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White Zin has its place, but it’s not great wine

63 comments

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.

WINE ENTHUSIAST WINE STAR AWARD WINNERS ANNOUNCED!

Hot off the press!

  1. I read about this over on Tom Wark’s blog, and although he didn’t mention White Zin explicity, immediately I reacted to the commment that people who prefer sweet wine were “more sensitive.” What exactly defines more sensitive? How does that mean they’re better, or at least, maligned tasters?

    And, as if you needed a second, not a single person on this planet takes White Zin as a serious wine.

  2. The problem with White Zin is not that it has sugar, but that it lacks acid. Otherwise, how is it that certain Riesling styles can be fine wine? I suppose aromatic complexity, which also applies for dessert wines, is also a factor. But sweetness alone isn’t the full explanation.

    Taking a quick look at the report–interesting it comes out of Lodi, a region known for lower acidity and higher residual sugar–I can’t help but think there’s a healthy dose of BS to it. Under sweet wine drinker, they say “Highest level of taste sensitivity ~ needs sweetness to offset other tastes.” And to that I say, of course, the other flavors in insipid sweet wines are mostly unpleasant. So sugar masks them. Childrens’ Tylenol isn’t flavored because they’re more sensitive (though they might be). It’s because it tastes awful otherwise given the chewable method of delivery.

    On top of this, assuming that preferences for sweetness is purely physiological is at best irresponsible. There is a massive cultural and experiential component to what people enjoy. Americans enjoy, due to broad distribution and mass-marketing, sugary soft drinks and other candy-like foods, and corn syrup shows up in the oddest of places. Of course, people like sugar since it is something we require for energy. But the bombardment of sweetness in processed food has biased the American population to the extent that it is largely insensitive to sugar.

    I’d say this is the most egregious conclusion. Alcopop drinkers may or may not be more sensitive to other flavors. But they most certainly are less sensitive to sugar. Get folks off their high fructose diets, and perhaps they’ll be able to recognize a lower baseline of sweetness. Hanni is essentially pandering to the alcopop producers, who are nothing more than processed food producers, just with a bit of alcohol involved.

  3. One more comment–maybe Hanni’s next study can demonstrate that the reason why mass-market red wine should be vanillified by spoofy oak treatments is because drinkers of these wines are more sensitive to all the other flavors in them. That would be brilliant, wouldn’t it? Justifying the vanilla flavor needed to mask the less desirable medicinal or chemical flavors on pseudo-scientific grounds.

    Or maybe Hanni could argue that McDonalds customers need lots of grease and fatty flavor because they are too sensitive to other flavors. That would be another brilliant one.

  4. When you talk about the “learning curve” of wine drinkers and “educating upwards”, I can’t agree more. I was the Sutter Home and Kendall Jackson and Jacob’s Creek drinker… Moving up the ladder and leaning more and WANTING to learn more about wine in all its wonderful shapes and sizes.
    What we do need to realize is that many (maybe most?) people will NOT move up to another level when we talk about “educating upwards”. They will find the product that pleases them and STICK WITH IT. They will get that bottle of Sutter Home on Friday night for the weekend and that’s the way it’ll always be.
    The consumers who move up the quality ladder are always a fraction of the level below them. So I look at it as a pyramid, with a broad base of White Zin drinkers who filter upwards into a smaller group of cheap New-World Chardonnay (and maybe Pinot Grigio) drinkers, some of which might actually begin to explore the beauties of red wine and get up the nerve to try something from France or even Italy, etc etc…
    The Key is to get as many people as possible into the White Zin base as possible, therefore growing the market of the best and most difficult wines at the tip of the pyramid (which surely isn’t scotch, it’s Chapmagne, and Burgundy).

  5. Wayne, totally agree about the pyramid. There’s plenty of room for all.

  6. Greg, lol!

  7. I’m probably just echoing Greg here, but I believe most white zin drinkers drink it because they’ve been raised on soda pop and candy all their lives. They want to get into wine, but compared to soda, nothing stands a chance at being sweet enough for them except maybe desert wines. As Greg pointed out, their sensitivity to sweetness has been dulled by soda and sweet foods. This makes it almost impossible for them to appreciate the more subtle “illusion of sweet” that dry red and white wines can project through ripe fruit scents and flavors. In fact if i were a betting man, i would wager that most dry wine drinkers don’t drink soda pop. They probably prefer things like water or unsweetened tea (when they’re not drinking wine). Which is why i believe the biggest obstacle for white zin drinkers to overcome if they want to appreciate dryer style wines is giving up this need to drink soda pop when they’re not drinking wine.

    Just my 2 cents.

