SACRAMENTO – David Phillips grows grapes, Zinfandel grapes. And one of his wine labels seems to describe best the way people feel about a wine that may finally be getting some respect.
“It’s called the Seven Deadly Zins,” said Phillips, who co-owns the Michael-David Phillips Vineyards in Lodi. “Zinfandel people are different. We’re kinda wacky.”
They’re also wild about their wine and the grape it comes from. Last year, more than 10,000 people attended the annual Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) conference in San Francisco. A University of California, Davis researcher spent more than seven years tracking the grape’s origins to the coast of Croatia.
And now, with a group of school children leading the way, the Zinfandel grape may become California’s state fruit. That would help cap a revival of the grape previously best known as the source of the wine oenophiles love to hate — white Zinfandel.
Fourth graders from James McKee Elementary School in Elk Grove, on the edge of the state’s Zinfandel belt, lobbied their local assemblyman, Republican Anthony Pescetti of Rancho Cordova, to write a bill proposing the Zinfandel grape as the state fruit.
The students and Zinfandel boosters point to the grape’s 12 percent price increase last year, to $520 a ton, and the amount of land devoted to Zinfandel cultivation, 50,200 acres in California (second only to the Cabernet with 70,000), as more reasons why it’s a perfect candidate for the state fruit.
Those fourth graders found that the Zinfandel is the most widely planted red grape in California; it was first planted in the state during the 1800s; some vines in the Sierra Nevada foothills are at least 125 years old and still producing grapes; and they were an important part of the agricultural growth in the west during the Gold Rush.
“Zinfandel people are very passionate,” said Rebecca Robinson, executive director of ZAP. “I like to say it captures our pioneering spirit in a bottle. There’s something different and fun and exuberant about the wine and the people who choose to grow it and drink it.”
It’s this different and fun image that often has wine aficionados turning up their noses at Zinfandel, which crushes into white and red wines. The white wine is actually pink, because at the crush the grape’s skin is quickly separated from the juice, leaving a slightly sweet taste and rosy pink color.
The red wine has an older, spicier, more brash taste.
Until recently, white Zinfandel has had a history of being cheap, said Bruce Boring, owner of the California Wine Club, because it’s a quick cash crop. It’s made almost instantly, able to be bottled within 12 months of harvest. Wine critics say it is often used as an alternative to beer.
“There’s a lot of inexperienced wine drinkers, so white zin is a good starting point,” said Boring. “It’s a pleasant wine.”
But John Brecher, a Wall Street Journal wine columnist, said white Zinfandel is finally getting more respect, because people realize it’s very food friendly.
“It can be a very good wine,” Brecher said. “It’s a nice, fun wine to drink that people don’t have to feel intimidated about. And what’s so wrong with that?”
It’s also become unbelievably popular. White Zinfandel is estimated to have sold about 16.3 million cases in 2000, up from 9.3 million cases in 1996.
The Red Zinfandel market grew to 3.1 million cases in 2000 compared with 2.1 million cases in 1996.
Altogether, wines made from Zinfandel grapes represented 21 percent of the California premium table wine shipped in 2000, according to Gomberg-Fredrikson & Associates, which follows the wine table closely.
At the farm gate level, which is the amount the producer is selling their product for, the Zinfandel was worth $171,892,000 in 2000, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
While that shows Zinfandel is becoming bigger, honoring it as the state fruit is “kind of an off the wall idea,” said Dave Parker, director of Canadian and United States merchandising for the California Tree Fruit Agreement, a Fresno-based organization representing fruits like nectarines, peaches and plums.
Also, said Dominique Hansen of the California Strawberry Commission, strawberries bring in more money than Zinfandel grapes. Last year, 87 million trays of strawberries were shipped from the 26,000 acres of strawberry fields in California last year. Their farm gate level was $767,360,000.
All told, said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture Department, agriculture brings about $27 billion to the state economy.
The students behind the pro-Zinfandel bill said they took all this into consideration but still backed the grape, pointing out that it’s not just for wine, but jam and pasta sauce, too.
Plus, pushing the bill is “a really good feeling,” said fourth grader Nadine Small. “It’s like being a part of history.”
Boring agreed, saying, “You can’t find a friendlier wine.”