Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Raining On White Zinfandel

Page-one headline in tonight's electronic version of The New York Times: "Celtics Lose Despite 31 Points From James." Didn't I just watch that game? And didn't the Celtics win? And doesn't Lebron James play for the Miami Heat? Just goes to show that even the great ones can screw up now and then.

Which reminds me, have you read wine-blogger Steve Heimoff's recent dissing of white zinfandel? If not, check it out here. And if you're a white-zin fan, don't let Heimoff's stern criticism of your taste in wine fire up your ire. Sure, he says "white zinfandel is for people who don't understand fine wine, don't care to, and don't need to." He's just using white zinfandel as his gateway to his real target, which is a recent study that purports to show that tasters with a fondness for white zinfandel have unusually sensitive palates, or something to that effect. I also have problems with that study, which actually is more of an opinion poll, but I'll save my comments on that for another day. I want to dwell on white zinfandel for a moment.

As Heimoff, I'm not a big fan of white zinfandel, at least not as it customarily is made these days, which is simple, flabby, sweet and short. But I do remember the white zinfandel of the 1970s and 1980s. Winemakers began to turn the black grape zinfandel into pink wine because the market for traditional red zinfandel had softened so dramatically that vintners often wondered whether it ever would rebound. Their ingenuity in wringing refreshing blush wine from zinfandel rather than give up on the variety and tear out vines has been frequently credited for saving several of California's older and more historic zinfandel vineyards. If not for white zinfandel, we likely wouldn't see on store shelves today nearly as many "old-vine" zinfandels as we do. That may or may not be a good thing, and for the moment we'll also leave that topic for another day.

Some of those early white zinfandels were duds, bone dry and stiff. Others were so well made, which is to say fruity, zesty, balanced and refreshing, that they weren't limited to the picnic basket, but graced the holiday table. Some were even complex. They were difficult to make well, which could explain why the more involved style of white zinfandel isn't likely to be found today. How often I've wished that veteran Amador County and Napa Valley winemaker Scott Harvey would revive the white zinfandel he made at the old Santino Winery in Shenandoah Valley. A touch sweet, a touch spritzy and downright crisp with acidity, it was as versatile at the table as it was refreshing on the palate.

Was it a great wine? For what it was, yes, at least for me, for the pleasure and interest it delivered. Steve Heimoff wouldn't think so. "White zin has its place, but it's not a great wine," he writes in tossing his wet blanket over the entire genre. Granted, white zinfandel generally isn't made with pretensions to be a great wine, as he says. But his posting begs the question: What is a great wine? "There are standards," says Heimoff. The closest he comes to listing them, however, is this remark: "It (white zinfandel) generally costs less than $10, hardly the province of great wine." That's it? Price alone? He suggests that the quality of a wine can be objectively determined, yet doesn't recite any objective benchmark to measure where a wine falls on the greatness scale. Just how does white zinfandel come up so short in his estimation? "A well made dry wine is objectively better than a sweet white zinfandel," he concludes. So, sweetness apparently has something to do with his criteria. Where's that leave Port and Madeira? To Heimoff's palate, dry wines can be great, sweet wines not so much. But that's a subjective opinion, not a conclusion reached objectively. I hope he returns to the topic of great wine so I can be enlightened.

Right now, however, I've got to check The Times to see who won the Rockets/Lakers game. Ah, it's still going on, but this just in, according to a new headline: "Celtics Rain on Heat's Future Parade." Revision can be sweet.


  1. Mike, I agree with you about the old Santino White Zinfandel. That was a terrific wine (it was the only WZ I really liked, because it had great fruit and good acidity to balance the sweetness). It's too bad the big producers of White Zinfandel don't try to make their wines in that style.

  2. How did an on-line survey become transformed into a "study" (with all the implications of empirical, scientific method and peer review)?

    Heimoff IS right about white zin but asking him to define objective criteria for wine quality is like asking Stevie Wonder to paint you portrait.....