  8. Well….I remember that very first SutterHome Oeil de Perdrix ’73. It was bone dry, lovely aromatics, zippy acidity…and I drank it w/ relish. So sad to see what it has morphed into.
    Both DavidBruce and DaveBennion made a white Zin back in the late ’60’s…probably from saignee juice. They were both quite delish. Certainly not “great” wines…but they had their place at table. Alas…because what most White Zin has become, any quality producer would be askeered to attempt to make one. But I’d love to see what a contemporary Carlisle or Ridge or Bedrock White Zin would be like.
    Tom

  9. Jeff, I’m a dry wine drinker, and I don’t drink soda pop. Ugh. But I love good fruit juice, especially in the morning. Nothing like fresh, unsweetened orange or pineapple juice, capped with all that zingy acidity, to wake me up!

  10. Yes TomHill. I remember it also. There were several white wines made from dark grapes back when. The original SH white zin was not pink at all.

    There are wine people drink instead of liquor or beer, cocktail wines if you will. They fill a niche and Mr. Hanni is bending over backwards for some sort of nouveau political correctness. There are some people and cultures that prefer a wine that is not heavy or dry. I remember a west coast winery that was selling the bulk of its ‘blush’ wine to Japan and China.

    It is not all about the ‘education’ thing either. Some folks just prefer a lighter drink and that is good.

    The whole idea of terroir applies not only to wine but also think food and culture. Some folks love restina and some turn green just smelling it.

    The worlds population is not universal in its cultures so why assume it is universal in preferred tastes in wine?

    Perhaps SH and others would be best served in making a truly beautiful
    ‘blanc de noir’ in the future and boosting the acidity with a little viognier?

  11. Straw man from Hanni’s post…”To date, the industry message to consumers who prefer light, delicate and sweet wines is that they need to become more ‘educated’ and ‘move up’ to ‘higher quality wines’ such as dry wines.” I’d like to see who in “the industry” sends this message. From where I sit this message comes from other consumers who outgrow their taste for sweet wine and gradually tolerate and enjoy a drier product. Usually these individuals have begun to drink wine with meals and have found the sweet taste tiresome. The wine industry is happy to make whatever sells, it’s the consumer that says to their friend, “You don’t still drink that sweet crap do you?”

    You can see the conclusions of the “survey” at the consumer wine awards site, but as expected there is no mention of the methodology or summary of the data or reasons for drawing these conclusions. There are many ads, however, for Lodi.

  12. Morton, an astute comment, as usual.

  13. Steve, your comment: “No, white Zinfandel is a wine for people who don’t understand fine wine, don’t care to, and don’t need to.” To me, that sums it up. Why anyone would spend time attempting to justify the popularity of White Zinfandel is beyond me. It’s friendly plonk that many folks like. In fact, my Dad’s ex-girlfriend once asked me to find her a wine she really enjoyed at a restaurant, and it was a white zinfandel…couldn’t help her there, but if she felt her dinner was enhanced by it, more power to her. All industries have to make products that sell. It’s wine, but it’s a business. Plenty at all levels for all kinds of drinkers.

  14. Re: White Zin never being a candidate for great (complex/ageworthy/food-friendly) wine… well… duh! 😉

    I would argue that a wine like White Zin can still be made to a high level of *quality* (ie, not a poorly made wine), but would agree it doesn’t have the raw ingredients to achieve greatness status.

    And I’d add there’s really nothing whatsoever wrong with that scenario.

  15. Most restaurant lists have white zin. It satisfies the need to fill a glass on a table.

    My family (my benchmark – big family) used to like white zin. now they like dry wine (but only barely). Do the wines they choose go with the food? Nah… but they know the brands.

    Otherwise, they drink beer, iced tea, Coke, Pepsi..and Bourbon Manhattans. Love my fam.

  16. Steve – When I teach wine classes and folks ask me about White Zin, I always tell them it’s a great place to start learning about wine. If they choose to stop there, that’s their prerogative. And it leaves more great wine for me!

  17. Goddess, right on! I always feel a little funny talking about white Zin as a “gateway” wine because that sounds like anti-drug people saying pot is a “gateway” drug to coke and heroin. But that’s what white Zin is — an entry level wine.

  18. Re: most people liking white Zin are “born that way…” is spot on and is a telling statement. Yes, we’re all created equal (where have I heard that before? 😉 but we don’t *remain* the same. Some of us progress further, crave greater depth and more complexity. Like any market segment, there is the mass market segment (85% of wine buyers) and the enthusiast segment (15%). While many folks start in the mass market segment and progress to the enthusiast segment (“gateway wine” or the Wine Progression Curve), there are a good many folks who *don’t* progress and remain mass market drinkers. Another reason why white zin is still the #1 by-the-glass wine on US restaurant lists.

