For a time, Zinfandel was thought of as indigenous to the United States. Still, that commonly held belief was proven premature as the connections to Italian Primitivo proved the two nearly an exact genetic match.
Though that association with California has not always been a positive one, Zinfandel has long been an important part of Californian fine wine, and the variety is seeing a resurgence.
Despite its Adriatic origins, Zinfandel may have come to the United States through Long Island but via Vienna, Austria.
Conventional wisdom holds that Zinfandel made its way to California with those seeking their fortunes as part of the Gold Rush in the 1850s. Perhaps the first Zinfandel of note was made by Joseph W. Osborne from a vineyard in Oak Knoll District, now one of the sub-appellations of Napa Valley. The praise his wine garnered resulted in the broad planting of the grape, which grew to the most planted in California in the early 1900s.
America’s great mistake of Prohibition would destroy many, though not all, of these old Zinfandel vineyards and set the grape and American wine back decades. The historical setback would derail the development of California’s fine wine culture.
Many vineyards that remained after Prohibition were located in California’s Central Valley, a region known for quantity production rather than the production of fine wine. Napa Valley, with wines showing promise in the mid-1800s, wouldn’t come to international prominence for more than another 100 years.
As California’s reputation for wine progressed, Zinfandel found itself squeezed out in many places by Cabernet Sauvignon. This trend, coupled with the soaring commercial success of the sickly sweet, blush wine known as ‘White Zin’, has saddled the once noble and benchmark variety in California with a poor reputation.
‘It’s no secret that California Zinfandel has been subject to misunderstanding,’ says Frank Family Vineyards winemaker Todd Graff. ‘In the 20th century, a majority of California Zinfandel planted was either overly jammy and high in alcohol or semi-sweet and pink. There are many of us trying to shift that narrative today.’
Yet it is California’s Zinfandel legacy which may save it and return it to its rightful place atop America’s pantheon of fine wines.
‘Old vineyards produce some of the world’s richest, most characterful and delicious wines’, says Don Hartford, co-owner of Hartford Family Winery. ‘In California, we have 100-year-old Zinfandel vineyards that display intense aromatic, flavour and textural complexities.’
‘California Zinfandel is remarkable for the age of its vineyards, the people who farm them and the vibrancy of the Zinfandel varietal. For these reasons, I think California Zinfandel will be important for years to come,’ Hartford concludes.