Inspired by one of VinePair’s most popular site sections, the Wine 101 Podcast takes an educational, easy-to-digest look into the world of wine. This episode of wine 101 is sponsored by Bear Flag Wine. Bear Flag Wine, we make wines as layered as California history. Inspired by the brave souls of the Bear Flag Revolt, each of our bold wines honors a rousing story of independence. Bear Flag lives to celebrate that independence and kindred spirits who stand their ground, have the good taste to dream, and never waste a drop. Stand with us as we raise a glass to toast all those brave enough to carve out their own place in the world. Forever enduring. Forever independent. Bear Flag Wines.
Welcome back to Wine 101. In this week’s episode, VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers makes his way through the knotted twists and turns of Zinfandel. At this point, the wine is so ingrained in California wine culture, that we often assume it’s a native grape. However, through careful research, Beavers found that Zinfandel didn’t come to California until the Gold Rush. Before that, it was bred by horticulturists in New England, and before that … it gets a little murky.
As it turns out, Beavers isn’t the first to try to track down Zinfandel’s origin. The grape was the center of an investigation led by researchers at the University of California Davis, who ended up pairing with scientists from the University of Zagreb in Croatia. With several doppelgangers discovered along the way, the scientists often found themselves on the verge of a breakthrough, only to be duped again.
Years later, with mysteries solved and research recorded, Beavers pored over evidence to weave this comprehensive origin story of the great grape we know as Zinfandel. He also touches on the nickname “White Zinfandel” and what it means for rosé lovers, as well as what to expect from a classic Old Vine Zin.
In tracking this story, Beavers followed research that jumped back and forth from the United States to Puglia, Italy to Kaštela, Croatia. Eventually, he worked his way through everything from the Croatian Firefighting Olympics, to a wave of horticulturists turned gold miners to explain the grape, the myth, the legend: Zinfandel.
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My name is Keith Beavers, and “Some leaders’ strength is in inspiring others “ —Ahsoka Tano, former Jedi.
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 23 of VinePair’s Wine 101 podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. And what is up? It’s not just a rosé. It’s not just a blush. It’s a vigorous red wine. It has an amazing history in the United States, but do we know where it’s from?
What is Zinfandel? What do we know about Zinfandel? It’s a mystery. Let’s solve it.
So what is your experience with Zinfandel? As an American wine consumer, are you familiar with the wine?
“It’s a red wine, and I know it because I’ve had it before and I love it?” Or do you know it as something called White Zinfandel, and it’s pink? Or do you know it because it’s a grape that is so prominent in the American market that we just know it? You know, either of those makes complete sense.
Zinfandel, it’s not our grape. But it is a grape that has been here in the United States, mostly in California, for a very long time. It has endured so much. And for a long time, it was widely celebrated, but it’s really had a roller coaster ride of popularity, dipping up and down in fashion.
The thing about Zinfandel is, it’s never gone anywhere. It’s always been with us, and we’ve always liked it, whether we knew it or not. Sometimes Zinfandel ends up in that 75 percent blend. Zinfandel is actually a rosé that we created here in the United States called White Zinfandel. It’s always been with us.
The thing about Zinfandel, though, is the word Zinfandel is nowhere else in the world. It’s just in the United States. So for a long time, we assumed it was an American variety. But it’s not. It’s vitis vinifera. So it cannot be from the United States. So the mystery of Zinfandel for a long time confounded a lot of people in the wine industry. But in the 1990s, things started clearing up, and the story of Zinfandel and how it got from wherever it came from to us is very cool.
So I’m going to go through this mystery, and it’s a fun story, so let’s get into it. And by the time it’s all over you’re going to be like, “Oh my gosh, that’s cool.” At the end of the 18th century, like literally 1799, in a region of Italy called Puglia in the southern part of Italy — it’s the heel of the boot that is Italy — in a little town called Gioia, a priest by the name of Francesco Filippo Indellicati entered into the town record that he had found a very particular grape in his vineyard. This is at a time when vineyards were basically field blends. He called this grape Primitivo, which is from Latin and means early to ripen because the grape was an early ripening variety.
And then one of the reasons why he put this in the record is because early ripening varieties were also always advantageous because you can make wine earlier and you can make more money. Meanwhile over in the new republic, the United States at this point in the early 1800s, realized that the wine-making industry was not going to happen on the East Coast. There were too many problems with weather and mites and all this stuff. So all the grapes — there were grapes being grown from Florida all the way to Maine — but in New England, there was a new cottage industry forming. And I guess we can call it the hothouse and grape industry.
Because what was happening is you had all these horticulturists that were ordering vine cuttings from Europe to the United States. And they were growing these great vines in greenhouses or like hothouses because of the sun. And they were forcing these vines to ripen early, to make grapes to put on the market for table grapes.