    I’ve seen it many times in my wine career (wholesale and retail sales), as well as my personal life, where a friend starts with white zin (and normally with an ice cube in the glass!). Some of them are more adventurous and eventually succumb to the siren call (or peer pressure) to try something with a little more substance to it. Many become amazed at the differences and they’re hooked — the light bulb flickers on.

    Youngsters start out liking sugar (yes, we’re genetically hard-wired to like sugar and fat; part of the reason we’re still having difficulty adjusting, as a culture, to our recently acquired dietary overabundance — biology hasn’t caught up with economic prosperity) but not so much on the depth and complexity. It’s only after their palates have developed a bit of sophistication that they begin to enjoy such things as acidity, depth and balance of flavors, and caramelized onions to go with a *little* sugar.

    One of the things that I stress to beginners in my “Wine 101” classes is the distinction between tasting fruit flavors in a dry wine and they sugar they taste in a wine with RS. Like most folks in our society, when they taste fruit, they immediately interpret those flavors as sweet, even when we’re talking about a dry wine with no RS. Once they accept that concept, they begin to make progress.

    I think Mr. Hanni has once again garnered himself some publicity and now has a “study” to back it up. Years of experience with thousands of wine drinkers at all levels, from rank beginner to Masters of Wine, have shown me that it just ain’t the case.

  19. WineChick says:

    The entry of younger consumers into this category means that a shift needs to happen in the wine industry. There can’t be this auto-alienation of people who prefer sweet wines to dry, over $10 to under, or anything of the sort. There MUST be an acceptance of anyone who drinks any wines because hey, we’re stealing share from beer & spirits!

    We need the Millennial consumers to enter the category, enjoy what they’re drinking, whatever that may be, educate them on why they like what they like, and encourage them to move around the category. Notice I said “around” not “up” – I believe that, yes, to make more money you want consumer to “trade up” but this new generation of wine drinkers demands a level playing field. Tell them that under $10 wines are not well made and they’ll prove you wrong…*and* they’ll go online and promote the heck out of that fantastic, under $10 wine to their friends, who tell their friends and their friends….all within seconds. There are tons of great wines under $10. It’s the discovery of those that is most rewarding and you won’t break the bank doing so!

    Wine can also be a status symbol but these younger consumers aren’t buying into that as much. They strive to be different and if that means scoring an amazing yet relatively unknown wine for $17 to bring to a dinner party, then they’ll be all over it.

    It’s crucial that the wine industry support all types of wine lovers, not just those that wine writers, critics and wineries deem important enough. The new wine consumer sees right through all of that and wants to like what they like with no judgment.

  20. WineChick, thanks. From the vantage point of my (ahem) mature years, it doesn’t seem to me like there’s that much different between Millennials and any other generation in their approach to wine. Technology advances, new gadgets some along, but human nature remains the same. Young people get into cheap wine because it’s all they can afford. Young people never want old people telling them what to do. Young people eventually hit their 30s and 40s, have more money, and buy better wine. Then, the next thing they know, they have teenaged children who don’t want to be told what to do! The wine industry always adapts to this unchanging scenario, and I’m sure it will again.

  21. Bill Smart says:

    Are we really talking about White Zinfandel? Lord help us.

  22. Bill, you were thinking White Elephants?

    Aside from the fact that White Zinfandel is really rose’ and is now most often made from overcropped grapes in order to keep it cheap, it is, as the WineChick says, an entry point to wine.

    How many people here started with Lancers or Mateus? Actully, I didn’t. I started with Gallo Burgundy. Lancers and Mateus were a step up for me.

  23. Is this not one of those studies that you look at and say “Duh”. Give me a dollar and I could have told you that. Everyone has taste preferences. However just because you are born with taste preferences does not mean you have good taste. I think Hanni is having trouble crossing the divide between cultural and physical taste and preference. Just as he continues to rally against food and wine pairing. Just because you were born with a certain taste preference does not make it any more socially acceptable.

  24. In response to Jeff, I drink white Zinfandel because I am in Palm Springs and it is 113 degrees. I have never found a better wine for the pool in extreme heat than white zin. That being said, when I am on the road and a bit low on cash, I can always count on Sutter Home to povide a quality Red Zin that feeds my need for a good Zin at a good price. Thank you SH.

  25. Charlie, back in the day, Lancers and Mateus were wines I aspired to! It was all about Bali Hai.

  26. The idea of “trading up” should not begin with whether the wine is sweet or dry. The idea of trading up should begin with quality. Let’s set aside the notion of sweetness when discussing trading up and focus on the idea that most of it is just poor quality. I don’t want my students to be self-conscious about drinking a wine because it is sweet. The presence of RS has little to do with overall quality. As we all know, there are some fantastic, high quality wines available that are sweet.

