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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!

  1. Hi Gregg,

    Way to much to go back and forth on in a blog comments area.

    What consitiutes a “well-made sweet wine” to one phenotype may indeed be horrible to another, and vice-versa. In fact, ethyl acetate, stulfites and other aromas very common in even ‘great’ sweet wines are hugely magnified to Hypersensitive and Sweet tasters (taste with Dick Peterson some time for a clear demo of this!!). NOWHERE do I say “cheap white wines are just as objectively good” and this is what is so frusting here. So much of what is in our SUMMARY and what I say is taken of context or people are going on about things without even reading the document! Everyone then adds their inherent biases and points of view and are overlooking the data, the summary with our proposition – combined with flawed thinking that sensory phenomena are objective that are not. Flavor is conceptual and I literally just listened to a lecture on exactly that premise 30 minutes age. Plus you are making an anology of tomatoes and grapes to wine that I am sure makes sense to you but really follows only the logic you, and others with similar lines of thinking, can conceptualize.

    Gimme a call this weekend or let me know a couple times that work for you.

  2. Tim, unfortunately, I don’t live in Napa. But I would be interested in learning more. If there are additional references I could read, I’d like to know what you recommend.

    I 100% agree that tasting preference is not objective. I never said otherwise. But wine appreciation isn’t simply about preference. It’s a synthesis of both personal preference and an understanding of stylistic and regional typicity.

    I tested as a Sensitive taster on your scale, by the way. I think you state that preference or phenotype does have a learned component given that you associate selling on points with Tolerant tasters. Well, to me there is a tyranny of both Tolerant and Sweet tasters, and both groups like extreme flavor profiles. I wish Sweet tasters could learn that wine could have other expressions besides simple sweetness and if Tolerant tasters could un-learn that points are everything.

    It’s Sensitive tasters who are truly under-served in my opinion. Mass market wines pander to the sweet tooth, while high end wines pander to point chasing. What does that leave for someone whose phenotype favors exploration and balance? Sugary alcopop is not interesting, and at the other end over-extracted oaky fruit bombs are rather shrill. I suppose you have sort of a robotic, non-sentient consumer in mind with Sweet and Tolerant consumers, though. It likes, therefore it buys, not someone who explores wine for varying experiences.

  3. Gregg – bingo! The funny thing is ALL segments are underserved in on way shape or form! I will put together a bunch of stuff when I get eh chance – e-mail me tim AT timhanni DOT com and I will return the material.

    BTW: “But wine appreciation isn’t simply about preference. It’s a synthesis of both personal preference and an understanding of stylistic and regional typicity.”

    Appreciation mean to grow in value. THAT is conceptual and in the eye of the beholder.

  4. Quite completely aside of any data or opinions on the basis of sweet versus dry differences, I’m surprised that two very salient points haven’t been brought out in this extensive discussion. Namely:

    1. Sweet wines are (usually) easier to make than dry wines.
    2. Sugar hides off flavors that may be tolerable in a sweet wine, but would make a dry version of the same wine undrinkable.

    A few other comments have touched on these points but, to me, they are a central point in the argument about whether or how worthy sweet wines are. Yes, sweet wines can (and are) be made from excellent grapes, and yes, superb sweet wines can require just as much care and craftsmanship as superb dry wines. Nonetheless, sweet wines are more likely to be plonk than dry wines simply because they can get away with it. For those (many) winemakers who prefer dry wines, why bother making a sweet wine if you have the quality grapes and well-managed fermentation to make a dry wine?

    Many sweet or semi-sweet wines sold by smaller wineries are the product of fermentations that didn’t go quite right. Thee fermentation may have petered out before reaching (perceptive) dryness, or a spoilage problem may have been caught after undesirable sensory notes began to appear, but in time to be salvaged by covering up those off flavors with some sugar. Selling a sweet wine is a salvage alternative to throwing out the batch. Sure, those wines often sell well, but consumer support for sweet wines doesn’t change the fact that they simply aren’t made as well.

  5. Hi Erika and welcome to the fray! A couple of quick comments and a lot of this has been covered here, or maybe or at 1WineDude:

    1. “Sweet wines are (usually) easier to make than dry wines.” Definately not so. Transportable, stable sweet wines are much more challenging to make. The addition of alcohol to wines for stabilization with the retention of unfermented sugars gave us Port, Sherry, Madeira and many, many more styles.

    2. “Sugar hides off flavors that may be tolerable in a sweet wine, but would make a dry version of the same wine undrinkable.” A study of this rationale shows that this become a marketing message that started showing up after WWII in wine books written by the great people like Frederick Wildman, Alexis Lichine, Peter Alan Sichel and later Harold Grossman. With the exception of Grossman, they were wine salesmen and producers. This is actually a myth in the wine culture, and before WWII many of what we call dessert wines today were table wines, including Sauternes, Barsac and Auslese and higher QmP wines.

    “For those (many) winemakers who prefer dry wines, why bother making a sweet wine if you have the quality grapes and well-managed fermentation to make a dry wine? ” The answer to that is because there is a market that values sweet wines now and throughout history. Champagne historically was sweet and great vintages of Montrachet were very sweet, as were Amarone (very sweet until the early 1960s), the most prized German wines, etc. etc. etc. MKost people do not know that the French buy more Port than any other country and it is served as an aperitf, even vintage Port, not as a dessert wine.

    “Many sweet or semi-sweet wines sold by smaller wineries are the product of fermentations that didn’t go quite right,” is not very accurate today. It is very rare any more with modern yeasts and advances in fermentation sciences. Almost all wines with RS are that way intentionally today.

    “sweet wines are more likely to be plonk than dry wines simply because they can get away with it. ” Nope.

