Part II – White Zin: Guilty Pleasure or Virtuous Vice
White Zinfandel can be compared to Viagra, in that it came about as somewhat of a fluke; it’s a great wine for production in the age of instant gratification; and its success has been wildly profitable. The debate among bloggers and wine industry professionals puts White Zin somewhere between guilty pleasure and virtuous vice.
Back in August, we had volunteered to provide pairings for a Wine Tasting fundraiser for some local candidates running for office. As some of the candidates and their constituencies were directly affected by Hurricane Ike, our group decided to reschedule the event. Unfortunately for us, the event was moved to the Thursday before the start of the Wine Bloggers Conference. Rather than forcing us to run around like chickens with our heads cut off, other committee members stepped in to take over selecting the food and wine for the event.
To my horror, unopened bottles appearing at the meeting after the event indicated the wine substituted for Joe’s careful selections were magnum (1.5 liter) bottles of a rather “average” Texas winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and White Zinfandel. These were the wines originally suggested by committee members looking more at limiting the cost outlays to increase the funds raised for the candidates. After getting over my irritation at the group’s billing of a “wine and cheese party” as a “Wine Tasting” I got to thinking about my own experiences with White Zin, and what others in the wine industry thought of this popular but often disparaged wine.
Today, there is a vigorous debate about the value of White Zinfandel. To get both sides from wine industry professionals and bloggers I headed over to Open Wine Consortium and started a discussion with the post “Is White Zinfandel really wine?” OWC is run by Joel Vincent, a guy I wouldn’t mind emulating when I grow up. A number of forum members weighed in with commentary, memories of their experiences with White Zin. Here are some of their responses.
I was at DeLoach yesterday and I was told that white Zinfandel “saved” Zinfandel in California. The grape was not in vogue and everyone was starting to pull them out and plant another varietal. Sutter Home started selling White Zin and Zinfandel became a familiar name to the masses. Cline and other wineries made their reputation on Zinfandel. Btw, Cline does not make a rose from zin and if they did they probably wouldn’t call it White Zin because the connotation does not fit their brand identity as serious Zin producers.
Many OWC’s posters see White Zin as an introduction to wine drinking. Evelyne Resnick author of Wine Brands: Success Strategies for New Markets, New Consumers and New Trends, published in July, 2008, who blogs at Wine Brands posted
One of my friends had a very interesting comment once we were discussing white zinfandel. He said he didn’t understand why “serious” wine consumers were so dismissive of white zinfandel drinkers. To him it would be more productive to introduce white zinfandel drinkers to semi sweet wines, such as Riesling. It is a very clever idea. White Zinfandel could be considered the “gate opener” to more complex wines.
Dustin Jones, a San Diego wine importer who writes a German Wine Blog writes:
You know I really love good wine, and because I’m in the industry it’s good for me if more people drink wine. So if some people choose to buy and drink white Zinfandel I say, go ahead and hope that at some point they will trade up to something better. Often a Riesling, Gewurztraminer or CA Sauv Blanc (oakier the better) is a great wine to transition someone into.
Jen, A Wine & Spirit Trust (WSET) advanced certificate-holder, who writes about wine at Save Water. Drink More Wine agrees:
Many times white zinfandel is the beginning of many years of wine education and enjoyment. We all had to start somewhere.
Catie McIntyre Walker, an industry professional and 50-something mother of two who blogs at Through The Walla Walla Grape Vine ™ tells how she steered a newbie away from White Zinfandel:
“I would defend it a bit when it comes to a newbie wanting to try wine – if someone was not a drinker of alcohol and stumbled upon white zin and enjoyed it. Sure why not, but I would recommend to that newbie to branch out and try other off-dry wines. And then, once they are ready for a good solid red wine, I would recommend to the newbie to try the red wines with food.
I spent seven years behind a tasting room bar and I can honestly say I never put down a person if they asked why we didn’t make a white zinfandel and that was their wine of choice. Sure, my mind might of thought differently, but my answer was diplomatic and it gave me an opportunity to give out some wine education and give them other wine suggestions.
Funny – I was behind the tasting room bar and a young woman walked in. It was first thing in the morning and she was the only customer. I guess I made her comfortable because she told me that this was the first winery she had ever been into and wanted to know what was the first thing she should NOT mention or do as she went around visiting other tasting room. I told her, “Whatever you do – do not ask for a white zinfandel.”
