White Zinfandel is one of California’s all-time most-successful accidents. Zinfandel, the grape from which both red and white wine is made, is almost black in color. Although the vine is infamous for its unevenly-ripening berries (often, ripe black berries will hang next to a tart, green, small berry on the same bunch), White and Red Zinfandel are made from the same, dark grape.
To understand White Zinfandel’s story, it is important to look back through history. The grape, which has Croatian origins, made its way to the eastern United States in the early 19th Century. It migrated west, to California, with those seeking gold. Zinfandel gradually spread across Napa and Sonoma counties – and its popularity grew significantly when someone gave a glass of red Zinfandel to a French winemaker working in California, who is reported to have said it tasted like a good red Bordeaux.
Zinfandel is also a high-yielding grape. During the mid to late 19th century, its ability to produce large quantities of grapes proved its most prized quality of all. The grape was heavily planted in California, and its popularity continued through prohibition, when it was the preferred grape for “Home Winemakers.”
White Zinfandel was the accidental brainchild of Bob Trinchero, of Sutter Home winery, in 1972. Sutter Home produced a premium Red Zinfandel – but Trinchero felt that the high-yielding vines didn’t produce wines with enough flavor, so he used a saignée method (draining off some of the grape juice from the skins right after the grapes go into the tank) to concentrate the flavor intensity. He then fermented that wine into a dry, pale-pink rose wine. Then in 1975, Trinchero tried to make a similar wine, but his wine underwent a “stuck fermentation” (when the yeasts stop converting sugar into alcohol) – and rather than throw away the sweet, pale-pink wine, he decided to sell anyway.
That sweet “White Zinfandel” became hugely popular with wine drinkers in America. Today, white Zinfandel outsells red Zinfandel in the US by a ratio of 6:1! Other California winemakers were thrilled by Trinchero’s mistake; it finally gave California growers a market for their Zinfandel plantings – and appealed to a new market of white wine drinkers.
For information on the episode featuring Paso Robles Zinfandel, click: Episode Guide: Zeroing in on Zinfandels from California.