Zinfandel is often called “America’s Grape” because it formed the basis for our first true commercial wine industry and isn’t found (at least under this name) as an important wine grape anywhere else in the world. It’s of the family vitis vinifera (which all wine grapes belong to), so it had to have originated somewhere in Europe. But where?
It’s taken years of research and some trips down blind alleys, but over the past three decades, Zinfandel’s story has finally been definitively unraveled. The grape arrived in the US in the late 1820s from the Imperial Nursery of Austria. By the 1830s, it was widely grown in greenhouses around Boston and New England as a popular table grape. When unsuccessful prospectors in California’s 1849 gold rush turned to farming instead, they quickly realized that wine would make a fine cash crop. And so they ordered a wide range of grapes from nurseries back East – and got Zinfandel in the mix.
Pushed Out, but Now Back Again
The vine’s hearty constitution, high yields, and quality wine – a visiting French winemaker compared it to “good French claret” – quickly established Zin as a favorite varietal. As more prestigious French varietals – we’re looking at you, Cabernet Sauvignon – arrived in the later 1800s, Zinfandel was increasingly seen as a “common” grape and was pushed out of prime vineyard sites in Napa and Sonoma.
But Zin’s hearty constitution and relegation to stony and sandy soiled sites where Cabernet doesn’t thrive saved it. The phylloxera mite doesn’t like these impoverished soils, so Zin avoided the plague that struck California in the 1890s and early 1900s. And when Prohibition devastated California’s grape growing and wine making industry, abandoned Zin vines just kept on growing even while left untended. Leaving them ready to be rediscovered and rehabilitated as attention returned to premium red Zinfandel in the 1990s.
’23 and Me’ – for Grapes!
But if the grape got to California from New England and to New England from Austria, where did it come from originally? UC Davis researcher Carol Meredith used DNA profiling to prove that an obscure southern Italian grape called Primitivo was genetically identical to Zinfandel, but that just raised the question: If Zinfandel originated in Puglia, how did it get to Austria?
A clue emerged when researchers discovered that Zinfandel was one of two parents of a Croatian vine called Plavac Mali. The other parent turned out to be an even more obscure Croatian grape, suggesting that Zin had been growing in Croatia long enough for a crossing to occur. Finally, Dr. Meredith discovered a very old, nearly extinct, vine on the island of Kastela called Crljenak Kaštelanski that looked promising. DNA testing proved that this vine was identical to Zin and that this slice of what had been the Austro-Hungarian empire was the original birthplace of Zin.
So an unsophisticated immigrant from an obscure Balkan backwater made its way to the USA, struggled in harsh conditions with limited attention and support, and emerged as an American classic. Inspiring, I think.