White zin snubs the snobs

Despite high-brow blows, pink wine among sweetest sellers

The way some people act, you might think "drinking pink" was criminal."

Serious" wine drinkers sneer at pink or blush wine, most notably white zinfandel, as "light," "sweet" and "simple."

Many so-called connoisseurs are ashamed to order it in a restaurant and wouldn't be caught dead buying a bottle in a wine shop. Yet white zinfandel is an $800 million business in the United States. Sutter Home, the California winery credited with introducing white zin 30 years ago, sells more than 9 million cases of the wine every year.

Blush and rose wines are light-bodied and usually chilled, which makes them perfect for drinking at summer picnics and barbecues. Bob Trinchero drinks his white zinfandel as a before-dinner cocktail, and also likes to pair it with spicy curry dishes.

Rose wines are made the same way as blush wines - the red grape skins are left in the juice briefly, giving the wine a pink color and minimum tannins - but they are usually drier (less sweet) than white zinfandel. If you'd like to sip rose this summer, T.J. Christie at Party Source in Bellevue makes these recommendations:

• Vega Sindoa 2002, Spain (dry), $6.99
• Canto Perdrix 2001, France (dry ), $10.99
• Darting Portugieser 2001, Germany (slightly sweet), $10.99

So someone out there is drinking plenty of pink. Maybe at home, in front of the TV, at the pool - or in the closet.

And Bob Trinchero couldn't be happier. He was the winemaker at St. Helena-based Sutter Home who created white zinfandel by accident in 1972.

"I was surprised at its success in the beginning," says Trinchero, now chairman and CEO of Sutter Home, "and I still am."

Then, he was an idealistic 36-year-old on a quest to create the perfect big and bold red zinfandel. In an effort to concentrate the flavor and color of the wine, he drew off some of the zinfandel juice after the grapes were crushed. (Quick wine lesson: The juice of all grapes is white. Red wines get their color when the juice stays in contact with the red grape skins.) A friend suggested Trinchero bottle and sell the slightly pink, slightly dry wine. He did, calling it Oeil de Perdrix (Eye of the Partridge), a term used by the French to describe white wines made from red pinot noir grapes. Later, the federal government required Trinchero to put an English description on the labels, so he added: "A White Zinfandel Wine."

First released in 1973, the wine sold reasonably well to visitors at the winery. But another fortuitous event two years later created the blockbuster white zinfandel we know today. A "stuck" fermentation (when the yeast stops working) in the 1975 vintage left residual sugar in the wine. Instead of trying to nudge the fermentation, Trinchero bottled the sweet and fruity white zinfandel.

Long reign at top

At first sip, consumers loved its quaffable light body and fruity berry flavor. By the late 1970s, Sutter Home White Zinfandel was so popular, Trinchero was loading the wine as fast as he could from the bottling line directly to waiting trucks. He joked his young white zin was "freeway aged." White zinfandel was America's most popular table wine from the mid-'80s until 1994, when chardonnay finally eclipsed its sales.

"Our timing was perfect," Trinchero says. "There was a growing interest in wine then. And Americans were ready for something sweeter because, think about it: They were raised on Coca-Cola and Kool-Aid."

Many wine writers soon labeled white zinfandel just that: Kool-Aid. A wine this sweet and popular couldn't be good, they claimed. Trinchero admits that criticism stung, but argues that Americans have always been preoccupied with the pretension of drinking serious and expensive wines.

"For everyday occasions, the French drink cheap wines in screw-top plastic bottles," says Trinchero, whose father was an Italian immigrant. "Why can't we do the same thing? Everyday wines don't have to be so expensive."

Zinfandel vines saved

Even his critics will have to acknowledge white zinfandel's contributions to the American wine industry. First, the wine's popularity may have saved zinfandel vines from being ripped from the ground. Without white zin as an attractive commodity, discouraged California winemakers may have destroyed zinfandel vines in order to plant another grape. By the late 1980s, red zinfandel was taking off on its own.

Most important, the approachability and price of white zinfandel converted millions of Americans into wine drinkers. These were consumers who would have never bought an expensive bottle of cabernet sauvignon or French burgundy. Now, many of them do.

In 1994, Wine Spectator honored Trinchero with a Distinguished Service Award, noting his "white zinfandel was responsible for introducing more Americans to the pleasures of wine than anyone else."

There are some who might encourage him to produce a drier, less sweet white zinfandel, more like a French rose. But Trinchero has learned to live quite comfortably with the criticism of the wine establishment. And he sees no reason to tinker with his hugely successful pink wine.

"We're not changing anything," he says.

E-mail cmartin@enquirer.com

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