Once upon a time (let’s say 10 years ago) in America, when someone ordered a “white wine” at a restaurant, the implication was: “I’ll have a chardonnay, please.” That changed ever so slightly with the advancing popularity of pinot grigio—the “other” white wine.
There is something comforting and uncomplicated about ordering a wine by its grape variety. You have the security of knowing what you’re getting…or at least that’s what you’d like to believe. In truth, all chardonnays are not made equally. Far from it. They are blends of different grape clones, oaked and unoaked lots and they have widely varying percentages of juice that has gone through malolactic fermentation (the process that makes chardonnays oh-so-buttery). Vineyard location, weather and winemaking cultures also define the character of a wine.
On the red side of the coin, the same things can mostly be said about cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir or merlot.
As Joe and Jane Wine Consumer become a little more comfortable with wine, however, they are more at ease with bottles that give no obvious indication of the grapes inside. This is evident in the rise in popularity of California kitchen sink reds. These bold-but-friendly wines are mostly zinfandel based and blended with a cornucopia of other red grapes such as syrah, petite sirah, mourvedre, grenache, cinsault and the occasional charbono, among other somewhat more obscure varieties.
Although others certainly preceded him (Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards comes to mind), the guru of the kitchen sinkers has to be Dave Phinney of Orin Swift Cellars. Phinney (there is no Orin Swift) has amassed a loyal and large following with his The Prisoner and has made these amorphous, non-varietally labeled wines cool.
Phinney’s ascendance could have been written by Walt Disney: An American political science major studying in Florence, Italy, has a crazy idea to become a winemaker despite an obvious lack of training. He returns to the states and with gritty determination he learns the craft, purchases two tons of zinfandel grapes, makes a splash with the wine and 12 years later he’s successful enough to buy 48 acres land in Napa Valley, where the scruffy underdog with a heart of gold plans to build his winery. [Cue inspiring music. Fade to black.]
Phinney’s success has inspired other winemakers and generally has spurred sales in zinfandel-inspired wines. Wines like Red Splash, Apothic Red, Ménage à Trois Red, Hook & Ladder Station 10, Marietta Cellars Old Vine Red and, of course, Kitchen Sink Red (launched by Adler Fels Winery in 2011) all make fun, rich, approachable wines. The advent of these blended California reds may be a new phenomena to consumers, the idea of having a potpourri of different grapes in your wine harkens back to a very old style of winemaking.
Italian peasants and their descendants who immigrated to the United States made (and still make) what are called field blends. They would plant a variety of vines side by side, harvest and ferment the resulting grapes together to make simple, homemade wines. The diversity of grapes made the wines more interesting, but mostly the method was a hedge against crop failures of individual grape types. I would not be surprised to discover that grapes from the lingering zinfandel vines planted by Italian immigrants back in the 1800s are making their way into these more modern, substantial field blends.
No Western cultural group is more comfortable around wine than Italians, who intrinsically understand the benefits found in a bottle and around the dinner table. It seems fitting that more American families are borrowing a page from this Italian way of life: taking time to gather around the table to eat, laugh and build stronger bonds. No wine could be more appropriate for this than the growing choices of inexpensive, friendly kitchen sink wines.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.