Several OWC forum contributors defended white zin, taking offense at the notion that White Zin drinkers should be encouraged to “trade up.” Kenneth Hulick is a travel writer and marketing consultant also from Washington State. Kenneth, who blogs at A Meal Without Wine disagrees with a post that says, “It is our duty to take these baby wine drinkers and turn them into true wine lovers” when he writes
They already ARE true wine lovers. Maybe they’re not loving “our” wines, but to them drinking White Zin IS drinking wine. Hey, I don’t care for most red Bordeaux; does this disqualify me from being a true wine lover? Encourage the newbies; guide ‘em, sure; but turn ‘em into “true wine lovers”? I’m not sure I agree.
And followed up with:
What’s the big deal here? There are Syrah Roses, French Vin de Pays Rose, some wonderful Spanish Grenache (Garnacha) Roses, etc. Why does anyone look down upon Zinfandel Rose? It’s one of the most food-friendly wines, and needs no “excuses” for its existence. Note that these words are coming from the perspective of a long-time Ridge Zin fan — huge, fruit-bomb Zins are my favorite wines in the world. There are wines for everyone, and White Zin should have an honorable place at the table.
Alex Hill considers himself a lifelong student of wine. A resident of Healdsburg, CA, Alex hosts Profiles in Wine on Discover Wine Country TV. He posts on OWC:
As for getting White Zin drinkers to “trade up,” it is something that has been attempted numerous times. The last statistic I saw showed that 75% of White Zin drinkers will remain White Zin drinkers. Most will NEVER trade up. Wineries have tried turning them on to “Reserve” White Zin, White Merlot, and off-dry white wines but their efforts have proven futile. Hey, at least they’re drinking wine.
I say, leave them alone. Let them enjoy the wine they like. For hundreds of years it was sweet wines, not dry, that were all the rage in most wine drinking regions of the world. Heck, many of the people who come out and bash White Zin are the first to proclaim the merits of the most expensive Napa Valley Cabernets, many of which are big, sweet, syrupy fruit bombs that hardly retain any varietal character. That says something about the disconnect within America’s wine culture.
John Stallcup agrees. Formerly VP Marketing of The Wine Group, John co-founded Napa Seasoning Company . John writes:
The idea that white zin drinkers need to mature or learn to love wine is a myth. White zin drinkers tend to be very loyal to white zin far more than other varietals consumers stay loyal to theirs. Whte zin drinkers tend to be people with far more taste buds per square centimeter than consumers who drink other varietals, making them the most sensitive wine consumers. White zin drinking has nothing do do with maturity or sophistication just preference. Preference is based on your individual combination of proclivity (what your genetics provided you) and plasticity (what has changed your neurology thru positive and negative experience).
Any wine category consumption is a good thing for the industry.
Along with Hair Bands, the birth of the ATM and for some of us, graduating from Boone’s Farm, many remember their experiences with White Zinfandel in the 1980’s. A Ventura-based writer and teacher who hosts a YouTube videos on her art predator blog writes,
“you like me probably have fond memories of the early 80s almost dry white zins that Ridge made! When I worked the tasting room there, we sold oodles of it for people to enjoy with their picnics and to share with friends who “weren’t really into wine.”
Eve Siemisnki describes herself as a 30 year resident of San Diego. And a wife, a mother, pet owner, hard working woman and best of all, lover of wine! She is a regular contributor to OWC, and blogs about luxury home real estate and wines at Luxury Home Digest . Eve says,
“The first wine I ever had was in the 80’s it was pink in the box and yes a white Zin. I thought it was so cool and good and once when I brought it to a friends house for dinner (someone who really knew wine) they sent it home with me. Since this was and is a good friend I wasn’t offended. That night she sat me down and introduced me to real wine. It took me years of tastings, purchases, reading and talking about wine to come to the place I am today. While I do not feel an “expert”, I now know good wine. My palate has been developed and the pink stuff is, shall I say, offensive to my taste.
Here is the deal, if my friend hadn’t pulled my head out of my pink a*&^, I might still be sipping it.”
Jeff Shai, a regular on twitter as “eljefetwisted” is often seen carrying a rubber chicken when he pours (I personally saw him do this during the Speed Tasting portion of the Wine Bloggers Conference last October) Founder and El Jefe at Twisted Oak Winery , Jeff blogs at El Bloggio Torcido. El Jefe writes
There are lots of insipid wines in the world made from all sorts of different varieties, even Cabs and Chards. The “problem” with White Zin is that there are no “good” ones being made anymore (at least that I am aware of.) Back in the 80’s when lots of wineries were making them, there were lots of delicious White Zins that were dry, fruity, and could compare favorably with other Rose’ wines. Towards the end of the 80’s those wines left the market as the sweeter White Zins came to dominate.