We can actually call it a table grape industry, if you will. Boston for some reason becomes the center of focus for this industry. And this is where an annual convention is held where all these horticulturists provide their wares, they say these are the vines for the grapes, these are the best grapes, there was a lot of competition.
Around this time, just outside of Boston in Brookline, a dude by the name of Samuel Perkins starts building his greenhouse operation. Down in New York City in the borough of Queens, which at that time was considered part of Long Island, a dude by the name of George Gibbs is a horticultural hobbyist and he’s kind of thinking about getting into this whole industry. And I don’t know if this is because of this, or a result of this, but it just so happens that George Gibbs had a neighbor by the name of William Robert Prince, who was actually an established horticulturist, whose father was a horticulturist and wrote books about it.
So I’m not sure how that happened, but it happened, and they became friends, and they got into the business together. In 1820, George Gibbs imported 28 vine varieties from the Imperial nursery in Vienna, which is the center of the Austrian empire. That same year over in Puglia, our priest started sharing his early ripening variety, Primitivo, to other vine growers in the region.
And this vine begins to spread throughout Puglia in popularity. Back over in New England, when these horticulturists would get these vines, they would take very copious notes, because they wanted to document their vines so they could bring their vines to Boston or even on the local market to sell them.
So they’re always listing the vines that they had. And in an 1830 document, it shows that William Robert Prince lists twice a grape, he calls black “Zinn Fardell” of Hungary, but there is no list of a grape of this name on the records coming from Europe. Somehow this name, this “Zinn Fardell” shows up, and we don’t know how.
But somewhere between 1830 and 1835, George Gibbs is bringing these cuttings that he has up to Boston for the annual horticulturist society convention. At some point, our boy Samuel Perkins from Brookline purchases the “Zin Fardell” vine from George Gibbs. And by 1835, he was selling what he called Zinfandel in Boston.
And this grape Zinfandel, it’s also being spelled Zinfindel, is being sold as a very popular table grape in Boston. So this mystery grape is becoming very popular in the Northeast. And this is right before the Gold Rush happens. And when that hits there are all these horticulturists who are pretty well-to-do dudes, and a lot of them start heading all the way to California to strike it rich with gold, but then also to supplement their income with agriculture. Somewhere between 1835 and 1850, two members of this whole society, this horticultural society, make their way to California and eventually become prominent members of politics and agriculture.
James L.L. Warren makes his way to California. I’m not really sure how, but he grows the Zinfandel grapes in New England. It’s listed in his 1844 lists of vines. He eventually is the founder of the California agricultural society. And then you have this other guy named Frederick McCaundry, otherwise known as Capt. Frederick McCaundry. He has his own ship, but he also is in this horticulturist society. He’s known to grow Zinfandel. He sails from Massachusetts to California. He ends up becoming a member of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco.
Around this time, our boy William Prince is out in California as well, and he notices a grape vine called Black Saint Peter that looks very similar to his grape called Zinfandel. Why did he name it some Zinfandel? We don’t know. And in 1852, an official documentation of receiving records shows that a shipment of vines sent from the East Coast to the West Coast, include a vine called Zin Thin Doll. The spellings are all over the place with this grape.
But the research gets really murky around this area. It’s still thought that this grape Zinfandel, what we know as Zinfandel today, was already in California. Maybe it was called Black Saint Peter’s. There’s a thought that if you’re drinking wine during the Gold Rush it was going to be made from this grape so it’s a little bit murky. But by 1860, it is being grown and made into wine in Napa and Sonoma. And this really kind of solidifies Zinfandel in California in the United States, because that same year. a letter to the editor of The Horticulturist, which is the magazine for the horticulturists in California, confirms that the spelling should be Zinfandel. So there it is. There’s our name? Z I N F A N D E L, Zinfandel. And now it is part of our world.
And Zinfandel officially becomes celebrated. And it is a very important wine grape to be grown in California. It starts being grown all over the place, and then Prohibition hits and messes everything up. It’s a long story, of course, but man, does it decimate the wine industry of California, but good old Zinfandel kind of survives through the whole thing.
It is part of the church wine that’s allowed under the law. It’s also part of blocks of dry must you add water to, to make your own bathtub wine. Zinfandel is still around. It never goes anywhere, but why is it called Zinfandel? Prohibition really messed up our drinking culture in this country. And it took a long time. It’s almost like we’re still working on it, but it took a long time for Americans to get into dry red wine again.
And it wasn’t until the late ’60s, when we really started getting interested in wine again, and here is where the mystery of Zinfandel begins to be solved. In 1967, a man by the name of Austin Goheen, he’s a plant pathologist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the ARS. He visits Bari, which is a main city in Puglia. He tastes a wine made from what is now called the Primitivo grape, and dude kind of freaks out. He’s like, wait a second. This tastes like Zinfandel back in Cali. He asks if he can see the vineyards of Primitivo, and then he freaks out again.
