Once game changers happen things will never be the same. When it comes to wine, there are three such game-changer moments that have had major impacts on tastes in wine and the business of wine.
Sutter Home White Zinfandel
Yes, this is a tale both mythical and true. First, we must dispel the long-held myth that Sutter Home Winery, owned by the Trinchero family, invented white Zinfandel. This story started more than a century earlier when Lodi’s El Pinal Winery made the first White Zinfandel — and not the sweet version. As a matter of fact, in the day white and Rosé Zins were quite popular as food wines and summer sippers much like Provencal Rosé today.
In 1975 in Napa Valley, the aforementioned Sutter Home Winery had a problem. It seems the yeast that was entrusted to ferment a batch of Zinfandel hit a roadblock — otherwise known as a stuck fermentation — and stopped converting sugar into alcohol. Ignoring all the voodoo the winemakers could muster, the wine decided to stay stuck and ended up being quite sweet. Not being in a position to eat the loss, the Trincheros chose to roll the dice and release the sweet beast. Several million cases later the world still loves sweet Zin.
To this day, Kendell-Jackson Vineyard Estates makes the world’s best-selling Chardonnay.
Once again lightning struck and a fortune was born. And for all of you Rombauer worshipers, here is where all the sweet-rich-oaky-buttery object of your desire originated. Chardonnay was decidedly not a star in California in the early 1980s. Land-rights lawyer Jess Jackson wanted to change careers and started a homestead in Lake County. He also was forward sighted enough to know he would need more fruit and negotiated vineyard contracts that supplied that need.
In 1982, his winemaker, one Mr. Jed Steele, encountered a stuck fermentation with a huge volume of Chardonnay and could not resolve it. With the wise counsel one would expect from a barrister, Steele decided to bottle the Chard in that state, and, viola, lightning-in-a-bottle. To this day, Kendell-Jackson Vineyard Estates makes the world’s best-selling Chardonnay.
One Dave Phinney, fresh off a sojourn in France, learning about grape growing and winemaking, comes to Napa Valley and charms/cajoles grape growers in order to access some top-quality fruit and determines that blending the diverse grapes together and bottling them in an impressive bottle with an intriguing label will make money magic. It is easy to see the brilliance now, but it was quite the gamble then. The freight train that is the Red Blend category was off and running.
Three unconventional strategies that have set a large part of today’s market course are all brilliant.