On a holiday trip in America, breaking some bread with the inventor of White Zinfandel

In the period between American Thanksgiving and American Christmas (the secular observance falling on December 25), life can turn into one big cranberry if you let it.

This directly applies to the flavour profile of the wines you may encounter, especially if you go along with the idea that White Zinfandel is the made-to-order match for Butterballs with all the fixings, festive holiday luncheons and the heaps of leftovers that emerge as turkey club sandwiches.

White Zinfandel is not something that I had ever knowingly tasted. If I had ever stopped to give this style of wine any thought, I'm sure I would have assumed that I would continue avoiding it, come gleaming 20-lb stuffed turkey or high water.

But quite recently, during a trip to New York City, I discovered there was a chink in my armor. Perhaps this was hubris, or even worse, holiday hubris, which often comes wrapped in coloured cellophane with a tacky wine accessory attached.


BrooklynGuy Neil, whom I met up with while I was visiting New York, lead me from Pineau d'Aunis blend to Pinot Noir bubbly, steering me entirely clear of any Zinfandel of any kind, even though Thanksgiving had just passed.

We drank Muscadet and we drank Touraine. And even in leaving behind the Loire Valley -- practically a polar winter to any Zinfandel grape -- I only strayed as far as the Mâcon.

And when my bottle of Mâcon-Villages spilled onto the sidewalk in Hell's Kitchen (yes, it was me who was the good Samaritan seen picking up glass shards at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 49th Street at noon on Saturday, December 1) I merely crossed the street and got another one almost identical to the first.

One day, change was afoot. I was feeling like something more spicy for a trip to the NoHo Star so I shopped for a lusty red wine. But I blindly passed by the Ravenswoods and Clines and picked up an Alfrocheiro from Portugal (which was a really exciting find -- my first 100% varietal from Portugal -- and it drank beautifully, almost like a light and spicy Rhône).

It would seem there was not a bottle of Zinfandel in the world that would reach this Canadian in New York during the festive season. Or was there one, silently sitting there waiting for me?

Glasses clinked and November became December. My departing train came too suddenly -- I was whisked up to Albany, where Amtrak's 15-minute layover greeted me and my hastily purchased turkey chimichanga with a small and curious bottle of Sutter Home Family Vineyeards White Zinfandel 2005 (the only wine sold in the entire train station -- thankfully with a screw top, the most teensy-tiny one I've ever seen). My train home about to pull out of the station so I wasn't about to split hairs. But I rolled my eyes and grabbed a stout as a back-up (the stout, unlike the wine, was not a screw top, and it went straight into the garbage).

Is this how it would all go down? A White Zinfandel neophyte chugging along Lake Champlain with a $2 bottle of blush to declare at the Canadian border? (For the record, Quebec only imports three brands of White Zinfandel: Gallo, Baron Herzog, and Beringer's sparkling version; Ontarians have a full dozen of White Zin options, including the one I had before me here, but their increased exposure to this blush is because the Ontario wine industry produces some even more ersatz stuff of their own -- namely White Zinfandel-Vidal -- to up the tally.)

Surely such an amazingly eye-opening trip to the Big Apple filled with great food and wine would not be concluded like this?

Well actually, it was the only time during my visit when I had nothing better to do than write tasting notes, so yes, it would be the culmination of my trip.

Eyes: This is actually a blush wine, and not just any old rosé, so it's a paler shade of pink.

Nose: Cidery, both distinct wafts of cider vinegar and aged fruit. How quaint. I'm still amazed at this point that I bought this bottle.

Mouth: Mulled wine on the palate -- practically juice. At first I felt like dumping it, but the line for the train toilet was too long to make it worthwhile. Soon, I starting coming around to it. Totally cranberry profile -- it tastes like Thanksgiving right out of one of those cranberry jelly tins. Not bad tannic presence, who knew a blush (though I think it's got more than a hint of pink) could be so grippy and drying, which mercifully complemented the sweet side of this wine's attack.

Stomach: The Adobe turkey chimichanga I got from Whole Foods was packed with shredded turkey, kernels of corn and spices. I actually felt like I was having a movable Thanksgiving feast, post-dated one week.

So overall, not a bad wine to crack open on the Amtrak Adirondack at 10:30 am (let me qualify that slightly by saying the café car wasn't selling anything with alcohol until noon that day).

Next stop Schenectady, where I picked up a wireless signal long enough to gather the following information on White Zinfandel, U.S. patent #2934857396684759760157495731110490928658.

(Like the wireless bandwidth, the following was stolen from an unacknowledged source.)

In the 1970s Sutter Home Winery was a producer of premium Zinfandel in the Napa Valley. One technique they utilized to increase concentration in their wines was to bleed off some of the grape juice prior to fermentation to increase the impact of compounds in the skins on the remaining wine. The excess juice was separately fermented into a dry, almost white wine that Sutter Home's Bob Trinchero called "White Zinfandel." This wine became the classic example of the varietal style. An "invention" that is Delicate blush pink in color, with sweet aromas of strawberries and watermelon. It is fresh and lively with a crisp finish. Enjoy well chilled.

Varietal Information

Produced from red Zinfandel grapes grown in the upper Sacramento and northern San Joaquin valleys. Grapes for this bottling were harvested early in the growing season (early to mid-August) at low sugars (18-19 degrees Brix) and relatively high acids to maximize the freshness typical of this wine.

Nutritional Information

5oz serving size, 5 servings per 750ml container:
Calories | Carbohydrates | Fat | Protein
108.000 | 008.300 grams | nil | <1 gram

Happy Accident (Detailed information)

In 1975, Sutter Home's White Zinfandel experienced a "stuck fermentation", a problem that occurs when the yeast dies out before consuming all of the sugar.[3] This problem juice was set aside. Some weeks later the winemaker tasted it, and preferred this accidental result, which was a sweet pink wine. This is the style that became popular and today is known as White Zinfandel. Sutter Home realized they could sell far more White Zinfandel than anything they had produced to date, and gradually became a successful producer of inexpensive wines. The demand for White Zinfandel resulted in extended commercial viability of old vine Zinfandel vineyards, which saved them from being ripped out.[4] When the fine wine boom started in the 1980s, demand for red Zinfandel picked up considerably and these vineyards became prized for the low yields from century-old vines.

Rather than use the leftover juice from premium Zinfandel production, Sutter Home (and most producers today) grow grapes specifically for use in White Zinfandel in places like the Central Valley of California. Production costs are substantially lower and fruit quality is not as important to the final taste as it would be in a dry table wine.

In the 1990s the Trinchero family, owners of Sutter Home, began production of a new brand of fine wines, M. Trinchero.

Napa, California, U.S.A. 9.5%.


Mark V Marino said...

I think it funny the way this wine came about. They first tried to call it something else the name escapes me but the powers that be said No! You have to tell us what is the grape in this stuff? Hence they came up with the name White Zinfandel.

Another point I would like to make is this was a low in Zinfandel popularity. Many old timers with Zinfandel vineyards were happy for it as they could hang twice the fruit as the tradition Zinfandel. As the White Zin or Kool Aid with a Kick was harvested at much lower sugar! I just wrote an article on this. http://winelimo.typepad.com/winery_times/2007/12/thanks-for-old.html

Brooklynguy said...

he's baaaaaack!!!!!

Marcus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marcus said...

Apparently, mailmen in Kansas just delivered a Christmas card sent in 1914 so I don't feel so grinchy about the downtime around here anymore.

Thanks for monitoring things!

Joe said...

Wine notes from the train, nicely done! Never taken that train - any wine served on board?