Zinfandel is thought to be one of the oldest grape varietals from which wine is still being made…there is evidence that places the first Zinfandel wine, ancestors in the Caucasus, at approximately 6000 BC. Research conducted by UC Davis viticulturists has given insight into the history of the grape and its path. The Primitivo grape in Puglia, Italy, was found to be genetically identical to Zinfandel; however, Italians were sure it was not one of their traditional varietals. Historically, Croatia has had several indigenous varieties related to Zinfandel, but most were lost in the late 19th century.
One well-documented route of Zinfandel to California indicates that the grape came from an Austrian collection, and it is possible that Austria obtained the vines during its rule over Croatia. It wasn’t until 2001 that researchers discovered just nine remaining vines of locally-known “Crljenak Kaštelanski” on Croatia’s Dalmation coast. DNA fingerprinting confirms that the ancient Croatian variety has the same DNA structure as California Zinfandel.
Historians have traced Zinfandel’s roots in the United States back to the 1820’s, when George Gibbs, a Long Island, New York, nursery owner, brought cuttings from the Imperial Collection of Plant Species in Vienna, Austria. By 1832, a Boston nursery was advertising “Zinfendal” vines for sale, and sometime between 1835 and 1845 “Zinfandel” had become a popular grape in the Northeastern United States, grown mainly in hothouses. Around that time, Frederick Macondray, a nursery owner from Massachusetts, is credited with bringing Zinfandel vines to California.
After the 1849 Gold Rush, timber and wire were scarce. Production of Zinfandel grapes surged because it could easily be cultivated using the traditional European “head pruning” technique, requiring no special equipment or scarce resources, and is a technique still used today. Zinfandel’s appeal soared during this time because it grew vigorously and provided miners with a versatile, substantial beverage.
Zinfandel’s expansion in the 20th century is a testament to its hardy constitution. While most of California’s vineyards were destroyed by phylloxera in the late 1800’s, Zinfandel vines were among the first vines replanted on rootstock starting around 1885. By mid-century it had become the most important varietal among California red table wines – an 1888 census shows that over one-third of all grapevines were Zinfandel. Four historically significant vineyards, representing several regions, were selected to help advance the expansion, credibility and quality of the Zinfandel varietal. The vineyards were chosen for their roles in building Zinfandel’s heritage, as well as their diversity and the familial stories they share.
As vineyards were replanted, after phylloxera destroyed most Northern California vineyards, Italian immigrant families took a lead in growing and making Zinfandel. They brought with them the tradition of “field blends” which meant they planted a sprinkling of additional varietals – Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouchet, Carignane – which co-mingled with Zinfandel in the vineyard. These grapes are harvested along with the Zinfandel clusters, crushed and blended from vineyard to bottle…adding a new complexity to the wine.
The wave of blush wines in the 1970’s started when California wineries began to draw free-run juice from Zinfandel grapes, fermenting it as “white” Zinfandel. This started a trend that actually led to the preservation of old Zinfandel vines. Red table wines were decreasing in popularity, and the growers would have been forced to graft over to other varietals, and the old vines would have been lost forever.
The 1990’s brought a focus on research and the involvement of Zinfandel enthusiasts in a movement to celebrate and promote the varietal. The first ZAP tasting gathered 22 wineries together at The Mandarin Hotel in San Francisco in 1992. By the end of the decade, Zinfandel had become competitive in the world market, proving to an international audience that America could produce fine red table wines comparable to their European counterparts.
Researchers continue their quest to understand the unique success of Zinfandel’s California clones compared to their counterparts around the world. While advocates and producers continue to expand their efforts, creating a movement dedicated to advancing the appreciation of Zinfandel wine and preserving its rich history.
Do you have an authentic historical story to share? How about the initial Zinfandel Dinner at the center of the local, seasonal food movement Chez Panisse, Berkeley, CA in November 1976? “The week’s menu is also a celebration of a new, local wine produced by winemaker Walter Schug for Joseph Phelps Vineyards…featured wine was the 1976 Gold Rush Zinfandel…” Were you there? Share your favorite moment! Here’s the menu!