The history of Zinfandel is a fascinating journey that spans continents and centuries. The origins of Zinfandel are somewhat mysterious, but it is believed to have roots in Europe, specifically in Croatia, where a grape variety called Crljenak Kaštelanski is genetically identical to Zinfandel. The grape made its way to the United States in the 19th century, becoming a quintessential American varietal.
Gold Rush Influence
Zinfandel was introduced to California in the early to mid-19th century. During the Gold Rush in the 1850s, there was a surge in demand for wine in California. Zinfandel became one of the primary grapes planted because of its adaptability, high yields, and the relatively easy winemaking process associated with it. After the 1849 Gold Rush, timber and wire were scarce. Production of Zinfandel grapes surged, in part, because it could easily be cultivated using the traditional European “head pruning”, a technique still used today requiring no special equipment or scarce resources. Zinfandel’s appeal soared during this time because it grew vigorously and provided miners with a versatile, substantial beverage. Zinfandel plantings expanded rapidly throughout California, and it became one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the state by the late 19th century.
With the advent of Prohibition (1920-1933), many vineyards were uprooted or converted to table grape production. Some Zinfandel vineyards survived by being used for other purposes, such as making sacramental or medicinal wine.
After the repeal of Prohibition, Zinfandel experienced a resurgence in popularity. Many of the surviving old vineyards, some dating back to the 19th century, became prized sources for Zinfandel grapes.
White Zinfandel Trend
In the mid-20th century, Zinfandel took on a new identity with the creation of White Zinfandel, a sweet and pink wine style. This became a commercial success in the 1970s and 1980s, though it was a departure from the traditional dry red Zinfandel. See our blog, “The Precarious Story of White Zinfandel: A Tale of Crazy Serendipity”, to get the full story.
The 1990’s brought a focus on research and the involvement of Zinfandel enthusiasts in a movement to celebrate and promote the varietal and the red wines produced from it. The first Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) tasting gathered 22 wineries together at The Mandarin Hotel in San Francisco in 1992. By the end of the decade, Zinfandel had become competitive in the world market, proving to an international audience that America could produce fine red table wines from Zinfandel comparable to their European counterparts. In the Today there has been a renewed focus on producing high-quality, dry red Zinfandel wines. Winemakers began to appreciate the unique characteristics of old-vine Zinfandel, with its intense fruit flavors, spice, and complexity.
Appellations and Regional Diversity
Different regions in California, such as Sonoma County, Paso Robles, Amador County, and the Russian River Valley, have become known for producing distinct styles of Zinfandel. Each region's unique terroir imparts specific characteristics to the wine.
Today, Zinfandel remains an important and cherished grape variety in California, with winemakers continuing to explore its potential and showcase the diversity of this historic grape. Old-vine Zinfandel is highly sought after for its depth and concentration of flavors.