SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A juicy turkey, savory stuffing and creamy mashed potatoes have long been staples of the Thanksgiving dinner table. And when it comes to wine, more Americans are making red Zinfandel another holiday tradition.
Zinfandel producers love the growing attention, especially since their wine is among the top sellers during the holiday season.
"Thanksgiving is probably in the top five largest weekends during the year for wine sales," said Arthur Weiner, a sales analyst at Renwood Winery in Amador County, which specializes in Zinfandel. He said sales at Renwood often double or triple at Thanksgiving.
California red Zinfandel sales have had steady growth in recent years, particularly in the higher price categories. In 2001, $518 million worth of red Zinfandel was sold, an increase of 36 percent over the previous year, according to the Wine Trends report by Motto Kryla & Fisher, a wine industry business-advisory firm.
"It's a very hearty red wine. It's nice and spicy and goes well with foods in the wintertime," said Katie Quinn, owner of Amador Foothills Winery.
In California's Amador County, east of Sacramento and tucked in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the increased interest in Zinfandel is something area winemakers are encouraging. Often sitting in the shadow of the more renowned Napa Valley, about 100 miles to the west, Amador wineries make about a quarter of the state's Zinfandel.
Holiday wine sales have helped the area stay competitive with industry giants by the coast.
"Amador County is enjoying a huge new audience," Murphy said. "We're friendlier, we have better prices and our quality is there."
Zinfandel fans often take pride in its uniquely American character. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, which have obvious French roots, Americans have claimed Zinfandel as their own, although researchers at the University of California, Davis, have traced the grape's origins to the coast of Croatia in eastern Europe.
The wine's marketing angle has helped wineries and retailers pair "the quintessential American wine" with the quintessential American meal, fueling a revival of sorts for red Zinfandel in recent years.
The Zinfandel grape crushes into white and red wines. The white wine is more of a blush because the grape's skin is quickly separated from the juice during crushing, leaving a slightly sweet taste and rosy pink color. The red wine has a richer, spicier flavor.
"People always think they need a big Cabernet with their big Thanksgiving dinner," Murphy said. "It's a big, round wine that needs concentrating, whereas (red) Zinfandel is easy to drink and fills in the void that turkey leaves."
But while some experts prefer Zinfandel, the perennial debate over the best holiday wine continues.
Most experts recommend at least one white and one red wine to complement the variety of foods at the Thanksgiving table.
Marcus Graziano, owner of Sacramento-based wine retailer Capitol Cellars, finds Zinfandel "pretty overpowering" for a delicate white meat like turkey. Instead, he recommends pairing it with fruity white wines, such as Gewurztraminer or Riesling. The choice for red, he said, should be pinot noir, which has a lighter flavor.