Thursday, March 10, 2016

Wine tasting: Sutter Home White Zinfandel, no year listed


An exciting week around here; I'm officially halfway through this first self-taught wine course of 2016* (which I'm doing, to remind you, as part of a New Year's resolution to get better educated about the subject), which means I'm now done with all the ten reds I'll be trying (including Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti/Sangiovese, Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, Gamay/Beaujolais, and Cabernet Franc), and am ready to start the ten whites that are left. Or, well, that's not strictly true; because first before I get to the white whites, I'm trying out a pink wine, also known as rosé wine, which yet other people refer to as blush wine.

(*And don't forget, my second self-taught course this year, lasting essentially the entire length of this coming summer, is to teach myself all there is to know specifically about French wines, so please do drop me a line at ilikejason [at] gmail.com with any tips or advice you might have for me. And what will be my autumn tasting project? I'm still looking for suggestions on that too!)

Rosé wines don't come from a specific type of grape (there are rosé versions on the market of numerous reds I've already tried this year), but rather the way they're prepared; because for those who don't know, all grape juice starts out as white when first squeezed out of the fruit, and only becomes red because of it soaking with the grapes' dark skins during the fermentation process, meaning that you can achieve all kinds of different shades of red (and thus different intensities of flavor) depending on how long you let the juice and skins mingle. This is exactly, for example, what the small California family winery Sutter Home started doing with Zinfandel grape juice in the early 1970s, mostly to help intensify the flavor of the juice still left in the vats after dumping some of it, but with a local wine shop convincing the company to bottle up that early-removed juice as well and sell it to their hippie customers; it was first marketed by the company under the name Oeil de Perdrix, but then changed to "White" Zinfandel after complaints from the FDA about misleading advertising.

This would've been the end of the story, except that in 1976 Sutter Home's supply of White Zin experienced what's known as a "stuck fermentation," whereby all the yeast dies out before all the sugar's been completely converted into alcohol; but instead of the disaster they thought they had on their hands, one taste made them realize what a delightful concoction they had accidentally stumbled upon; and it was this super-sweet version that became a runaway hit with the public, eventually turning the small winery into a huge corporate behemoth that now sells tens of millions of cases every year, right at the same time that California's wine industry in general first started receiving worldwide attention, these two facts eventually becoming so cemented in the public mind that they're difficult now to separate them. And sure, you can complain (and many do) about all the downsides to this -- that it produced a cottage industry for super-cheap "alcoholic Kool-Aid" that did no favors to the wine world in general, a type of wine that has no subtlety or complexity and is mostly meant for quick drunkenness on hot summer days -- but if you're a beginner like me who is trying to celebrate the uniqueness that each different type of wine on the market brings to thoughtful tastings like the ones I'm doing in 2016, there's no reason to poo-poo White Zinfandel in particular, despite the rather negative reputation it's picked up over the years from people who are serious about their wine.

Usually with these tastings, I go down to my neighborhood Binny's and try to find something on the shelves that is both relatively cheap and that has a high posted score at places like Wine Spectator or Robert B. Parker; but this time I thought, what the hell, why not try the literal brand of White Zin from Sutter Home that made this such a huge success in the first place, which at $4.50 will also likely be the cheapest tasting I'll do all year. (And also note that at 8.5% ABV, this has roughly half the alcohol as most of the reds I've been tasting this year, yet another reason this kind of wine is so popular among casual drinkers at social events on warm days, which gets cut in half yet again if you mix it half-and-half with seltzer water [known as a "wine spritzer"], a hugely popular way to drink light wines like these.) My detailed notes are below, but in general I found this to be not nearly as bad as its reputation makes it out to be; I mean, make no mistake, it's as sweet as fruit punch and lacks any kind of subtlety at all, but it was certainly enjoyably quaffable in a way that made me nostalgic for my '70s childhood when my countercultural parents and all their friends would drink this by the gallon at summer picnics and barbecues. It's undeniable that there are a lot of better wines on the market besides this, but you shouldn't let that stop you from enjoying a nice bottle of White Zin on a warm August day.

White Zinfandel, no year listed
Napa Valley, California
8.5% ABV

Look: A light pink in color, with the consistency of water.

Smell: An almost sickly sweet aroma when sniffing a still glass, but that gets much more complex and darker after swirling it a bit. (I'm surprised by how different this is from one type of wine to the next; some smell the same no matter what you do to it, while others smell like a completely different wine right after vigorously aerating the glass.)

Taste: An almost entirely sweet taste in the mouth, strongly reminiscent of cherries and strawberries, with a light finish that makes your lips a little sticky afterwards. True to its reputation, there is absolutely no subtlety here; the taste is the same from lips to tongue to throat, with no distinct aftertaste at all. Basically like drinking alcoholic Kool-Aid, and it's easy to see why this caught on so big with people who are otherwise not really into wine (and why this was perfect for 1980s California in particular).

After a Full Glass: After an entire glass paired with a dinner of white fish and asparagus, I unfortunately found the sweetness of the wine to be overwhelming, much like trying to eat dinner and dessert at the exact same time. A good wine to drink by itself, but I don't recommend having it with a meal, or at the very least have it with something hot and spicy.

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