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. If you’ve been reading along with my previous posts, you’ll know I discuss its impact on the industry fairly often. Or rather, I dance around the issue of White Zinfandel without actually discussing it because of the negative connotations that wine elicits in wine lovers.
But let’s take a moment and really discuss the wine. Do you, faithful reader and wine lover, know how White Zinfandel is produced? Do you, perhaps, know the impact White Zinfandel has had on the wine industry, or the debts we owe to Gallo, Sutter Home and Beringer?
Let’s start with a little Zinfandel talk. Name your favorite Zin. Mine comes from Seghesio and can be found pretty much anywhere (check the bottom of the page for a few links to where you can get the wine). 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 variety 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. 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 Zinfandel. 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. 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+, and people of limited income due to the wine’s availability in large formats for relatively low prices. Anyone who works in the industry or enjoys Zinfandel owes a tremendous debt to White Zinfandel producers, for keeping up the popularity of wine amongst all age groups and for allowing California to keep its Zinfandel vines.