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More Demand for Zinfandel Grapes Triggers Cheating

June 30, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

The story is an old one and is told throughout Northern California's wine country areas. Most old-timers have heard it, in one form or another. It used to illicit laughs. Now it merely causes them to shrug in recognition:

It is late of a September day. A truck laden to the top with wine grapes drives up the dusty driveway of a winery and the wine maker comes out.

The driver hops down out of the cab of the truck and says, "Need any grapes?"

"What kind ya got?" asks the wine maker.

The driver replies, "What kind you need?"

In the last few years, if the grapes looked red, the driver would reply "Zinfandel." And rarely would the wine maker complain.

The demand for White Zinfandel by the yuppie set has been a phenomenon no one could have calculated. Even Bob Trinchero, president of Sutter Home Winery, the world leader in production of this pop phenomenon, is still surprised by how fast the variety has caught on, and how strongly.

Less Than the Legal Limit

So strongly, in fact, that there is a suspicion by some people that there's White Zinfandel out there that isn't legally entitled to carry that name. The suspicion is that some of this wine is less than the legal limit of Zinfandel.

Under the law, White Zinfandel is a varietal designation, meaning that each bottle must contain at least 75% of the stated variety. One federal investigator privately tells wine makers, though, that he suspects there's a lot of mislabeled White Zinfandel on the market--wine that may have in it some Zinfandel, but a major portion of the wine is made up of other, much less expensive--and more widely available--grapes.

Now the state is getting into the act.

In a letter dated June 1, the California Department of Food and Agriculture is warning growers it smells a rat, too.

"It has been brought to (our) attention . . . that the practice of misrepresenting varieties of grapes delivered to wineries as 'Zinfandel' continues to be a problem," said the start of a letter to some growers.

Included with the letter was a sheet that had in large type, "WARNING! Stating a false variety on loads of grapes is unlawful. Conviction can result in $1,000 fine and/or 6 months in jail, and/or civil penalties of up to $2,500 per day or violation."

'Aware of Possible Problems'

A spokesman for the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said his agency was "aware of possible problems in the last two years and there is a strong push on toward doing more product integrity inspections." Such inspections are done at harvest time and inspectors look at grapes being delivered and the weigh tags for such loads of grapes to see if they match.

The BATF also conducts grape identification courses for its agents so it can tell a cluster of Zinfandel grapes from other varieties.

Trinchero, whose Sutter Home Winery produced 2.1 million cases of White Zinfandel last year, says any allegations of "excessive blending" of non-Zinfandel grapes into White Zinfandel may have resulted from competing wineries' jealousy.

"When there's an incentive, there's going to be some people who cheat," he said. "And there are some vintners who feel Sutter Home or some of these other guys have gotta be cheating somehow.

"But it would be the dumbest thing in the world for me to be doing something like that. I could lose my license and be out of business." He added that he had four BATF inspections during last year's harvest, "and one of them was at 2 o'clock in the morning." He passed all of them.

Industry analyst Jon Fredrikson of San Francisco agreed that little if any overt cheating was going on at wineries: "The threat of losing your license, and the forms you have to fill out, and the number of inspectors running around--why, that's enough to put the fear of God into any White Zin producer."

Trinchero also said he polices the situation himself. "We have six guys out there who track the grapes back to their source, to make sure of what we're getting."

One Explanation

Trinchero thinks there's an explanation for the plethora of Zinfandel available recently.

"When Zin was selling for $150 a ton, it was often sold only as 'red grapes.' It had no importance as a varietal, it was the jug red wine back then so it was never reported as Zinfandel. But when it became short, the price went up, and so growers started labeling it what it was--Zinfandel."

Also, Trinchero noted that there has been a huge increase in the amount of Zinfandel being grown without a corresponding increase in Zinfandel acreage. "My growers have reported to me 50% to 100% more grapes, but that's because they're overcropping (growing too many grapes per vine). They're loading the vines down," but in many cases, such practices actually make a better White Zinfandel, he said.

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