He’s like, “These vines look like Zinfandel.” So he has some cuttings sent to University of California Davis, and then he flies back home, and he plants a Primitivo vine right next to a Zinfandel vine and starts to compare the morphology, or the way the vine grows. In 1972, Goheen confirms the morphology of these two vines are similar. We’re still not sure that they’re the same, but they’re sure similar.
In 1975, the year of my birth, PhD candidate at UC Davis, Wade Wolfe, establishes that the vines show what’s called identical isozyme patterns. I know that’s science-y, but basically it’s a certain kind of enzyme that was used to compare similarities before DNA profiling. And it showed that they’re pretty much identical.
Somewhere between 1975 and 1979 Goheen is contacted by Franco Lamberti of the University of Bari in Puglia. Franco, along with a colleague of his from the University of Zagreb in Croatia, suggests that the Zinfandel Primitivo thing might correspond to a grape they found on the Dalmatian coast called Plavac Mali. What’s interesting about Croatia here is that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was huge, and it covered part of the Croatian Dalmatian coast. And if the horticulturists from the East Coast were getting vine cuttings from the Imperial Greenhouse in Vienna, that’s part of the same kingdom.
So in 1979, Goheen asks them to send cuttings of Plavac Mali to the University of California Davis, hoping to find the origins of this grape. But before that could happen, the winemakers in this area assumed it was Zinfandel. So they started sending this Plavac Mali to the United States, labeling it Zinfandel. Actually at the same time, the winemakers in Puglia were very excited about having Zinfandel, so they started sending Primitivo to California and naming it Zinfandel. And this is really upsetting the winemakers in California making Zinfandel, like “Yo, what’s happening here? We’re making Zinfandel. What are you sending us, and why are you putting Zinfandel on the label? And alas, in 1982 Plavac Mali is identified as not being Zinfandel through that whole isozyme comparison.
And in 1985, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms rules that you cannot put Zinfandel as a synonym for Primitivo, Plavac Mali. Just can’t do it again. Sorry. And now I know I’ve mentioned her name before, Carol Meredit, a great geneticist. She was a professor at UC Davis. She and her doctoral candidate, John Bowers, were using this DNA profiling to figure out the origins of all these varieties. In 1994, it happened. They proved through DNA profiling that Zinfandel and Primitivo are exactly the same. Now, what if we took this DNA profiling to that Plavac Mali grape and see if that was Zin? Mike Grgich, an American winemaker of Croatian descent, had a winery called Grgich Hills.
He actually asked Carol Meredith like, look, let’s collaborate. Let’s collaborate with the University of Zagreb and try to find the origin of this thing for once and for all. Carol Meredith is like, “Yeah, let’s do that.” So she, along with two members of the University of Zagreb, Edie Malantetch and Ivan Pevitj, as well as Jasinka Pilajitch, who would go along to write a book called “Zinfandel: A Croatian American Wine Story,” went to the Dalmatian Coast and collected 148 samples of Plavac Mali. But unfortunately all 148 samples came back as a negative match to that of Zinfandel.
In the following years, Malantetch and Pevitj continued to search for the origins of Zinfandel. This is what would eventually be called the “Zin Quest.” And they would always be sending samples back to Carol Meredith and going “No, no.”
And then in December of 2001, the mystery was solved. And this is so cool. Located between the cities of Trogir and Split on the Dalmatian coast is a town called Kaštela. The town of Kaštela is actually made up of seven coastal villages built around castles that were built in the 15th and 16th century to protect this area against the Ottomans.
In Croatian, Kaštela means “castle.” So, it’s a coastal town made up of these seven villages, and each village is named after the castle. A man by the name of Ivika Rodanitch lives in Kaštel Novi, one of those villages. Growing up, his father was a vine grower, winemaker. They had a cellar on the property.
And him and his friends would play Cowboys and Indians on the property. And he was always “Billy the Kid,” and this nickname actually followed him through to adulthood as he grew up. The nickname just became “The Kid,” which is very interesting, because he grew up to be 286 pounds of pure muscle.
He became a firefighter, and he loved it so much, he started doing firefighter competitions to the point where Croatia had a firefighter Olympics and he would win. In 1988 and 1992, he was part of the Championship of the Firefighting Olympics, which is just awesome. At some point, his father wanted him to be part of the business for the vine growing and winemaking, and he said, “No, I want to be a company man.”
He got a corporate job and he had that for years until 1991, when the company went bankrupt. So he had to go back and start working the land like his father did. And he grew up among the vines. So he knew how to do this. So what he decided to do is mechanize it, modernize it, and replant vines and make it a really thriving business.
