White Zinfandel is the Paris Hilton of wine: cheap, intolerably stupid, yet somehow still fashionable and newsworthy years after her reality show was cancelled.
Like the child of hotel billionaires, this pink vinous equivalent was also an afterthought. In 1972, in an oft-forgotten sliver of Northern California known as Amador County, Sutter Home created their first “White Zinfandel” when they separated some fermenting grape juice from what would become a red Zinfandel wine. The end result was the sickly-sweet, light pink wine known for sending shudders down the spines of most wine lovers and smiles to box-toting grannies and bottle blondes everywhere.
Do I dare pose the question, does White Zinfandel deserve its gag-worthy reputation? Could the Paris Hiltons and Franzias actually have more to offer the world, especially as rosé sales in the United States continue to climb?
First, let’s take a look at how White Zin landed at the bottom of wine’s proverbial barrel:
The process used for making White Zinfandel, known as the saignee or bleeding method, has been common both inside and outside of the United States for a long time. Essentially, the process concentrates red wines by removing some of the pink juice and allowing the remaining wine more contact with color-inducing grape skins. Because the process is so easy to perform, it rendered most pink wines convenient accounts receivable for wineries and afterthoughts to winemakers. Not exactly a recipe for quality, quaffable wines.
As demand skyrocketed for inexpensive White Zinfandel after Sutter Home introduced its accidental stunner, wineries realized it was more profitable to use cheap grapes from undesirable locales like the California desert AKA Central Valley instead of utilizing higher quality Napa or Amador fruit. The introduction of bag-in-box packaging in the late ‘70s was another cost eliminator, and another step down for White Zin and its reputation.
Next in the ‘80s, White Zinfandel became the go-to mixer for wine spritzers and bad sangria, and its inherent sweetness–which initially attracted drinkers used to soda or fruity cocktails–made it stand out as a wine designed for underage drinking and tacky blondes instead of adults.
Connoisseurs go farther than simply disliking White Zin–they look down on it the way a Pulitzer Prize-winning chemist looks at Paris when she says “That’s hot,” and knows she’s never used a thermometer.
But in many ways, the sweet pink plonk doesn’t deserve such a bad rap since, it could be argued, it was the gateway to America’s current rosé renaissance. As of 2014, rosé imports were up for the 9th straight year, and American rosé is starting to match or dominate imports on wine store shelves.
Partly, the rise comes from producers targeting the “snobs” or “connoisseurs” who so powerfully shun White Zinfandel in favor of dry rosés. These vintners started growing grapes specifically for rosé wines in the early ‘90s, usually picking them earlier to retain refreshing levels of acid and the bright fruit flavors that come from red grapes.
Yet despite the rise in rosé consumption, White Zin still has a huge stigma, and many Zinfandel rosés–dry or otherwise–have simply been labeled rosé or vin gris to avoid alienating consumers. ‘
But now, as temperatures rise and a new vintage of rosés flood the market, those same folks who would only use Sutter Home bottles as bowling pins are diving into the ‘White Zinfandel’ game wholeheartedly. California’s iconic Turley Wine Cellars was one of the first to start taking White Zinfandel back from its sweet reputation in 2011. Since then, Turley has produced a beautiful wine from Napa Valley grapes that’s still surprisingly affordable ($22). The 2011 sold out in two hours, despite its “White Zin” label, and subsequent vintages have sold nearly as quickly. The 2014 White Zinfandel is bright and fruity on the nose with great strawberry tones, and completely dry. As winemaker Tegan Passalaqua says, “It’s what the French simply call rosé.”
Similarly, Berkeley’s Broc Cellars, produces a dry, bright crimson rosé with fruit from Sonoma that also places “White Zinfandel” squarely on the label ($24).
It’s with that attitude that American winemakers are taking a serious bite into the rosé business, traditionally dominated by bulk producers and Provence. With White Zin still accounting for 10% of all wine in America as of 2006, I’d wager a decent slice of their success comes not in spite of White Zinfandel, but because of it and the renaissance it created.