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.

Enduring The Big Game and Joe Buck: How To Drink On Super Bowl Sunday

(Warning: Contains some football and other sports content)

Long before I became interested in alcoholic beverages, I was a severe sports nerd. I still follow sports, but it doesn't consume my life as it once did. The days of watching a hockey game go into five overtimes on a Wednesday in February are over; I value sleep far more than my desire to stay up for a game. That being said, I have still been hooked on one sport and that is professional football.

Yeah, I know. The sport isn't perfect these days, and truthfully none of them are. Football game flow is choppier now and off-field transgressions are always in the spotlight. Basketball games come to a screeching halt with two minutes left in a half. Baseball can take forever since there is no clock. Major college sports is driven by the quest for the dollar. I get it, trust me. But with its ease of television viewing, ability to wager (where legal) and play fantasy games, I can't resist the call of the National Football League. 

So this little sporting event viewed by gazillions of people is being played on Sunday evening that I shouldn't really mention by name or some NFL executive's minion will beat down my door and give me a scolding, a fine, and perhaps take one of my children away as a penalty (Hint: it rhymes with "Duper Hole"). But this Sunday's championship largely isn't watched for the game itself (unless you live in Atlanta or a state north of Connecticut). Instead, we have large gatherings of friends, family, coworkers, and maybe even a few enemies. We watch the funny commercials and movie trailers. We have "square pools" and friendly wagers. We have tons of food and drink at the ready, because if you are getting started when the pregame shows are on, this is a 12-hour event for you.

This man hates your team. Image credit: Twitter @DrunkJoeBuck

This man hates your team. Image credit: Twitter @DrunkJoeBuck

Ah, drink you say? Indeed I do, because for roughly five hours, you have to hear Joe Buck, Fox Sports Lead Announcer, slight your team on Sunday (C'mon...you believe he hates your team with his commentary, no matter which team you root for). You can go in any direction you want: beer, wine or spirit. The key here is to get something you don't have to think about too much. Remember, you are likely at a casual party or focused intently on the game, eating many different things. Your party foods might be along the lines of nachos, pizza, wings, burgers, or pulled pork/barbecue just to name a few favorites.

I tend to favor low-alcohol beers, anything less than 6.0% abv and fruity and/or acidic wines low in tannin. Want a few recommendations? I have them for you below. Whether your team is in the game or you don't care about football, enjoy yourself this Sunday and as always...drink responsibly. 

If you are a beer person, rooting for New England: 

  • Berkshire Brewing Co. (Massachusetts) Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale ($6, 22 oz. bottle). This is the brewery's flagship product; it is malty and rich, but not crazy-high in alcohol at 5.2%. A good match with a simple burger.

If you are a beer person, rooting for Atlanta:

  • Pontoon Brewing Co. (Georgia) No Pants Pilsner ($9/six-pack). If you prefer a Lager style, this pine-scented Southern Pilsner is very refreshing, smooth, and easy-drinking, great with a plate of wings.

If you are a beer person who doesn't care about the game at all:

  • Ommegang (New York) Game of Thrones: Iron Throne ($10, 25.4 oz bottle). Sit back and watch the chaos and squirming from afar while you sip on this Belgian-style Pale Ale from Cooperstown, NY. That's right...I recommended a beer from the Baseball Hall of Fame location for a football game.

If you are a wine person, here's what we are tasting at the store this afternoon from 2:00-5:00pm:

  • Andrew Murray Vineyards Santa Maria Valley Viognier, (about $20). This white grape traditionally grown in the Rhone Valley of France has a second home in Santa Barbara County, California. Andrew Murray's expression is citrusy, floral, and has a honey-drizzled peach flavor. Great for Buffalo or "Hot & Honey" style wings.
  • Monti Guidi Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva ($15). When the Montepulciano grape shows its best, it is a fruity, dry red wine. Flavors of sour cherries and blackberry jam with a touch of black licorice. Two years in barrel increased the wine's body and softens the tannins. Perfect for a sausage and pepper sandwich or just a slice of cheese pizza.
  • Bodegas Ateca "Atteca" Garnacha ($16). This Garnacha from Aragon, Spain is very full-bodied with soft caramelized red fruit peppery spice. I like this with a plate of loaded nachos.
  • The Federalist Mendocino County Zinfandel, Bourbon-Barrel Aged ($21). Zinfandel when made as a serious red wine is plush, soft, and very fruity/jammy. After the wine is fermented and aged as normal, it is transferred to used Bourbon barrels for six months to impart extra cherry and vanilla flavor. Even though the abv registers a whopping 15.5%, you don't even feel the fire from the alcohol. Great with pulled pork or brisket BBQ.

If your team is victorious:

  • Oban 14 Year Old Single Malt Scotch ($80): Treat yourself to what I feel is the most balanced flagship product of any distillery. It has just the right amount of fruitiness, malt, spice, and smoke. Congratulations to you! 

 If your team failed:

  • Water (Free, from the tap): Rehydrate and go to bed. No need to wake up the next morning both hung over and a loser.