August 10, 2006
Chardonnay Rules, White Zinfandel Endures

The Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay is the most popular wine in the nation's restaurants, according to Ronn Wiegand's latest annual roundup in his trade journal Restaurant Wine, published in Napa.

That's no surprise, given the proportion of restaurants that put the Kendall-Jackson at or near the top of their wine list. Besides, it delivers clearcut flavor, generally at a reasonable price, at least by restaurant standards.

The most striking discovery in Wiegand's list of the top 10 restaurant wines is that white zinfandel accounts for three of the 10: The Beringer Vineyards white zinfandel, second only to the Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, the Sutter Home white zinfandel in fourth place, and the Franzia Winetaps white zinfandel in seventh place. Chardonnay is the most popular wine in American restaurants, accounting for little more than a third of all sales, but white zinfandel, the wine that rarely gets any respect from the wine press, can't be far behind.

What's it mean? For one, it's evidence that while Americans say they prefer their table wines dry they actually want them with at least a little refreshing sweetness, the style in which white zinfandel customarily is made. (This also could explain the enduring popularity of chardonnay, many examples of which also are made somewhat sweet, though they almost invariably are marketed as dry.)

White zinfandel also could owe its under-the-radar popularity to being such a friendly wine - soft, simple, unchallenging. It's a good buy, and it's pretty. At heart, it's a rose, and roses are coming back into vogue.

Thirty years ago, the emergence of white zinfandel pretty much saved California zinfandel, especially cherished old plantings of the grape, when the traditional red interpretation of the variety fell out of favor. Winemakers needed something to do with all that fruit, something that would sell, and a pale version of zinfandel was the answer. Now red zinfandel is back in fashion, but white zinfandel refuses to go away, and that's a good thing for anyone looking for a pleasant quaff on a hot summer day.

Wiegand also lists the 60 top wine brands in United States restaurants. The one to catch my eye is Salmon Creek, at number 14. Salmon Creek is a brand of Classic Wines of California, a division of Bronco Wine Co., the same winery responsible for the Charles "Two Buck Chuck" Shaw line of wines at Trader Joe's markets.

I was surprised to see Salmon Creek place so high, though I know it is one popular brand. I know this because I get more phone calls and emails from readers who want to know where they can buy the wine. They get in touch after ordering a glass or a bottle in a restaurant and discovering that they love the stuff. But here's the thing: Salmon Creek is a wine that Bronco sells only to restaurants. Other wineries do this with other brands, but none creates the buzz that Salmon Creek does. (Restaurateurs like this exclusivity in part because guests can't complain about the price, whatever it is, because diners can't compare what they are paying in the restaurant with what the wine would sell for at a grocery store.) The solution: If you want to drink Salmon Creek at home, frequent a restaurant often enough to become a valued regular, then the owner might sell you a couple of bottles to take with you.

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