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An Ode to White Zinfandel

Thank Pink!
Thank Pink!
Nathan Claiborn

Thank you, pink zin.

If you are still reading you are probably looking for some seriously sarcastic snark. Sorry, that's not what's coming. Those of us who make a living in and around the wine world, and those of you who enjoy the gigantic selection of really great wines available today, owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the sweet, pink, genius of white zinfandel.

  See also: 5 Arizona Wines to Give a Skeptic

Don't try to pretend you've never had it. I used to remove the silver bag from the Franzia box and smuggle it into college football games in my trumpet case (yes, I was in marching band). Your story may be a bit different, but at some point, you enjoyed the pink stuff. And from there, you branched out and now you read blog posts about wine on Chow Bella.

This is where the gratitude comes in. White Zin is the ultimate gateway drug. On or around 1975, Sutter Home winery was making well respected wine using the red zinfandel grape as a base. These were pretty hearty reds that the winemakers would further concentrate by bleeding off some of the fresh pressed juice to increase skin contact on the remaining juice in a process called saignee.

One batch of this stuff got stalled in a stuck fermentation. That's when all the yeast in the fermenting wine dies before it has the chance to eat all the sugar, thus leaving what we wine nerds call RS, or residual sugar. White Zin was an accident, and probably destined for the trash bin. But, being a business, the folks at Sutter Home tasted the accident and thought "Ya know, this isn't half bad, I bet we could sell it." Billions of dollars and gallons later, I guess they were right. Even today White Zin holds around a 10% market share of wine sales in this country.

It was a perfect intro into wine for people who grew up drinking Kool-Aid, Coca-Cola and other heavily sweetened drinks popular during the dark ages of American culinary history. It's sweet, pink, lightly alcoholic, who could ask for anything more in the late 70's? Baby boomers were just reaching the point where they had some money to buy wine, the wine business was trying to find a toehold in the American market, a match made in heaven really.

The fine wine boom thus began in earnest. During the 80's, folks flocked to Napa, Sonoma, the Central Coast, and all over California, to plant grapes, make wine, and find their fortune, like prospectors in the 1800's. A lot of them ripped out whatever was growing and replanted vineyards with popular varieties like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. However, thanks to white zin, many very old zinfandel vines survived this replanting craze. Today you can find gnarled zinfandel vines planted over a hundred years ago and kept alive and productive because of the early success of white zin. Nowadays these vines produce some of the best red zin around.

I don't really enjoy white zin anymore, it's not that good, but I'm sure thankful for the role it has played in both my own, and America's, wine history.

When I'm not writing this column or reading vintage charts to my daughter, you can fiind me pouring wine at FnB.

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