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Zinfandel: California’s Historic Wine

by David on July 7, 2009

Did you know that Zinfandel was the most widely planted wine grape in California before prohibition? As you may recall, for a long time Zinfandel was called the “California grape” since it was only produced here and also because we couldn’t track its European counterpart. But we really knew all along that it’s not native to America. It just doesn’t have the appearance or growing habits of a Native American variety. Finally, it was traced back to Croatia, and there will be more detail on that below, but even though the variety itself may not be uniquely American, the name and the wine certainly is. Here’s a little background.

Zinfandel comes to California

There’s some evidence that Zinfandel first came to the east coast of the US from Austria in the 1820s and was enjoyed there mostly as a table grape. It made its way out to California, known as mainly Zinfandal [sic] or Black St. Peters, around the time of the gold rush and quickly proceeded to become the king of wine grapes here. You can look to its generous and easy-going nature to explain this. Aside from being delicious, it’s adaptable to many different situations and is rather prolific when it’s allowed to be. They were quite inventive and made red, white, rose, sparkling wine and dessert wine from this one grape which they called Zinfandal, Zeinfandall, Zenfenthal, Black St. Peters and occasionally even Zinfandel, the name that finally stuck!

California was vigorously approaching its first wine boom at about the same time phylloxera began devastating vines in Europe, around 1870, which actually helped to fuel the industry here. As vines died all over Europe new vineyards and wineries grew like topsy all over the north coast, Livermore and Santa Clara. At its peak for the century, California had about 800 wineries.

So, it was high times for Zinfandel until California had its own brush with phylloxera in 1890. Most of the wine grapes in the state were destroyed by it. Because we were able to benefit from the European’s experience with it, replanting and recovery came about relatively quickly. The crowning glory came in the form of 36 medals and 4 honorable mentions for American wines, the great majority coming from California, at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Prosperity had returned, but didn’t last long, as states began to go dry, one-by-one, in anticipation of prohibition. The 18th amendment, called the Volstead Act, took effect in January of 1920.


We can thank the very busy and enterprising bootleggers and home winemakers of those prohibition years for the old vine Zinfandel we enjoy today. In fact, most of the credit goes to the home winemakers because the bootleggers were primarily focused on stronger stuff. The law allowed us to produce 200 gallons of wine per household each year, adding up to about 3 bottles a day, which just might do!

Of course, most of the wine grapes were replaced by other crops but, according to wine historian, Charles Sullivan, Americans legally drank at least 4 billion bottles of homemade wine during those 13 years. Lots of California grapes, including Zinfandel, were shipped all over the nation to these diligent home winemakers. In addition, an astounding quantity of wine seemed to be needed for medicinal and sacramental purposes. The result was that significant Zinfandel acreage survived and even more would have remained if it had stored and traveled better. Unfortunately, many acres of Zinfandel were grafted over to Alicante Bouschet. It made rather coarse, unattractive wine, but the grape itself is attractive and it held up to the long journey across country much better. When prohibition took effect in 1920, Zinfandel composed 45% of California’s wine crop, but every year thereafter until repeal the Zin acreage decreased.


After repeal, in 1933, the industry began its long, slow recovery. Zinfandel was most often used as a component in many so-called jug wines and occasionally as a varietal for the handful of quality producers.

The years immediately following repeal were rather depressing because the vast majority of the wine was cranked out in volume and tended to be sweet and insipid. Oddly enough, World War II was a boon to the California wine industry. It cut off our supply of good wine from Europe, leaving American wine enthusiasts in the lurch and giving California producers an incentive to exert some effort to improve quality and get a higher bottle price at the same time.

As the wines got better, the scale tilted away from sweet wines to dry table wines and more and more producers, especially here in the Napa and Sonoma area, were concentrating on quality. By the 50s and 60s some rather muscular and wonderful Zinfandels were coming out of California once again, and by the 70s we’d developed a taste for Zin that was produced in an even more brawny and tannic style – that is, until we changed our minds. In the late 70s, its popularity began to decline. The complaint was that the wine had no discernable varietal character and it was often described as a dark, high-alcohol monster. As Cabernet prices soared and Zin prices languished, once again many producers began grafting their vines over or outright replanting away from Zinfandel.

