cabernet and chardonnay continues to improve and receive deserved international recognition and acclaim, the quality of zinfandel remains relatively stagnant, except for the proliferation of new producers.

Zinfandel has often been referred to as the "mystery" wine as its origin has been though t to be a puzzle. However, the University of California at Davis has gone on record stating that zinfandel is basically identical to a grape grown in Southeast Italy called primitivo .

Zinfandel is grown in almost every viticulturel region of California. A discriminating consumer can find interesting zinfandels from Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Amador, Monterey and San Luis Obispo. As if a geographic selection were not enough, zinfandel also comes in as many styles and flavors as Baskin-Robbins ice cream. With such a copius selection of zinfandels, it would seem simple to discover the perfect or "classical" zinfandel. Unfortunately, neither I nor anyone else is capable of defining what is the classical standard for measuring the performance of a zinfandel. The styles vary strikingly fromthe light-bodied, grapey, beaujolais-styled wines, to the massively constructed tannic behemoths. In between these two extremes is the style of zinfandel which is neither too sweet and jam-like, nor too awesome and oppressive by virtue of its dimensions. The best proponents of this sensibly structured style of zinfandel are Burgess, Dry Creek, Joseph Phelps, Caymus, Clos du Val, Fetzer, Simi, Ridge, Carneros Creek, Chateau Montelena, and probably Sonoma. While each winery offers its own style of zinfandel, most of the better zinfandels from these wineries have in common a lively, spicy, ripe berry bouquet, concentrated briary flavors, softened by a suggestion of wood and a full but rugged finish.

While categorization is difficult with so many divergent styles (even from the same winery), I have divided the zinfandel recommendations into four groups. Group I represents those wines which are made ina light, easily consumed beaujolai style of wine. Group II includes those wines which were made in an attempt to create a deep but balanced full-bodied wine with varietal characteristics in evidence, but kept in check. Group III wines consist of those brawny, often belligerent wines which can be impressively rich, as well as oppressively heavy and dull. Group IV concludes with several of the sweet, late harvest zinfandels.

The aging potential of zinfandels is another issue on which there is little agreement. Clearly, the wines in Group I are meant to be consumed when released and other than the softening of their components, any improvement in them is negligible.Group II wines are also wines which can be consumed upon release by their wineries, but seem capable of holding up in the bottle. While some development occurs, I doubt that they will develop the complexity in bouquet and flavor which characterize the aging process of the better French bordeaux of Italian piedmont wines. Group III wines offer the toughest riddle to solve. While well endowned with tannin, their lack of balance and low acidity level point to a shaky future. In summary, while I believe zinfandel can live a lengthy life (eight to 15 years) in a bottle, I don't subscribe to the theory it improves significantly in the bottle after its first several years of bottle age. So, if it tastes good, then drink it.

A consumer should not have to pay more than $8 to $9 for a top-quality zinfandel, with many soundly-made zinfandels available for under $6. The esoteric and exotic zinfandels retail at prices substantially higher and represent poor values except to the zinfandel collector. Given the vintage conditions of 1978 with record high heat skyrocketing the grape sugars prior to and during the harvest, many of the 1978 zinfandels are extremely big, very full-bodied and intensely flavored. Zinfandel seems to easily lend itself to this style of wine, and many of these huge zinfandels have such lush, concentrated fruit that the alcohol is surprisingly well concealed beneath layers of briary fruit and oak. If this is what you like, then don't mis the 1978 zinfandels. RECOMMENDED ZINFANDELS Group I Fetzer 1978 Lake County ($3.99 to $4.49) Fetzer 1978 Lake County ($4.49 to $4.99) Parducci 1978 Mendocino ($4.99 to $5.99) Sierra Vista N.V. California ($4.99) Group II Caymus 1978 Napa ($7.99) Clos Du Val 1978 Napa ($9.99) Conn Creek 1978 Napa ($9.99) Dry creek 1978 sonoma ($7.49) Fetzer 1978 Mendocino ($5.99) Chateau Montelena 1978 California ($8.99) Ridge 1979 San Luis ($7.49) Ridge 1979 Amador ($7.49) Fetzer 1978 Lolonis ($8.49) Group III Fetzer 1978 Ricetti ($8.99) Lytton Springs 1979 Sonoma ($9.99) Roudon Smith 1978 "Old Hill Ranch ($8.99) Monterey Peninsula 1978 dusi ($7.49) Group IV Monterey Peninsula 1978 Dusi-Late Harvest ($16.95) Ridge 1978 Fiddletown ($18.95) WINE BRIEF

For what it's worth, the Orange County Wine Fair was just concluded, and the big winners were Chateau St. Jean with 13 medals and Fetzer Vineyards with 11.