Zinfandel is a Thanksgiving natural. Three top retailers name their favorite bottles.

While it's not quite as clichéd as Champagne on New Year's, Zinfandel is, more and more often, the red wine of choice on Thanksgiving. It helps, of course, that Zinfandel is made only in America (as opposed to that global gadabout, Cabernet), but it's really because Zinfandel's rich fruit flavors work so wonderfully with all the elements of the traditional holiday meal. I recently talked to three top retailers, all Zinfandel fans (though some say the proper term is "freaks"). They like--and sell--lots of Zins, and they shared the names of some you should be drinking this fall.

Craig Allen
Why He Loves Zin
One of the things that I love most about Zinfandel is how distinct one wine can be from another. You could have 60 different Zinfandels and 60 different styles of wine--as opposed to, say, California Chardonnay or Cabernet, where you might have 60 bottles and every one of them would taste the same.

Zin Supply By Thanksgiving we'll probably have more than 100 different Zinfandels in our store--though of course, with all the single-vineyard Zinfandels out there, there could be 25 wines from just two producers.

Thanksgiving Zin Last year I convinced my family to have lamb for Thanksgiving, and we had the RAVENSWOOD MONTE ROSSO Zinfandel, which was spectacular. (I'm lucky if I get 6 to 12 bottles a year in my store.) The Ravenswood single-vineyard Zinfandels are some of my favorite wines. There's a uniqueness to each of them, they are all stylistically very different, from a bunch of different terroirs--they're not just the same Zinfandel with different names.

Allen on Vintages Right now I have both '97 and '98 Zinfandels, and I have to say that, in general, I prefer the '97s to the '98s--most of the '98s I've tasted are lighter than the wines of the year before. The 1998 Zinfandel vintage reminds me a lot of 1993.

Value Zins Regardless of vintage, for anyone looking for a great bargain bottle in the $15-and-under category, I always recommend MONTEVINA or RANCHO ZABACO. They're both full-flavored wines with a lot of body and richness, and at $10 to $12 a bottle they're incredible bargains. We can't keep them on the shelves--in fact, the Rancho Zabaco is on allocation. The RAVENSWOOD VINTNERS BLEND, the basic Zinfandel from Ravenswood, at close to the same price, is always reliable, and the BAYLISS & FORTUNE is also a great buy at about $15 a bottle. It has a very heavy raspberry tone that's just delicious. And for about the same money, the 1998 DAVID BRUCE PASO ROBLES, made from old vines, is terrific--a concentrated, complex, spicy wine.

Splurgeworthy Zins For a little more money, and if you can get it, I'd go with the 1997 ST. FRANCIS RESERVE ZINFANDEL. It's just a beautiful wine, very rich and lush, about $25 a bottle. And finally, for something rather unique, I'd recommend the RIDGE PAGANI RANCH. The Pagani Ranch, at $25 a bottle, is different from a lot of Zinfandels--it's almost a Shiraz-style Zin, with lots of fruit. I think that if someone tasted it blind, they might not even think it's Zinfandel.

Warren Dennis
Zin Supply
We currently have about 60 different labels in the store--probably the best Zinfandel selection in Atlanta.

Thanksgiving Zin I have to admit I'm really more of a Pinot Noir-with-Thanksgiving-dinner kind of guy, although I actually had the 1979 Château Margaux at Thanksgiving last year. But I love Zinfandel and we sell a lot of it.

Dennis on Vintages In terms of recent vintages, I think the 1997 Zinfandels really stand out. The depth of the wines is just amazing. But the few 1998s I've had so far have been just as good. Basically, those I've tasted are from the best producers, who will make good wines even in lighter years. The 1998 single-vineyard bottlings from DE LOACH and the 1998 RIDGE offerings are all outstanding.

Value Zins In terms of good buys in Zinfandel, I'd probably go with the COPPOLA ROSSO. It's an easy-drinking-style Zin blend, but it's a pretty impressive wine for the money ($10). A really consistent producer is CLINE, whose Zinfandels can be outstanding values. For a little more money, I'd recommend the new CLOS DU VAL multi-appellation Zinfandel. I think this wine is among the real sleepers of the '97 vintage. It's more approachable than Clos du Val's Cabs, and it's just a great all-around Zin, with wonderful acidity and brilliant berry flavors. At $15, it's a great value.

Splurgeworthy Zins At the top of the line, since I can't get Turley or Martinelli's Jackass Hill Zinfandel (neither one is shipped to Georgia), I'd probably choose a Zinfandel from GARY FARRELL--I think Farrell really sets the standard for Zinfandel. His is usually about $40. Another Zinfandel I really like is NICHOLS CIENEGA VALLEY VINEYARD. Although the people at Nichols specialize in Pinot Noir, they also make a very small amount of what I call Pinot-style Zin that's a little more fleshy than a traditional Zin. It's about $35 a bottle. If, on the other hand, someone wanted to spend about $50 a bottle and wanted an older Zin, I'd recommend the 1991 RIDGE GETSERVILLE, which was just released. It's robust, maybe even a little gamy, but quite polished.

Susan Eagan
Why She Loves Zin First of all, I have to say that I really love Zinfandel from Sonoma. Whether it's from Alexander Valley or Dry Creek, I think there's something about Sonoma Zins that is really wonderful and that I like much better than Zin from Napa. I think that Napa should keep making Cabernet, but let Sonoma make the Zinfandel.

Zin Supply We're real Zinfandel freaks here--I probably have about four feet of shelving in my store devoted entirely to the grape, and it will definitely grow by Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Zin We not only drink Zinfandel with Thanksgiving dinner in the Southwest (turkey quesadilla is my favorite Thanksgiving food), we drink it all the time. After all, we put green chiles in just about everything around here (including the Thanksgiving turkey), and Zinfandel is one wine that can stand up to them.

Eagan on Vintages As far as vintages go, I haven't really formed an opinion of the 1998s, as I haven't tasted enough of them to say. I do know, however, that there aren't going to be as many--1997 was such a huge year not only in terms of quality but in terms of quantity.

Value Zins If you're looking for a good-value Zinfandel, the kind of wine I recommend--if you're having Thanksgiving dinner for 30 rather than for three--would be a reliable name, like RABBIT RIDGE. They make a great $10 wine. I also love the Zinfandel blend from MARIETTA made from old vines. It's completely delicious--I love everything Marietta does.

Splurgeworthy Zins I feel the same way about CLINE. They're an incredibly consistent winery.Their Ancient Vines Zinfandel is a little more money, about $20 a bottle, but it's just pure lush fruit. You could practically put that wine on an English muffin and serve it for breakfast. It's what I call a breakfast Zinfandel. Other labels that I love include ROCKING HORSE--their Lamborn Vineyard Zinfandel (from Napa Valley, $28) is really popular here--and MURPHY-GOODE, another really great Sonoma Zin producer. ROMBAUER makes a Zinfandel that's over 16 percent alcohol. It's huge, practically a port, but it's totally delicious. Zinfandel is not a wine for extended aging, and so I look for one that's big and rich, but immediately enjoyable.