Sometimes, it seems as though zinfandel -- the red kind -- gets no more respect than its "white" rendition (which, of course, is pink).

It's almost replacing merlot as the Rodney Dangerfield of red wines, at least in restaurants. La Belle Vie offers up zero zins, while Mission American Kitchen's new list drops the zinfandel category and places the two remaining offerings in the "Interesting Reds" column.

That actually makes some sense. Often considered the All-American grape even though it emanates from Croatia and is identical to Italy's primitivo, zinfandel tends to be high in alcohol -- which many eateries understandably are moving away from -- and has a brawny style that can overwhelm a lot of dishes.

Retail stores, though, are a different matter. "I don't get asked very often for zinfandels that show restraint," said Mitch Zavada, wine buyer at South Lyndale Liquors in Minneapolis. "More often they say, 'I want the big, jammy style.'"

Zavada said zinfandel sales "are holding pretty strong" and that zin-based blends are particularly popular. Laurel Glen Reds, Pedroncelli Friends and Marietta Old Vine are great values among the blends, and Zavada said Rabbit Ridge's Le Lapin zin was "pretty ridiculous" at $6 to $8.

Inexpensive zins are almost uniformly fruit-forward and straightforward, although Rancho Zabaco's Dancing Bull and Bogle are less over-the-top, with some nice acidity. These are classic pizza wines.

Those shopping in the $15 range can get a good bit more complexity and deliciousness from Four Vines' California Old Vine and Sonoma County bottlings from Kenwood and Dry Creek Vineyards. At around $20, the Murphy-Goode Liar's Dice, made by Edina native Dave Ready Jr., is a big ol' bottle of voluptuousness.

Dishing out a few more bucks generally means getting a wine that truly tastes like the ground it came out of, with briary and minerally notes complementing the dark berry flavors typical of most zinfandels.

Providing great quality-price ratios are Seghesio Sonoma County ($24), Chateau Montelena Napa ($30), the Lytton Springs and Geyserville blends from Ridge ($38) and anything from Turley (prices vary).

For pure hedonistic pleasure, the Martinelli Giuseppe & Luisa zin ($50) is hard to beat, and a once-a-year staple at our house.

The good news is that occasion can fall in most any month, since zinfandel fits right into all seasons. If/when the weather ever warms up, zin is the perfect match for grilled burgers, brats and especially baby-back ribs. As for winter, Zavada aptly points out that "if it's 20-below, sometimes you wanna grab something that's like a liqueur."

Bill Ward •