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ON WINE

The New Gold Rush : The Merchant Prince of Zinfandel Mines a Rich Vein at Sutter Home

February 02, 1986|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

Just across the highway from the Louis M. Martini winery in St. Helena is an unprepossessing two-story wooden building. It was erected in 1874 and soon after was acquired by the famed Sutter family, at whose mill on Sutter Creek gold had been discovered, triggering the Gold Rush of 1848 and an influx of people that has never quite diminished. Some who failed to find gold stayed on, doing what came naturally in the old countries of Italy, Germany, Hungary and France: making wine.

In 1947, two Trinchero brothers from Italy, who had built their fortunes in New Jersey and New York making inexpensive red wine, moved to the Napa Valley. They bought the old Sutter place and set up operations, dealing in bulk wine. They made some, bought some and sold it cheap. If you brought a container, they'd fill it for 50 cents a gallon. Business was good. Then, in the 1960s, Mario Trinchero's son, Bob, in his ambitious early 30s, became dissatisfied with the quality of the wines offered at Sutter Home. He had found what he believed to be outstanding Zinfandel grapes from ancient vines growing in Amador County, high in the Sierra. Trucking the harvest to Napa, he nurtured the fermentation of these choice grapes of the 1968 vintage, patiently aging it in wood, bottling it in 1971 in high-shouldered Bordeaux bottles and giving it a neat, white label with a Sutter Home logo and a price tag of $2.75. His uncle and father thought he was crazy.

"You're going to ruin us," his father said. "We have a good business. You will drive people away with such a price."

"But, Dad," the young Trinchero insisted, "this is better wine. It's worth more. Just wait and see."

"Well, maybe if you try $2.25 a bottle."

A lone customer entered the small tasting room. Bob Trinchero poured out a sample and offered it to the customer, along with the story of the grapes from the Gold Country. It was indeed a super Zinfandel. With three years of aging in wood, the berry-rich wine had a velvety softness.

"How much, you say?" the customer inquired.

"Only $2.25, and two free bottles with a case," Trinchero answered. The customer nodded. He'd take the case. Word of mouth brought more and more customers for Zinfandel from that vineyard up in Amador County. People came from miles around, lining up at the counter to buy wine by the bottle and by the case. Sutter Home and Zinfandel became synonymous.

In 1972, Bob Trinchero decided to make a "white" wine from the sweet, white nectar of the black grape, leaving just a trace of the natural sugar unfermented. Fermented in stainless steel, with strict temperature control to preserve the fruitiness of those Amador County grapes, Sutter Home's first White Zinfandel was an instant winner; the 200 cases were sold out in a matter of weeks. In 1985, Bob Trinchero made 1.4 million cases of White Zinfandel. And I can confirm the rumor that just last year Valley Foundry delivered to Sutter Home two 320,000-gallon stainless steel tanks, the largest in the Napa Valley, to accommodate the new gold rush brought on by the popularity of White Zinfandel.

The tasting room at the Sutter Home Winery on California 29, just south of St. Helena, is open daily from 9 a.m to 5 p.m., and the crowds still line up, primarily for Zinfandel. You can buy Sutter Home Zinfandel, red or white, in New York City, Miami, Chicago and New Orleans, and at every important wine shop in Los Angeles. Sales may be soft for some California wines but not for White Zinfandel, thanks to Bob Trinchero, the merchant prince of Zinfandel.

White wines made from black grapes usually emerge with a slight "blush," from pale pink to deep rose. They range in taste finish from off-dry to an easily detectable sweetness, the best always balanced with refreshingly tart acidity. "We buy our grapes for acidity, not sugar," Bob Trinchero told me. It's that all-important balance of the sugar-to-acid ratio that is the charm of these blush wines, which are generally low in alcohol (Sutter Home White Zinfandel checks in at a soft 9% alcohol). Served right from the refrigerator, every one of the 16 easy-quaffing wines we sampled was way ahead of any California cooler on the market. The bouquets are reminiscent of delicate scents from roses to rhubarb. Most carry a vintage date, so remember that the adages "an old rose is a dead rose" and "the younger, the better" apply to this wine. One cautionary note: Forget the Charmat "Sparkler" from Sutter Home. It is labeled " THE White Zinfandel Champagne of California," but the only role I could imagine for its ripe-grape sweetness would be that of basting baked ham.

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