Zinfandel: The Story of the (Not Quite) First American Grape

The story of Zinfandel has been called both a historical romance and a Horatio Alger story. This story starts with the history of early American wine, quietly stretches across the world to Croatia, and closes with a sampling of luscious Zinfandel wines from Arizona and California.

A Short History of American Winemaking

When the Vikings first discovered America, they called the continent “Vinland” reportedly because of the richness of its grapes. In fact, North America hosts more native grape varieties than any other place in the world.

Long after the Vikings, the Virginia Company from England arrived at Jamestown and discovered numerous varieties, including the vitis rotundifolia, or round leaf grape, that grows on bottom lands, on river banks, and in swamps. Unfortunately, vitis rotundifolia has a musky odor and requires sugar to become an acceptable wine. Later, Pilgrims noticed vitis labrusca growing in New England. Called the northern fox grape, however, this grape had an unpleasant aroma described as “foxy.”

The most striking feature of native grapes grown in North America is how well these grapes adapt to the regions in which they grow. Yet the fruit produced either lacks in sugar or is high in acid, and is often full of strange flavors, like the musky order of vitis rotundifolia or the “foxy” aroma of the northern fox grape.

The wine from native grapes could not meet the high standard established by vitis vinifera in France, Italy, and Spain. Vitis vinifera is the grape variety known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and many other famed European grapes.

What sparked winemaking in the U.S.?

The English had to pay France and Spain in hard-won cash to obtain fine products like silk, olive oil, tobacco, and wine. They sought to defy the French and Spanish. The grapes found alongside the James River sparked the English imagination and the beginning of the American wine industry.

Like everything else involving wine, it takes time for an industry to become established. When the first wines from Jamestown reached England, the inspiration to grow vineyards and make wine in the U.S. became firmly established. And yet it took another eight years before skilled vineyard managers and winemakers from Europe arrived. In the meantime, tobacco established its foothold in Virginia.

Finally, in 1619, law was enacted requiring every landholder to plant and maintain ten vines each year until they were experienced in the vineyard. Vineyard growth accelerated, but unfortunately, the extremes of climate in North America caused unforeseen funguses, bacterial infections, and pests to decimate vineyards. The idea of grafting European vitis vinifera onto American rootstock had not yet taken hold and soon tobacco took over the vineyards. American winemaking fell into a deep slump.

Sadly, the Spanish had no such vision, despite their long history of fine winemaking. Governor Hernando Cortez ordered the planting of vitis vinifera in Mexico, in the form of the unremarkable Mission grape, in 1525, but his work was quickly undercut by the King of Spain who forbid new plantings or vineyard replacements in Mexico after 1595, fearing his colony would become self-sufficient in wine. This edict remained in place for the next 150 years.

By the seventeenth century, Spanish missionaries, untethered by Spanish law, had established winemaking in the dry, hot, stony soils of what is now New Mexico and Arizona. Viticulture here was not afflicted by the weather, disease, and insects that had devastated vineyards in the East.

Because foreign trade was forbidden in the Spanish possessions, this wine remained the pleasant local product of Jesuit and Franciscan missions and was used for serving the Holy Sacrament to the missionaries’ new converts, as well as for evening enjoyment.

Zinfandel in the New World

As we’ve seen already, the early New World grape varieties are somewhat shrouded in mystery. We know about the Mission grape and the many varieties of American native grapes, but the first hint of a modern New World grape starts with the story of Zinfandel.

Zinfandel was established in northern California by the mid-19th century. The grape thrived in the American West’s warm climate, was beloved by the thousands who shipped the grapes east to make wine at home during Prohibition, and had become the most planted dark-skinned grape until the mid-20th century when its popularity was finally usurped by Cabernet Sauvignon.

But no reference to Zinfandel is made in any of France’s well-kept and documented vine collections, which kept Zinfandel’s origins shrouded in mystery for a century and a half. Americans believed Zinfandel was a native grape for many years.

The Mystery of Zinfandel Wine Unfolds

In the 1970s, Charles Sullivan, a leading expert on the history of California wine, learned that Zinfandel had been imported to the American East coast in the late 1820s from the Austrian imperial nursery in Vienna. It was then taken to Boston and by the 1830s was widely grown under glass as a table grape in New England. Finally, Zinfandel was included in an early shipment of vine cuttings to the hundreds of prospectors who rushed out to California in search of gold in 1849 and had to turn to farming instead.

