Zinfandel: The Wanderer

The roads that brought Zinfandel to becoming California’s “own” wine grape were long and convoluted, which is why we call Zin the “wanderer.”

Zin has been on a long road and several times has almost disappeared

  • Zinfandel is a black grape. There is no white Zinfandel grape.
  • White Zinfandel wine is made from the same black Zinfandel grape that makes red Zinfandel.
  • Most grape juice is actually clear. You make a lightly colored (pink) wine by giving the clear juice some brief contact with the grape skins.
  • We know now that California’s Zinfandel is the genetic equivalent of the Croatian Dalmatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski, as well as the Primitivo variety found in Italian Puglia across the Adriatic Sea from Dalmatia.
  • Researchers have only recently determined the genetic connection. The search for it is popularly called the “Zinquest.”

So how did Zin get to California? It starts with a Napoleon.

Napoleon battle

In the late 1700’s, Napoleon conquers northern Italy, leading to the end of the 1100 year old Venetian Empire. In 1797, Austria takes over Venetian Dalmatia from the Republic of Venice

Cuttings of Crljenak Kaštelanski grape are brought to Schönbrunn Imperial Austrian horticultural collection in Vienna.

Venetian Republic

In 1829, Colonel George Gibbs, imports cuttings of the grape from Schönbrunn across the Atlantic to his property in Ravenswood, Queens. At the time, Ravenswood was entirely rural, although now it is in the middle of New York City.


Ravenswood Houses

Colonel Gibbs brings cuttings to Boston in 1830. The grape thrives in Boston greenhouses, but does not do well outdoors in the northeastern climate. Outdoor cultivation of the native Concord grape takes the focus and Zin is forgotten. Zinfandel almost disappears. What saves it? The California Gold Rush.



Boston nurserymen brought Zinfandel to California during the Gold Rush years. Zinfandel took well to the growing conditions in Napa, Sonoma, Lodi and the Sierra Foothills. It soon became California’s most planted grape, meeting the demand of the growing population brought on by the Gold Rush.

The Italian Connection.

  • Italian immigrant winemakers adopted Zinfandel as their own in the late 19th
  • During Prohibition, many other wineries ripped out their vines and planted other profitable, predictable crops.
  • Because of their deep culture of wine, many Italian families kept their vineyards going.
  • Many of their old vines survive today.

Another threat makes Zinfandel almost disappear. Prohibition.

Prohibition scene
  • Many Zinfandel vines were abandoned with Prohibition.
  • After repeal, the concentration was on cheap, sweet, low-quality wines, which often used “borrowed” European place names.
  • The California fine wine business did not truly recover until the 1970s, and then it concentrated on French grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
  • But tough Zinfandel vines survived unattended in areas where it was not worthwhile to dig them up and plant replacement crops.
  • We still could have lost Zinfandel in the 1970s as winemakers discovered that good grape-producing land in areas such as the Sierra Foothills was considerably cheaper than Sonoma and Napa.
  • Zinfandel vines might have been replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon, which became California’s number one red grape.

White Zinfandel comes to the rescue

  • The first Sutter Home White Zinfandel in 1972 was a standard dry slightly pink wine.
  • In 1975 an accidental “stuck fermentation” resulted in a pink, sugary wine.
  • The wine became immensely popular.
  • Today, white Zinfandel outsells red Zinfandel six to one, accounting for 10% of all the wine sold in the United States, by volume.
  • Demand for white Zinfandel spurred winemakers to pay more attention to traditional red Zinfandel, especially the wine made from old vines.
  • Red Zinfandel has once again taken its rightful place as one of California’s great red wines. Zinfandel is now second only to Cabernet Sauvignon among California red grape production.

Europe Jumps on the Bandwagon

  • In Croatia, Crljenak Kaštelanski was down to twenty-two vines just a few years ago, but has risen to 200,000 vines today.
  • In Puglia, Primitivo was better known and has only increased since the Zinfandel connection was made.
  • With the popularity of quality red Zinfandel, Croatian and Italian winemakers have begun to label their wines “Zinfandel,” but the wine just isn’t the same after nearly two centuries of genetic separation.
  • The difference is not just genetics.
  • Californians let Zinfandel ripen to high sugar levels, bringing high alcohol, low acid and riper, gentler tannins, for a smooth fruity wine.
  • The Italians pick the grapes earlier, at lower sugar levels, bringing lower alcohol, higher acidity and more expressive tannins, an entirely different wine style.