When meeting people and upon saying that I am in the wine biz, I’ll often hear (usually apologetically) that they just drink White Zin, I’ll say something like “Cool. You enjoy wine. That’s great!” Perhaps one day they’ll join the 25%, and I’ll be there for them.
But of all the comments to my discussion, I think I liked those that told stories about experiences with White Zin.
Maria Eugenia De Alejandro is a business attorney who loves wine and blogs at Keep Wine Simple For her “White Zinfandel” story she writes;
I am a great believer that everyone is entitled to like whatever it is that they like. In my blog/website I am always “preaching” that there are no wrong answers when it comes to wine, your taste rules.
Having said that, this discussions brings back fond memories (or maybe not so fond), and a good chuckle. A few years ago we attended a wedding in Mexicali, Baja California Mexico. It was a beautiful wedding, with many friends and family in attendance.
The wedding was wonderful and elegant, except for the fact that they only had white zinfandel, no other wine. One of my sisters and I drank water all night long. When we got to the hotel, my sister and I decided to go to the bar and have a glass of wine. To our dismay and frustration they only had white zinfandel by the glass. If we wanted anything else we had to buy a bottle.
It seemed that the whole town was awash in white zinfandel, and we were two lost chardonnay souls crying in the wilderness. We were also being extremely stubborn by refusing to buy a bottle of wine. Heck no, we wanted a glass, not a bottle. It seemed like such a reasonable request! Finally the bartender relented and decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble to annoy two old ladies. We finally got our wine. To this day I cannot even remember what kind of wine we had, I just know it wasn’t white zin.
Every time I hear the words “white zinfandel” I think of that night in Mexicali and I have to laugh. Sometimes I am even tempted to order a glass because I feel guilty at turning up my nose at this wine, but then I tell myself “some other time”. If I ever do, I’ll blog about it, I promise.
Catie also had a White Zin story:
My first experience with White Zin was in the early 90’s. My 20-something year old niece from Sacramento came to visit the summer before she was to be married. When she spotted our wine rack, she commented that she was also a wine lover. We normally drank Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style blends and an occasional Chianti. One afternoon she went shopping and came back with a bottle of Sutter Home White Zin. She explained that it was the popular wine in California and she was so enthused to share it with us.
For the moment – White Zinfandel was the perfect wine.
And perhaps a story and post by Hoke Harden, Manager of Wine Education for Sonoma Cutrer Vineyards, and education liaison for the Society of Wine Educators, sums up our debate best as he writes:
My White Zinfandel story is not even mine. It belongs to the remarkable Tim Hanni, a man of frightful intelligence and insight, and a maven of wine and food.
He frequently tells the story of his mother, a retired professor from the UC system, and a woman of great intelligence and sophistication. She has easily dwelled amongst the rich and famous, has traveled extensively, has availed herself of the arts and luxuries of a long and fruitful life.
She has been known to go into restaurants—very fine restaurants—and order her meal very carefully. She particularly loves a good cut of prime meat. Then she orders a White Zinfandel.
Tim, when accompanying her, prepares for what sometimes happens: a steward will look ever so slightly down his nose and say, “Oh, Madam, are you sure you want a….White? Zinfandel? I can suggest a much better wine with your steak than that!”
When Tim hears this, he chuckles a bit sympathetically for the poor server, as his Mom fixes same with a withering stare, pulls herself sternly up to attention in her chair, and in a voice cold as steel says, “And just who in the hell do you think you are? Are you questioning my taste?” It generally does downhill from there.
It’s a good question: just who in the hell do we think we are, when we can so cavalierly dismiss people for drinking what they apparently enjoy? (As long as we append an obligatory “But I’m not a wine snob!” immediately after behaving like one.) We don’t question collectors of Grand Cru Burgundy, do we? We assume anyone who has the wherewithal to amass huge stacks of First Growth Bordeaux estates has good taste—when all they possibly have is lots of money. But it’s okay, somehow, to diss on people who simply enjoy a glass of wine. People who comfortably know what they like. And people who don’t try to tell us oh so much more sophisticated wine ‘connoisseurs’ what is right, and what is wrong.
After more than thirty years of being in this business I love, this is the one thing that is most disturbing: this need some people have to think their desires, their tastes, their choices, are somehow necessarily superior to others’. Must be something in our monkey brains.
You can read the entire General Forum discussion, “Is White Zinfandel really Wine” at Open Wine Consortium. Cheers to you! And Happy 35th Birthday White Zinfandel!
~ Amy Corron Power