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White Zinfandel: Born By Accident But Still Going Strong

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Wine’s 1972 discovery credited to vintner Bob Trinchero
By Carolyn Walkup June 2011 Wine

Mention the sweet pink, white Zinfandel to wine connoisseurs and you’ll get snide remarks to the effect that no one who knows anything about wine drinks it anymore. But they would be wrong.

White Zinfandel is a slightly sweet wine made from the red-skinned Zinfandel grape. It gets its rosy pink color from the grape skins after they are crushed and quickly removed from the juice. The remaining process is the same as for white wine.

Most white Zinfandel is sold in retail outlets, but many chains and independents in the casual dinnerhouse segment carry it, and some are introducing new wine cocktails made with it.

Sales of white Zinfandel produced in California declined slightly in 2010 to about 17 million cases, down from 17.8 million cases in 2009, according to estimates compiled by Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a wine industry consulting firm of Woodside, Calif. “It’s still huge, but many other slightly sweet casual wines compete,” says Eileen Fredrikson, who cited Moscato as the hottest up-and-coming comparable wine in today’s market.

White Zinfandel’s discovery is credited to Bob Trinchero of Trinchero Family Estates, located in the Napa Valley. The 1972 discovery came about quite by accident.

Bob is descended from the first generation of Trincheros to locate in Napa Valley, brothers John and Mario Trinchero, who stemmed from a family with a long history in the Italian wine business. In 1947, they purchased the abandoned Sutter Home estate, which had been shut down during Prohibition, and they began producing a variety of wines.

The next generation, Bob Trinchero and his siblings, inherited stewardship of the winery in the late 1960s and began putting their own stamp on the wines. They began shifting focus from generic to premium varietal wines.

Trinchero was especially drawn to a homemade Zinfandel made from grapes grown in the California Gold Rush country, the Sierra Foothills. He started producing Amador County Zinfandel and was a pioneer in Zinfandel production under the Sutter Home label.

White Zinfandel came about as a result of Trinchero’s experiment to try to make his Amador County Zinfandel even more robust. He drew off some of the free-run juice and fermented it as a “white” wine, actually a pale pink color, due to short exposure to the red grape skins. It was lighter-bodied and more delicate than Zinfandel and initially found fans among the tasting room clientele.

Production Starts at 220 Cases

Trinchero began production of the wine in 1972 at 220 cases. He changed the initial name from Oeil de Perdrix, or Eye of the Partridge, to white Zinfandel to meet U.S. government approval requirements that the name be in English.  

He ramped up production starting in 1975 when for an unknown reason fermentation stopped with about 2 percent residual sugar and a tinge of pink color. The taste proved popular with customers, who began asking for cases of it.

Trinchero has defended his decision to produce the wine: “If we would have listened to the wine critics years ago, we would have never made white Zinfandel, but the people with the money (our customers) wanted it, and that was good enough for us.” Plenty of consumers enjoy the wine because it’s light, refreshing, fruity and affordable, he says.  

Sutter Home White Zinfandel grew from its modest beginnings to become the most popular premium domestic wine by 1987. Many other small wineries began producing similar “blush” wines and were able to salvage old vine Zinfandel grapes that otherwise would have been destroyed and replaced with other grape varieties.

Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts and Hospitality College awarded Trinchero an honorary Doctor of Oenology degree this May for his outstanding entrepreneurship, in keeping with the university’s focus on career education and inspiring students. The school recognized him for “making wine accessible and approachable to consumers, removing much of the pretension surrounding it, connecting wine to food, providing innovative approaches to teaching wines and focusing on wine as part of providing customers a responsible experience that can be fun.”

An earlier award that Trinchero is especially proud of is Wine Spectator Magazine’s 1994 distinguished service award for similar accomplishments, specifically for “having introduced more Americans to wine on the table than anyone in history.”

Times have changed, and Americans have grown more and more savvy about wine. Wine has become an integral part of the dining-out experience, with wines by the glass becoming especially lucrative for operators.

White Zinfandel entered the foodservice market in 1985 when Red Lobster began serving it, according to Bill Barry, Trinchero’s vice president of hospitality and foodservice. Demand grew to the point where it outstripped supply. Olive Garden soon followed its sister brand’s lead.  

Red Lobster’s introduction of white Zinfandel marked the first time it listed wines by brand name, Barry said, changing its earlier practice of listing generic names only.  

“A lot of people weren’t drinking wine then. This was soft, fruity and easy to drink,” Barry notes. “You have to start somewhere. This is a good entry-level wine.”

In recent years, sales of white Zinfandel have declined as a category, Barry acknowledges. “It got diluted with jugs and box wines.” Yet, a certain demand still exists. He is especially optimistic about the future of new wine cocktails being rolled out by chains such as Outback Steakhouse, Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar and Bennigan’s.