  27. Brandon, I agree that there are high quality wines that are sweet. But they are meant to be sweet, i.e. their winemakers intended them to have RS. My problem with some wines in California is that they end up unintentionally having RS due to stuck ferments or because the winemakers are making them in a style to appeal to people’s sweet tooth. To me, a table wine’s first duty is to be dry. There’s nothing worse than a Merlot or Cabernet with RS.

  28. Larry Chandler says:

    There’s no reason someone couldn’t make a good white or rose wine out of Zinfandel grapes. (Whether it would be a great wine or not is another matter.)
    But White Zinfandel drinkers wouldn’t like it, and people who might like it would see White Zinfandel on the label and wouldn’t buy it. So there’s no market for it.

    I suppose a winemaker could just make a good rose or white wine from Zinfandel grapes and just label it without saying Zinfandel anywhere on the bottle. Perhaps someone already has. And perhaps it has gotten decent writeups. Just sayin…

  29. This is a really complicated topic with many variables and a plethora of straw men on all sides. I don’t have time to research and compose a lengthy commentary, but I’ll just throw out a few bones for everyone to chew on.

    Tim is not just shooting from the hip here, although his style and media compression makes it look that way. There is a lot of sensory science and market research behind what he says. Some of it falls into the category of correlation rather than proven cause and effect. But that doesn’t mean the correlations are spurious.

    There appear to be people who are natural “sweet tooths”. There are people who are “hypersensitive” to most flavors, and people who broadly less sensitive than average. And many people have high sensitivity to particular types of flavor (pyrazines, tannins, TCA, whatever) but not others. All these factors and their interactions imply that quality ranking systems and wine descriptions with broad applications are difficult. It also means that hierarchies (“a great wine’s first duty is to be red” etc) and progressions (“start sweet, progress to dry”) that seem natural for some palates are not at all for others.

    Household panel and other research that I did in the 1990s showed that cheap White Zin (and also cheap Chardonnay) were the two “gateway” wines for people becoming regular wine drinkers. I haven’t run any longitudinal studies on this recently, but other market research suggests that this is no longer the case. Millennials may be jumping directly into regular wine consumption via everything from dry light whites like Pinot Grigio to fat dark Spanish reds.

    I’m guessing that most wine aficionados and critics would agree that reflection of terroir, complexity of flavor, and ability to age are three hallmarks of “fine wine.” I don’t see how these are correlated with or constrained by the amount of RS. Proof? Start with some Vouvrays from Huet or Foreau, or Spatlese Riesling from Diel or Donhoff.

    It is true that White Zin as currently produced in California has few of the traits we associate with “fine wine.” But is that inherently due to the nature of White Zin, or the result of market forces that compressed it into a certain style and cost structure? What the wine trade did to White Zinfandel over the years is akin to if the cookie industry decided that chocolate chip cookies were inherently downmarket and should only be produced to taste like Chips Ahoy and sold in 5 pound bags. Massive production of formulaic cheap White Zin was rewarded and experimentation with different levels of style and quality was not.

    All that said, White Zin’s place in the wine market is now so entrenched and tightly defined, I don’t see how it can be “rescued”, whether you define that rescue by the standards of Steve or Tim.

  30. Jeff says: “In fact if i were a betting man, i would wager that most dry wine drinkers don’t drink soda pop. They probably prefer things like water or unsweetened tea (when they’re not drinking wine). Which is why i believe the biggest obstacle for white zin drinkers to overcome if they want to appreciate dryer style wines is giving up this need to drink soda pop when they’re not drinking wine.”

    I think Tim would agree with you. But (oversimplifying a bit here) his hypothesis is that this is because they have an inherently “dry” palate. And that the White Zin drinkers prefer that wine for the same reason they like their soda – they have a “sweet” palate. And that it would be easier to come up with higher quality or more interesting sweet wines for them to try than to get them to drop their soda.

  31. Larry, probably if someone made a white Zin and didn’t label it as Zin, some nosy critic like me would call them up and demand to know the variety! And then write about it. Just sayin…

  32. Steve – I’m surprised that you haven’t run into super sensitive/sweet tasters that never “graduate” from White Zin to dry.

    Perhaps Wine Enthusiast crowd is all a bunch of “graduates”, so you don’t ever see the sweet folks that the Cornell study talks about.

    These people are rare, but not unicorns. They exist. I have met a handful of hypersensitives in the past 10 years — and they are all disenfranchised on wine as the press release suggests. They drink sweet mixed drinks, and dessert wine whenever it’s around.

  33. Christian,
    Here are the US figures for Tolerant taster coffee preferences, plus we have UK as well (it is very similar and proprietary). Many Toleran tasters DO drink soda pop and sweet cocktails but this is the Scotch, Cognac and dry Martini crowd to be sure! High alcohol mostly tastes ‘sweet’ to this group – VERY important vs. the hot and burning experienced by the highly sensitive phenoytpes.

