Zin Beginnings

I looked at the large tumbler filled with ice cubes and White Zinfandel fresh out of the box. It was topped with a colorful bendy straw. I sighed. Surely there had to be more to wine than this.

Fast forward nearly two decades later, and I can say unequivocally that I was happy to find that it most certainly was. And who knew that one of the catalysts in my wine life would be Zinfandel. Just not the “white” kind.

My first experience with “real” Zinfandel was several years after the previously mentioned incident. I was in Paso Robles with a group of friends, and talk about experiencing epiphanies! Wow!

Even though my ultimate signature wine has become Pinot Noir, Zinfandel – just “Zinfandel,” not “red Zinfandel” – is a close second. It became the shining star in California’s recent drought because “dry-farming” was the catchphrase born out of necessity, and Zinfandel flexed its drought-defying chops as roots burrowed their way into dust-dry soil to find the barest molecules of moisture to survive. The results have been deeply-flavored, densely-colored, nuanced and memorable Zinfandels.

You can imagine how excited I was to attend a Zinfandel tasting with friends over at friends. But this tasting was a little different. There were no Paso Robles, Lodi, Amador, or Sonoma Zinfandels involved. This was all about the history of “America’s Grape.”

Or is it?

A Little History (More or Less)

Travel Channel Creative Commons
Croation Wine Country Travel Channel

Can you spell “Croatia”?

A little-known grape called Plavac Mali was celebrated as the grand-ancestor of Zinfandel.

However, in 2001, Dr. Carole Meredith, a grape geneticist and then professor at UC Davis, found a relatively obscure grape that was visually similar to Zinfandel. The name of the grape was (is) Crljenak Kaštelanski. This same grape has been cultivated in Italy and is known as Primitivo. After picking around in a small vineyard in an unpronounceable region of Croatia, Dr. Meredith and her fellow researchers seized upon Crljenak Kaštelanski as the true ancestor of the Zinfandel found in America. (Disclaimer: the previous information is as I understand it. The actual truth may differ and is far more complex.)

The buzz over the Zinfandel tasting was the fact that there would be no Zins from our favorite hot spots; all of the wines would be showcasing Zinfandel’s evolution from historical grapes to the first plantings in the US.

The Tasting

The tasting was broken down into several modules:

Discovery: Croatia

The wines were 2012 Dubrovacki Podrumi Crljenak Kaštelanski and 2010 Grgich Hills Plavac Mali. As you may expect, the wines had lots of “Old World” character and didn’t display a lot of fruit. The food pairings were fresh figs, assorted cheeses, and Zinfandel jam.

Primitivo: A Side Trip-Italy

The wine was Tormaresca Primitivo Toricoda, which started to display some of the berry fruit that you expect from Zinfandel, but it sat firmly in its Italian heritage. The food pairing was Cheese Ravioli with Marinara Sauce.

California: A Beginning

The wines were 2009 Scott Harvey Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel and 2008 Vino Noceto OGP (Old Grandpere) Zinfandel. Although there was still a touch of earthy character, these were unmistakably California wines. The food pairing was Bacon & Duck Wontons with Port Sauce.

California: Second Generation

The wines were 2012 Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel and 2010 Biale Black Chicken. Now these were the Zins I know! Fruit forward and luscious, these wines showed their heritage. The food pairing was Spicy Pork Tenderloin with Cherry-Thyme Sauce.

California: A New Generation

NV 1000 Stories Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel Port. The food pairing was chocolate. In a word, yum!

Bonus Wine (see next note!)


Ultimately, the wine of the night turned out to be a wine that wasn’t even part of the official tasting. It was a 2004 Schrader Cellars Vieux-Os Tofanelli Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel from Napa Valley. At this age it was Bordeaux-like in character; subtle, yet nuanced and crazy delicious. Unfortunately, my so-called “friends” wouldn’t let me drink it by myself. They insisted that we share.


For more information about Croatian wines – which are really becoming a thing, by the way – you have to visit their wine websites.

Les Robes de l’Est Wine Tours in Continental Croatia

Uncorking Croatia: A Blog of the Wines of Croatia (this is where you need to go to get the REAL history!)

Blue Danube Wines: The Wines of Croatia

Wikipedia Article on Zinfandel and its History and Ancestry (includes info about Tribidrag)

Naturally, there are many commentaries on the wines of Croatia,  just as there are many sites that will happily sell you some good ol’ American Zin! I may pop open a bottle tonight in celebration of what (in my opinion) really is America’s wine!


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