Posted by: acooksca | 09/04/2009

The Origin of Zinfandel

Pope Valley, Napa

Pope Valley, Napa

Zinfandel! California’s signature grape. Its wines are powerful like the California sun and nuanced as the geography it grows in. Like the dreams of immigrants who brought it here, Zinfandel is adaptable… making red, white or pink wine. It shows off its versatility as a fine eating grape and raisin. Zinfandel claims the largest celebration of a single grape varietal in California, the annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) festival.

Only in California do we find this grape called Zinfandel. But it is not a native. In fact, Vinifera (wine producing grapes) are not indigenous to the Americas. Zin came to California from somewhere in Europe more then 150 years ago. And more than any other fine wine grape in the state its the origin has been hotly debated.

In 1967 Austin Goheen, a plant pathologist for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, traveled to Italy to visit a fellow pathologist working on grapevines in Puglia. He was served a wine that was so like Zinfandel that he sent vine cuttings back to U.C. Davis near Sacramento. They were planted next to a row of California Zinfandel in the University nursery. The Italians called the grape Primitivo.

Isozyme fingerprinting was used to establish that Zin and Primitivo were “probably” the same variety. The much more accurate DNA fingerprinting had not yet been developed. This unlocked a torrent of media claims that announced that the origin of Zinfandel had been found in Southern Italy. Some speculated that it had been brought to California by Italian immigrants during the gold rush.

This uncertainty was hard for scientists to swallow. About the same time, in 1979, claims also arose that the grape variety Plavac mali (Pm) from the Dalmatian Coast off Croatia, was the real Zinfandel. Commercial interests were excited about the possible connection between Zin with Pm. It is the leading grape variety on the Dalmatian coast. The noted Californian vintner Mike Grgich returned to his native Croatia and begun making wine using Pm grapes to market in the U.S.

In the early 1990s Professor Carole Meredith from U.C. Davis began research that led to the truth about Zin. She had local researchers scour the Dalmatian coast and send cuttings to the Davis nursery. Through genetic mapping – examining the DNA of the grapes – she announced they had found many very close cousins, but not yet exact match for Zin. One of the principles of plant genetics says that if you have numerous close relatives in a small area than that is probably the place of origin of a specific plant related to them all.

Late in 2001 the funding for the project was evaporating and the Croatian scientists went out on their final search. They found a vine known as Crljenak Kastelanski near the town of Split that looked promising. On December 18th Professor Meredith sent them an e-mail: the sample was a perfect match to California Zinfandel.

Most likely Crljenak Kastelanski is a cross between two parent varieties brought to Croatia in antiquity by Greek colonists, or the Romans or perhaps Venetian traders. It turned out that Zinfandel and Primitivo are also a genetic match. At some point Crljenak Kastelanski hopped the Adriatic from Croatia to Puglia and was renamed Primitivo.

Two years later, in 2003, historian Charles L. Sullivan published his book Zinfandel, a History of a Grape and Its Wine. Sullivan had exhaustively researched the route Zinfandel took to California. In the early 1800s Croatia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, under the rule of the Austrian crown. The Austrian imperial nursery maintained samples from throughout its realm.

In 1820 George Gibb, a nurseryman in Long Island, began acquiring shipments of different grape vines from this collection. During the 1830s Boston nurseries had obtained cuttings from Gibb’s shipments and sales advertisements offer Zenfendal, Zenfendel, and Zinfandal for hot house grown table grapes. It became quite the fad for gentlemen to grow grapes, present their experiences at horticultural societies and share technical advice at agricultural shows.

New Englanders constituted one of the most numerous groups to immigrate to Northern California in the early 1850s and they brought their vine cuttings with them. Zinfandel had come to California in various small lots and almost simultaneously, people discovered the grape made fine wine. By the end of that decade Zin vineyards were plated in Northern California coastal valleys of Santa Clara, San Mateo, Napa, Mendocino and especially Sonoma counties.

During the next 100 years Zinfandel had a troubled history. It was the leading varietal in the state during the first wine boom in the 1880s. Ten years later, the phylloxera root louse had wiped out some of California’s finest vineyards. Replanting faltered during the Prohibition years. In the first half of the twentieth century, Zinfandel was planted widely by huge commercial operations in the hot Central Valley and acquired a reputation for mediocre wine.

During the 1950s Zinfandels from the original coastal valleys started appearing on wine shop shelves. Old time premium producers such as Louis Martini, Parducci, Krug, Mirassou and Buena Vista were making powerful, elegant wines. By the 1960s interest in fine wines exploded across the country and so did the recognition of Zinfandel. Ridge Vineyards, Souverain, David Bruce, Mondavi and many others became known for their Zinfandel.

Today the grape has come full circle with some of the states best Zins being produced by small, family wineries in the same areas where it was first cultivated. It is there that Zinfandel’s potential as a wine grape was discovered. It is also where Zinfandel became strongly linked to the history of our state and earned a favored place at our table.

To read more in depth about Zinfandel and its history see:
Zinfandel, A History of a Grape and Its Wine by Sullivan, Charles L, University of California Press. California Studies in Food and Culture, 10. Pub. 2003

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