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Wine without pretense: Finding the budget-friendly zinfandel for visitors
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The bride and I have been like Willie Nelson the past few months ... on the road again. Lots of traveling, lots of visits and we’ve come home with a greater appreciation for this wonderful land of ours.

Now it’s time to dig into the ol’ mailbag (letters, emails and phone calls) to answer some questions thrown at me by readers of this column, students of my wine appreciation classes and the occasional wino with a brown bag. As I get these inquiries I file them away for future use. I do respond personally to each one and ask permission from the individual to use the question in a future column. If you have a wine question, check the end of this column for how to contact me.

Question: Hi Randall! I have some friends who will be visiting soon and I know they like red zinfandel. Can you recommend one or two between $10 and $20 a bottle?

Answer: Being a big fan of red zinfandel — one of my favorite red wines — I think I can do that. In fact, I’ll give you a few more than one or two. Keep in mind there are some very expensive zins out there, as well as some that are very good but hard to find. The following wines are in general distribution in Georgia and fall within your budget requirements. I’ve listed them in order in price from high to low. Enjoy!

Frei Brothers Reserve

Peachy Canyon


Folie a Deux

Cline Ancient Vines

Gnarly Head

Rosenblum (probably the best value of the lot.)

Q: I know you appreciate some of the good wines produced in North Georgia, and so do I. I have visited most of our area’s wineries and have some favorites. I was very disappointed to find out a few months ago BlackStock Vineyards just outside Cleveland had closed. I really enjoyed their wines and bought several cases over the past few years. What happened?

A: I wish I knew. I tried to contact the former owner and winemaker of BlackStock, David Harris, when I learned the winery had gone under. He never replied. Here’s what I was told by other area winery folks. In early spring of 2012, BlackStock was hit very hard by a late frost and lost most of the crop. Apparently that loss was enough to push the winery over the financial cliff. Harris, I have been told, has relocated to Arizona. I, too, admired BlackStock’s wines and the guy who made them. For years Harris was one of the most respected growers in North Georgia, selling his grapes to other wineries. When he began making his own wines, they attracted much critical praise and a public following. His super-premium red, called ACE, was a truly great wine, and I loved both his viogniers.

Q: I’ve always liked chardonnay. Can you tell me why a chardonnay from one area tastes so different from a chardonnay from another area?

A: Grab a chair and order lunch. This could take a while.

There is not just one grape called chardonnay. Dozens are clones, each with its own distinct characteristics of aroma and flavor. That’s one reason for the noticeable differences. Different strains of yeasts are implemented to induce fermentation, and each one is slightly different from another.

Climate also plays a role. In Burgundy in France, where chardonnay is the king of white wine grapes, the climate stresses the vines. As a result, the wines are crisper and more linear than, say, chardonnay grown in the gentle climes of California’s Sonoma Valley.

Soils, too, can affect grapes. The soil in a Napa Valley vineyard will be totally different from a vineyard in the Maipo Valley of Chile.

And winemakers have different styles. One may like the woody-vanilla aromas that come from oak barrel fermentation and/or aging, while another may prefer to confine the wine to stainless steel and cold fermentation for a leaner taste sensation.

That’s the Reader’s Digest version. Hope that suffices.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. He can be contacted at