Bob Trinchero on the first Sutter Home white zinfandel

W$Jay was slumming it with zinfandel recently. He had a passing remark about the origin of Sutter Home white zin. Thanks to the Regional Oral history Office at Cal’s Bancroft Library, we have access to the first-hand account of Bob Trinchero, then winemaker at Sutter Home.

Trinchero said that there was something of a zinfandel arms race in the early 70s. In 1972, to concentrate the red zinfandel, he bled off 550 gallons of (white) juice at the crush that he then didn’t know what to do with. He thought about adding it to his “gallon-jug chablis.” But Darrel Corti, a retailer in Sacramento, told him it was a curiosity and that he would buy half of the 220 cases if Trinchero bottled it separately. Corti suggested the name “Oeil de Perdrix,” or “eye of the partridge.” Trinchero said “Oh, okay. I can’t pronounce it, but anyway I make up the label and send it in to BATF.” The regulatory authority said that the label needed an english translation, so Trinchero says he added white zinfandel and the BATF accepted the term even though there is no white zinfandel grape.

Of course, white zinfandel had been made as long ago as the 1860s, and David Bruce and Ridge Vineyards, among others, had made saignée wines from zinfandel before Sutter Home.

The first few vintages of Sutter Home’s white zin were dry and white. Then it got pink and sweet. How much residual sugar was in the first wine? Trinchero elaborates:

Zero. I was thinking Chardonnay when I was making it. It was dry, oak-aged, and it sold because it was a curiosity. It really started taking off with the ’75. What happened was, I had a twelve-hundred gallon tank, and I had only a thousand gallons of White Zinfandel. I had to do something with this two-hundred-gallon head space, because the wine was getting close to stopping fermenting, and you can’t leave it with a head space for very long. I had this Mission juice, and I decided I would just put it in there and let it ferment, I put a fermenting bung in it, and it will be fine. Mistake.

First of all, I should have known better, because Mission sometimes just stops fermenting on you for no apparent reason. And I had added a little too much sulfur to this juice, and hadn’t allowed it to oxidize to where you could tell what the color was. Up until now it was not only dry, but it was white. Well, this juice looked white, so I pumped it in, tapped it up, and put a fermentation bung in it, and it fermented for a little bit. Then it stopped at about 2 percent residual sugar–the whole twelve hundred gallons–and the color came back to it, so the wine was light pink.

Now I took a sample out and said, “Oh, my God, it’s got a pink tinge to it, and it’s too sweet.” Two percent–that’s not really too sweet, but it’s sweet to the taste. My first thought was, “What am I going to do now, because my customer is used to the dry, white one.” Then I said, “The heck with it. I’m going to bottle it anyway.” Well, I had to. I couldn’t do anything with four hundred cases; that was too much wine for me at the time.

It took off. By 1980, Trinchero says Sutter Home made 34,000 cases of wine, 24,000 was white zin. Then it went to 60,000 cases then 120,000 cases. By 1985, he says they were selling 1.5 million cases; by 1990, they hit three million cases.

Louis (Bob) Trinchero, “California Zinfandels, a Success Story,” an oral history conducted in 1991 by Carole Hicke, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1992.

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25 Responses to “Bob Trinchero on the first Sutter Home white zinfandel”

  1. “By 1985, he says they were selling 1.5 million cases; by 1990, they hit three million cases.”

    ‘White Zinfandel’ took off when ‘White Lambrusco’ tanked in 1985. It was easy for those wine drinkers to switch from ‘sweet white lambrusco’ to ‘sweet white zinfandel’.

    BTW, it would be quite interesting to research the fascination US wine and spirits drinkers have with the word ‘white’ as part of a name of an alcoholic beverage: white Russian, white zinfandel, white merlot, white lambrusco, white chianti (yes, those were around!)…all of these ‘alcoholic drinks’ have one thing in common, they are all extremely sweet…and that’s about it.

    James Koch

  2. You can’t argue with success, but you don’t have to help perpetuate it.

  3. Interesting, James, thanks for pointing out.

    Robin- Did understand this post about the unusual origins of Sutter Home white zinfandel to be an endorsement?

  4. Actually, if you’ll check your General Viticulture or Leon Adams Wines of America, the wine sold in the 1800’s under the name “White Zinfandel” was chenin blanc. Zinfandel is a horse in Homer’s Iliad, and the Red Zinfandel and Whute Zinfandel were the workhorse varieties of the Napa Valley prior to Prohibition.

  5. I was a bartender in a wine bar around 1990, and we went through Sutter Home White Zin by the case. It was vile: Tickle Pink with a fancy label.

    I’d nudge the Sutter Home drinkers to try the Beringer White Zin, and the Beringer drinkers to try Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc.

