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Vines & Vittles: Red wine for being in the red

By John Brown

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While we all await with great trepidation the inevitable onslaught of post-holiday bills, I've got the prefect tonic to assuage our collective mental anguish: Open a bottle of good, inexpensive, mood-enhancing red wine and sip it with your favorite comfort food.

Hey, there's no shame in feeling a little down after all that celebrating. The real shame would be neglecting our primal need for hearty sustenance -- beginning with a spirit-warming red wine (we'll get to the food later).

While I dearly love cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux varietals such as merlot and cabernet franc as well as those full-bodied reds such as syrah, Barbaresco and Barolo, I invariably fall back on my favorite go-to big red: zinfandel.

Benjamin Disraeli was famously quoted as proclaiming: "The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can never end."

With all due respect to the late and esteemed Mr. Disraeli, I must say that I disagree, particularly when it comes to wine. The first grape I ever had the pleasure of making into wine more than 30 years ago was zinfandel. And even though the resulting liquid was so over-oaked that it resembled toasted wood more than it did wine, I still love zinfandel (made by professionals) to this day.

One of my favorite zins

Zinfandel is a very versatile wine. While the actual origin of the grape has been genetically traced to Croatia, it is widely thought of as "America's wine." This is a wine many people think is white (as in white zinfandel) or blush, but, of course, it is one of California's greatest red wines.

And while Napa Valley is the premier growing area for most red wines, I feel zinfandel does best in Sonoma and Amador Counties. Sonoma zinfandel is a characteristically full-bodied wine with loads of blackberrylike flavors that, while classically dry, has an almost mouth-filling fruit sweetness.

I suggest you try these Sonoma zinfandels: Ridge Lytton Springs, Ridge Geyserville, Ravenswood Sonoma, Quivara, Dry Creek, Seghesio, Foppiano, Mazzocco and Pedroncelli.

While Sonoma zins showcase berry fruit, Amador County zinfandel has more coffee, mint and chocolatelike qualities. There are some berry flavors too, but they are not as prominent as in the Sonoma wine.

Amador can produce some very highly concentrated wines, but they are wonderful matches with garlic-infused dishes. Try Renwood Old Vines, Montevina, Terra d'Oro, Shenandoah Vineyards, Folie a Deux, Easton and Amador Foothill Winery.

As noted earlier, zinfandel is a wonderful match to fuller-flavored foods and hearty dishes. Here is one of my favorites:

Pasta with Red Sauce, Peppers and Italian Sausage

1 pound of linguini

1/2 cup of Peccorino-Romano cheese, finely grated

1 pound of Italian sausage, without the casing

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 large can of whole tomatoes (San Marzano if you can find them)

1 large onion, chopped

1 hot banana pepper, chopped (optional)

2 red peppers and 1 green pepper, cut into 2-inch-long strips

1 teaspoon each of ground black pepper and kosher salt

SAUTÉ the sausage until cooked, drain off fat and remove from the pan

SAUTÉ garlic, onion and peppers until translucent and add sausage

ADD the tomatoes and cook for about 15 minutes

COOK linguine and drain

ADD linguine to tomato, sausage and pepper sauce

PLATE and add cheese.

POUR yourself a big glass of zin and forget about the bills to come.

For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's Vines & Vittles blog at


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