Bogey's Educational Series: White Zinfandel (The True Story!)
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years in the wine industry in the US, it’s that White Zinfandel is, for better or for worse, one of the wines that holds our industry together. What you might not know is the impact the wine had on the California wine market, or what the wine did for Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and wine tourism in the United States.
Let’s take a moment and really discuss the wine. Do you, faithful reader and wine lover, know how White Zinfandel is produced?
Let’s start with a little Zinfandel talk. Name your favorite Zin. Mine comes from Ridge Winery and can be found in many stores in the US (click here to see it at Bogey’s!). It comes from Dry Creek Valley, a sub-AVA of Sonoma County AVA in California. Dry Creek Valley, as it happens, is home to some of the very best Zinfandels in all of California, as well as some of the oldest. When Italian settlers first came out to California, a large number of them settled in Dry Creek Valley, bringing their native Primitivo varietal with them. Not naturally Phylloxera-resistant, Primitivo was grafted to native American vines in the 1860s to prevent the vines from falling prey to the scourge that Phylloxera represented. (To read more about Phylloxera, the pest that almost wiped modern wine grapes from the face of the earth, check out my blog post here!) The grape reached new heights of popularity during the gold rush, where it supplanted the native Mission variety (much to the pleasure of miners who associated the Mission grape with its use in Sunday Church services).
In the 1970s, Sutter Home began producing a dry rosé made from excess free run from their crushed Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines became very popular, but ultimately ended up suffering from an affliction called “stuck fermentation”, in which fermentation stops before the yeast in the wine can consume all the sugar and convert it to alcohol. Wines afflicted with stuck fermentation become very sweet and, while it is traditionally considered a fault, Sutter Home decided that it actually did them a favor: the wine was delicious and sales increased to a tremendous degree. However, they originally decided to market it as White Cabernet, which led to confusion among their customers because it didn’t resemble Cabernet Sauvignon at all. Instead, they decided to market the wine as White Zinfandel, blending free run juice from both Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel and creating what we call White Zinfandel today. Suddenly, Zinfandel was finding favor again after a rather lackluster sales history. The success of White Zinfandel was such that it prevented Zinfandel vines from being uprooted and replaced with more successful varieties.
Today, White Zinfandel is often an introduction to the wine industry, popular amongst people at the age extremes 21 (and probably younger; this writer claims a solid “no comment”) and 65+. My favorite is Sutter Home's Original White Zinfandel. Zinfandel (or “Red Zinfandel”) is enjoyed by many and has loyal enthusiasts at all ages through the industry. Lush, rich, delicious, bold, and fruit-forward, some of my favorites are Ridge and Rombauer, both showing two different expressions of Zinfandel (Ridge comes from Sonoma, as mentioned above; and Rombauer’s Zinfandel is from Napa). No matter how you enjoy Zinfandel, we all owe a debt to White Zinfandel for keeping the spirit alive!