  6. And all of those ‘white Chianti’ were made from…Trebbiano: “The Chianti vintners were producing blends that included white grapes, and many were also producing White Chianti, which consisted of nothing more than high yield Trebbiano.” —

    FYI: All those wine lover who miss ‘white chianti’ can produce a “premium” version at home:

    James Koch

  7. I remember delivering a case of ‘Brauneberger Mandelgraben QbA’ (inexpensive German Riesling from the Mosel) to a small Italian restaurant on Melrose Ave in LA in 1986.

    The following week the GM called back asking “if he could get another 5 cases”.

    When he placed another order shortly thereafter, I asked him if he would share with me his secret of selling unpopular German Rieslings by the truckload in a small Italian restaurant.

    “Riesling??? We are selling it as White Zinfandel.”

  8. This only makes me curious to try the austere dry version. Does that style of white Zinfandel still exist?

  9. A DRY white Zin? Survey says: Consumers associate the term ‘white zin’ with and expect a very sweet wine. Furthermore, the term ‘dry’ is not defined in the USA and can and is used for wines that are and taste sweet. You’ll probably luckier if you take a look at wines labeled (dry) Zinfandel Rose’.

  10. […] Vino sets the record straight on the history of white Zinfandel. (0) […]

  11. In 1978 I was a sales rep for Farrell Dist. in VT and was at the introductory kick off meeting of Sutter Home White Zin.,.. packaged in a green bottle.

  12. White Zin was my favorite. Until I moved to Provence. One sip of a good Provençal Rosé, and you’ll never go back.

  13. Hi Clark,

    Thanks for stopping by. Funny that “white zinfandel” in the 19th century may have been chenin blanc.

    Also interesting about the equine angle on zinfandel. Do you know the exact citation in the Iliad? I searched a text version here and didn’t find anything:

    Thanks to everyone else for the interesting memories in the early days of white zin!

  14. Phil – Yes, you’re absolutely right and Bob mentioned that in the interview. Here’s what he had to say when asked why he had chosen green bottles:

    Because it was the only thing we had. We were washing our
    own bottles, remember? It was in hock green bottles,
    actually, because that’s what we had the most of. It
    didn’t go into the claret style bottle until ’75. Then,
    once it became popular, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
    I mean, My God, I don’t want to change that package.

  15. Dr. Vino: What’s the current ‘blend’ of Sutter Home’s White Zin?

  16. Ha, James, now THAT I don’t know. I wonder if still about 20% Mission juice?

  17. Well, I just called the very friendly tasting room persons at Sutter Home: The current White Zin is made from 100% Zinfandel. They also have a ‘Riserve White Zin’ which is made from 100% Napa Zinfandel (style: not as sweet and higher alcohol compared to the regular WZ; price: $10.00 (case discount: 10%); available only at their tasting room and online).

  18. Oh, I forgot to paste the link to their WZ webpage: It has a nice little video about the ‘history’ of SH’s WZ.

  19. It’s worth noting that the White Zin Boom of the 70’s and 80’s likely saved many of our State’s oldest Zinfandel vineyards from being torn out and planted as something else. It’s very possible that today’s favorite Old Vine Zin is likely from the same vineyards that provided the fruit for the sweet pink stuff. All is well that ends well.

  20. 1908 was the first year Paul Masson released the Oeil de Perdix (Eye of the Partridge), a sparkling wine. I find it odd that Sutter Home would want to use that name again…thought it had been used even prior to Masson.

  21. This was fascinating – thanks for writing it up! Makes me want to go buy a bottle 😉

  22. It might have happened by accident but it’s still absolutely gruesome wine, the one varietal that is instantly binned if anyone brings it around for dinner. A proper White Zin is actually one of the nicer wines around. Blauwwklippen in South Africa still make a good one, does anyone in America still make it the proper way?

  23. […] Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel achieved popularity after an experiment gone wrong. (Dr Vino) […]

  24. Dr. Vino: Came across these lines while looking further into ‘wine coolers’ and ‘white lambrusco’:

    “White Zinfandel, introduced about 1975, seems to have some irresistible advantages going for it from the standpoint of the producer. It is made from grapes not yet fully ripe, so that one need not be anxious about proper maturity and thus can use fruit from the Central Valley, which is abundant and inexpensive.

    It is regularly doctored with inexpensive concentrate to sweeten it, and a little gas may be added as well. It requires no aging, so that it may be moved to the market almost at once.

    Finally, Americans love it. White Zinfandel has effectively killed the domestic production of other rose wines; it shows few signs of losing popularity, and it may prove to be that long-sought-after commercial ideal, the wine equivalent of the American soft drink. The fact that only Americans drink it seems to confirm that idea.”

    from: A History of Wine in America, Thomas Pinney, 2005

  25. I happen to have a 1978 Sutter Home White Zinfandel. It’s never been opened and in good condition. Anyone interested?


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