ZEROING IN ON ZINFANDEL

IF AN ALL-AMERICAN VARIETAL exists, it is zinfandel. Yet many wine drinkers pass up classic red zin, a real contender among premium wines, preferring its pale younger sibling, white zinfandel. Industry promoters are flogging white zin as if their lives depended on it, which, of course, they do. Rarely has so much marketing energy been expended on so innocuous a taste.

The way to drink zinfandel is red, made in the normal manner, aged a bit in oak and cellared for a year or two before exposing its rich, spicy complexity to your own deserving palate. You can drink red zinfandel with lamb, roast chicken, various cheeses and even barbecue. Price is another recommendation: The wine costs less than cabernet sauvignon and is often a lot more interesting.

Zinfandel did not originate in America, but here it reaches its zenith. The recent history of zinfandel is closely bound up with the history of California wine-making. Zinfandel was an integral part of California experimentation and capital-intensive growth in the last two decades, evolving from a modest table wine to a booming expression of alcoholic individuality in the 1970s.

Big, concentrated red zins became known as "inky monsters," more like port than cabernet, with alcohol to match.

Wine drinkers understandably grew leery of matching such wines with food. Some of those consumers never came back to zinfandel, and it fell into disrepute while in fact remaining one of the best buys from the California vineyard.

White zinfandel was seen as a way of making zinfandel vines pay. Several winemakers tore out their plantings. Others stayed with zinfandel and now the real red version is enjoying a deserved renaissance in a more elegant style.

Consistently the best zinfandels, all widely available, are made by Ridge Vineyards and have already been discussed in this space. Other good producers include Ravenswood, with a Napa Valley zin that is big and requires a roast or venison, and a Sonoma Valley offering that is lighter and a very good bargain. Grgich Hills Cellars makes a concentrated, elegant and quite expensive zin; Conn Creek, also in Napa, harkens back to the alcoholic zins with its offering, although a peppery quality and loads of flavor show through.

Some of the best bargains come from farther north and closer to the Pacific Ocean. Dry Creek Vineyards, in Sonoma, makes a characterful zin for about $7.50, suitable for most foods. J. Pedroncelli Winery, also of Sonoma, makes a fine table zin with a pleasant berryish quality, widely available for less than $5. Parducci Wine Cellars, of Mendocino County, run by an Italian family with deep roots in California wine- making, offers a softer, very approachable zinfandel with a lot of fruit and delicate appeal, also less than $5.

The latest development in zinfandelia is light vinification of a red wine for quick release, in imitation of the popular beaujolais nouveau. My advice is to stick with the real thing, fully vinified and aged in oak, and served with food of character. If you need a peg on which to hang zinfandel, think of it as a spicy American equivalent of a medium- priced bordeaux.