The mysteries of Zinfandel

Over the holidays my wife and I visited friends and family in Michigan. We both grew up in that fine state (known in my childhood as “The Water Winter Wonderland”), and from time to time we venture back there to see what’s up with our homies.

I’m a longtime Californian now, and as such I forget that the rest of the country does not view wine in quite the same way that we do.

Melanie and I were offered a glass of wine with dinner at a relative’s house (who knew that we both write about wine), only to be poured a glass of Boone’s Farm Pink Lemonade.

I made some polite-but-firm excuse about not being in the mood for wine, and could I have a Bud Light instead?

A few days later, I was shopping at Cost Plus in Kalamazoo (they call it World Market there) with Jerry, the boyfriend of Jan, a dear friend of ours. (We were supposed to be buying candles for Jan, but she let me take her brand new red Volvo S60 and, boys being boys, we went joy riding first). Anyway, we ended up in the wine section.

Now Jerry is a smart lad; he manages enormous amounts of money for foundations and the like, is well read and travels all over the country for business and pleasure.

He enjoys wine, especially Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. We’ve popped a cork or two together over the years.

Jerry said that he wanted to get a Zinfandel for the Christmas Eve dinner he was preparing for his family: his daughter had requested one.

So he toddled off and came back with a bottle of – gasp – California White Zinfandel. “Jerry.” I said. “What. Is. That.” “Zinfandel,” he replied. “Isn’t this a good one?” Oh, Jerry.

I realized then and there that many people are confused about Zinfandel and that the wine industry hasn’t done a great job of helping. People sometimes refer to “Red Zinfandel” which is sort of redundant, since the Zinfandel grape is red.

White Zinfandel was the stuff that people were drinking in the 80s, served with Monte Cristo sandwiches after working up an appetite doing the Hustle. It long ago went the way of big hair and leisure suits. Or did it?

If there is such a thing as a signature California grape, surely Zinfandel is it.

The first varietal wines labeled Zinfandel were produced here in 1883. Zin’s popularity has waxed and waned, then waxed again before waning once more.

It seems to be in a waxing mood lately. Some call it a true wine lover’s wine. I’m not sure why that is, but it is an intensely flavored, full-bodied wine, and it can sometimes be a bit heavy on tannins, a character trait that white wine drinkers usually don’t care for.

The Zinfandel grape is said to be a descendant of the Primitivo grape, a varietal that is common to southern Italy.

How it got here is anybody’s guess, but I have a romantic vision of a 19th century Moustache Pete smuggling a few cuttings tucked into the lining of the bag carrying his meager possessions. He arrived at Ellis Island with no English, less than 50 cents in his pocket, a strong work ethic and a burning desire to succeed. That man’s descendants now own Canada.

So anyway, the Zinfandel grape is quite versatile. These grapes seem to grow best in the cool climate of coastal California.

Unlike this writer, they thrive on the daily infusion of cooling fog that mitigates the heat of the day. It is a versatile grape, being used to make “red” Zin, “white” Zinfandel, and a sweet, “late harvest” Zin. Strictly speaking, the term “late harvest” refers more to the condition of the fruit than the time of harvest.

It comes as a surprise to many (including Jerry) that White Zinfandel is actually made from a red grape. (They get really freaked out when they find out that Champagne is also made from red grapes.)

It’s not really a white wine at all, but rather what is called a “blush” wine.

The process for making it involves separating the juice from the skins quickly after crushing. That stops the transfer of color from the skins to the wine. The wine is then processed in the same manner as is white wine. Most White Zinfandels are fairly sweet, with berry and fruit flavors.

It is not my intention to sound like a wine snob when discussing White Zin.

There was a time in my life when I enjoyed it, especially the better quality wines produced by Mirassou and Beringer.

But the more I learned about wine, the less I liked it – not because it’s bad, but because my tastes lean to more complex and interesting wines (and people) as I get older.

White Zinfandel served as training wheels and got a lot of people – myself included – on a path to wine appreciation. And that’s a good thing.

And besides, what else would you serve with a deep-fried ham-and-cheese sandwich that’s dusted with powdered sugar?

Michael Chatfield is a freelance writer and musician. He lives in Hollister. Send e-mail to [email protected]

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