The next significant chapter in the story of Zinfandel came in the early 1990s. DNA profiling had been applied to analyzing the genetic relationships between different vine varieties, and it was established beyond doubt that Zinfandel was identical to a then-obscure grape variety called Primitivo grown on the heel of Italy.

Finally, the breakthrough occurred in 2001. “Mike Grgich, one of California’s best-known winemakers, immigrated from Croatia in the 1950’s and, a Zinfandel producer himself, had always believed that it was the same grape as Plavac Mali,” according to Frank Prial, who wrote of this tale in The New York Times.

Professor Carole Meredith, of University of California at Davis, wasn’t quite so sure. She gathered and tested the variety, and determined that Plavac Mali was not the same as Zinfandel.

However, her work had invited collaboration with Croatian viticultural researchers, and after many a trek through the vineyards of the beautiful Dalmatian coast and its rocky islands, they discovered an ancient and almost extinct variety on the island of Kaštela near Split called Crljenak Kaštelanski (literally “red grape of Kaštela”).

Grapes from Crljenak Kaštelanski, also called Tribidrag, were sent back to Davis where they were genetic tests were performed alongside Primitivo and Zinfandel. On Dec. 18, 2001, it was announced that these three grapes were identical.

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the discovery of Zinfandel’s origins, the I Am Tribidrag International Conference celebrated the amazing story of Tribidrag, Zinfandel, Primitivo, and Crljenak Kaštelanski in April 2017 with lectures, guided tastings, and wine tours in Split, Croatia.

The Challenge of Making Zinfandel Wine

The mystery of Zinfandel begs this question: Why has Zinfandel traveled such hidden paths throughout its history?

Zinfandel has a reputation for being difficult to manage in the vineyard, and it is not friendly in the winery either. Wine producers either love Zinfandel or hate it.

Zinfandel is a unique vitis vinifera variety because it is prone to uneven ripening within its individual bunches of grapes. Within the same Zinfandel grape cluster, a grower will find berries that are underripe, berries that are perfectly ripe, and berries that are raisins.

Some winemakers see this as an advantage, because it allows wine to be made with a complex palate showing a range of flavors. Other winemakers institute multiple picking passes to ensure they are gathering grapes at the perfect level of ripeness for winemaking.

It seems that the many challenges making Zinfandel wine has given this grape a back seat in history. And yet Zinfandel is freed from tradition. Accomplished modern winemakers have demonstrated Zinfandel’s ability to produce wines of distinction by visualizing its potential and patiently working with this unusual grape.

In recent years, Zinfandel has been planted throughout the U.S., as well as in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, France, Italy, and Croatia. Although now widely planted, Zinfandel claims the U.S. as its first fan base.

A Few Zinfandel Wines for You

Following is a list of luscious Zinfandel wines from Arizona and California, along with tasting notes, and links to reviews, tasting rooms, and sites for online purchase:

