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Zinfandel: America in a Glass (October 3, 2012)

If wines were flags, Zinfandel would fly the Stars and Stripes. No other grape is so quintessentially American although, like most of our neighbour's population, it is not an indigenous variety. Its presence in California vineyards dates back only to the mid-1800s. There is the historical version as to how it came to be planted there and then there is the Hollywood version.

Ampelographers using DNA testing have tracked its birthplace to the town of Split in Croatia, where it rejoiced in the unpronounceable name of Crljenak kastelanski (try "sirl-yen-ack kastelanski"). It was also found to be related genetically to the Primitivo that flourishes today in the province of Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot. The grape was originally brought to Italy from Greece and it was Benedictine monks who named it Primitivo in the 18th century (after the Latin term primitivus because of its propensity to ripen early).

While there is virtually no wine made from this variety in Croatia today, Primitivo in Puglia has gotten a new lease on life thanks to the international attention paid to Californian Zinfandel. Historians speculate that the Zinfandel grape was transported to the United States from the Hapsburg monarchy's imperial nursery in Vienna. A horticulturalist named George Gibbs planted some cuttings on Long Island sometime after 1820. In 1830 he was selling a wine in Boston he called "Zenfendal." By 1835 a Boston nurseryman, Charles M. Hovey, was growing "Zinfindal" in heated greenhouses as a table grape. The variety found its way to California as cutting in the backpacks of miners caught up in the Gold Rush fever of 1850.

The man credited for making the first Zinfandel wine in California was Joseph W. Osborne, who grew it in his Oak Knoll vineyard just north of Napa town. Thanks to the influx of treasure hunters this variety became the most widely planted in the Golden State and today accounts for over 10 per cent of the region's vineyards.

That's the historical version. The Hollywood version (apocryphal as it turns out) is more dramatic: the cuttings were brought to California by a Hungarian self-styled Count named Agoston Haraszthy, who immigrated to the New World seeking fame and fortune and went west with the miners. He brought with him over 300 European grape vine cuttings and founded Buena Vista winery in Sonoma in 1857. Twelve years later while riding his horse across an alligator-infested river in Nicaragua he fell off and perished. Which just goes to show there were wine critics even back then.

The fact that there are Old Vine Zinfandels, some vineyards dating back 100 years, is because of dual ironies: first, the grape survived Prohibition because it was a favorite of home winemakers, which allowed growers to maintain their vineyards rather than grubbing them out to plant to prunes or peaches. Then in the 1970s when the American consumer somehow got convinced that white wine was healthier and less fattening than red (wrong on both accounts!), the growers began the laborious business of either grafting existing red grape vines over to white varieties or replanting completely. An accident again saved Zinfandel.

Virtually all new directions in the beverage alcohol industry are the result of accidents or just blind luck. There is a winemaking technique called saignée, to bleed off juice during fermentation in order to concentrate the colour of the wine. The separated juice, being in contact with the skins for a mere matter of hours, is usually a very pale pink. In 1972 Bob Trinchero of the Sutter Home Winery in St. Helena drained off some juice from his Zinfandel and tried to sell it under a name used by the French to describe its colour – Oeil de Perdrix ("eye of the partridge"). The US regulating authority, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, balked and demanded he use an English term. So he labelled the wine White Zinfandel even though it was pink (because there was no market for rosé in those days). The 220 cases of Sutter Home White Zinfandel sold well enough for Trinchero to continue making the wine. In 1975 his fermentation "stuck," which meant the yeast stopped converting sugar to alcohol. He decided he would bottle this pink, sweetish wine and sell it anyway. The rest is history. White Zinfandel swept the nation and everybody started making a White Zinfandel. Currently this "blush" wine category accounts for almost 10 per cent of all US wine sales. In fact, many consumers don't even know that Zinfandel is really a red wine. But its popularity as White Zinfandel saved the bacon of this fascinating variety.

For the wine purist though, Zinfandel is the grape that produces a full-bodied, robust red wine that smells of cherries and plums and leather. It may lack the layered nuance and complexity of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir but its heartiness and accessibility somehow speak to the very core of the American personality.




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