    Tolerant phenotypes (dry, intense, red preferences):
    56% prefer coffee (primarily strong French press or heavy roast)
    13% prefer tea (green tean followed by black teas)
    28% like both
    3% neither

    Sweetener:
    53% none
    18% a touch
    29% one or more teaspoons

    Flavored creamers or shots (we illustrate a comparison of this in the SUMMARY report):
    66% no
    20 % sometimes
    14% often

    Cream/milk
    40% none
    23% a touch to 1 teaspoon
    37% more than 1 teaspoon

  34. Sure is a lot of ink for pink which I happen to like for the right occasion…Thanks for chiming in Tolerant Tim. You’re all right imho.

  35. With all the sweet wines that are sold on the market, I find it difficult to understand which sweet wine drinkers the wine industry is supposedly neglecting.

    As for the sweet vs. other taste preferences, sweet is simple therefore it’s easier to swallow and easier to sell.

    Wine is complex, harder to swallow and harder to sell–unless you make it sweet!

  36. Hi Thomas,

    Great question. The ‘neglect’ is failing to market, and upsell to, the wealth of wonderful sweet wines to the people most predisposed to love them. On their terms. I just did an event at a top SF hotel on Nob Hill for 300 guests. About 20% were ‘Sweet’ tasters, and the event was male dominated(!). Of the 700 table wines on the list they had ONE (!) Riesling with any appreciable sweetness. I asked about WZ, not to order it but just curious, and the answer was, “it is one our best sellers but we don’t put it on the list. You know.” Hmmmm. So let’s sayI like sweet wine (I don’t), I am dining out or a a banquet. Whatcha got for me? The Sweet tasters at the event LOVED Darryl Groom’s Foogy Bridge Riesling. The other guests had wines they could explore and love – a delicate, dry white, a smooth red and a bigaass intense red. They were all served throughout the meal, so everyone could choose.

    Once people get past the horror that there is a definable market segment(and always has been) the next step is in cultivating these consumers with understanding and grace.

    BTW, the word ‘complex’ is fascinating in terms of how frequently it comes up for each phenotype and by various levels of expertise. This showed up on its own when we ran the data. Dr. Utermohlen is on her way here for a sensory conference we are attending and I will get some more info about this later this week.

  37. The problem the wine industry has created in the US has to do with all the negative annotation and denotation used to describe “white zin” and sweet wines in general. The industry has created a “linguistic frame’ (ala Lakoff) that inhibits category participation driving per capita consumption down below many other nations.

    What human being wants to be associated with a product that is always being denigrated by the “authorities” or a group of people who are described as immature at best.

    So instead of selling millions of gallons more of well made sweet wines we name-call, denigrate, lambaste and insult people based on bias, personal, anecdote and myth. The science (both genetics, and neural plasticity) support Tim’s position as does the entire food and beverage business.

    It reminds me of the common response from many in the wine industry to the question: Why did Merlot became so popular? “They can pronounce it”. Oh Really?

  38. I was chatting with Christian Miller earlier today about Merlot, and he offered a really interesting obsevation. The industry attitude towards Merlot turned negative, but the consumer attitude stayed strong.

    This disconnect explains why the Merlot sells. It sells because people like it.

    I am no fan of White Zin. But it sells, and that makes me wonder why the industry does not rush out and pay more attention to Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Gewurz and Pinot Gris–all of which can be made to sell for reasonable prices in balance, clean, fragrant styles and all of which have, for me, far more interesting character than the standard White Zin.

  39. Charlie,

    The answer to your question likely has to do with money, with the cost of growing and producing some wines over others.

    Tim,

    As to the issue of “the industry” not marketing to the right consumers. I don’t think it’s the wine producers who aren’t doing it. I think it’s the extended family of wine industry members: educators, sommeliers, critics, et al.

    Plenty of sweet wine is produced and sold, but, as you point out, you won’t find many of them on a decent restaurant list, nor will you find the great wine educators and critics of the world talking about sweet wines other than the upper class status ones like Sauternes, Tokaij (sp), and so on, which most of the general wine consuming class can’t afford.

    More to the point of the study, however. I think I told you elsewhere that I find nothing new in it, regarding people’s sensory preferences. The wine industry has known much of this stuff for more than a generation.

    Sugar is a basic preference because sugar is what our brains require in order to function. Nothing new there. But, our brains also provide us with the means to transcend basic preferences and reach for the hedonistic side of our aspirations as organisms–wine hist that sweet spot, so to speak. And marketing is usually about appealing to aspirations.

