Ben Salazar fell in love with wine — a freefall, really — in the early 2000s when he was a 20-something bartender at the Rutherford Grill in Napa Valley.

"I had many conversations about wine with winemakers and grape growers who stopped in for dinner or a post-harvest beer," he said.

Salazar, 36, is the winemaker behind our wine-of-the-week winner — the Edmeades, 2011 Mendocino County Zinfandel, a great value for the $20 price tag.

The zinfandel is ripe, but not over the top, and it's briary, with an undercurrent of cracked black pepper. But what makes it distinct is its layered concentration of fruit flavors — blackberry, black cherry, plum and a hint of rhubarb.

"Zinfandel's strength is its generous fruit profile," Salazar said. "We play to that strength and make wines with wonderful fruit expression, using oak to compliment that fruit character, not compete with it."

Salazar said producing a wine with pitch-perfect fruit is all about pinpointing the pick.

"The decision when to pick is always what I fret over the most," he said. "The crystal ball is always a little foggy because the maturity and ripeness of the fruit can vary significantly in a vineyard."

This time of year, cool-weather reds like zinfandel draw our attention, Salazar said.

"Fall is when my wine preferences turn decidedly red," he said. "Zinfandel can transition well as you move from simpler, grilled summer fare to fall dishes that are richer, like whole roasted chicken or braised pork loin."

Salazar began as an enologist for Edmeades in 2008, and took on the winemaking responsibilities in 2012. The Edmeades tasting room is in Philo at 5500 Hwy. 128.

A long-time fan of zin, Salazar said producing it is a treat because he admires its unique connection to California wine history.

"It (zinfandel) has been here since the beginning, and it was California that provided the right kind of climate for zinfandel to make its case to be regarded as a world-class wine grape," he said. "It has always been at the top of my list of favorites because it's so delicious and a great value for the quality."

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.

<strong>Wine of the Week</strong>: <strong>Scouting for the tastiest zinfandels</strong>

<em>Wine writer Peg Melnik had a blind tasting this week of zinfandels, from elegant to ripe, and our wine-of-the-week winner is the Edmeades, 2011 Mendocino County Zinfandel, a tasty value at $20.</em>

<strong>TOP PICK: Edmeades</strong>

<strong>Edmeades, 2011 Mendocino County Zinfandel</strong>, 14.5 percent alcohol, $20. *** 1/2 A ripe zinfandel but not over the top. Layered, with fruit flavors of blackberry, black cherry, plum and a hint of rhubarb. Briary, with an undercurrent of cracked black pepper. Nice length. A great price point for the value.

<strong>Others worth mentioning:</strong>

<strong>Seghesio, 2010 San Lorenzo, Alexander Valley Zinfandel,</strong> 14.8 percent, $60. **** 1/2 A striking zinfandel with a seamless texture. A full-bodied, big-boy zin with gorgeous fruit and complex flavors. Notes of blackberry, black cherry, herbs and pepper. Lingering finish. A knockout.

<strong>Williams Selyem, 2011 Russian River Valley Zinfandel,</strong> 14.5 percent, $52. **** A bright, lively zinfandel with lovely red fruit flavors. High-toned notes of bright cherry, raspberry and cranberry. Good acidity. Crisp finish.

<strong>Healdsburg Ranches, 2011 California Coastal Series Zinfandel,</strong> 14.5 percent, $13. *** A tasty zinfandel for the price. Briary, with aromas and flavors of cherry, blueberry and white pepper. Zesty finish. A good quaffer.

<strong>Wilson, 2011 Buzz, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County Zinfandel,</strong> 16 percent, $36. **** A ripe, snappy zinfandel with notes of blackberry, plum and black pepper. Good concentration of fruit. Spicy finish. A solid pick.