Not what you were expecting? Me neither--at one time. Pretty much everyone has their favorite kinds of wines. Usually that's based on style, price, or how you enjoy the wine (the setting). You might be mostly a Chardonnay and Cabernet drinker as these are the two most popular wines in the U.S. I find that Pinot Noir and Zinfandel satisfy most occasions for opening a bottle.
|Covering most of the bases|
As with many California red wines there are a couple main styles of Pinot Noir -- those that are balanced and food-friendly plus those that are overripe. Yes, JMO.
Price-wise it can be tough finding good ones under $30 -- or even under $40 any more as prices have gone up with demand.
Where Pinot shines is with the many circumstances where it works so well. I don't drink much white wine as the ones I enjoy are few and far between so I require a red substitute. Pinot works in places you where you might open a white such as with lighter foods. (Most) seafood, grilled chicken or pork, Margarita or veggie pizza: Pinot Noir.
You just want a nice easy sipping glass of wine on a warm day? Okay, if it gets too hot for any red wine then it's time for a cold IPA. But you can also take a lighter style of Pinot Noir (this usually means under 14% alcohol) and even put the bottle in the fridge for a few minutes to give it a slight chill (if you don't have a temp-controlled cellar).
For less expensive, but good quality Pinot Siduri makes a Sonoma County bottling for well under $30 plus a Sonoma Coast and a Russian River Pinot for a bit over $30. In Mendocino County, a long-time favorite of mine, Navarro, puts out some excellent under-$30 ones.
There are lots of Zins at decent prices because it's grown everywhere in California; from expensive Napa Valley to inexpensive San Joaquin Valley. There are plenty available for under $15 though the premium Zins from Sonoma and Napa are knocking on a $40 average price.
Zinfandel definitely comes in different styles from quite restrained (think Kenwood, Nalle, Ridge, Storybook) to very ripe (like Baile, Mazzocco, Wilson). While I admit to not understanding why anyone likes the overripe, heavy-handed Pinots, I've begrudgingly decided there is a place for those big Zins. It's not at the dinner table, however. These big boys can make a nice "cocktail" wine as the before dinner drink or at a wine bar on Friday after work. You can find this style of Zinfandel for a very good price -- this usually means from Lodi.
Zinfandel has great food versatility ranging from most any grilled meat to spicy foods. A slightly aged Zin is great with beef. Zinfandel can age? Yes, some can. I've found the fruit-bomb, higher alcohol "cocktail" ones don't, but some in the more restrained style do. These generally have lower alcohol, higher acid and some tannins--just like you'd find in a good Cabernet.
A couple relatively inexpensive Zins that will hold up to a meal is Dry Creek Vineyards Heritage Zinfandel for about $15. They also make some nice single-vineyard Zins for a bit over $30. Pedroncelli Winery, a great place for great prices, has Zinfandels in the $15-$25 range.
But you can't live by just Pinot Noir and Zinfandel alone. I also find good, not too expensive, red table blends and Rhone-style blends are handy to have around for spaghetti or burger night. Not that a Zinfandel won't work great with either of those. Or a Pinot Noir with a turkey burger.
For instance, Trentadue and Hook & Ladder both make a good, basic red blend for about $15.
Let's toast to food and wine!