In Praise Of White Zinfandel

This past Saturday, I was working at the Divine Wine Emporium, leading an afternoon tasting out on the deck. After a week loaded with cool, gray, rainy days that made me want to reach for some Scotch, it was great to have a breezy, sunny day. Even better, it was great to have a gathering outside and get exploring some wines that are ideal for summer.

A decidedly American creation. Image credit:  Sutter Home Winery

A decidedly American creation. Image credit: Sutter Home Winery

While we sampled a killer rosé from Chile and another from Oregon, and discussing how they compare to the pink wines of Provence, I overheard a common side conversation referring to drinking in days of yore that would go something like this:

"Remember when we used to drink White Zinfandel??"

"Oh my goodness, we used to get huge bottles of that stuff."

"You mean the sweet pink wine that comes in a box? I remember drinking that, too!"

Well, how about you? Do you remember/currently know White Zinfandel? Yes, it is a pink wine (often referred to as a "blush" rather than a rosé) with some residual sugar left behind. When White Zinfandel was produced for the first time, it was a style created by accident. Bob Trinchero of the Sutter Home Winery wanted to make his red Zinfandel (Zinfandel is indeed a red grape variety) wines stronger and more intense; Zinfandel was a grape variety in danger of being ripped out for something more commercially viable if he couldn't make the wines work. Trinchero drained some of the juice away from the skins the fermenting tank, leading to a higher ratio of skins to juice. With more of the juice touching the skins, more color, flavor, and tannin could be extracted and achieve Trinchero's desired result. The drained juice had a pink color from brief skin contact, and since Trinchero was a fan of dry French rosé, he figured this would be his interpretation of what he enjoyed so much.

Then one day in 1975, Trinchero's fermentation was "stuck," meaning the yeasts never finished converting all of the grape sugars in the juice to alcohol. So...he bottled the wine anyway, complete with residual sugar left behind and he labeled it "White Zinfandel."

Next thing you know, Sutter Home's White Zinfandel took off. Americans had a major sweet tooth back then, and this fruity-sweet wine was just what the consumer was looking for. Sales skyrocketed from 25,000 cases in 1981 to 4.5 million in 1987. Over time, the American consumer was given greater access to more styles of wines. The trend has gone toward drier, more food-friendly wines, but that hasn't prevented Sutter Home from continuing to ship north of four million cases of White Zinfandel annually.

Would you like to know a little secret? Sutter Home White Zinfandel is the first wine I ever drank. I will also bet that it was one of your first tastes of wine, too. Inexpensive and easy to knock back in your youth, it was a change of pace from cheap beer or cheap rum/vodka/whiskey/spirit of choice...for when we wanted to appear sophisticated! Pack it with a picnic lunch and you were ready to go.

Gnarled old Zinfandel vines. Image credit:  Lodi Winegrape Commission

Gnarled old Zinfandel vines. Image credit: Lodi Winegrape Commission

A by-product of White Zinfandel's success was the rescuing of decades-old Zinfandel vines from being replaced. These vines don't produce a lot of fruit, but the grapes that show up are concentrated, intense, and loaded with character. In fact, consumers became curious about what a red wine made from Zinfandel tasted like. Red Zinfandel's plush texture and "fruit bomb" nature makes it a great partner for your barbecued meats.

Additionally, there are now some California wineries making dry rosé wines from Zinfandel grapes but labeling it as "White Zinfandel." The wineries are savvy...they know the name "White Zinfandel" has become a recognizable brand, but some effort has to go into conveying that the current style is one that is not sweetened by residual sugar. It's all part of making sure you are well-informed and know what to expect when you open your bottle.

White Zinfandel is a style that was the gateway wine for many a newbie and the bane of many a connoisseur. With the long Memorial Day weekend heading to the rearview mirror, it only makes sense to raise a glass to this uniquely American creation. There are not a lot of wineries making a "White Zinfandel," and those that do actually don't keep it on their shelves for long...the wines are in demand! So I have just two for you to compare side-by-side, and yes wine geeks...I am writing a tasting note for the Sutter Home wine!

Sutter Home White Zinfandel (less than $10): Depending on your market and local beverage depot's buying power, you might find this for as low as $7.99. Watermelon Jolly Ranchers, strawberry Starbursts, and cantaloupe flavors meant to be a casual picnic wine or as a match for spicy pan-Asian cuisine. Terrific choice for making a homemade Sangria.

Image credit:  Broc Cellars

Image credit: Broc Cellars

Broc Cellars Sonoma County White Zinfandel ($25): Made in small quantities, this is a peppery wine with fresh strawberry and watermelon flavors. According to Broc's web site, it sells out very quickly. If you can get your hands on it, it is a great way to get acquainted with the new take on White Zinfandel.