In Defense of White Zinfandel

published Feb 26, 2016
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(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Whether adored or despised, White Zinfandel is like Donald Trump: inescapable. Its constant presence on store shelves not only hooked millions of young American palates on wine instead of sweetened cocktails and sodas, but also inspired its haters to prove pink could be chic, dry, and bottled instead of three-liter box material. I’d argue that without Sutter Home, one sugar-laden accident, and a man named Darrell Corti, we wouldn’t be experiencing a rosé renaissance — and that would be very sad indeed.

The Origins of White Zinfandel

White Zin began (much like another American classic, bologna) as a useful byproduct of California wine production. In the 1970s, wineries in Northern California were struggling to produce deep, darkly colored red wines, especially from Zinfandel grapes. These producers discovered that by removing a portion of the juice from their fermenting red wines, they could concentrate the pigment of the remaining wine. With the red wine nearly black, early White Zins were sidelined and condemned to a sad, ignored fermentation — if they were kept at all.

A Sweet Surprise

Darrell Corti was a renowned grocer in Sacramento whose palate was a thing of legend. Credited with popularizing white truffles and balsamic vinegar in America beginning in 1960s, Corti was also a pioneer of early California wine.

Sutter Home, the precursor to the Trinchero Wine Estates empire, was one of the small wineries Corti supported in its early days. One fateful year, Sutter Home’s dry White Zinfandel “stuck” — that’s wine speak for when fermentation stops before all the sugar is converted — and created a candied rosé instead of a dry white wine. Unlike most of his peers, Corti believed this pink juice could sell — and he proved it.

The first version of Sutter Home White Zinfandel flew off the shelves. In fact, the sweet stuff sold so quickly that Sutter Home never made a dry White Zin again. Soon White Zinfandel was synonymous with American rosé and available in every wine shop and liquor store across the country. Not surprisingly, White Zin is still one of the top wine categories sold in the United States.

The Rise of Rosé

Following White Zinfandel’s rapid rise to fame in the 1970s and ’80s, the position of rosé in the U.S. began to change dramatically. Early champions of dry rosé, like importer Kermit Lynch, introduced pink Provence wines to the U.S., and began teaching Americans when and how to enjoy rosé (i.e., cold, and often). Shortly thereafter, increased international examples of delicious, refreshing rosés inspired American vintners to take pink juice seriously. Soon, quality became more important than sugar content, and encouraged local vintners to grow grapes specifically for rosé, instead of relying on excess or substandard fruit for production.

Recently, constant connectedness via social media, and an increased interest in food and wine from the American populous has spurred sommeliers and writers to encourage experimentation in rosé, putting more options on menus and in retail shops from coast to coast.

Coming Full Circle

Today, California vintners, like the iconic Turley Wine Cellars and hipster-chic Broc Cellars, are even reclaiming White Zinfandel as a dry wine. Many other Zinfandel rosés exist across the country, often with the more stylish (and less stigmatized) label “Rosé of Zinfandel.”

Regardless of the label, or even blend inside the bottles of rosé stacked in elaborate window displays across the country as spring approaches, we all owe our first glass of the season to White Zinfandel, the beverage responsible for fueling America’s love of pink drinks.