White Zinfandel: Virtuous Viniculture or Viagra of the Vine
Part I: The Art of Zin
True Story: One Saturday night we “cheated on” our favorite wine haunt, Chelsea Wine Bar in El Lago, and tried a new one in Kemah. After the waitperson, unprompted, told us us that we couldn’t order draft–to which I jokingly replied, “you don’t have any draft wine?”–we asked about their Zinfandel selection, pointedly looking at the “Reds by the Glass” section of the wine menu. Without missing a beat, the server said, “Oh, we don’t serve White Zinfandel!”
We each ordered a RED Zinfandel; Joe one from Sonoma, and I from Napa, along with some hors d’oeuvres. Immediately feeling something akin to buyer’s remorse after one glass and a quick meal, we left and headed to Chelsea.
Especially in southeast Texas, if you attend an event with a cash bar, you’ll normally have a choice of three wines; a red (usually Merlot, but sometimes Cabernet Sauvignon) a white (Chardonnay), and White Zinfandel. If you simply stand by the bar as a consumption voyeur, you can watch the cowboys order red, the posh and pearls older women choose Chardonnay, and the younger and less sophisticated ask for the White Zin. It’s not always the case—but it’s more often the rule than the exception.
White Zinfandel turned 35 this year. For those who “don’t really like wine” they love White Zinfandel. And for those “serious connoisseurs” White Zin is disparaged as “not really wine.” For some, it is the gateway drug into the wonderfully addictive world of wine.
The first time I had visited “wine country” was in 1993 when a California friend took me to a few vineyards in Temecula and Napa Valley. At the time I was more interested in the tours and taking pictures than tasting wine. At several of the wineries I was disappointed, because I liked nothing they offered for tasting. But I hit the trifecta at Beringer, where I enjoyed a tour and took some fabulous pictures of the Beringer Mansion and grounds, and picked up a bottle of the White Zinfandel to take home. I was so pleasantly surprised when I found it for sale in my local Kroger store when I returned home. Let’s just say that my tastes have changed a bit from 1993, thanks to a law school professor at University of Toledo, John Barrett, and plenty of practice tasting wine.
The origins and success of White Zinfandel are a bit like those of Viagra—in looking to produce one thing, makers created a highly profitable derivative. Sildenafil (the chemical compound in Viagra) was initially studied as treatment for high blood pressure and angina. Clinical trials suggested that the drug had little effect on angina, but that it induced pronounced penile erections. Quick to recognize a goldmine, Pfizer decided to market the drug to men suffering E.D. (erectile dysfunction). With the drug’s quick success and vast profits, Pfizer and other marketers of Sildenafil, benefit from not only those suffering from E.D but from the instant gratification culture of men who respond to the ‘warning’, “if you experience an erection of 4 hours or more…”
Likewise, the success of White Zinfandel was something of a fluke. It owes its success to its Zinfandel parent grape.
The name Zinfandel was first used in America in 1832 and established a separate identity for the grape and one unique to America. Its origin is traced to a number of sources. European political history suggests that Zinfandel type vines may have migrated from their origin to various destinations, including Italy. Mike Grgic (he of the famed Paris Wine Tasting of 1976) who established Grgic Hills Winery traces the grape to Croatia. Zinfandel historians discuss vine cuttings from the Imperial Collection in Vienna as early as 1822, and the sale of Zinfandel vines advertised by Boston nursery owner Samuel Perkins in 1832. It is reported that from 1852-1857 Zinfandel vines were introduced to California by Macondary & Co., a large mercantile firm dealing largely in tea and established in San Francisco by Frederick William Macondary, the son of a Scottish sea captain and that Osborn & Boggs Nursery introduced Zinfandel to Sonoma and Napa Counties.
Zinfandel was first produced as a rosé wine in 1869 by the El Pinal Winery in Lodi, California. The resulting wine was thought of highly enough that Calfornia vitacultural commissioner Charles Wetmore, the later founder of Cresta Blanca Winery, advocated Zinfandel’s use as a white wine grape.
White Zinfandel is the California child of the French Oeil de Perdrix, the name for a very pale rosé wine made by the saignée method, in which the juice of red grapes is drawn off and fermented with little contact with the skins. Translated, Oeil de Perdix means “eye of the partridge” in reference to its pale pink color. The history of the wine style dates back to the Middle Ages in the Champagne region of France, which spread to Switzerland where it would become a popular dry rose made from Pinot noir.
A July 2003 article in the San Francisco Chronicle on White Zin’s 30th birthday tells the story of this American child of the 70’s birth:
In the 1970s, traditional Zinfandel lost consumer interest because of a combination of the overripe, high-alcohol style that had emerged and the popularity of the more profitable Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some growers bulldozed Zin vineyards and replanted; others held their ground, trusting that the explosive growth of White Zinfandel would ensure their fruit would have a home until red Zinfandel became fashionable again, as it is now.
The story goes on to tell how the winemaker Louis “Bob” Trinchero, of the Trinchero Family Wineries discovered what would make his family and Sutter Home Wines a fortune.
“During the harvest of 1972, I got this idea of how to make Zinfandel richer,” recalls Trinchero, 66, who was making blockbuster red Zins from Amador County at the time. “Prior to fermentation, I took free-run juice from the Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel, about 550 gallons, off the grape skins. It left the Deaver wine more concentrated (because of a higher skin-to-juice ratio once some juice had been removed), but now I had 550 gallons of white stuff to deal with. I put it in barrels and wondered what to do with it.”
Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers grocers of Sacramento had the solution: Bottle the dry white and he would take half to sell in his store; the Sutter Home tasting room would get the other half.
Corti and Trinchero called the wine “Oeil de Perdrix” — French for “Eye of the Partridge” — but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said an English translation was required for the label. Trinchero added “White Zinfandel” to Oeil de Perdrix and released the wine in 1973. It was bone-dry, not sweet and not very pink.
There was no Partridge made from the 1973 vintage and the 1974 was of a similar, dry style. Then in 1975, winemaking disaster struck, or, as Trinchero says, stuck. Some 1,000 gallons of bleed-off juice from red Zinfandel refused to ferment to dryness, “sticking” with a substantial amount of sugar left in it. In the heat of harvest, Trinchero put the wine aside.
“Two weeks later, I tasted that wine and it was sweet, had a pink color, and I thought, ‘Darn, that’s pretty good,’ Trinchero says. “We bottled it, and the rest is history.”
Today, there is a vigorous debate about the value of White Zinfandel. In an effort to get thoughts on bothy sides of the debate from wine industry professionals and bloggers I posed the question on Joel Vincent’s Open Wine Consortium. “Is White Zinfandel really wine?” A number of forum members weighed in. I’ll cover their commentary in Part II.
~ Amy Corron Power