  40. Tim, I’m still confused how it is you conclude those with preferences for sugary, sub-acid wines are more sensitive to everything else instead of less sensitive to sugar. If you bombard your palate with sweet foods non-stop, you become less sensitive to sugar. You are claiming the preference for flabby wines is genetic, while I believe it has as much if not more to do with a person’s diet. Sure, some people prefer sweet foods more than others genetically, but to say this is the sole reason for taste preference just isn’t correct.

    Americans are fat on average. Why? Not because they are genetically predisposed to like grease and sugar more than Spaniards or Angolans. It’s because they are desensitized to fat and sugar, therefore they over-consume. Of course individuals vary in what they like, but in the bigger picture Starbucks and Coke are creating a sort of feedback loop pushing consumers to like alcopop “wine” where genetic predisposition is merely the starting point.

  41. Hi Greg,

    Sorry for the confusion, but there is a lot of information and tons of reasearch and investigation behind this. Plus it is obviously in contradiction to many ‘conventional’, but often incorrect, wisdoms.

    First of all I have never, ever said, “but to say this is the sole reason for taste preference just isn’t correct.” One of the things that makes this even more confusing is people ‘inventing’ what I say or never reading the information but commenting on it anyhoo.

    The whole fat and diet thing is another ball of wax and our phenotyping also lead to insights on that front as well. If nayone thinks Virginia Utermhlen is some low level lacky please Google her, along with Cornell, and you will see her credentials and the work she does. Again, fer cryin’ out loud, how intolerant are some of you?

    In our report we detail what we mean by a phenotype: physiological AND environmental, behavioral and psychological adaptations. And NEVER do I, or we, say that Sweet or Hyper-senstitive tasters are better tasters (not you saying this but it keeps coming up) just Sweet and Hyper-senstive phenotypes experience taste and smell (and most other sensations) at a very different intensity and ‘bandwidth’ (range of perception) and it is mostly not any sort of benefit!

    I have been working on the physiological sensitivty end of this for over 10 years with Chuck Wysocki and Marcie Pelchat at Monnell Senses Center, the honor of communicating Linda Bartoshuk who does the PROP sensitivity work (super-tasters, non-tasters) and many other specialists in the field. The differences can be immense and play a huge role in many, many facets of life and are mostly misunderstood, even backasswards in terms on conventional wisdoms.

    Please show me where I said, “You are claiming the preference for flabby wines is genetic.” That is a personal opinion and point of view. Sensory sensitivity diversity shows up in all of our senses. Lack of understanding is one thing but the moronic intolerance, and misinterpretation of the POSSIBILITY is a riot! Read the dammed thing and give me a call. LOVE to take you to the scientific sources and help you understand it.

    Jancis Robinson and 250 people from around the world were in the room 4 years ago when my mentors presented absolute and conclusive proof o how vastly differently we perceive tastes and smells. What is it you are so theratened by? Do you think people who are color blind or wear glasses are faking it or should not go to a museum? I, for one, am having a blast and learning to understand, embrace and cultivate more wine consumers. And THEY love it, too.

    And yes, “genetic predisposition is merely the starting point.” A BIG starting point and influencer of personal preferences for life.

    Thanks everyone for all the comments and questions, keep them coming.

  42. Tim, well you have obviously started a conversation. The last thing I want to do is introduce a big, long, complicated comment, so let me just say this. You are treading on the outward edge where quality meets popularity. It is easy to equate popularity with quality but I would be loathe to do so. Yes we do “differently perceive tastes and smells” but that does not mean that all perceptions are equal. As I am sure your MW colleagues would agree.

  43. JD in Napa says:

    Several folks have suggested that soda and other sweet stuff would steer a drinker toward sweetish wines. While realizing that a sample space of one has no statistical power, let me offer meself up as a counterpoint. I start my day with a vanilla latte, transition to diet pepsi for awhile, then have a reasonably sweet iced tea in the afternoon. I cool off after my evening walk with a Diet 7. The only sweet things in my cellar are some Ports and a few late harvests (the other 600 or so are dry), and I’m generally not a fan of wines with detectable RS with a meal. So not all of us fit the “sweet refreshments = sweetish wine” mold. Don’t think I’ve ever had WZ, either. Just adding to the “controversy”, er, discussion. 🙂

  44. JD I stopped drinking diet cola after I read about how awful it is for your body. I drink a lot of cold water which is the best liquid!