The White-Zin Craze

We owe a debt of gratitude to Bob Trinchero, the owner of Sutter Home Winery, for helping to save Zin as it fell out of favor. 1972 was a landmark year for Zinfandel and for Sutter Home when he accidentally invented what became, for a time, a stupendously popular wine known as White Zinfandel. As you know, the juice of dark wine grapes is clear, and that’s why they’re so versatile. Evidently, Mr. Trinchero used an ancient technique called saignee, which is just a matter of draining off a little juice before the fermentation begins, to concentrate his red Zinfandel wine. The drain juice was then treated as a white wine, even though it looked a bit pink. They sold it in their tasting room as “Oeil de Perdrix”, the eye of the partridge. As the story goes, one year this pink Zinfandel was the victim of what is called a stuck fermentation, which means the yeast walked off the job and wouldn’t use up all the sugar in the juice. A pale pink, slightly sweet wine was the result, and it seemed to be the right wine at the right time. The rest is history! In 1972 Sutter Home produced 220 cases of White Zinfandel and by 1990 their volume had grown to over 3 million cases! Of course numerous other producers jumped on the bandwagon and, as we’ve watched the demand for White Zin decline, we still have them to thank for the survival of countless acres of Zinfandel that otherwise would have been bulldozed.

During the White Zin craze there were still a handful of Zinfandel devotees making deep, rich, spicy red Zin. Jim Laube likes to refer to the 3 Rs: Ridge, Ravenswood and Rafanelli. Of course, there were others and, in 1991, it was Jerry Seps of Storybook Mountain who contacted his Zinfandel-producing brethren and proposed that they form an organization to promote the variety called Zap (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers). The idea seemed to work! By 1998 Zinfandel once again became California’s number one red variety and in 1999 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, our labeling regulators, recognized Zinfandel as the only wine grape they considered to be unique to the U.S. It’s since been planted in other states and other countries.

Zinfandel’s Roots

1967, while visiting Bari in southern Italy, Professor Austin Goheen, of University of California at Davis, tasted a red wine, asked to see the vines that produced it and, upon seeing them, believed them to be the same as Zinfandel. This is how Primitivo came into the picture because the variety was called Primitivo di Gioia. It set off a whole new era of curiosity and research regarding Zinfandel. By 1994 Dr. Carole Meredith, also of UC Davis, used DNA fingerprinting to confirm that Zinfandel and Primitivo are genetically identical. This has led to a movement in Italy to call their Primitivo, Zinfandel, a name with greater recognition. This is an unwelcome development for Zap, which claims that the grapes are different animals in terms of aroma and flavor. The California Wine Institute further claims that there are clonal differences between the Zinfandel grown in California and the Primitivo in Italy. This is unproven, but not unlikely, since DNA fingerprinting reveals differences in varieties, but not clones of varieties.

Meanwhile, Dr. Meredith continued with research that led her to Croatia. It had been suggested earlier than a Croatian variety called Plavac Mali might be the same as Zinfandel. She worked with a couple of scientists from the University of Zagreb to find out, in fact, that Plavac Mali is an offspring of Zinfandel and the Croatian varietal Dobricic. But, they were on the right track. They re-examined a rare variety indigenous to the Dalmatian Coast called Crljenak Kastelanski. There’s so little of it that no 100% Crljenak wine can be found, but the vine looked very similar to Zinfandel. In 2002 Dr. Meredith announced unequivocally that “Zinfandel comes from Croatia,” and that “The grape we call Zinfandel and the grape the Italians call Primitivo are both Crljenak Kastelanski.” She further stated that it had been in Croatia long before it reached Italy or America. Our orphan grape had found its origin.

Our ongoing love affair with Cabernet Sauvignon and the Merlot craze of the 90s have eclipsed Zinfandel, which is now in 4th place as the most widely planted wine variety in the state. The first, of course, is Chardonnay. According to Wine Business Monthly, year-to-year sales of Zinfandel rose 9% in 2006 and dollar sales outpaced case sales by 3 to, 1 which means we don’t mind spending a little more than we have in the past to get better quality.

No doubt the acreage of Zinfandel will increase in other parts of the world for the simple reason that it makes lusciously fruity, spicy red wine that’s very difficult to resist, especially when you fire up the barbeque. But, at least for now, we can think of it as something distinctively Californian. And as more and more delicious examples of Zin begin coming from other parts of the world it can only benefit all of us who love the variety even as it assures its future as a world-class wine. You can’t help but admire its ability to tough it out through the hard times. Zinfandel has certainly earned its stripes as a survivor and it will always hold a special place in our hearts as a key player in California’s wine history.

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