The Noble Writ: Original Zin

Sep 22, 2009 at 2:00 pm
I find zinfandel an utterly fascinating story. For many years, it has been referred to as American's own grape variety. Not because anyone thought it was native to these shores, but because its story mimics that of so many Americans: It was a humble, unknown import from Europe, adapting to conditions throughout California's wine regions. It has been used to craft wines ranging from classically-styled table wines to rich, ripe blockbusters to port-style dessert wines. It is the grape that came without pedigree or expectations and, with some hard work and luck, succeeded wherever it went.

In 2002, Dr. Carole Meredith of the University of California at Davis finally answered the question of what zinfandel was and where it had originated through her pioneering DNA research. These answers did nothing to change zinfandel's rags-to-riches story as Dr. Meredith determined zinfandel was none other than crljenak kastelanski, an obscure variety even in its homeland of Croatia.

Throughout its history in California, zinfandel has been boom or bust. In pre-Prohibition days, zinfandel was an important anchor to the entire California wine industry, forming the backbone and bulk of much of the wine produced by the state. Many of these old vineyards survived Prohibition by being tended by families of Italian immigrants, who supplied both the home-winemaking and sacramental-wine markets, both of which flourished like never before during Prohibition. However, when "serious" winemaking began to reemerge, these old vineyards and zinfandel in particular fell out of favor, and many were ripped up.

Out of favor, though, meant cheap -- or at least cheap for the quality of the grapes -- and wineries such as Ridge Vineyards began sourcing old zinfandel, along with the other varieties that were usually co-planted with it such as petite syrah, carignan and alicante bouschet. These producers treated the grapes with respect and created vinous masterpieces in the late 1960s and early 1970s.