Outback is featuring Strawberry Peach Sangria made with white Zinfandel, rum, pineapple juice, fresh pureed strawberries and peaches. Applebee’s now has Kiwi Melon Sangria made with white Zinfandel, melon dew liqueur, kiwi and other tropical juices and lemon-lime soda. Both drinks have a fresh fruit garnish.  

Bennigan’s reports that its Blushing Sangria has become one of the chain’s top 10 sellers since its introduction last August. The fruity cocktail contains white Zinfandel, black raspberry liqueur, red sangria and pineapple juice.

Although Trinchero and its Sutter Home winery are especially known for white Zinfandel, many other California winemakers produce it, including Beringer, Gallo and Woodridge, to name a few. Most grow grapes especially for making white Zinfandel in California’s Central Valley and elsewhere. Most white Zinfandel continues to be sold at retail.

Restaurant operators who have some success selling white Zinfandel find that fans of the wine ask for it without any suggestive selling being done by servers. “That’s a testament to how well it does,” says Kevin Reed, managing partner of 21-unit Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano, headquartered in Bloomington, Ill., and operating in 12 states.

“It doesn’t dominate any category, but it sells pretty well for us,” says Reed, noting that the restaurants pour more than 30 wines by the glass. He calls it a “gateway wine” ordered by people who are graduating from wine coolers or “frou frou cocktails.”

“I think the opportunity for restaurants is not to thumb your nose at it but to look at it as a step toward selling better quality alternatives,” says Reed. “It’s an opportunity to do a little bit of educating.”

On the Menu at P.F. Chang’s

P.F. Chang’s, now numbering 201 restaurants in 37 states, continues to sell white Zinfandel by the glass since opening its first unit in 1993. “White Zinfandel has always been an important part of the wine list,” says Mary Melton, director of beverage, adding that it pairs especially well with some of the spicier dishes.

The wine has slipped from first to eighth place over that 18-year period, as sales of Pinot Grigio and Riesling have risen, she notes. However, there are many customers nationwide who always order white Zinfandel. “People know what they like,” Melton says. “Some people just enjoy that kind of strawberry taste with a little bit of sweetness.”

P.F. Chang’s has a policy to never suggestively sell or promote any beverages, Melton adds.  “Our philosophy is to let people find out what they like and bring them the best experience.”  

The six Chancery Pub and Restaurant locations in Milwaukee continue to sell quite a bit of white Zinfandel but not as much as they did in the 1980s and early 1990s, says Bob Frederickson, beverage director.  It ranks about in the middle of wine by the glass sales volume.

“Milwaukee is a niche market. We probably sell more of it than elsewhere in the U.S. The usual buyer is women over 40; younger people don’t buy it too much,” Frederickson says. The majority of buyers order more than one glass of it.

“We suggest it for the novice wine drinker,” he adds. He has observed that younger drinkers have a lot more wine knowledge today than did their age group in the past.  

The Chancery sells a glass of white Zinfandel, identified as Beringer on the menu but considered a house wine, for $5.25.  

Chicago’s three Heaven on Seven restaurants, which specialize in Cajun food, added white Zinfandel to their wine lists about eight years ago to meet requests of customers who asked for it, says Jimmy Bannos, founder. “It’s our best seller,” he says, of wines by the glass, although beer, hurricanes and margaritas outsell it.  

Heaven on Seven prices the wine at $5 a glass and $20 a bottle. Most sales are by the glass, and its buyers like it with the restaurants’ spicier dishes, Bannos says.

Price is another selling point white Zinfandel enjoys, which is an ever-more important factor during the lingering recession.  

“Consumers are more price-sensitive than ever but don’t want to give up wine with dinner,” says Laura Ries, Atlanta-based marketing strategy consultant. “The more familiar people are with brands in the supermarket, the more shocked they are about wine costs. When they see it on the menu, they can be shocked at the amount of the markup.”   

Park Grill, an independent restaurant in Chicago’s showcase Millennium Park on Michigan Avenue, began offering white Zinfandel last summer for $7 on its 350-seat patio as an experiment, says Bernard Laskowski, executive chef. The Grill will continue to offer it during this summer’s outdoor dining season.

“There is a demand out there, mostly in the summer. It’s one of the top five sellers by the glass,” says Laskowski. Beer and white wines have been the best sellers on the patio, which specializes in international grilled dishes.  

White Zinfandel is in the beverage mix, along with the better-selling beer, mai tais and margaritas at the 54 Islands Restaurants locations in Southern California and four other Western states, says Tim Perreira, vice president, food & beverage of the tropical-themed burger and bar concept. There always are those guests who request white Zinfandel over all other choices, he says.

As Trinchero’s, Barry says, “The rule of thumb is the more people we can introduce to the wine category, the better. White Zinfandel attracted a lot of people into drinking wine.”