  45. Ron Saikowski says:

    I would agree with Tim Hanni on this one, Steve. Everyone perceives things differently and has their opinions as to what they like and dislike. That does not make their opinion any better or less than others. Not everyone has your palate. Not everyone has my palate. However, I encourage people to continue tasting and trying other wines, but what you like is just as valid of an opinion as yours, Parker’s, mine, or any one else’s. Tasting perceptions and standards will vary from person to person, just as opinions do. Who is say what is right and wrong? A salty Muscadet or a sweet Rieslling or a huge oaked Cab might be your preference. That certainly does not cause the opinion of the beholder to be better or lessor than yours or mine.
    One thing Tim Hanni, MW did find is that the density of the taste buds on your tongue do impact your tastes. Tim, Gary Vaynerchuk, and I did an experiment one evening drinking wine. Tim’s data appear right on the mark after that little experiment. Yes, people do perceive things differently.

  46. Tim, please quit with all the garbage about credentials. Despite several paragraphs of name dropping, you never even approached the heart of my question. Why is it that sensitivities to other taste sensations in ‘Sweet’ tasters are supposedly heightened, yet these same tasters have an incredible tolerance to sugar? Please answer why you have drawn the line here and not somewhere else. You classify tasters who like big, extracted, high intensity wines as ‘Tolerant.’ Somehow insensitivity to all non-sweet flavors and the need for high flavor intensities not related to sweetness is one thing to you, while the need for high sweetness is another thing to you.

    I have indeed looked at the report on the Lodi website sponsored by the Lodi Wine Awards. What I see is a tidy PowerPoint presentation, but nothing linked obviously to any peer reviewed journal. I do not wish to bring credentials into this as you do, but let’s just say I am no neohpyte as it concerns scientific inquiry and publications. I’d be interested to see any peer-reviewed publications based on the Lodi-sponsored data. I’d also be interested to know your relationship to the Lodi Wine Awards and the large-scale producers of alcopop wine beverages.

    It is interesting the Lodi report notes that ‘Sweet’ tasters also like flavored coffees and light beers. These are heavily marketed, mass produced items that compensate for lack of good flavor in some way. The over-roasted, burnt coffee is masked by sweet additions. And the light beer is masked by its cold serving temperature. Really there’s little connection in flavor between light beer and sweet alcopop. The only obvious link is they are mass-market processed food items with broad marketing.

    I suppose soon you’ll be saying that ‘Sweet’ tasters would prefer a bland tomato picked when green to a vine ripened one because the intensity of the latter would be unpleasant to them. Well, they might prefer the former, but only because of conditioning except in rare cases where their hereditary sensory preferences lie several standard deviations outside the norm.

  47. Steve.
    You have a sense of how to generate reaction and response. That may make you a great blogger, but once again you duck the import of the issue in favor of generating discourse. So, if you do have some level of respect for white zin as a commodity, why not tell us which ones are the best? Are you a wine writer, or just a talking head? As usual, you fail in your self-appointed role as arbiter and sage. Stop poking sticks into the cage, and explain why the monkeys throw their turds, and which monkeys have the best arms. You have a knack for controversy, and no spine for argument. Someone does a real study that helps explain the popularity of a very successful type of wine, and all you have is opinion. Well my opinion is that people who drink white zin are quintissential wine drinkers, i.e. they drink for pleasure. And, why do you drink? So, what’s the difference? Oh, you enjoy “better” wine. You are a special person worthy of the distinction. It must be nice up there. Beringer white zin is a better made, better balanced wine than half the flawed overpriced roses pushed on me by sommeliers and wine clerks. Yeah, white zins, they’re sweet. But morons aren’t the only people who can enjoy drinking sweet wine. You know as well as I do that a lot of those expensive and famous NAPA CABS are sweet as hell. But, unlike white zin, they shouldn’t be. And the best German wines are sweet, so now what?

  48. Bunt, you can go to Wine Enthusiast’s website at http://www.winemag.com, register for our free, easy to access database, and see all my scores for white Zinfandel and everything else I’ve reviewed!

  49. Thanks Bunt. I had a great conversation with a smart, succeful sensory researcher last night. She started out saying that she is not a wine drinker, found out what I do, admitted wine is her favorite beverage and she said, ‘people make me feel stupid’. Yup. Loves white zin and requires low alcohol wines: she is Vietnamese and has aldehyde dehydrogenase (genetic). She loved the Moscato I found for her.

    To Gregg,

    Jeez, you are sure a gentle soul. All of your questions and challenges will never be fully addressed on this blog. give me a call if you want – 707-337-0327. Anyone in the Napa area can come over for dinner tomorrow night at my house, e-mail or call me. I have a number of scientists and wine industry people, George Taber and Dr. Utermohlen is in town as well. And I am seious – let me know.

    “Tim, please quit with all the garbage about credentials. Despite several paragraphs of name dropping, you never even approached the heart of my question.” It seems there are a lot of people questioning the veracity of the report, the intentions and our findings. Sorry it that irritates you. A lot of the chatter here is the misinterpretation of intent and information about my work combined with intermittent questioning of the credibility of my work.

