Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: White zin makes most of a modest resurgence

Thirty years ago this spring Sacramento was the setting for perhaps the nation’s first and only White Zinfandel Festival.

Yes, there’s a potential punchline there. Sacramento? White zinfandel? How desperate for recognition must a city be to try to capitalize on the country’s most juvenile wine?

But remember, three decades ago white zinfandel wasn’t so easily dismissed as a silly entry-level wine. That came later, when large corporate wineries co-opted white zinfandel and transformed it into a single sappy style meant to take advantage of the nation’s collective sweet tooth. It became soft, flat, plump, unexciting, inoffensive – and hugely popular.

But in 1984, white zinfandel was another story. Some of it was made with little or no residual sugar. Several winemakers turned out more than one style – one dry, another sweet. It was a wine to be explored for its diversity. Thus, in the spring of 1984, when the new vintage was being released on the eve of summer, which is white zinfandel’s season, around 300 people made their way to the classy Crocker Art Museum to taste their way through some 20 white zinfandels.

Nobody is booking the Crocker Art Museum for a White Zinfandel Festival today, but a few California vintners are taking another look at the style. Their interpretations tend to be dry, or just slightly sweet. They are keen on capturing zinfandel’s characteristic berry flavor and peppery spice, but in a style lean, crisp and low in alcohol. They want the wines to be invigorating and at home at the table.

Those vintners are making just small lots of white zinfandel, but the reception they’ve received has been so encouraging that they’re ramping up production.

“Between California and New York, it was gone in two seconds,” says Chris Brockway of the 40 cases of white zinfandel he made from the 2012 harvest at his Berkeley winery, Broc Cellars. Thus, with this past fall’s yield he boosted production to 135 cases, still a small drop in the market but an indication that white zinfandel is undergoing a review if not quite a renaissance.

Similarly, winemaker Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars in Napa Valley last fall increased output of his white zinfandel to 600 cases from the 150 cases he first made in 2011. “We’re definitely pleased with it,” says Passalacqua of both the wine and the reception it is getting.

Both of their latest interpretations are engaging wines and should get consumers to rethink the genre’s potential. The Broc Cellars 2013 Sonoma County White Zinfandel ($22) is bright pink, lean, crisp and pleasantly fruity, with threads of strawberry, persimmon and orange running through its flavor.

The Turley Wine Cellars 2013 Napa Valley Zinfandel ($17) is more deeply colored and fleshier, its strawberry association slightly richer. Both are dry and low in alcohol, less than 12 percent. Oddly, the Turley is in a dark bottle labeled “Zinfandel” rather than “White Zinfandel,” which could surprise some consumers.

The story of white zinfandel in modern California winemaking is a story of luck, accident and convenience. Though the first white zinfandel is believed to have been made in Lodi in 1869, the wine wasn’t closely identified with the state or anywhere else until the 1970s.

In 1969, Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains made the first modern white zinfandel with grapes from a Lodi vineyard dating to the 1800s. It was barrel-fermented with natural yeasts, and finished dry but not austere, recalls longtime Ridge winemaker Paul Draper.

Ridge continued to experiment periodically with white zinfandels in the 1970s and 1980s, but gave up on them in favor of chardonnay, also barrel-fermented. “The costs were the same in making the two, and chardonnay clearly could sell for a better price,” Draper says.

At Sutter Home Winery in Napa Valley, winemaker Bob Trinchero made a white zinfandel in 1972, skipped 1973, and resumed production in 1974. Both were dry and truly white.

In 1975, however, fermentation of the white zinfandel at Sutter Home stalled, leaving the wine with a little residual sugar, so it tasted sweet. It also was pink. Nevertheless, Sutter Home bottled and released the wine, then was startled to see how quickly and widely it sold. Within a few years, previously small Sutter Home Winery was the major white-zinfandel house in the country.

“Sutter Home took off, and we rode along with it,” recalls Scott Harvey, who at the time was at Montevina Winery in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, working alongside winemaker Cary Gott, who added white zinfandel to his portfolio in 1973.

Harvey subsequently studied winemaking in Germany, and after returning to Shenandoah Valley became winemaker at Santino Winery. There, in 1979, he applied his German training to a white zinfandel in the “halbtrocken kabinett” style – pointedly fruity, a little sweet, refreshingly crisp, and a bit spritzy. Labeled “White Harvest” rather than white zinfandel, it nonetheless was the most ambitious and creative representative of the genre on the market. “It kept Santino alive all those years,” recalls Harvey.

At that time, vintners in the Sierra foothills were groping for a solution to a two-pronged problem. For one, sales of traditional red zinfandel weren’t exactly on fire.

Secondly, more than 80 percent of the vineyards in the foothills were planted to zinfandel. Yet, white wines were starting to outsell red wines. Foothill vintners needed a white wine for their lineup, and white zinfandel was the answer, even though it’s rarely white, more often pink, coral or salmon.

White zinfandel wasn’t an expedient option for Mother Lode vintners. It’s a more challenging wine to make than customary red zinfandel, requiring more attention and more precision. For example, while the weight, intensity and complexity of traditional red zinfandel can conceal issues with grapes, from mildew to sunburn, white zinfandel relies on a clarity and freshness that easily could be betrayed by fruit too warm, too moldy or otherwise less than ideal.

Today’s born-again white-zin proponents also welcome challenge, the biggest of which these days is to show that the wine can be “serious” as well as fun. Both Brockway and Passalacqua want their white zinfandels to be fruity and refreshing enough to be consumed as an aperitif but also to possess the structure and acidity that make them fitting with food.

Brockway talks of his interpretations having a dryness and a tartness not generally associated with white zinfandel, while Passalacqua says his goal is to make a white zin comparable with a Provencal rose – aromatic, strong on structure, and fitting for lighter spring and summer meals.

No one predicts that white zinfandel will be “the next big thing.” It’s already been there. At one time it was the country’s third-most-popular varietal, trailing only chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Today, it’s slipped to eighth, with sales continuing to slide; over the past year, white-zinfandel sales totaled $392 million, down 8.4 percent from the previous year, according to The Nielsen Co., which tracks wine sales largely in grocery stores. Meanwhile, chardonnay with total sales of $2.4 billion and cabernet sauvignon at $1.9 billion continue to dominate the nation’s wine market.

If a White Zinfandel Festival were to be in Sacramento today, it likely wouldn’t generate much interest, and certainly wouldn’t pull many examples from the foothills, where the style has almost disappeared, in part because the white-zin market is dominated by corporate wineries, in part because of the current esteem of traditional red zinfandel, which fetches a higher price.

Nevertheless, the peppy and fresh Montevina Winery 2012 Amador County White Zinfandel ($6.50) won a rare double-gold on the strength of its zest and balance at the Calaveras County Fair Sierra Foothill Wine Judging last month.

In short, if a vintner were looking to set himself or herself apart, and get in on the ground floor of what could be a revival and a refinement of white zinfandel, the timing looks right.