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glasses of win with cheese and fruit tray

Nothing sounds more relaxing than a quiet evening with friends, a glass of wine, and cheese. When it comes to actually buying wine for that ­gathering, however, most Americans start out nervous and then get more so as they gaze at all the lookalike bottles. What’s the ­difference between Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon again? Why is it that some wines taste like a cigar was put out in them and others taste like prune juice? Should you spring for the $30 bottle, or is the $12 one good enough?

I’ve found a secret path through the thicket for you: Just systematically, methodically, taste all the major wines in the liquor store to figure out your preferences. While this may sound like a ridiculous proposition, it can be done, and more quickly than you’d think (I know, because I’ve done it myself).

It merely involves finding all the representative wine styles (this is the hard part) and sampling each of them. After all, how can you know whether you prefer apple pie or chocolate cake unless you taste them?

When I started introducing my friends to my “secret” ­method, they were amazed and delighted. Then an editor asked me to spill it in a book, so I did in Drink This: Wine Made Simple.

Let’s use Zinfandel as our example. A lot of people only know Zinfandel from its incarnation as white Zinfandel, but it’s actually a dark-black wine grape that grows extremely well in northern California, and not as well anywhere else on Earth. Have you ever eaten a plum that’s purple-black on the outside, but white- or gold-colored on the inside? That’s what Zinfandel grapes are like. If you crush them and drain the juice away from the skins quickly, you get pale juice, the kind you can turn into white Zinfandel. If you let the skins and juice macerate together over time, the microscopic pigments from the skins migrate into the grape juice, making red wine.

Full of good-for-you antioxidants, Zinfandel has many personas: It can be as intense and concentrated as pure chocolate, as lively and brambly as single-estate coffee, or as easy and food-friendly as an old-fashioned French table wine. But is it for you?

If you want to become a Zinfandel master in one night, call up some of your friends and invite them to learn about it together. Decide whether you want this to be a pizza party (because Zinfandel goes amazingly well with pizza) or a wine and cheese party. If it’s the latter, gather some pungent, nutty cheeses such as Dry Jack, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton and aged Gruyère. Set those out with spiced nuts, crackers, bread, sausages and olives (especially black cerignola olives — yum!).

Next, gather five bottles of Zinfandel:

  • A budget-friendly “everyday” bottle that will help familiarize you with the basic Zinfandel flavor.
  • Two from the same producer but different single estates — wines made from grapes that are all grown at a single vineyard. Tasting two single estates will tell you an infinite amount about what’s different about the actual land that creates a wine, versus the winemaker and his or her stylistic choices.
  • A big, fat, plush Zinfandel like a Turley. All wine geeks know what this means; just ask the guy at the wine store for the roundest, ripest, richest, fullest, lushest Zinfandel.
  • A late-harvest Zinfandel, sometimes called Port-style or dessert-style, which will tell you how it tastes fully ripe. Why do you need to know that? Think of wine grapes like bananas, which go through a whole spectrum of edible states. Tasting a late-harvest wine is equivalent to tasting a banana that’s yellow with a few brown spots.

Now, wine assembled and cheeses purchased, chill your Zinfandels to cellar temperature — about halfway between refrigerator and room temperature. (Red wines are meant to be drunk a little cooler than most Americans drink them, since it keeps the alcohol from dominating the nose.) Then, with your friends gathered, start tasting!

Begin with the basic American Zinfandel and proceed to the two single estates, the plush and, finally, the late-harvest. As you’re trying them, chat amongst yourselves: Is there any appreciable difference? Do you think the more expensive Turley-style wine (or, if you’re so lucky, an actual Turley) is worth the money? Are the differences between the single-estate wines subtle or dramatic? How do you like Zinfandel? How does it go with the food at hand?

By the end of the night — holy cow! — you’ll not only know what Zinfandel tastes like, but you’ll understand the disparities as naturally as you do the difference between green bananas and yellow ones with brown spots.

For more getting-to-know-you advice on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and many other wines, check out my book, Drink This: Wine Made Simple. Cheers — and happy holidays!

Wine Party Shopping List

To throw a wine-tasting holiday party for your friends, you’ll need five bottles of Zinfandel and a selection of complementary snacks. Here are some recommended wine and food suggestions.

Zinfandel Wines

  1. One “everyday”: Ravenswood, Rosenblum Cellars or Rancho Zabaco
  2. Two single estates: Ridge Vineyards’ Lytton Springs and Geyserville, Edmeades’ Piffero Vineyard and Perli Vineyard, Rosenblum’s Rockpile Road and Lyon
  3. One plush: Turley Cellars, Bradford Mountain’s Grist Vineyard or Madder Lake Vineyards’ Lake County
  4. One late-harvest: Dashe Cellars’ Dry Creek Valley, Rutherford Hills’ Vintage Zinfandel Port or Edmeades’ Alden Vineyard

The Cheeseboard

  • Fruit: blackberries, black cherries, blueberries, plums, black grapes, figs, currants, raisins or prunes — these are all typical scents of Zinfandel, and having them around will make it easier to identify the scents.
  • Intense cheeses: aged Gouda, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton, intense aged cheddars, cave-aged Gruyère or Dry Jack. (Avoid very mild, delicate young cheeses — they tend to be overwhelming.)
  • Sausages of every sort: dried hard sausages like Italian salami, sopprasatta and pepperoni; fresh grilled sausages of nearly every flavor.
  • Dark desserts: flourless chocolate torte, coffee-flavored ice cream, and any pie, tart or cobbler made with dark fruits. That’s it! Simply set up your cheeseboard, pull the corks and ready yourself for a lifetime as a Zinfandel expert.

The Health Benefits of Zinfandel

Wine is full of good-for-you antioxidants. Here’s what you can expect to get from Zinfandel.

Resveratrol is probably the most widely recognized compound that has been associated with many of the health benefits of wine, but there are countless other antioxidants, polyphenols and other healthful nutrients found in grape skins. In addition to the usual good stuff, red Zinfandel, in particular, is packed with beneficial compounds called saponins, which have been shown to help reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. In the same way that intensely pigmented fruits and vegetables like blueberries and pumpkins are packed with antioxidants and polyphenols, intensely pigmented wines tend to be richer in good microscopic compounds than their paler counterparts. If you’re in search of a healthy red wine, a good rule of thumb is to look for the most heavily pigmented one that has spent the longest time in contact with its grape skins, and then was unfiltered before it went into the bottle. (Most well-made red Zinfandels meet these criteria.)

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