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Super Bowl Meaty Fare Needs Manning Up: Sub Zinfandel for Beer

A selection of wines at an Oakland Raiders tailgate party. Zinfandel is one of California’s oldest wine-grape crop, with vines planted more than a century ago still producing fruit. Source: Bloomberg
A selection of wines at an Oakland Raiders tailgate party. Zinfandel is one of California’s oldest wine-grape crop, with vines planted more than a century ago still producing fruit. Source: Bloomberg

Feb. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Super Bowl parties are notorious for watery beer served with meaty dishes, when a fruity, spicy zinfandel would pair much better. Will tailgate gourmands listen?

I took a party of wine aficionados to the parking lot before an Oakland Raiders football game. The Raider Nation is famous for its food, signaled by billows of black smoke rising from hundreds of grills and cooking tents every game day.

One potential snag -- the team’s fans, Hunter S. Thompson once said, are “the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and wackos ever assembled.” A wine-collecting couple I invited along quickly backed out when they heard the location.

Maybe they’ve mellowed. We approached a man suiting up in a metal-spiked Darth Vader helmet with skull mask, calling himself Raidertore. We asked if he wanted to try some zinfandel.

“That’s weird,” he said. “I only drink beer.”

The wine collectors who did join me included Mark Johnson, chief executive officer of iPad application Zite, which was acquired by Time Warner Inc.’s CNN last year. He goes by the Twitter handle @philosophygeek.

Zinfandel is one of California’s oldest wine-grape crops, with vines planted more than a century ago still producing. During the past decade winemakers have embraced a bigger, more alcoholic style that can be hard to swallow with food.

Sugar Content

“I don’t buy it anymore because they’re holding the alcohol at unreasonable levels,” said Charles Sullivan, author of “Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine,” in an interview. “It’s remarkable how between the early 1980s and today the sugar content has risen.”

Things seemed to be shifting back recently, according to my unscientific assessment at last year’s annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers’ tasting in San Francisco. To better evaluate the current crop, I secured bottles from a wide range of producers, including Artezin, Bruliam, Caymus, Dry Creek, Four Vines, Frank Family, Hendry, Peachy Canyon, Ravenswood, Three Wines, Vineyard 1869 and Talty.

Seeking a guide through potential pitfalls on the tailgating menu, I connected with Raymond St. Martin, a member of the Grill Iron Gang. This is a group of regulars in the Raider Nation who go all out in their food exploits every weekend.

Malt-Liquor Mushrooms

The Gang’s offerings included aluminum pans filled with ribs, jambalaya, rib-eye and other hot smoked meats. Our favorite item was the malt-liquor mushrooms, which went surprisingly well with our wines.

We lined up the bottles like trophies and urged the crowd to sample. One reluctant sipper told me he had seen a woman drinking wine at a tailgate from a beer can to hide her shame.

Among the collectors, opinions were split. Ravenswood’s 2008 Teldeschi Vineyard and the Bruliam 2009 Rocky Ridge scored the highest with one, while another preferred the William Talty Vineyards 2008 Estate Zinfandel.

My personal bests were Hendry 2009 Blocks 7 & 22, the 2009 Frank Family and the 2009 Heritage Vineyard, a special bottle produced by the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers.

St. Martin quickly took to the 2008 Caymus, only available from the winery’s Napa tasting room and his favorite of the bunch.

“Like football itself, the Caymus Zin smacked me right in the mouth,” he said. “The Ridge blend was a close second, but was much smoother.”

(Ryan Flinn is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ryan Flinn in San Francisco at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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