Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: White zinfandel revival grows in Lodi

Winemaker Michael McCay stands next to artwork by Alex Andrade of Modesto.
Winemaker Michael McCay stands next to artwork by Alex Andrade of Modesto.

The history of white zinfandel has come full circle. It began in Lodi more than a century ago, and that’s where a potential revival of the wine is taking root, thanks to one gutsy vintner.

That would be Michael McCay, whose McCay Cellars has drawn attention for its emphasis on vineyard-designated zinfandels from heritage plots. His zinfandels are more agile and sleeker than those usually identified with Lodi.

Prices for his red zinfandels range from $28 to $64, but this spring he added to his lineup his first white zinfandel, which sells for $18, even though it is made with grapes from the same Lot 13 Vineyard that yields his Faith red zinfandel, which sells for $32. (White zinfandel is made from the same grapes that yield red zinfandel; the juice is relatively clear, picking up pigment from contact with grape skins. Red zinfandel is subjected to much more of those skins than white zinfandel, which generally isn’t so much white as pink.)

Where’s the business sense in McCay’s use of some of his prized zinfandel grapes for a less-expensive wine? Well, white zinfandel, even though it can be more demanding to make than red zinfandel in terms of expertise and precision, also can be cheaper to produce because it doesn’t require long-term aging in oak barrels. By comparison, the red zinfandel from the same vineyard and the same 2014 harvest will rest in wood for two years or longer. White zinfandel gives McKay a quicker return on his investment.

It was’t long ago that McCay became interested in white zinfandel’s history, which California wine historian Charles Sullivan traces to Lodi. There, writes Sullivan in his book “Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine,” George West of El Pinal Winery made in 1869 what is believed to be the first white zinfandel.

Nevertheless, white zinfandel didn’t become a staple of California’s wine trade until 1975, when Sutter Home Winery in Napa Valley released a sweet interpretation. The success of that wine helped lay the foundation for the tremendous growth of Trinchero Family Estates, Sutter Home’s parent company, which recently built a mammoth winery in Lodi.

Sutter Home still makes a lot of white zinfandel, but as a category the style is dropping in popularity. Last year, sales of white zinfandel priced between $3 and $7, the niche where most of it is congregated, plunged 236,000 cases from the previous year, according to wine-industry analyst Jon Fredrikson.

That kind of news didn’t alarm McCay. He sees his white zinfandel as far removed from the style popularized by Sutter Home. Similar to other vintners – such as Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars and Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars – McCay makes his dry, without the residual sugar that makes most white zinfandels taste sweet.

In addition, McCay isn’t basing the future of his winery on white zinfandel. From last fall’s harvest he made just 70 cases, a fraction of his total output of 4,500 cases.

“My goal was to make something different. What is white zinfandel supposed to be? I don’t know. I wanted to make it and to see where it went,” McCay says. “I wanted to have fun.”

He also wanted to acknowledge Lodi’s underappreciated role in a bit of California wine history. “In 1869, the first white zinfandel was made in Lodi. That’s heritage. I love history, so I said, ‘Let’s go back to our roots here,’” McCay says.

No record of the style of the 1869 white zinfandel appears to exist, so McCay was on his own, and took his cues from the dry, light and crisp pink wines that have developed a growing following in recent years.

He made his white zinfandel with the same sort of precision he applies to his other wines, starting with grapes off his own century-old vineyard and fermenting the juice with wild yeasts in 55-gallon stainless-steel drums.

The result is a brilliant rosé with flashing hues of cranberry and purple. The fragrant aroma carries a suggestion of lavender. The flavor runs to the raspberry and strawberry side of zinfandel, with a side of spice. It is unusually ample for the genre, but also unusually spirited. It weighs in with just 13.1 percent alcohol, which could be grounds for excommunication from Lodi’s zinfandel fraternity.

“It crosses over from being a summer-afternoon white zinfandel to being an evening wine, maybe with a salad,” McCay says.

The white zinfandel isn’t his only pink wine. With the 2010 vintage he began to produce a rosé in the dry and sharp style of France’s southern Rhone Valley, an interpretation perhaps unprecedented in Lodi at that time. Based on old-vine carignane and grenache, the coral toned 2013 is citric in aroma, fruity and spicy on the palate, unusually meaty in composition, and exceptionally long in the finish for a rosé ($18).

Despite McCay’s infatuation with pink wines, his portfolio and his reputation rest largely on traditional red zinfandel. With any given harvest he will make about a half-dozen of them. He seeks grapes from older Lodi stands, and customarily bottles them under the name of the vineyard that provides the fruit. “I look for different character in each of the zinfandels,” McCay says.

His approach to making zinfandel also departs from what is seen as the Lodi standard by avoiding residual sugar, restraining the alcohol level and tempering the embrace of oak aging.

As a consequence, his zinfandels are drawing notice for their litheness, equilibrium, spirited fruit and representation of the vineyard where the grapes were grown. They might not be as jammy and sappy as zinfandels generally associated with Lodi, but they don’t lack for concentration and complexity.

The most genial of his current zinfandels is the 2011 Jupiter ($28), a downright delicious wine whose raspberry fruitiness, sprinkling of spice and lasting length add up to a buoyantly youthful interpretation.

In the same affable vein is the newly released 2012 Equity ($32), relatively light in color but invitingly fragrant in scent and multitudinous in flavor with its suggestions of blackberries, raspberries, cherries and plums.

McCay’s 2012 Faith Lot 13 Vineyard Zinfandel ($32) kicks up the raspberry quotient a notch or two and supplements it with notes of lavender and plum, while the 2011 TruLux Zinfandel ($32) is about as close that McCay comes to traditional Lodi, given the wine’s luscious and mouth-filling blackberry fruit.

The most opulent of his zinfandels is the 2010 Contention, which at $64 also is one of the pricier zins in the state.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne can be reached at mikedunne@winegigs.com.

Tasting room

The tasting room for McCay Cellars is called the Palate Room, and it’s is in a small and utilitarian corner of an industrial park on the east side of Lodi.

  • Hours: open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Monday at 1370 E. Turner Road
  • Information: www.mccaycellars.com
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