The whine over old vine

Zinfandel: The official state wine of California?

Finally: The political football you can drink.

On Feb. 8, California state Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) introduced Senate Bill 1253, which would declare Zinfandel the official state wine of California.

It would be an honorary title, but one that could raise both sales and hackles.

“I can understand why some vintners who don’t make Zinfandel would be peeved,” says Tina Caputo, managing editor of wine industry trade publication Wines & Vines. “(But) it became famous because of what California winemakers did with it. Other grapes first became known elsewhere.”

Only recently, Zinfandel vines were traced back to Croatian immigrants who brought them to Long Island in the early 1800s. The grapevines made their way to California when settlers headed west for the Gold Rush.

“The impetus for the bill is that Zinfandel has a really unique place in California culture,” says Migden. “The wine grew up with the state. It’s not about saying it’s the best wine; it’s the quintessential California wine.”

The wine also has a vocal fan club in Zinfandel Advocacy & Producers (although the org has released a

statement disavowing any knowledge of the Zinfandel bill’s creation). ZAP’s most recent wine festival, held every January for the past 15 years, saw more than 8,000 people taste over 600 Zinfandels in San Francisco’s Fort Mason.

The event’s stats don’t include any associated hangovers, but Zinfandel increases the odds with alcohol percentages that hover around 15%-16%.

“It’s not a style decision,” says “The Wine Bible” author Karen MacNeil. “It’s a viticultural reality.”

The grape tends to ripen unevenly, with dark raisins dangling next to green grapes. Vintners can’t crush until all grapes are ripe, which means a high proportion of overripe grapes, a lot of sugar and a lot of alcohol.

“It’s a little like loving chocolate,” MacNeil says of Zinfandel. “It’s easy to do.”

The bill has a long way to go before it reaches the Senate floor, but MacNeil, who’s known for drawing wine-movie parallels in her work, may have sealed Zinfandel’s fate long before anyone considered giving it a state seal of approval.

“Fifteen years ago, I characterized it as Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she says. “It’s rich, big and muscular.”

After drinking a dozen-plus Zinfandels, we discovered that sometimes more can mean more, so we ranked them in order of alcohol content. Wines available at Mission Wines in South Pasadena and Beverages & More.

Wine: Turley Ueberroth Vineyard 2002 Paso Robles ($55)
Alcohol content: 16.4%
Notes: Beautiful, balanced and complex with plenty of fruit. A real winner.

Wine: Hartford Russian River 2004 ($30)
Alcohol content: 15.8%
Notes: Fruity and light; not much of a jammy quality.

Wine: Frank Family 2003 Napa Valley ($33)
Alcohol content: 15.2%
Notes: Light body, with black cherries on the nose and on the palate.

Wine: Adelaida 2002 Paso Robles ($24)
Alcohol content: 15%
Notes: Sweet and peppery, with a lot of American oak. Balanced with a long finish.

Wine: Ravenswood Belloni 2002 Russian River Valley ($27)
Alcohol content: 14.9%
Notes: Juicy, with lots of berry flavors and French oak.

Wine: Bucklin Mixed Blacks 2004 Sonoma Valley ($22)
Alcohol content: 14.8%
Notes: A classic Zinfandel. Jammy, tannic, a menthol element in the nose and a smoky finish.

Wine: Hunnicut 2003 Napa Valley ($30)
Alcohol content: 14.7%
Notes: Spicy, smoky with cherries. Full bodied and juicy.

Wine: D Cubed 2002 Napa Valley ($22)
Alcohol content: 14.6%
Notes: Smoky and full bodied, with nice fruit and pepper

Wine: Rancho Zabaco Reserve 2002 Dry Creek Valley ($16)
Alcohol content: 14.5%
Notes: A best buy. Nice structure and good fruit — even if it is made by Gallo.

Tasters included Kitty Shannon, vice chair of the American Wine Society’s LA chapter; AWS member Tracy Nishida and Ray Belknap, wine specialist at wine store Le Petit Vendome in La Canada.