Cardinal Zin Zinfandel, California, 2009

Cost: $10, or $22 for a 3-liter cask

What: There’s a new cardinal in town and he’s a bigger bargain than ever. Cardinal Zin had been a standalone brand offered at about $20, but now it’s part of the Big House wines, selling for half the price.

It’s still an outstanding Zinfandel, made from “Beastly Old Vines,” as it says on the label. The winery selects grapes from all around the state. Some of the vines are more than 100 years old, so the yield is low and the quality high.

It’s a warm, spicy, silky wine full of blackberries and ripe fruit, but the alcohol is low (13%), so it doesn’t overpower you. Sometimes you get a hint of vanilla, oak and herbs, as the complex flavors develop in your mouth.

The grapes are 80 percent Zinfandel, 10 percent Mourvedre, 8 percent Carignane and 2 percent Petite Sirah.

Winery: Some changes have come to Cardinal Zin, with its sale from Bonny Doon to The Wine Group, but the important things have remained the same. Cardinal Zin has been a favorite for many years, known for its irreverence and well-made wine.

Now that the wine is part of the Big House Brand, the clever storyline says the Cardinal consoles the straying souls of the Big House. (All of their wines have something to do with jail, or the Big House.) The marketing folks also say the warden has recommended the Cardinal be let out for BBQs. While drinking the wine you can read the back label to find out all the sins the Cardinal evokes.

What hasn’t changed is the emphasis on fruit-forward, approachable, smooth, tasty wines. Moving under the marketing umbrella of Underdog Wine Merchants, Cardinal Zin joins a cathedral full of great wines that don’t take themselves too seriously, such as Herding Cats, Now & Zen, Mutt Lynch, Pinot Evil, Big House Red and Tempra Tantrum. Cardinal Zin and The Big House were among the first premium California wines to be bottled using the Stelvin screw cap method beginning in 2001. Use of the screw cap continues to spread.

The biggest bargain with the Big House wines is the 3-liter box, which hold the equivalent of four regular bottles for $22. Because no air gets into the wine as you drink it, you can keep it for six weeks, if you don’t drain the box before that.

Goes with: I had this with pizza, one of my favorite sinful foods, and the pairing was perfect. I usually get my pizza from Guiseppe’s with sausage and tomato, but this wine would match most any hearty pizza. It will go well with lots of things on the grill, such as pork, lamb chops, ribs, or a zesty pasta dish.
Here’s a recipe from the winery for what they call Alibi Alsatian Pizza

1 cup flour, plus flour for rolling
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
3/8 cup warm water
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ lb. smoked bacon, cut into ¼ inch strips
1 small onion, peeled and sliced thin
½ cup fromage blanc or cottage cheese
½ cup crème fraîche
1 tablespoon flour
Kosher salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Combine the flour and teaspoon of salt in a mixing bowl or in the work bowl of a food processor. Sprinkle the yeast into the warm water and stir in the sugar. Add to the flour all at once and stir or motor until smooth (be careful not to over-process). Cover the dough with plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425˚F and coat two large baking sheets with a little bit of vegetable oil. Divide the dough into four parts, and on a well-floured surface, roll each part into an 8-inch round. Place the rounds on the oiled baking sheets and set aside. Combine the fromage blanc or cottage cheese, the crème fraîche and the 1 tablespoon of flour and stir or process until smooth.

Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until some of the fat is released, then add the sliced onion and cook for a few minutes, or until the onion is barely softened.
Distribute the cheese evenly between the rounds of dough and spread it up to the edges. Sprinkle the bacon and onions on top. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until the pastry is browned.

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