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Tasting Corner: In the Zin Zone

Posted on  | July 5, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Rosy or Red, Zinfandel Remains a Wine to be Reckoned With.

Zinfandel enjoys a colorful if complicated identity. It’s red (though deep purple might be more precise). It’s white (though actually pink when labeled “white”). It also red-white-and-blue, as in America’s grape (though Califonians might argue the credit is really all theirs). And there’s gold in Zinfandel’s identity, as in the grape’s historical debt to the Gold Rush. Beginning in the late 1840s, besides panning for bullion nuggets, these crazed gold-diggers—many of them Italian immigrants—cleared hillsides and planted Zinfandel vines in and around Sutter’s Mill (now Amador County), where this precious metal was first discovered in 1848.

A century later, Zinfandel found itself not so much in a Gold Rush as an Iron(y) Age. In the 1970s, an infamous “stuck” fermentation at Sutter Home Winery led Bob Trinchero to bottle the first sweet, pink “White Zinfandel,” practically a polar opposite to its hefty red iteration. Were it not for the wild success of White Zin, who knows how many of California’s ancient Zinfandel vineyards might well have been ripped up and replanted? Irony #2: Zin’s All-American imprimatur took a hit when advanced DNA research by UC-Davis professor Carole Meredith (stretching from 1993-2001) linked Zinfandel’s genetic makeup to both Crljenak Kaštelanski in Croatia, and Primitivo in Puglia, Italy’s boot heel.

Historical twists and turns aside, Zinfandel has firmly established itself as a household wine name, and a staple on wine store shelves and restaurant lists. In 2011, total sales of Zinfandel wines—blush and red combined—hit 21.3 million cases, accounting for approximately one in ten bottles of all California varietal wines sold in the U.S., according to Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a firm that tracks American wine industry trends. While 2011 sales of white Zinfandel fell approximately to 16 million cases from 2010’s 17-million case level, red Zinfandel sales held steady at 5.3 million cases.

Trinchero Family Estates, whose portfolio includes best-selling Sutter Home White Zinfandel as well as estate-bottled Zinfandels from the family’s vineyards in the Amador appellation, is not overly concerned about the recent intrusion of Moscato. James Nunes, managing director of brand marketing at Trinchero, says, “We believe, overall, White Zinfandel will continue to be a big segment of the wine market.” Citing year-to-date Nielsen data through early March 2012, given Moscato’s meteoric 56% rise in retail sales versus an overall gain of 3.7% in total U.S. wine sales over the same period, Nunes adds, “Moscato has expanded the customer base in America, while taking some sales from all categories.”

On the other hand, Beringer, owned by Treasury Wine Estates, is aiming to flip the situation into a fresh opportunity by introducing a White Zinfandel Moscato, line-priced at $6.99-$7.99. The new blend debuts this summer, targeting women and Millennials; Treasury hopes to sell about 200,000 cases over the coming year.

Zin Power

If Moscato is the cloud gathering above White Zinfandel, high ABV (alcohol by volume) might be considered the storm brewing over the red. Noted wine merchant Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers in Sacramento, CA, bemoans the fact that alcohol levels have been steadily rising, with a few Zins having hit a mind-boggling 18% in recent times. Corti says, “It’s very difficult to find a Zinfandel under 13.5% alcohol.” He reports that Zinfandel sales at Corti Brothers are less than 10 years ago, the reason being “there are less expensive alternatives like Barbera or Petite Sirah.” Nevertheless, Corti says that he still sells many Zinfandels from Amador, including Sobon Family and Jeff Runquist wines, as well as the Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma.

To some, red Zin’s relatively high alcohol levels are anything but an impediment to their enjoyment. Brittany Kirkpatrick, sommelier at Del Frisco’s Grille in New York City, which is a new, more approachable steakhouse concept of the Dallas-based Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, says, “Winemakers who are really good at making Zinfandel know how to craft wines that can handle high-alcohol levels.” She personally sells two-to-three bottles of full-bodied, 14+% ABV Zins a night.

Steakhouses are ideal locales for pushing powerful Zinfandels to confirmed Cab enthusiasts, suggests Kirkpatrick. She informs dedicated Cab drinkers that a brawny Zin will more than stand up to a great rib-eye or porterhouse steak. Favoring Zins from Dry Creek Valley in the Sonoma appellation, Kirkpatrick also lists Zins from A. Rafanelli, Ravenswood and F. Teldeschi, among others. Del Frisco’s Grille list also features four single-vineyard wines from Turley Wine Cellars, from the 2009 Cederman Vineyard at $85 to the much-touted 2009 Hayne Vineyard at $195.

Still Crazy for Zin

Red or blush, Zinfandel remains a perennial favorite with retailers who believe in it. At ArlingtonWine & Liquor, Poughkeepsie, NY, Fine Wines Manager Bob Brink reports, “We carry about 50 different red Zins, and six to ten White Zinfandels, with Sutter Home at $4.99 being the top seller followed by Beringer at $5.99. Zins, red and white, are popular all year long, but we make great efforts to promote these wines during the summer barbecue season.” Commenting on the specter of high alcohol, Brink says, “People buying red Zins know pretty much by now they are getting a wine with high alcohol levels.”

Cedric Martin, owner of Martin Wine Cellar, a quartet of leading wine, spirits, beer and gourmet food stores Louisiana, says that after a few years of declining sales, red Zinfandel is “coming back and coming back strong,” The reason is twofold, he says: “It is a combination of some prices coming down and of people liking big, higher-alcohol Zins at 15% or so, because even at that level, these Zins have a soft mouthfeel, and many of them are lush and round.” Red Zin lovers are known for their fanatical devotion. Indeed, its official varietal fan club, ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers), is now 3,200 members (trade and consumer) strong. The nonprofit group stages an annual Zin festival in San Francisco that draws more than 10,000 purple-teethed enthusiasts over four days. As of 2012, the “Zappers” are also going on the road, sponsoring Zin-fueled tastings in New York City and Orlando, FL.

Perhaps no single winery has done more to inspire their passion than Ravenswood, founded by Joel Peterson in 1976 in Sonoma County. While the winery and brand were purchased by Constellation in 2001, Peterson is still totally hands-on, overseeing a production that ranges from high-end single vineyards to the popular-priced Vintners Blend. True to its credo of “No Wimpy Wines,” Ravenswood has never made a White Zin.

Meanwhile, although it is possible the White Zinfandel segment in 2012 may soon cede its ranking as the fifth largest-selling U.S. varietal type after Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Grigio/Gris to surging Moscato wines, sales of both rosy and red Zinfandels remain extremely significant for retailers and restaurateurs. To paraphrase an old miner’s saying, “There’s still plenty of gold in them thar hills.”


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