Of the many wine tourists who flock to Montevina's tasting room in Plymouth, Calif., very few come for the white Zinfandel. But winemaker Chris Leamy says white Zin sales reliably perk up on Friday afternoons, when he ambles into the visitors' area and pours himself a glass of something pink.
"When they hear it's the winemaker and it's white Zin, you can track our sales going up," Leamy says, theorizing his pour reminds skeptics that white Zin "is real wine."
Turley Wine Cellars, one of the state's most-respected Zinfandel producers, is making the same point with its newly-released white Zinfandel. The winery is boldly targeting an upmarket audience that tends to associate the genre with cheap, sweet, grocery-store wines.
"We felt there was no reason why white Zinfandel couldn't be a serious wine," Christina Turley told the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Bonne, who last month reported on Turley's efforts to make white Zin respectable. "Plus, we all love the idea of something with a good heart and a bad reputation."
White Zin was the brainchild of Sutter Home Winery, which in 1973 had lots of Zinfandel grapes and hopes of appealing to committed white wine drinkers. The winery two years later struck a chord with American palates when a large batch of Zinfandel failed to ferment properly: The sweet wine became the nation's preferred varietal (and remained so until a 1998 takeover by Chardonnay) and reinvigorated the economic outlook for California's Zinfandel producers, who this week will be in Seattle to celebrate their chosen varietal at ZAP On Tour.
"White Zin gets maligned a lot," Leamy says. "People say it's something to pay the bills. But it's not just a throwaway. It's something people take pride in and have some fun making."
Leamy says lesser white Zins are still selling well at supermarkets, where "they buy their magnum of Beringer and that's what they do." But drinkers who structure their wine consumption according to a few basic rules gleaned from magazine articles and morning television shows shun pink wine - even the roses which have lately become popular with connoisseurs.
"I think there's still intense snobbery about rose," Leamy says. "Americans as a whole are embarrassed to have something pink in their glass. It's a shame."
Anti-pink sentiment forced Montevina to suspend production of a Nebbiolo rose, although it still makes a dry white Zin. Leamy says the wine is much friendlier to food than the wines at the sugary end of the white Zin spectrum.
"We find the biggest success with restaurants because it's not a brand everyone sees," he says. "Chefs like it, and it still gives customers the wine they want. In my opinion, if you tell your customers they can't have a wine just because you don't like it, that's not hospitality."
Leamy suspects the newest generation of wine drinkers, who might not be familiar with the overly sweet pink wines their parents drink, could learn to love white Zins under the tutelage of open-minded sommeliers.
"I think there's a chance," he says. "It would be great. Liking it is never the issue: The reason folks at Turley are making white Zinfandel is that it tastes good."