A Sweet And Seductive Rose Can Mean Love At First Blush

Posted: July 10, 1988

The mention of rose wines recently elicited this outraged response from an acquaintance: "They should be outlawed! They're an aberration, completely unnatural and dangerous!"

Some people take wine too seriously.

This is not to say that pink wines are a joke, as some people consider them (including the author of the adage, "White wine with fish, red wine with meat and rose wine with ice cream, jelly beans and any endangered species"). Most serious wine lovers will never admit to drinking roses and insist that those who do, deep-down, really don't like wine.

I have a different theory about the attraction of rose wines. It's the bimbo factor. An inexperienced wine drinker will understandably be infatuated and enchanted by the dazzlingly delicate salmon color, the lovely fresh fruitiness and simple, cool refreshment of a rose. A beautiful rose can be a head-turner, a shameless flirt of a wine. But it's a harmless summer romance rather than a lifelong passion. Sweet and seductive.

A bimbo at heart.

Probably the most complicated thing about a rose wine is the different names it appears under. Ah, but what's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name (like white zinfandel, "blush" or blanc de noir) would taste as sweet.

Rose wine, which had fallen out of favor in the late '70s, has made a stunning comeback in recent years. Its success can be attributed to the fact that it has changed its name - but not its sweet siren song. Making a white (or pink) wine from red grapes is not new, but calling it white zinfandel or "blush wine" is.

White zinfandel was born in 1972 at the Sutter Home Winery in the Napa Valley of California. "But our first batch was entirely different than what is made now," said Walter Hampe, director of public relations at Sutter Home. ''People were looking for big chardonnay-type white wines, and since we were a zinfandel-only winery, if we wanted a white wine it had to be made from zinfandel. So we made it dry, full-bodied and oak-aged it like a chardonnay."

The sweeter-style white zinfandel that has been popularized by Sutter Home happened by a "fortuitous accident," Hampe said. "In 1975, our fermentation of the white zinfandel got 'stuck,' which means that the yeasts went on strike and wouldn't convert the remaining sugar into alcohol. So we left it that way and bottled it."

The rest is history.

"It was the right wine at the right time," said Hampe. "And to put it in perspective, our first vintage was 500 cases; in 1980, we made 25,000 cases of white zinfandel - and last year we made 2 1/2 million." And that doesn't include Sutter Home's sparkling white zinfandel.

Many wineries have followed Sutter Home's lead, turning the glut of red grapes of the late '70s into the new "pop" wine of the '80s. These reincarnated rose wines are often referred to generically as blush wines. But, technically, people who use the term generically are breaking the law.

The word blush used on a wine product is a legal trademark owned by the Mill Creek Vineyards in Sonoma County, a small winery that produces 15,000 to 18,000 cases of wine annually and only a couple thousand cases of Cabernet Blush. According to Bill Kreck, general manager of Mill Creek, the name ''blush" was inspired by California wine writer Jerry Mead in the winter of 1976-77.

"We were sitting around the winery talking about the color of our rose of cabernet," Kreck recalls, "And Jerry said, 'Why don't you call it Cabernet Blush?' We were terribly impressed with the name, and a few years later we

applied for a trademark. In 1980, it was approved."

About 50 wineries have arranged under a licensing agreement to use the term blush for their wine, but as Kreck says, "every generic use of the word undermines the trademark." Consequently, Kreck has spent time in the courts protecting it, although, he emphasized, "we're in the wine business and don't want to have this sideline get in the way of our main focus."

Mill Creek's Cabernet Blush wine is made from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, but a licensed "blush" wine can be made from any grape or blend. It doesn't even have to be pink; it merely has to meet the legal requirement for wine. "We don't want to tell people how to make their wines," says Kreck.

I recently sampled 11 nouveau rose wines (all available at Pennsylvania State Stores) and was struck by the range and variety of styles available. I found a number of them to be quite delightful, but heck, I'm a pushover for a pretty wine.

* 1987 Shenandoah Vineyards White Zinfandel ($5.97). This was one of the darkest and the most exciting and serious white zin of the bunch. Produced at a small family-owned winery in Amador County, where zinfandel is king. Spicy nose, with a big, rich, crisp character. An electric wine. My favorite.

* 1987 Beringer White Zinfandel ($6.44). Clean fruity nose with hints of cinnamon and allspice. Light, charming and attractive. A bit sweet, but not uninteresting.

* 1987 Sutter Home White Zinfandel ($5.37). Little aroma, but nice fresh fruit up front. Clean, well-made and consistent.

* 1987 Robert Mondavi White Zinfandel ($5.12). The most bizarre and eccentric white zin I've ever tasted. Its sweet, flowery bouquet was atypical of the zinfandel grape. Apparently, it was tarted up with some muscat canelli and Johannesberg riesling grapes, an unfortunate combination.

* 1987 Mirassou White Zinfandel ($5.97). Had a weird, musty aroma. Cheesey flavor. Lacks acid.

* 1987 Cribari White Zinfandel ($3.68). Disappointing. Not terribly aromatic or charming. Dull. Lacks life.

* 1986 Sebastiani "Eye of the Swan" Pinot Noir Blanc ($5.44). Lovely delicate fruit aroma. An elegant wine. Earthy and sharp, with a nice finish.

* 1987 Sterling Vineyards Cabernet Blanc ($6.36). Strong, very attractive cabernet aroma. Rich flavor and firm structure. A wine with real character, dry and puckery; not just for quaffing - should be served with food.

* 1986 Mill Creek Cabernet Blush ($7.67). Distinct cabernet fruitiness, crisp, light character. This bottle was not as fresh as it could be. Look for the 1987 vintage soon to be on the market. Available at the Bourse specialty store.

* 1985 M. Marchere Blush France ($4.41). Made from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. Mellow fruit aroma, not unpleasant for a three-year-old rose. Good value.

* Non-Vintage Ernest and Julio Gallo Blush Chablis ($3.65). First of all, the name is an absurdity. Chablis is the name of a wine region in France where only white chardonnay wines are made; match that with the "blush" trademark and try to figure it out. An awkward, clumsy wine. The Gallo boys should be blushing with embarrassment.

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