White Zin has its place, but it’s not great wine
As most of you know, I’m very anti-snob when it comes to wine. I champion everything, whether it’s Two Buck Chuck or the most expensive rarity, because there’s a place for everything in our complicated world. But, let’s face it, there are standards. All wines are not created equal. And one wine that is not equal is white Zinfandel.
Now, I don’t want to be misinterpreted here. Anybody who likes white Zinfandel has a perfect right. Some wonderful wineries (Gallo, Woodbridge, Sutter Home) make respectable white Zins, and more power to them. I’ve given my share of Best Buys to white Zin in Wine Enthusiast, and if you handed me a glass at a party, I’d drink it with whatever food was around.
But white Zinfandel cannot be considered a great wine. It’s not meant to be a great wine. Even its manufacturers concede that. They usually use Zinfandel grapes from the Central Valley (which is why white Zin typically has a “California” appellation) that may be cut with other, cheaper varieties. They use press juice. They leave a little residual sugar in, to satisfy Americans’ sweet tooth. It generally costs less than $10, hardly the province of great wine.
No, white Zinfandel is a wine for people who don’t understand fine wine, don’t care to, and don’t need to. I’m not putting them down. I’m just saying that there is such a thing as quality in wine, it objectively exists, and white Zinfandel is not terribly high on the quality scale.
Which brings us to this post by Tim Hanni MW, Wine Industry Owes Sweet Wine Drinkers a Huge Apology.
Tim says he paired up with a Cornell associate professor to conduct a consumer study. They found that it’s not lack of sophistication that makes people prefer sweet white Zinfandel to better wines. No, it’s “physiological differences in human sensory anatomy.” People who like white Zin are born that way. That’s why the “wine industry owes sweet wine drinkers a huge apology.” We’ve told them for years that they’re functionally uneducated about fine wine, when it turns out that all we’re doing is insulting them for the way Nature made them. This is a form of discrimination whose not-so-subliminal message to white Zin lovers is that they’re inferior — a message that “alienat[es] a large segment of consumers…”.
Whoa. We’re treading on a culturally sensitive area. You’re not supposed to diss anybody’s choices anymore, because if you do, you’re being insensitive. I might feel that, living as I do in a dense urban neighborhood, it’s incumbent on me to be quiet and not antagonize my neighbors with loud noise, especially at night. But if somebody wants to drive down the street at 2 a.m. blasting a CD at 100 decibels, hey, who am I to criticize? That’s their right, isn’t it?
Actually, no. A person who drives through a crowded neighborhood playing loud music at any time is a lout who wasn’t raised right. I could say the same about a range of social misbehaviors, but you get the point. There are, as I said, standards. There have to be, or society crumbles. And wine also has its standards.
The truth is, just because lots of people like something doesn’t make it right. Many people may prefer white Zinfandel over a dry wine, but a well made dry wine is objectively better than a sweet white Zinfandel. Nor do I believe people are born with a predisposition to liking sweeter wines, as Hanni’s study claims. I think the wine industry has had it right for the last 50 years; the wine learning curve goes like this: start with sweet white or pink wines, advance to drier whites, then to lighter reds, then to dry, fuller-bodied reds. (And, my whiskey friends would add, “Then go on to Scotch and bourbon.”)
So when Hanni quotes a wine marketer as saying, “It will require some major changes in attitudes, wine education and the correction of worn-out stereotypes and myths” to get over our beliefs about white Zinfandel drinkers, I disagree. I don’t think it’s a stereotype that white Zin drinkers are unsophisticated about wine. I don’t think I have an attitude toward them. Nor do I agree with the study that “this finding offers the wine industry a great opportunity to develop an overlooked but large and accessible market segment and to expand wine consumption.” The wine industry hasn’t overlooked white Zin drinkers. It’s known for decades that the white Zinfandel crowd is a “large and accessible market” to try and educate upward. There’s nothing new or breakthrough about that. Gallo, Woodbridge and Sutter Home understand that in their bones, and deserve huge congratulations for helping to move consumers up to better wine via the portal of white Zinfandel.
It’s also crazy when Tim writes, “White Zinfandel drinkers are often the most sensitive tasters.” I don’t believe that for a second and I don’t think anyone reading this does. Maybe the researchers pulled that rabbit out of their study’s hat, but come on. It just shows that you can come up with anything you want when you send a professor off to find something. If white Zinfandel is for the most sensitive tasters, consider me the dullest taster around.
Hot off the press!