    “Why is it that sensitivities to other taste sensations in ‘Sweet’ tasters are supposedly heightened, yet these same tasters have an incredible tolerance to sugar?” Sugar masks bitterness to which they are particularly sensitive to.
    “Please answer why you have drawn the line here and not somewhere else.” It is one extreme and we have drawn lines at many points. It is a definable cluster in our data that we found represents a large consumer segment and opportunity for the wine community to look at and cultivate.
    “You classify tasters who like big, extracted, high intensity wines as ‘Tolerant.’ Somehow insensitivity to all non-sweet flavors and the need for high flavor intensities not related to sweetness is one thing to you, while the need for high sweetness is another thing to you.” They can tolerate high levels of bitterness, astringency and find alcohol tastes sweet. They tend to be much more male and ‘dispose of’ their attraction to sweetness for gender-related reasons and also sweet is less important in general for them. Sweet phenotypes find alcohol ‘hot’ and burning, also it increases bitterness even more for them and maintain their need for the sweetness.

    I have indeed looked at the report on the Lodi website sponsored by the Lodi Wine Awards. What I see is a tidy PowerPoint presentation, but nothing linked obviously to any peer reviewed journal. I do not wish to bring credentials into this as you do, but let’s just say I am no neohpyte as it concerns scientific inquiry and publications. “A work in progress, as surely you can appreciate if you are no neophyte in this area. Dr. Utermohlen and I are working on this even as we speak. We released a summary of findings and made that clear.”

    “I’d be interested to see any peer-reviewed publications based on the Lodi-sponsored data.” Stay tuned. I can send you the studies previous studies on sensitivity and preference predispositions plus neural plasticity, etc. that form the basis for many of our hypothesis.

    “I’d also be interested to know your relationship to the Lodi Wine Awards and the large-scale producers of alcopop wine beverages.” None
    “It is interesting the Lodi report notes that ‘Sweet’ tasters also like flavored coffees and light beers. These are heavily marketed, mass produced items that compensate for lack of good flavor in some way. The over-roasted, burnt coffee is masked by sweet additions. And the light beer is masked by its cold serving temperature. Really there’s little connection in flavor between light beer and sweet alcopop. The only obvious link is they are mass-market processed food items with broad marketing.” There are less obvious links – that is what we are studying and many of your assessments and judgments are misguided but consistent with collective delusions from not understanding the sensory diversity of consumers. The comment “that compensate for lack of good flavor in some way” is the key to your personal assessment and the flavors can indeed be good to others. Again, this is the point of the study.

    “I suppose soon you’ll be saying that ‘Sweet’ tasters would prefer a bland tomato picked when green to a vine ripened one because the intensity of the latter would be unpleasant to them. Well, they might prefer the former, but only because of conditioning except in rare cases where their hereditary sensory preferences lie several standard deviations outside the norm.” Holy moly – what line of reasoning are you using here? The attractive taste of a ripe tomato is primarily umami combined with sweetness – both of which humans are naturally inclined to love. The unripe tomato would be extremely bitter and acidic AND lacking in umami and sweetness. You would need to fry the green tomato, add salt and lemon juice, put ketchup on it…:-)

    And just an FYI – Lodi is not the source of the information or study, it is the locale for the Consumer Wine Awards, which is open to wines from around the world. It allows us to directly test hyposthesis with live humans, plus it is a blast.

  50. Tim, this helps a lot. So you have a sort of dichotomy between sweet and bitter. Where do umami, salty and sourness fit in, even if the classic five taste model is an oversimplification? I’d say an important metric of “good” wine is that it has various taste sensations. Some of my favorites tend to have some combination of sweetness (at least the impression via fruit esters), umami, saltiness (minerality), sourness (acidity) and bitterness (tannin/extract). Whether the wine tastes balanced comes down to my own preferences. But I don’t think there’s any reason to glorify a wine that balances just sweetness and bitterness by amping up the sweetness.

    I agree with your point on tomatoes. I was imagining shelf-ripened vs. vine ripened, though you are right, the vine ripened one will always be sweeter presumable due to sugars provided via photosynthesis. But the shelf ripened tomatoes are the equivalent of central valley grapes. Over-cropped and lacking flavor, hence residual sugar is often left to mask the bitterness and lack of flavor.

    If what you are saying is that individuals find different balance points in wine, then I have no disagreement with that conclusion. There are plenty of well-made sweet wine styles that have a different balance point than dry wines. But it also seems that you are saying cheap sweet wines are just as objectively good as conscientiously made dry wines. Well, people might like them more because they have a more appealing sugar-bitter balance. But I still maintain the sugar is a masking agent in these cheap wines, an expedient means to make a wine palatable to a broad base of people.

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