Zinfandel – The Fascinating History of “California’s Grape”

Meeting Carole Meredith and hearing her tell the history of Zinfandel, thought to be “California’s grape”, was a true privilege. Her persistent research has given us a wonderful story that I wrote in my recent column in the Napa Valley Register.

Croatian winemaking history began around 2200 B.C.; California’s winemaking history started in 1779. All of our vitis vinifera grapes in California came from somewhere else. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are from Burgundy, Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, Tempranillo and Albariño from Spain, Barbera and Nebbiolo from Piemonte. But when it came to Zinfandel, for years we thought Zinfandel was “our” grape.

Zinfandel did not have a European connection like the other grapes mentioned above. There were no grapes in Europe named Zinfandel. In the 1970s, Primitivo, from Southern Italy, was thought to be Zinfandel. But, a couple decades later when they finally had the tools to do a DNA test on grapes, it was found that while Zinfandel and Primitivo were genetically identical, Zinfandel did not come from Primitivo. In fact, Primitivo, it was found, was probably introduced to Italy 200 to 300 years ago. But, where did Zinfandel/Primitivo come from?

This is where the story gets interesting. We know the origin of Zinfandel because of the hard work of Dr. Carole Meredith, a grapevine geneticist. Today she makes Lagier Meredith wines on Mount Veeder, but for 22 years, she was a professor in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the UC Davis.

During her tenure, she did ground-breaking research on the parentage of grape varieties. Using DNA typing, she and her team identified the lineage of Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc), Chardonnay (Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc) and Syrah (Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche). And, of course, she determined the origins of Zinfandel.

“Learning how grapes are related gives us information for deduction and enables us to dispel many myths,” Meredith explained when I had the privilege to meet her on a recent trip to Napa where she shared the story of Zinfandel.

“Zinfandel was thought of as the California grape, but that implied that it had no history,” Meredith said. “It was obviously a European grape but not from France, Italy, Germany, Spain or Portugal. It was from farther east in Europe.”

She also noted that because of the large leaves of Zinfandel, it had to be from Southern European, because Northern Europe grapes have smaller leaves. From Puglia, Italy, where Primitivo is from, they looked across the Adriatic to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.

Meredith wanted to apply the DNA tools she had to find the home of Zinfandel. But, she did not know anyone in Croatia. She reached out to winemaker and Croatian vintner Mike Grgich for help.

Grgich introduced Meredith to Plavac Mali, the predominant red grape grown on the Dalmatian Coast. Meredith’s research found that Plavac Mali and Zinfandel are similar but are not the same.

Then, serendipity stepped in. Out of the blue, in the fall of 1997, Ivan Pejic, a plant geneticist from the University of Zagreb in Croatia sent Meredith an email asking for her help. He and his colleague Edi Maletic were asking for her DNA tools to understand indigenous grapes of Croatia. They began to work together. In 2000 they discovered that Plavac Mali is the direct offspring of Zinfandel and Dobričić, an ancient variety from the Adriatic island of Šolta.

Further research led them to a vineyard northwest of Split where they found, in one vineyard, nine vines out of 9,000 vines of Crljenak Kaštelanski, also locally known as Kratosija and Pribidrag. The grape was almost extinct and only a handful of vines were left in the entire country.

They also found preserved grapevine leaves, called Tribidrag, in a museum in Split. From 1998-2001, they tried to get the DNA out of the dried Tribidrag but with no success. Ten years later, another group was able to get the DNA out of the dried leaves and prove the heritage of Zinfandel.

Tribidrag is the ancient name of Zinfandel. A historian traced the grape’s history back to the 1300s where he found that it was one of the most prominent grapes in the entire Adriatic. Tribidrag/Zinfandel is more than 800 years old and, according to Meredith, “it is a noble grape. We should treat it well.”

Today, Zinfandel is the third-leading wine grape variety in California, with more than 44,400 acres planted, according to The Wine Institute. It is grown in 45 of California’s 58 counties. Meredith has Zinfandel planted on her property in Mount Veeder. But, to honor the history of the grape, her Zinfandel wine is called Tribidrag.

— Lagier Meredith 2014 Tribidrag, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley – The wine has floral aromas as well as notes of raspberry, cherry, pomegranate and bramble. There are also hints of white pepper, fresh sage and stony minerality. On the palate, the wine has soft, refined tannins and a long finish.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.