For many Americans, white zinfandel is a great introductory wine that’s palate friendly and easy to like. You could call it a gateway to becoming a wine lover. In fact many wine educators think that’s a good thing for the wine industry.
I do, too, but sweet rose didn’t kick start my love of fine wines. Imagine this, when I began working in the hospitality industry I was a bartender and cocktail waitress, even though I didn’t drink alcoholic beverages then. It wasn’t until I started my education to become a chef at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco when I began to appreciate fine wine. I realized that wine was the ideal compliment to fine dining.
I was fortunate to have an excellent wine teacher who was also a columnist for Wine Spectator magazine, Norm Roby. During one of our first lessons in tasting wines, one wine he selected was a French Chateauneuf-du-Pape. That red blend was so complex and perfect, I was surprised that I could tell the difference and the experience motivated me to learn more.
I never dreamed, three years later I would be working at Wine Spectator’s offices in San Francisco where I started working with Roby. Landing a job as an intern there was like signing up to attend the university of fine wine.
Recently I was reminded of my fortunate beginning while reading an article titled, “What’s the difference between white zinfandel and rose?” The author describes one as reviled by wine snobs and the other celebrated by “brunch goers and instagram influencers.”
That’s not entirely true, the difference in flavors are vast. The color difference is due to shorter time fermenting with the grape skins for rose and white zinfandel which results in a pink wine. Red zinfandel ferments on the skins for much longer. Often times, a rose is created by a method called saignee where a portion of red wine is bled off, which darkens the color and deepens the flavor of red zinfandel. The run-off juice is still delicious, that’s why many winemakers began bottling it to the delight of wine aficionados.
White zinfandel, however, is not dry and has some residual sugar (usually about 2%). White zin is noticeably sweet and lacking complex flavors which is the reason wine connoisseurs don’t like it. Those of us who aren’t snobs (I include myself), appreciate the wine for helping more Americans enjoy wine at the dinner table.
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A Napa Valley favorite for white zin has always been Sutter Home, which they sell out annually. It happened by accident, when owner Bob Trinchero experimented with the saignee method. Trinchero drained some free-run juice from the zinfandel to make the red wine more concentrated. The run-off juice was fermented to dryness, which was white and dry, for their first white zin release in 1972.
But in 1975, Trinchero’s 1974 vintage suffered a stuck fermentation resulting in wine with a light pink color and 2% residual sugar. They bottled it anyway, to overwhelming success. Their customers loved the tasty new style, according to the story of their roots. It quickly became Sutter Home’s first to sell out every year. It continues to rule the supermarket biz and it, like others of its ilk, has alway been very affordable.
I had the opportunity to meet one of Trinchero’s first winemakers (sadly I couldn’t recover his name), who shared with me a bottle of Sutter Home’s 1970 red zinfandel. This happened in the early 2000s, so it was about 30 years old. Not only was the wine still vividly red in color, as opposed the brown edge of long aged wines, its flavors were vibrantly alive, and delightful in taste. I still have that bottle as I will never forget how incredible it tasted.
While I still don’t care for white zinfandel, if you love dry rose as I do you know there are many very affordable versions well worth buying in both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. When visiting local wine country trails you must sample some excellent versions of dry roses, and you’ll be sold, too.
This is no comprehensive list so don’t fear being adventuresome at any winery producing rose. In SLO County I always buy from all of the great versions: in Paso Robles at Eberle, Clos Solene, Culton, Halter Ranch, L’Aventure, and Tablas Creek; in south SLO County at Baker and Brain, Claiborne & Churchill, Sinor-LaVallee, Stephen Ross, and Verdad.
In Santa Barbara County do check out these versions: In Orcutt we buy Nagy Wines, in Los Alamos try Casa Dumetz and Pico General Store for Lumen rose; in Los Olivos we favor Dragonette, Liquid Farm, Tercero Wines, and in Santa Ynez Valley visit Brander Wines and Beckman Wine. While we buy roses regularly, our photo depicts what we have recently purchased to stock our wine cellar. You can’t go wrong with any of our favorites listed here, even if they’re not in the photo, it’s just that we already enjoyed them.