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Novelty Wine Leads to Serious Success for Sutter

September 13, 1987|BRUCE KEPPEL | Times Staff Writer

ST. HELENA, Calif. — Just a decade ago, Louis Trinchero had come to accept the role of president of a "mom and pop" winery modestly honored for its limited production of Amador County Reserve Zinfandel.

Trinchero's winery specialized in wines made only from the red-skinned Zinfandel grape--a variety of uncertain parentage and until then dismissed as incapable of yielding a premium red wine.

"I don't care how big I am as long as I'm profitable," he liked to say.

Trinchero, who answers to Bob because that's what his father called him, still likes to say that. But today Trinchero's Sutter Home Winery is both profitable and big because American consumers in the 1980s took to the white wine Trinchero first produced, in a tiny 200-case lot, as a novelty in 1972.

"We needed a white wine," he said, "but I spent all of my time explaining what White Zinfandel was."

White Zinfandel, he would explain, is made from red Zinfandel grapes whose juice is fermented into wine after minimal contact with the skins that impart color and the tannin that can add longevity and complexity to a red wine. It can range in taste from dry to fairly sweet and in color from straw to a bright blush, but at its most successful it is fresh, readily drinkable, light in alcohol and a pleasant companion to most foods.

From production of 25,000 bottles of Sutter Home White Zinfandel in 1980, when the White Zinfandel trend first became apparent, the winery has had to double and even triple production each year. In 1986, it shipped 1 million cases, nearly one-third of the 3.5 million cases produced last year and 4.7% of California's total production of table wine, according to the San Francisco wine consulting firm of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.

Shipments for the first half of this year were 86% above the year-earlier mark, Trinchero said.

The beauty of White Zinfandel for the wine maker is that, because it is best drunk young, like a nouveau -style Beaujolais, there is no costly aging and storage.

"This is like manna from heaven," said consultant Eileen Fredrikson.

It has been manna for many growers, as well.

"White Zinfandel saved the Zinfandel grape growers, because without it there would have been a lot of vineyards with for-sale signs in front of them," said Edmond Masciana, a Torrance wine writer. Growers and vintners alike were badly affected by the wine market shifts of the 1970s, he explained, when demand for white wine soared after vineyards had been prepared for a boom in red wine consumption that has yet to materialize.

And no variety of grape was in greater surplus than Zinfandel. Consequently, Zinfandel growers--those who remained in business--frantically converted their holdings into white-grape vineyards, reducing the ready supply of Zinfandel grapes.

Then, White Zinfandel took off.

High Cost of Grapes

Now, with an estimated 120 wineries--almost all in California--producing White Zinfandel, demand has sent the price of San Joaquin Valley Zinfandel grapes, which once sold for as little as $150 a ton, to more than $500 a ton, Trinchero said. At such prices, he warned, the growers are "going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg."

He predicted that the high cost of grapes will drive jug versions of the wine out of the market and lead to more non-Zinfandel "blush" wines made by dousing cheap white wine with cheap red.

On the other hand, said Fredrikson, most Zinfandel growers still in business remain heavily in debt and have little choice but to take what profit they can. "That's the history of farming," she said. "You've just got to take it while you can."

Sutter Home decided three years ago to ensure that it will have the grapes it needs to meet expected increased demand for White Zinfandel. First, it bought 300 acres in Lake County, north of Napa Valley, then 50 acres in Napa Valley itself, 640 acres in Glenn County, north of Sacramento, leased 750 acres in San Joaquin County and, on Sept. 1, bought 1,180 acres in Colusa County.

But 15 years ago, when Trinchero made that first commercial batch of White Zinfandel, he used the potent Zinfandel grapes from Deaver Ranch in Amador County, which had produced the fruit that brought critical acclaim for his 1968 Amador County Reserve Zinfandel when it was released in 1971. That success had convinced him that, instead of bottling nearly 60 small batches of a wide variety of wines and other products, including olive oil and vinegar, Sutter Home should become an all-Zinfandel winery--the only one in the world.

Accident Caused 'Blush'

His first attempt at a White Zinfandel was a dry wine without the slightest trace of pink, which Trinchero aged in oak casks. "It was the driest wine I ever drank in my life," Masciana said.

Three years later, Trinchero's equipment stalled before the juice could be fully separated from the skins, leaving a touch of red and a bit of sweetness, producing a far different wine, he said. "I looked at it, tasted it and said, 'Hey this is all right!' "

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