  6. I occasionally enjoy a glass of white zin from time to time, primarily because I enjoy a lot of very hot-spicy foods. I could spend a lot more for a better quality off-dry white wine for sure, but I would not really appreciate the nuances after a dish of spicy enchiladas. Margaritas or beer seem to fit the same slot for a lot of people, but I prefer my glass of wine as it seems less filling. Surprised no one else has really picked up on the match between off-dry wines and spicy foods.

  7. Janeen,

    What a perfect insight. There are a couple of things necessary to get this kind of message to the right person:

    1. The person must have some recptiveness to off-dry wine of White Zin as an option. Many people do, many don’t.

    2. The person must have some receptiveness to people who like spicy foods. Many people do, many don’t.

    Sweetness in the food may make a HUGE difference in the intaction between the wine and food – sweeter food may make the wine less sweet, more bitter, sour and exaggerate the spciness. Many people may like this, many may not.

    A Tolerant taster will often never even think about or like a sweet or off dry wine and would hate the combination.

    A Sweet or Hyper-sensitive taster will be much more inclined to love the combination.

    This is, by the way, a conventional and common ‘match’ in the wine community. Then different phenotypes argue whether or not it is a good match.

  8. I discovered Dr. Liz Thach (Sonoma State University) and Tim Hanni MW’s research last year and I have used their research about Associative Taste Diversity to help me in making recommendations to wine consumers on a daily basis in a retail environment. What I originally read was from their publications: “Wine Marketing for Diverse Palates”, Part 1 & 2 for Vineyard & Winery Mangement, Vol 34, No.1, p. 30-33 and Vol 34, No.2. I found their paper on the internet last year but the link is now gone.

    I interact with wine consumers 8 hours/day, 4 days/week. Using the knowledge I gained from their research about taste diversity, I have been able to successfully make recommendations based on the customer’s taste along with their mood, the food and the occasion. This has ultimately increased wine sales because people are enjoying more of what they like. The method I use based on their research relating to coffee preferences is not perfect, but it works very quickly to help me assess customers’ dominant palate preferences out on the sales floor. So, I commend them for their research and articles because it has certainly helped me in my job as a Wine Steward. What I originally read was from their publications: “Wine Marketing for Diverse Palates”, Part 1 & 2 for Vineyard & Winery Mangement, Vol 34, No.1, p. 30-33 and Vol 34, No.2. I found these on the internet but the link is now gone.

    Because I thought their research was so interesting, I wrote about this topic last year: “Your Taste in Foods & Beverages Can Influence the Type of Wine You Like”:

    I feel that everyone should drink what they like and everyone has different tastes just like they do in other foods, beverages, clothes, shoes, style, friends, etc. Just take their research and survey for what it is. If you’re in the wine business, use the research as another tool in your toolbox like I did. If you’re a consumer, use the research to help gain more awareness of your own palate preferences and feel good about it. This way, if/when you need a wine recommendation, you are able to describe what you like and ultimately enjoy what you’re drinking.

  9. EnjoyFineWines, thanks for the observation. We’re all in agreement: People should drink whatever they like!

  10. I am a home winemaker, looking to grow my operations. In the early aughts I studied basic Viticulture and Oenology through UC Davis. I am currently enrolled in the WSET’s Diploma level courses.

    For years, I drank for pleasure. My wife and I bought and drank wines based upon information we read, personal knowledge, price point and prior tastings. We preferred to explore the shelves and simply go for things that interested us.

    Years later, and now that I know a thing or two about wine, I’m sometimes sorry I do. Time and again, the one noticeable difference between my prior life and my post-wine-education life is that something is missing – permission to enjoy a wine just because it makes you smile.

    As I study for my diploma, I’m finding this attitude that wine is an absolute, quantifiable and objective thing is somewhat ridiculous. I can tease out raspberries and lavender in a Rhone red, but it really maderizes my must when someone tells me I’m wrong for smelling rose petals. How the hell does anyone know what my nose smells?

    Likewise, I have tasted wines that I would likely enjoy at home with my wife, only to be told that they were of poor quality or unacceptable because they didn’t meet the standards of the WSET course.

    I wholly agree with Tim that taste is contextual, physiological, biased by cultural attitudes as well as mental perception. The idea that what you taste can be either right or wrong is therefore confusing. And to me, that’s exactly what it feels like the industry is doing on a larger scale, to the consumer: Confusing and intimidating them to the point were they’d rather just go grab a beer.

  11. Randy Pitts says:

    A goof friend of mine made his fortune specifically off white zin. The reason why we drink old vine zinfandel today is, in large part, due to the white zin phenomenon. Here in the RRV, many old vine head-pruned vineyards were almost ripped out in the early 80’s but as white zin became more popular, growers decided to leave it for… yep production of white zin… Can you imagine that?

  12. Hi Steve, thanks for the observation.
    As always wine is an objective article and everyone has a different idea of what they like.
    White zin may not float everyones boat but it sure is great with the spicier dishes!
    People should drink whatever they like!


  13. This whole post is insulting. Some people are definitely more turned off by bitter and sour tastes than others and it doesn’t mean that they are any less discerning than someone who reaches for a dry red when they want wine or who drinks their coffee black. I like sweet wines, yes, including the dreaded white zin (and rieslings, pinot grigios, and viogniers). Dry wine, to me, is like overly spicy food. It overwhelms the palate until I can’t taste anything but the bitterness or the spice. To be able to savor the flavors in wine, for me it needs to have sweet notes. I have also been tested and found to be a super taster, so there you go. No amount of time or education will ever make me enjoy a dry red wine or even an oaky chardonnay.

    And don’t confuse me for a suburban McDonald’s diner. I have eaten in many of the best restaurants in the world. I only wish people like you didn’t perpetuate such ridiculousness with respect to wine, because some of us do want a glass of sweet wine with our haute cuisine.


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