Long-scorned zinfandel grape finally getting some respect

Monday, April 8, 2002

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The zinfandel grape may finally be getting some respect, making some vintners so confident about the long-scorned little fruit that they are even poking fun at themselves.

"It's called the Seven Deadly Zins," said Phillips, referring to the label on a bottle of zinfandel wine produced at the Michael-David Phillips Vineyards, which he co-owns. "Zinfandel people are different. We're kind of wacky."

They're also wild about their wine and the grape it comes from. Last year, more than 10,000 people attended the annual Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) conference in San Francisco.

When zinfandel boosters boast of its success, they point to the grape's 12 percent price increase last year, to $520 a ton, and the amount of land devoted to zinfandel cultivation, 50,200 acres in California (second only to the cabernet with 70,000).

"Zinfandel people are very passionate," said Rebecca Robinson, executive director of ZAP. "It captures our pioneering spirit in a bottle. There's something different and fun and exuberant about the wine."

History of being cheap

It's this different and fun image that often has wine aficionados turning up their noses at zinfandel, which crushes into white and red wines. The white wine is actually pink, because at the crush the grape's skin is quickly separated from the juice, leaving a slightly sweet taste and rosy color. The red wine has an older, spicier, more brash taste.

Until recently, white zinfandel had a history of being cheap because it's a quick cash crop, said Bruce Boring, owner of the California Wine Club. It's made almost instantly, suitable for bottling within 12 months of harvest. Wine critics say it is often used as an alternative to beer.

"There's a lot of inexperienced wine drinkers, so white zin is a good starting point," said Boring.

John Brecher, a Wall Street Journal wine columnist, said white zinfandel is getting more respect because people realize it's food-friendly.

"It's a nice, fun wine to drink that people don't have to feel intimidated about," Brecher said. "And what's so wrong with that?"

Sales of white zinfandel jumped to about 16.3 million cases in 2000 from 9.3 million cases in 1996. The red zinfandel market grew to 3.1 million cases from 2.1 million over the same period.

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