Zinfandel History
Posted: April, 2002

Ongoing developments within the United States and International wine communities demand periodic updates on the status from both historical documentation and scientific research on the status of Zinfandel in America. This "ZIN Update" is the current status of California Zinfandel on four important topics:

Current Findings:

1. Although Primitivo and Zinfandel are genetically identical within the current testing sensitivity, they are not synonymous.
2. Zinfandel is also related to some other European varieties.
3. The grape used in making California Zinfandel did not likely originate in Italy.
4. The name Zinfandel was first used in America in 1832. This name established a separate identity for the grape and one unique to America.

1. Science Progress in Linking California Zinfandel to Europe

* 1967: Austin Goheen of the University of California Davis was the first academic to identify the "similarities" between California Zinfandel and Italian Primitivo.
* 1976: UC Davis graduate student Wade Wolfe, at a meeting of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture, reported that his research showed Zinfandel and Primitivo are "probably the same."
* 1994: Carole Meredith, also of UC Davis, confirmed by DNA fingerprinting that the Zinfandel grape and the Primitivo grape are genetically the same.
* 2000: Based on DNA analysis of many Croatian grape varieties that she conducted between 1998 and 2000, Carole Meredith states that although more study is still needed, all the scientific evidence to date points to Croatia as the origin of Zinfandel.

2. Facts Point to Multiple Sources of "Zinfandel Similar" Vines in America:

* 1822-1829: Gibbs imports vine cuttings from Imperial Collection in Vienna.
* 1832: Boston nursery owner, Samuel Perkins advertises, "Zinfandel for Sale".
* 1852-1857: Macondary introduces Zinfandel vines to California. Osborn & Boggs Nursery introduces Zinfandel to Sonoma and Napa Counties.

3. First Use of Zinfandel Brand Name Is Clearly American:

* 1852-1857: Zinfandel becomes popular table grape in Northeast United States (grown under glass).
* 1878-1889: Zinfandel is the most widely planted variety in California's first "wine boom!"
* 1998: Zinfandel vineyards in California exceed 50,000 acres, once again establishing itself as the Number One red wine variety.

European Migration: The grape used in making California Zinfandel wine is clearly of European origin but history does not support its migratory route from Italy. Of consideration is that European political history suggests that Zinfandel type vines may have migrated from their origin to various destinations, including Italy. It is fully expected that scientific research will continue to validate the links between Zinfandel and other European grape varieties. An additional factor in establishing the history of Zinfandel is that the one well-documented route of California Zinfandel to the New World indicates that the grape came from an Austrian collection, not from Italy.

For aforementioned reasons wines imported from Italy, whether they be labeled Zinfandel or Primitivo, should not be allowed to make any claim that states or implies that the origin of Zinfandel is Italian. Such a claim would be misleading and inaccurate.

Challenging History: Documenting the true history of Zinfandel may never be possible because the crucial documents no longer exist. Furthermore, some differences between Zinfandel and its European counterpart vines may have arisen over the considerable time they have been separated. In the United States, Zinfandel and Primitivo vines have been separately labeled and sold. The wines made from these grapes demonstrate different wine character and style.

Heritage Vineyard: Research is currently underway in UCD Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard in Napa Valley to help document the differences between Zinfandel and Primitivo grapes in farming and winemaking. Early indications are that the Primitivo clone of Zinfandel planted in the Heritage vineyard has different growth characteristics than the California selections of Zinfandel. There seem to be differences in vine vigor, cluster size and berry size. It is expected that more differences might be discovered among a wider variety of selections.

The future attentions of ZAP will be directed to documenting the results from the heritage vineyard project and other aspects of winemaking that have contributed to the true identify of California Zinfandel.

Zinfandel is American: The earliest and only documented use of the name of Zinfandel is in America. The name Zinfandel has local and international significance as a name that communicates both a winemaking style and a California location. Beyond that, California wineries have made a significant investment in marketing the American name "Zinfandel".

It seems clear that the Italian maneuvering to label Primitivo as Zinfandel is not an attempt to set the record straight, but rather an attempt to take advantage of the high quality reputation that has been painstakingly earned by California Zinfandel producers for one of California's predominate red grape varieties. In essence it is an attempt to co-opt what has become something of a brand for a California wine. As it stands now, there is a substantial difference in flavor and quality between those wines produced from the grape in question in Italy and California.

The consumer has come to associate the name Zinfandel with the wines that have the character and flavor of California. From this stand point, allowing the wines made from the Primitivo grape in Italy to be labeled Zinfandel will be confusing to the consumer and a disservice to the wineries that have worked hard to differentiate their product from other wines of the world.

Rebecca Robinson
Zinfandel Advocates & Producers
Tel: 530-274-4900 or
Shaw Vineyard.
Photo Courtesy of Peter Griffith

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