Ivika would make his wine, he would also sell grapes to the local cooperative. And in 1999, he was contacted by Edie Malantetch and Ivan Pevitj from Zin Quest through his co-op asking if they could take some samples from an old neglected part of his vineyard. They came in 2000, took some samples, and then peaced out.
Meanwhile, Ivika is still doing his wine thing. Actually, he’s also still firefighting to the point where he’s in his vineyards tending his vineyards, and with a walkie-talkie, still keeping in communication with the local firehouse. Pretty amazing stuff. And then in the fall of 2001, Malantetch and Pevitj from Zin Quest came back to take specific samples from 50 vines in the old parts of his vineyard. And in September of that year, 2001, Carol Meredith personally calls Ivika and says, “Through DNA profiling, it has been proven that in the old part of his vineyard, the origin of Zinfandel has been found in a vine, in his vineyard, on his property.”
So, Zinfandel comes from Croatia, specifically the Dalmatian coast, specifically around the area of Kaštela. But it’s not called Zinfandel. Here in Kaštela, they literally call it “Crljenak Kaštelanski,” which translates to the “Red of Kaštela,” and they found a total of nine vines of this “What is Zinfandel?”
And then in 2002, in what Jedi wine master Jancis Robinson in the book “Wine Grapes” calls “the garden of a very old lady,” they found this vine, this Zinfandel vine, but here it was called Prividrag. And this is where the story comes full-circle, guys. This is amazing.
Further DNA profiling found that this grape, what we call Zinfandel, has been documented in this area in the 15th and the 16th centuries. And the name of the grape at the time was not “Prividrag,” but was “Tribidrag.” And according to the Croatian linguist Valentine Putanitch, the Croatian word “Tribidrag” comes from a Greek word, meaning — wait for it — “early ripening.” Which is exactly what our priest in Delacatti in 1799 called the grape that he found in his vineyard, “Primitivo,” which means “early ripening.” I mean, wow. And remember good old Plavac Mali, like whatever happened to our Plavac Mali?
Well, it turns out that Plavac Mali, with another grape called Dobričić, are the parents of Tribidrag, which we call Zinfandel and Puglia calls Primitivo! What? And Primitivo is great from Puglia. It’s still very popular. It’s grown in a region called Salento, in a region called Manduria, in Puglia, and they range from very bright, easy-to-drink chillable reds to more focused, dark, inky, full-bodied red wines. They’re awesome. Definitely seek them out, and you can still find Crljenak Kaštelanski or Tribidrag. It’s just not as easy to find wine from Croatia yet. But more and more wines from Croatia are coming onto the American market.
But in California where we know it as Zinfandel, I mean, it’s in the rosé episode, we created an extremely well-known and famous rosé from this called White Zinfandel. And like I said, it goes up and down through fashions. And what happened with that White Zinfandel thing in the ’70s and ’80s, it was so popular that by the 1990s, there was so much Zinfandel in California that the actual red wine Zinfandel became popular for a while in the early to mid-’90s. These big, full-bodied, huge Zinfandels. But as big, oaky wines declined a little bit in popularity, Zinfandel kind of went away for a little bit. It’s never gone away. Just in popularity. And there is great Zinfandel in California. You guys should definitely check it out. I mean, some of the oldest vines we have in America are Zinfandel vines, and they’re in California.
There’s actually the old vine, the term “old-vine Zin“. There’s no other grape that we put “old vine” for on a wine label. Of course, there’s no law for how old the vine has to be or how much old-vine Zin goes into a wine. Because of the 75 percent rule, you can have 5 percent of old-vine Zin and the rest young-vines Zin. But there is beautiful, focused red Zinfandel being made in places like Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma. Places like Lodi, and Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo.
Mendocino County is a beautiful, cool region with next-grade Zinfandels. Napa Valley doesn’t really do Zinfandel as much because Cabernet Sauvignon kind of rules that area. But the good Zinfandel that’s made in Napa Valley is pretty amazing stuff. And if I had time, I would go into different winemakers and all the different styles.
But what I can say is this: There’s a wide range of styles from Zinfandel. You can get the ’90s big, full-bodied stuff, but if you get a good, focused, beautiful Zinfandel I mean, it is just great. And talk about Thanksgiving and holidays. It’s an amazing holiday red wine. So, that’s the story of Zinfandel.
That’s the story of a grape that is kind of ours, but really not, but sort of, you know what I mean?
So go out there, try to find some Zinfandel — maybe tag me. Let me know what you think @vinepairkeith on Instagram. You let me know what you think. Maybe even use the hashtag #Wine101, why not?
If you’re digging what I’m doing, picking up what I’m putting down, go ahead and give me a rating on iTunes or tell your friends to subscribe. You can subscribe. If you like to type, go ahead and send a review or something like that, but let’s get this wine podcast out so that everybody can learn about wine.
Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Erica, Adam, and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo.
And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
Published: October 29, 2020