Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story

(new publication on the discovery of Zinfandel in Croatia - an insider view - released in the fall, 2004)

(NEW!! A multimedia CD presentation in English AND Croatian : 'The wine resources of Croatia - the homeland of Zinfandel -- Vinsko bogatstvo Hrvatske - domovine Zinfandela'

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SUMMARY

Cover of Dr. Piljac's book 'Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story'All classic wine grapes ( Vitis vinifera L.) have their roots somewhere in Europe and western Asia. However, the exact origin of Zinfandel, one of the most important red wine cultivars of California, has been a mystery to Americans ever since its arrival to the United States in the early 1820s.

The importance of Zinfandel in the US wine industry is evident, as it is considered to be one of America's most important red wine grapes. California is the leading wine producing state in America; it accounts for approximately 90% of all US wine production. In such a developed wine industry, Zinfandel enjoys an almost a cult-like following and accounts for roughly twelve percent of the wine sold in the US each year. In California alone, this variety is planted by more than 300 producers over 50,000 acres. The Association of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) is dedicated to the promotion of Zinfandel and education of the public about this economically important variety. Founded in 1991, ZAP numbers about 6500 advocates and over 310 producers of Zinfandel. Over the course of the past few decades, Zinfandel received worldwide recognition with new plantings in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, France, Italy and even Chile.

Considering the importance and popularity of Zinfandel, it is no wonder that the exact "Old world" origin of this variety has been the subject of numerous debates. Professor Charles Sullivan, a historian who has dedicated years of his work to researching California viticultural practices, once referred to Zinfandel: "It is the spirit of American pioneers captured in the bottle for all times." Many American wine-lovers identify with the hardships of this wine, on its road to success and popularity. It is unquestionable that Americans have recognized the value of Zinfandel and brought it to the attention of the rest of the world. However, since none of the Vitis vinifera L. varieties are native to the Americas, Zinfandel's European origins continued to be as mysterious and intriguing as the red liquid that enchanted the world.

In the early 1990s, the development of sophisticated genetic fingerprinting techniques and their application towards the resolution of "grape mysteries" (the parentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Chardonnay) in the laboratory of Professor Carole Meredith at UC Davis marked the beginning of the end of the Zinfandel mystery. In this very laboratory, DNA profiling was used to confirm that Primitivo di Gioia, a grape with a long tradition in the Puglia region, is a genetically identical synonym of the famous American grape. Although the finding that Zinfandel and Primitivo are one and the same variety had narrowed down the search for the original home of Zinfandel to the Mediterranean basin, its exact origins were still debatable. The documented evidence of Primitivo's presence in Italy extends back only to the mid-1700's, and the geographic proximity of Croatia, as well as viticultural conditions resembling those of Puglia, pointed to this country as its possible original home.

Crljenak kaštelanski, the Croatian genetic counterpart of Zinfandel. (Photo by Jasenka Piljac)The idea that Zinfandel originates from coastal Dalmatia has been drifting in scientific circles for at least 20 years. The motivating force behind this claim in the US and the main advocate of 'Croatian Zinfandel' was Mike Grgich, a renowned Californian winemaker and enthusiast of Croatian descent. At the time when I joined the Meredith team as a research assistant in 1997, Professor Meredith informed me about her plans to visit Croatia and start collaboration with the scientists from the University of Zagreb. Until then, no one had the means or the necessary motivation to begin the search in Croatia, a country that has been ravaged by war from 1990-1995. She asked me to be her companion and translator. In May of 1998, with the help of Mike Grgich and scientists from the University of Zagreb, we ventured off into Dalmatian vineyards. What followed after our initial meeting and everything that happened between the spring of 1998 and the fall of 2002, along with the final discovery of the Croatian Zinfandel counterpart - Crljenak kaštelanski, is scientifically documented in my Ph.D. dissertation. However, the dissertation is missing all the fun parts, the ups and downs of the search all the way to the funny details of the 1998 'search of the territory'.

The aim of the book "Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story" is to provide a picturesque and detailed portrayal of the search for original Zinfandel from an insider perspective. This book is a detective tale and a travel log written for all Zinfandel lovers interested in reading about my first hand experience on the 'Zinfandel trail' and the final discovery of its Croatian match. It is also intended for all wine lovers and future visitors to Croatia who will, among the four chapters, surely find useful information about viticultural tradition, wine production and history of Croatia – a small country with more than a thousand islands and five million smiles. I hope you'll enjoy reading my story about a grape's journey through its Croatian-American past!

© Jasenka Piljac Žegarac

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