Want to see how wine changes over time, taking into account things like vintage difference and consumer preferences, and especially how the big wine companies see consumer preference?
Then taste the Dancing Bull ($9, purchased), which is one of the most popular wines among visitors to the blog. In my review of the 2007 vintage, I wrote that it wasn't "quite as spicy or brambly" as it was when the wine debuted a decade ago, but that it was still more or less a traditional zinfandel. The current vintage has changed even more. It still has some zinfandel character, with pepper on the nose and spice at the back, but there is a huge dollop of sweet red fruit in the middle that wasn't there in the 2007 or when I first tasted it.
Which is where consumer preference -- or what companies like E&J Gallo, which makes Dancing Bull, see as consumer preference -- comes in. One of the big changes in U.S. grocery store wine over the past several years is, for lack of a better term, the addition of sweet fruit. It's not that the wines are sweet, and the Dancing Bull is bone dry. Rather, it's what Eric Asimov of the New York Times describes as not the "actual sugar in the wine, but also (more often) of the impression of sweetness. This impression can be provided by dominant fruit flavors and high concentrations of glycerol, a product of fermentation that is heavy, oily and slightly sweet." And, he writes, California zinfandel exactly fits that description.
Gallo's market research, apparently, has determined that consumers want that sweet fruit in their wine. So the company makes the wine that way, and the Dancing Bull is the result. Is this good or bad? Neither. As the Wine Curmudgeon has said many times, good and bad doesn't apply to wine. It's what each person wants to drink.