Big, black birds have been dropping into my yard in unsettling numbers recently, and they had me a little spooked for Halloween tomorrow. But a bottle of Ravenswood wine that just crossed my desk reminded me that noir fowl aren’t always an ominous sign. As Joel Peterson, legendary founder of that label, tells the story, he was alone years ago, frantically trying to harvest his first Zinfandel (his love, and the winery’s signature grape) ahead of torrential rains that were threatening, when jet-black ravens began circling above, taunting. Instead of giving in to the omen, he embraced the birds and put them right on his now-iconic label.
I’m standing with Joel Peterson tomorrow: Ravenswood will be my Halloween wine, and Zinfandel the grape—I’m in with the big, black birds. In fact, Zin happens to be my go-to variety for the festivities because with big, juicy, jammy fruit, pepper, and other spices, it’s a great match for the spicy food we tend to eat on Halloween (think thick red chile stew; the fruitiness of the wine tames the heat). Also, it’s the only red with a prayer of a chance of tasting good with the chocolate I always manage to hold back from the kiddies.
But if you know Ravenswood only from the bottles on lower supermarket shelves, you’re missing out. While those wines are solid, they don’t have the character of the tier of Zinfandels that Joel makes from single vineyards planted long ago in Northern California—some well over 100 years. These Zinfandels, from gnarly old vines that produce precious little fruit any more, are dark and concentrated, earthy with the likes of coffee and tobacco, and full of exotic spices. Look for one of these designations on the label: Big River Vineyard ($35), Teldeschi Vineyard ($35), Dickerson Vineyard ($35), or my personal favorite, Old Hill Vineyard (a splurge at $60, but it would be a Halloween to remember).
But just in case Ravenswood old-vine Zins are elusive on spook day, here’s a handful of other Zinfandels I love:
Ballentine 2010 Block 9 Reserve Zinfandel (Napa Valley; $32)
Clos LaChance 2010 Estate Zinfandel (Central Coast; $15)
Dashe 2010 Florence Vineyard Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley; $35)
DeLoach 2010 “OFS” Zinfandel (Russian River Valley; $32)
Dry Creek Vineyard 2010 Heritage Zinfandel (Sonoma County; $19)
Forchini 2010 Proprietor’s Reserve Old Vine Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley; $28)
Rodney Strong 2010 “Knotty Vines” Zinfandel (Sonoma County; $25)
Ironically, the Ravenswood wine that crossed my desk and reminded me of Joel Peterson’s bird tale (it’s called “Besieged”; $22) wasn’t a Zinfandel at all. A blend of Carignane, Petite Sirah, Zin, Mourvèdre, Alicante Bouchet, and Barbera, it mimics—or is—an old field blend. But I just tasted it, and its inky, briary berry and plum fruit edged with smoke and warm spices would do a bang-up job of making anyone over 21 tomorrow happy they’re too old to trick-or-treat.