Original Zin

White zinfandel is one of America's most popular (and affordable) wines. But unlike other wines, it doesn't have a long history and it's not an old European style. White zinfandel was invented in the United States... by a series of accidents.


Red, Red Wine

The zinfandel grape has been grown in the United States since the 1820s. It came to North America from Austria in 1829, when a Long Island plant nursery owner named George Gibbs brought home some grapevine cuttings from the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Nursery in Vienna. But during the ship voyage back, the labels on the cuttings got mixed up. Gibbs sorted it out... or at least he thought he did. Gibbs actually mislabeled the primitivo vine sample as zierfandler. In 1851, a California wine grower named Agoston Haraszthy (often called the father of the California wine industry) bought a sample of Gibbs's "zierfandler," Americanized the name to zinfandel, and planted the grape in California.

Zinfandel arrived in California at the perfect time. The California Gold Rush brought hordes of people to the West Coast for the first time. Settlers also discovered that California's climate and soil made it the perfect place to grow wine grapes. Zinfandel, especially, thrived — it can grow in many different kinds of soils and climates and, on average, produces twice as many grapes as other kinds of vines. Haraszthy sold cuttings to numerous other winegrowers and zinfandel quickly became the most produced grape in California. The wine made out of it was red, hearty, and had a high alcohol content. From the 1850s to the turn of the century, zinfandel was the most planted grape and best-selling wine in the United States.

Grape Expectations

The zinfandel grape wasn't just being used for a red wine called "zinfandel." It was — and still is — a source for many different kinds of wines, including claret, port, and cabernet. In 1869, winemakers at the El Pinal Winery in Lodi, Calif., were experimenting with ways to expand zinfandel's versatility even further. Part of why red wines have a rich and slightly bitter taste is because of tannins that are found in grape skins. El Pinal wondered what would happen if they peeled the grapes before they fermented into wine. The result was a new kind of wine. It had most of the flavor of red wine, but it was pink. El Pinal abandoned the wine, and "white zinfandel," as they called it, became a footnote in the history of winemaking. Red zinfandel wine remained America's best-seller for another hundred years.


Red, White, and Pink

By the end of the 1960s, white wines (including chardonnay) began to outsell red wines. Sales of zinfandel, in particular, plummeted. It got so bad that many of California's Napa Valley wineries — which had been producing zinfandel for nearly a century — stopped growing zinfandel grapes altogether and replanted their vineyards with more popular and profitable grapes, like sauvignon blanc.

But not all of them stopped. Zinfandel still had a modest fan base, so one winery, Sutter Home, decided to continue making zinfandel and go after that niche market. In fact, Sutter Home experimented with ways to make the traditional red zinfandel even stronger, richer, and more bitter — going against the mainstream market, which was demanding lighter-tasting white wines.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

In 1972, Bob Trinchero, chief winemaker at Sutter Home, had an idea. He theorized that the zinfandel wine might be thicker and richer if he squeezed some of the juice out of the grape skins just before they fermented into wine. He was right. The resulting zinfandel was concentrated, and so rich and bitter that it was almost lip-puckering. But Trinchero had a problem — what to do with all the leftover grape-skin juice he'd removed. That juice had also fermented into wine, but it was like nothing he'd seen or tasted — it was pink and dry and had a very "light" taste, but not as light as a regular white wine.

Trinchero didn't think the pink wine had much appeal, but, since he had 550 gallons of the stuff, he had to do something with it. He talked the Corti Brothers grocery chain into buying half of the yield. The rest he'd sample off in the Sutter Home tasting room. He needed a name for the wine, something that sounded French and classy to legitimize the pink "garbage" wine to customers. He settled on Oeil de Perdix, which translates to "eye of the partridge," which sounded good even though it didn't mean anything. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms rejected the name, unless Trinchero put an English translation on the label. "Eye of the Partridge" was nonsense, so Trinchero borrowed a name for the new pink wine from an old pink wine he'd once read about: white zinfandel.


First the Color, Now the Flavor

The wine sold surprisingly well at Corti Brothers and in the tasting room, so Sutter Home kept making it... until 1975. That year, the entire production run of white zinfandel was ruined by "stuck fermentation." Ordinarily, the sugars in grapes ferment into alcohol when yeast is added. When stuck fermentation occurs, the yeast dies before the fermentation is complete. The result is that lots of sugar remains unfermented, creating a very sweet wine. But white zinfandel wasn't supposed to be sweet... or was it?

Trinchero figured the run of white zinfandel (and a lot of money) was lost. Then he tasted the wine. It was sweet, but still tasted light and airy — much lighter than the usual batches of white zinfandel. Trinchero quickly realized that this new wine had the potential to be hugely successful. It was a wine for people who didn't like the taste of regular red or white wines.


Wine and Dandy

Trinchero began bottling the new, sweeter wine under the name white zinfandel, and it was huge. From 1980 until 1998, it was the best-selling variety of wine in the United States. The popularity of the white zinfandel also led Sutter Home to shift from producing mostly premium red wines to inexpensive, sweet white wines with broad appeal (most Sutter Home wines cost less than $7.00). Sutter Home — where Trinchero is now chairman — sells 42 million bottles of white zin each year.


These tidbits about white zinfandel wine come from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.