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Allen Balik, The Wine Exchange: Zinfandel: California's grape?
The Wine Exchange

Allen Balik, The Wine Exchange: Zinfandel: California's grape?

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My last column (“Lodi: Not just Zinfandel”) generated a broad reader response with most of the questions and comments directed to the history of Zinfandel and the true definition of “Old Vine” as is seen on countless wine labels.

The question on Old Vine is an easy one to address because in the U.S. it has no official meaning or definition by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) that regulates the labeling and sale of all alcoholic products. It is a popular term and often seen on Zinfandel labels to differentiate them from other bottlings. But, like other popular terms such as “Reserve,” there is no legal definition and it is used primarily for marketing purposes.

The questions I received about Zinfandel’s history stemmed primarily from my reference to its European origin. Some people continue thinking of Zinfandel as a California grape, although genetic research and DNA identification established in the mid-1990s through 2001 by UC Davis Professor Emerita Carole Meredith proved otherwise. She traced Zinfandel’s true beginning to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast and a grape known since the 15th century as Tribidrag, also known by several other names including, Primitivo and Crljenak Kastelanski.

In his book “Zinfandel—A History of a Grape and its Wine,” Charles Sullivan does a masterful and entertaining job of tracing Zinfandel’s history while dismissing several myths that had become popular over time. Perhaps the greatest myth around the grape began in the 1880s and was not disproved (and is still believed by some) until the 1970s.

Arped Haraszthy was the son of the colorful European nobleman Agoston Haraszthy, who founded California’s first bonded winery, Buena Vista in Sonoma, and was considered a major figure in California’s winemaking history. To glamorize his father’s legacy after a tragic death in Nicaragua, Arped fabricated the story of his father being the first to introduce Zinfandel in the U.S. by bringing a native vine from his Hungarian homeland to California as early as 1852.

Agoston falsely became known as the “father” of Zinfandel even though he never mentioned the grape in his prolific writings on California wine. However, Sullivan’s research clearly illustrates that Zinfandel (under a variety of spellings) was found on the East Coast in the 1820s and grown in Massachusetts hot houses as a table grape before it migrated by an undetermined route to California and was eventually used for making wine.

Zinfandel found a welcome home in Northern California in the late 19th century. Today, quite a few of those vineyards remain productive in Sonoma and Contra Costa counties as well as Lodi. In 1976, Joel Peterson founded Ravenswood in Sonoma with a clear focus on Zinfandel from Heritage vineyards. He has also recently launched his own Once & Future brand dedicated to those same vineyards.

Peterson began his Zinfandel adventure by making wine from 100-year-old vines in Dry Creek Valley. Throughout his illustrious career, he expanded his search for other vineyard sources where the weathered vines and shallow soils continue to produce wines of an idyllic nature speaking of their history. Zinfandel has in many ways become linked to old vine viticulture, due in part to its robust planting in the late 19th century after phylloxera and the vine’s inherent resistance to disease. Peterson says, “Old vines are not just about longevity, they are totally in synch with their terroir and more consistently expressive of the flavor of place.”

Napa Valley’s celebrated vintner Mike Grgich arrived from Croatia through Canada in 1958 and immediately saw a resemblance of Zinfandel vines to his treasured Plavac Mali, widely planted in his homeland. But at that time, technology and scientific protocols could not relate the two and the Haraszthy myth remained widely accepted as fact. In the 1970s, others recognized a similarity to Primitivo (from Southern Italy’s Puglia region) so cuttings were brought to UC Davis for propagation and investigation.

While studies began on the connection of Primitivo and Zinfandel nothing could be accurately confirmed until Meredith began to apply her genealogical expertise. In 1992, the Zinfandel/Primitivo connection established that they were in fact identical. In 1995, Meredith began her work to find the source of both.

Italian scientists did not believe Primitivo was a native grape, and with the narrow Adriatic Sea so close to Puglia, Croatia (just across the water) became a target of the research. And let’s not forget Grgich’s observation of Zinfandel’s similarity to Plavac Mali that lent a further connection to Croatia. Meredith ventured to Croatia and gathered samples for her DNA research. An early finding was that Zinfandel and Plavac Mali were not the same but probable siblings. The search was intensified to find the ultimate match and the “Original Zin.”

Hearing of Meredith’s research, scientists from the University of Zagreb who were examining old Croatian varietals that were on the verge of extinction, contacted her for assistance. Together, they collected a wide range of samples that underwent DNA testing at Davis, finding many siblings but no direct match.

In 2001, after three years of work and with only a few vines remaining in the ground, the match was found in a remote Croatian vineyard.

It was Crljenak Kastelanski, now referred to by its oldest recorded name Tribidrag, originally planted along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast by Venetian nobility in the 15th to 17th centuries. Plavac Mali, that many associated as Zinfandel, is believed to have evolved as a genetic sibling with an inbred resistance to the conditions that swept the country almost wiping out Tribidrag.

Another interesting note connecting Tribidrag to Primitivo is the translation of their names. Both refer to “early ripening” in their native languages, but Zinfandel in California only became the recognized spelling of the table grape from Massachusetts.

As a lover of Zinfandel, I certainly appreciate Sullivan’s statement in the preface of his book, “Many wine grape varieties are of mysterious origin, but none as important as Zinfandel.”

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an email to me at

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.

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