Although Zinfandel has made its reputation in the USA, and specifically California, the variety -- like many Americans! -- is an immigrant. And as with other grapes, Zinfandel's origins have been the subject of lively discussion that now and again has turned argumentative. Prior to its study, Zinfandel was known as California’s mystery grape. Rooted in Europe, its origins are now confirmed as being from the Old World: It’s genetically identical to both Italy’s Primitivo and Croatia’s Tribidrag (its moniker in southern Dalmatia), and is also known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, after a Croatian town called Kaštel Novi, near Split. The name Crljenak Kaštelanski aptly translates to “the red from Kaštela.” Regardless of synonym, the variety was later confirmed to be “The Original Zinfandel.” Cited as early as the 15th century, the name Tribidrag indeed predates the other names. From a consumer’s perspective, Tribidrag is easier to pronounce and remember than Crljenak Kaštelanski (pronounced Tserl-yee-ehnak Kashh-tell-ann-skee), however do not expect to see either term used on wine labels anytime soon.
California Zinfandel Timeline
George Gibbs, a Long Island, New York, nursery owner, brought Zinfandel cuttings from the Imperial Collection of Plant Species in Vienna, Austria.
A Boston nursery advertised “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.
Frederick Macondray, a Massachusetts nursery owner, was credited with bringing Zinfandel vines to California.
Production of Zinfandel surged, since it could easily be cultivated using the traditional European “head pruning” technique, requiring no special equipment. Zinfandel’s appeal rocketed and provided Gold Rush miners liquid sustenance.
Anthony P. Smith imported Zinfandel to his Sacramento gardens in 1853. Cuttings from his vines made their way to vineyards being planted in the Sierra Foothills at about that time.
Antoine Delmas, a French nurseryman, imported vines from France and from New England, including Zinfandel (although, he called it “Black St. Peter”). Delmas sent cuttings to Sonoma, where it ended up in William McPherson Hill’s Glen Ellen vineyard and became part of the blend in Buena Vista’s Sonoma Red Wine.
William McPherson Hill was making an award-winning Zinfandel in Sonoma County that went on to become one of California’s first cult wines. That same year, Zinfandel surpassed Mission as the grape of choice for winemaking in the state of California.
Post-phylloxera, starting around 1885, Zinfandel vines were among the first to be replanted on rootstock. By mid-1900s it had become the most important varietal among California red table wines.
Grape census showed that Zinfandel accounted for over one-third of grapevines planted in California, populating vineyards nearly everywhere in the state, from the redwoods of Mendocino and hillsides of Paso Robles, to the flats of Rancho Cucamonga and elsewhere throughout Southern California.
After phylloxera and prohibition led to the destruction of most Northern California vineyards, Italian immigrant families took a lead in Zinfandel’s renaissance. From the old country, they brought the tradition of “field blends,” meaning they interplanted additional varieties – including Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouchet, and Carignane – which co-mingled with Zinfandel. Such blends are now known as “mixed blacks.”
Professor Austin Goheen recognized similarities between Zinfandel and Primitivo, an Italian winegrape. Research continued and it was discovered that Primitivo was related to the Croatian winegrape, Plavac Mali.
Created by Napa Valley’s Sutter Home winery, White Zinfandel, a blush wine made using the saigneé (bleed) process, takes off. Coinciding with a decline in popularity for red Zinfandel, the white Zinfandel trend led to the preservation of many old Zinfandel vines that growers might otherwise have been forced to graft over to other grape varieties. Soon after its invention, white Zinfandel began to outsell true (red) Zinfandel—a fact that remains the case today.
Croatian-born Napa Valley winemaker Mike Grgich helps spearhead ZAP: Zinfandel Advocates and Producers. A year later, in 1992, the first ZAP tasting gathered 22 wineries at The Mandarin Hotel in San Francisco.
Cabernet Sauvignon surpassed Zinfandel as the most planted red grape in California.
UC Davis’ chief wine ampelographic sleuth, Carole Meredith, now-owner of Laiger Meredith in Napa, confirmed that Primitivo and Zinfandel were birthed from the same mother vines, and that the previously believed-to-be-Zinfandel Plavac Mali was not Zinfandel, but rather another offspring of Crljenak Kaštelanski. Further study confirmed that Zinfandel is Croatian by birth; its parent, however, is the Tribidrag grape (aka Crljenak Kaštelanski).
Additional vines, known locally as Pribidrag, which bore the same DNA as Crljenak Kaštelanski and Zinfandel, were identified in another Dalmatian coastal town called Omiš.
The Historic Vineyard Society, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization, was established and dedicated to the preservation of California’s historic vineyards, many of which are based on Zinfandel.
“Dossier Zinfandel,” a documentary film tracking the journey of Zinfandel from its Croatian roots to its status as a signature grape variety of California, debuted.
Notwithstanding its mysterious origins, most wine aficionados concur that no other part of the world produces Zinfandels of the consistent high caliber found in California. In fact, that belief, in concert with Zinfandel being one of the first grapes to be planted in any quantity in the Golden State, led many a wine drinker to assume that the variety is native to California. We now know that is not the case.
In California, Zinfandel has not only flourished, but is made in regional and diverse styles. First are wines that are grapey, fruit-packed, and juicy, much like a Beaujolais Nouveau in personality, with softer tannins and moderate alcohol. Then there are the “tweeners,” occupying the middle ground between the coarse, rustic charm of good old-fashioned Zinfandel and a refined Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot -- often referred to as “claret-style,” on account of the resemblance to a Bordeaux. These are typically medium- to full-bodied, with corresponding tannins.
Finally, there are the original classic Zinfandels, which are monster trucks in a bottle! These are huge wines, rustic and minimally processed, generous in alcohol, and bursting with peppery, ripe, jammy and, occasionally, desiccated fruit. While not always complex per se, they provide great enjoyment, oozing with syrupy fruit and packed with flavor.
For more on the history and evolution of the grape in California please see Zinfandel Advocates & Producers.