  • Salvatore Vineyards Zinfandel (Cochise County, Arizona) $80
    • This pricey wine is worth every penny. Made by a passionate Arizona winemaker with Italian roots, the nose holds a bouquet of berries and smoke, with blackberry and vanilla on the complex finish. The best way to try this lovely wine is to round up a bottle for yourself from one of their tasting rooms in Scottsdale, Jerome, or Willcox, Ariz.
  • Seghesio 2014 Home Ranch Zinfandel (Alexander Valley, California) $58
    • Since its first Zinfandel vines were planted in Alexander Valley in 1895, five generations of the Seghesio family have followed. With a core made from founder Edoardo Seghesio’s original planting, this rich and complex wine is 120 years in the making. Earning 92 points form Wine Enthusiast, this Zinfandel is available online or at the tasting room in Healdsburg, Calif.
  • Sand-Reckoner 2012 “3” (Cochise County, Arizona) $28
    • Made by Rob Hammelman, an Arizona winemaker educated in Australia, Colorado, and France, this Zinfandel holds aromas of blackberry, cherry, cinnamon, and burnt toast on the nose. It’s big Lodi-style palate has firm tannins, cedar notes, and more blackberry and cherry. Sadly, this wine is not available online, so I suggest a visit to the Sand-Reckoner tasting room in Tucson, Ariz. You may be treated to this Zinfandel, and you will most certainly be treated to an array of truly fine Arizona wines.
  • MV Vineyards 2008 Zinfandel (Fairplay, California) $24
    • Awarded a bronze in the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, this Zinfandel has a powerful blackberry nose with hints of herbs and tobacco, and a finish that fills up your mouth with flavor. Sadly, it’s no longer available online, but you can pay a visit to MV Vineyards tasting room in Fairplay, Calif., to see if there is maybe a bottle or two lurking in their cellar. If not, there are more wonderful wines awaiting you at this tiny tasting room.
  • Sextant 2014 Wheelhouse Zinfandel (Paso Robles, California) $22
    • Our friends at Wine Enthusiast say it best: “Black-cherry fruit is decorated with crushed thyme, dried sage, roasted meat and cinnamon on the nose of this bottling. The palate offers more cherry fruit but also a bit of black-plum-skin tartness, as well as decent amounts of asphalt and turned earth.” This wine is available online or in the tasting rooms in Edna Valley and Paso Robles, Calif.
  • Edmeades 2013 Zinfandel (Mendocino County) $20
    • With red cherry on the nose, this fruity wine brims with flavors of blackberry jam, chocolate, cola, smoke, and cinnamon. This winery offers a range of Zinfandel wines made from grapes grown in four Mendocino County vineyards, so check out their website. Here’s a review of this wine from Wine Enthusiast: “This is a good-time wine that’s superrich and fruity. It’s easy to drink and enjoy, uncomplicated and jammy in flavor and soft in texture.” This wine is available online and at specialty wine stores in California and Arizona.
  • Rancho Maria Vineyards 2016 Zinfandel Nouveau (Cochise County, Arizona) $16
    • Treated like a white, this unique Zinfandel is made in Nouveau style with modified carbonic maceration and aged in all stainless steel. Here’s a review from Cody Burkett’s wine blog: “This is quite the interesting wine, and Mark really nailed the young, fruity Beaujolais style for this wine. (I can’t rightly recall anyone else doing the same style off hand.)” This wine is no longer available online, and the winery is so small that it holds tastings by appointment only. Stay tuned for the next Nouveau release party, scheduled for November 2017.
  • Golden Rule Vineyards 2011 Second Chance Zinfandel (Cochise County, Arizona) $15
    • After storms caused significant loss of Zinfandel grapes at Golden Rule Vineyards in 2011, a second harvest surprisingly sprouted on their vines. The grapes for this second chance at Zinfandel were harvested in October 2011. With bright aromas of blackberry, black cherry, and charcoal on the nose and a rich finish of steel, supple tannin, and fruit, this is a fun wine for a summer barbecue of ribs. Second Chance Zinfandel is available online or in their tasting room.

I’d love to hear about your own experiences with Zinfandel wines. If you enjoyed this article, please hit the like button, leave a comment, or share with your network.

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Barber, N., Hutchins, L., & Dodd, T. (2007, June). A History of the American Wine Industry. Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute.

Leve, J. (n.d.). Zinfandel Wine Grapes, Flavor, Character, History, Wine Food Pairing. The Wine Cellar Insider.

Prial, F. J. (2002, September 11). WINE TALK; A DNA Match Reveals Zinfandel’s Parent. The New York Times.

Robinson, J. (n.d.). Zinfandel.

Lewis, B. (2013, Winter). Sand-Reckoner Vineyards: Blending Science and the Art of Winemaking for the Good Life. Arizona Vines & Wines.

Sullivan, C. (2003, September). Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine. University of California Press.

The History of Zinfandel. (n.d.). Sonoma County.

The Resource Guide to Zinfandel. (2009). Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP).

One Comment Add yours

  1. Can’t seem to sign into WordPress for this, but the Tarantula Hawk from Cellar Dwellers is a good vintage too, and there’s still a few bottles floating around.

    Good exploration of Zin!

    -The Wine Monk

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