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The inspiration behind Zinfandel

Zinfandel is a type of grape and wine known for being from California. But originally, the grape comes from our hometown in Croatia (the original name is Kastelanski Crljenak or Tribidrag), and it is the same grape as the Italian Primitivo. In our bar and restaurant we would like to share with you the very interesting story of how this wine came from Croatia to America via Glasgow, which at that time was one of the most important ports for transferring goods between continents.

Zinfandel in the New World


Zinfandel was established in northern California by the mid-19th century. The grape thrived in the American West’s warm climate, was beloved by the thousands who shipped the grapes east to make wine at home during Prohibition, and was the most planted dark-skinned grape until the mid-20th century, when its popularity was finally usurped by Cabernet Sauvignon.

But no reference to Zinfandel is made in any of France’s well-kept and documented vine collections, which kept Zinfandel’s origins shrouded in mystery for a century and a half. Americans believed Zinfandel was a native grape for many years.

The Mystery of Zinfandel Wine Unfolds


In the 1970s, Charles Sullivan, a leading expert on the history of California wine, learned that Zinfandel had been imported to the American East coast in the late 1820s from the Austrian imperial nursery in Vienna. It was then taken to Boston and by the 1830s was widely grown under glass as a table grape in New England. Finally, Zinfandel was included in an early shipment of vine cuttings to the hundreds of prospectors who rushed out to California in search of gold in 1849 and had to turn to farming instead.

The next significant chapter in the story of Zinfandel came in the early 1990s. DNA profiling had been applied to analysing the genetic relationships between different vine varieties, and it was established beyond doubt that Zinfandel was identical to a then-obscure grape variety called Primitivo grown on the heel of Italy.

Finally, the breakthrough occurred in 2001. “Mike Grgich, one of California’s best-known winemakers, immigrated from Croatia in the 1950’s and, a Zinfandel producer himself, had always believed that it was the same grape as Plavac Mali,” according to Frank Prial, who wrote of this tale in The New York Times.

Professor Carole Meredith, of University of California at Davis, wasn’t quite so sure. She gathered and tested the variety and determined that Plavac Mali was not the same as Zinfandel.

However, her work had invited collaboration with Croatian viticultural researchers, and after many a trek through the vineyards of the beautiful Dalmatian coast and its rocky islands, they discovered an ancient and almost extinct variety on the island of Kaštela near Split called Crljenak Kaštelanski (literally “red grape of Kaštela”).

Grapes from Crljenak Kaštelanski, also called Tribidrag, were sent back to Davis where genetic tests were performed alongside Primitivo and Zinfandel. On Dec. 18, 2001, it was announced that these three grapes were identical.


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