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White Zinfandel, the Acid-Washed Jeans of Wine

Once a wildly popular style, white Zin fell hard. But now it’s being reconsidered

Stacey Lastoe By August 17, 2021
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

Perms or mullets, aviator jackets, and acid-washed jeans. This was the defining look of the blush-guzzling generation of the 1980s. 

The blush in question was white Zinfandel which, technically speaking, is a sweet rosé that gets its color from the skin contact of its namesake grape. It enjoyed its starring moment in the glass some 30 years ago, thanks to an accident at Sutter Home

Like the mullet, it fell out of favor, but never truly disappeared. And now, just like high-waisted jeans, it’s beginning to appear again.

It was all a mistake

According to Sutter Home, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, white Zin was born in 1975, from a mistake. That year, the Zinfandel for which the winery was known, had a stuck fermentation, according to the Sutter Home website.

This stuck-fermentation left some of the grape sugar at a standstill, unable to convert to alcohol, resulting in a semi-sweet pink wine. But owner and winemaker, Bob Trinchero, bottled it anyway. To say it was a hit is an understatement — by 1992, Sutter Home was selling nearly 3 million cases a year. More than 100 wineries took a page from Sutter Home’s book and began producing their own white Zinfandels. The resulting demand for Zinfandel grapes led to an increase in price — and, inevitably, to a race to the bottom as wineries churned out mass quantities of cheap, sweet wine.

Today, Sutter Home is still selling a basic bottle for about $7. The magnum can be had for $12, and they sell boxed wines and spritzes too. But many other wineries took white Zin out of production. So dramatic was the fall in quality and the subsequent blow to the reputation that today, few respectable wineries are prepared to make the wine.

Except a few brave souls, who are discovering there is still life in the style.

A tentative renaissance

Christina Turley, the director of sales and marketing at Turley Wine Cellars in St. Helena, California, was one of the first wineries to reinvent the wheel. Turley makes a white Zinfandel in an objectively different style than the wines of yore. Theirs, she says, “is absolutely bone dry,” because white Zinfandel “does not have to be sweet to be a delicious wine.”

It also does not have to be cheap. Turley’s white Zinfandel — or Zinfandel rosé — a Provençal-style pink wine from early-harvest grapes, is not a saignée, or bleeding method, which involves bleeding off liquid from the wine tank early on in the wine-making process; instead, it’s completely dry, and costs $24.99. Their first vintage was in 2011, and in spite of white Zinfandel’s flailing reputation at the time, Turley says she sold the entire first vintage in a few hours, to restaurants in New York and California. People understood what they were doing, she said and “loved the cheekiness of reclaiming the long-beleaguered name for it.”

Still, Turley’s early success and ongoing interest from the wine community and industry hasn’t quite inspired an entire rebirth of the wine style. The new white Zinfandels are most often made like classic rosé, from good quality grapes. Some wineries are even making rosé from Zinfandel, but are not calling it white Zinfandel, making it difficult to get a grip on the modern white Zin scene. And it’s hard to argue with the winemaker who’s been successfully putting out a rosé made from Zinfandel grapes for years and choosing to market it as a rosé, to tap into the broad appeal of dry rosé.

Ganna Fedorova, the national beverage director of City Winery, which has multiple locations around the country, says they don’t currently have any white Zinfandels on their lists, but, she adds, “I can see how that can change in the future as we expand our offering coming out of the pandemic.”

She says that there’s a lot of value in reviving a category in wine that fell out of favor. “It encourages creativity among the winemakers and we all benefit from more wine selections — there is a better chance that everyone will find something they like.”

3 white Zinfandels to try:

bottle of Monte Rio Cellars Suisun Valley Dry White Zinfandel 2018

Monte Rio Cellars Suisun Valley Dry White Zinfandel 2018 ($15)

Bone-dry and refreshing, tart cherries and jammy fruits dominate all the way through to a long finish.

bottle of Contra Costa County Rosé of Zinfandel 2018

Contra Costa County Rosé of Zinfandel 2018 ($18)

Made from old vines in the sands of California’s Contra Costa County, about an hour east of Berkeley, the wine is barrel fermented and aged for eight months before its unfiltered bottling. Strawberry and watermelon notes are both evident and elegant.

bottle of Broc Cellars Sonoma County White Zinfandel 2020

Broc Cellars Sonoma County White Zinfandel 2020 ($28)

High acidity with a soft palate, this easy drinker has zing too with some surprising hints of pepper. Notes of strawberries and citrus lend nuance to the pale pink wine.