Every year, starting in October, I and probably every other wine-writer and blogger in the country receive bulletins from enthusiastic marketers encouraging the consumption of zinfandel wines with Thanksgiving dinner, based on the premise that zinfandel is the “All-American grape” or the “American heritage grape.” Let’s consider that notion.

Though widely planted in California from the middle of the 19th Century and a workhorse of the industry, the zinfandel grape’s origins were shrouded in mystery. Its rustic nature precluded it from status with other, so-called “noble” European grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir, yet its versatility made it supremely attractive and profitable. The advantage of zinfandel is that it flourishes in warmer climates, its abundance also being one of its disadvantages. Another disadvantage is the tendency toward uneven ripening, so the same cluster may simultaneously harbor perfectly ripe grapes along with unripe grapes and others ripening all the way to a raisin state. The point is that zinfandel must be carefully managed in the vineyard and picked carefully at harvest, factors that mitigate against the cheapness of the prices it fetches compared, particularly, to cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Even the grape’s name — not French, not Italian, sort of German but not quite — seems ambiguous.

Where the heck did it come from?

Charles L. Sullivan, the noted historian of the Golden State’s wine industry, through meticulous research, traced the grape’s journey from Vienna to Boston and then to northern California, in his book Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine (University of California Press, 2003). Apparently, cuttings from the emperor’s hothouses in Austria were brought to New England in the 1820s, and during the 1830s, in Boston, the grape was grown in nurseries for table consumption. Zinfandel cuttings traveled west to California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, where they proliferated in newly planted vineyards. If prospectors didn’t strike it rich — and most didn’t — they generally became farmers.

In the 1880s and ’90s, Italian immigrants planted what we call field blends, primarily in Sonoma and Amador counties, vineyards that contained many grape varieties, dominated, perhaps, by zinfandel but including as many as 20 or 30 other red grapes. Some of these vineyards remain, still producing grapes from their gnarly old vines and considered treasures of the state’s agricultural history and heritage. Still, no one really knew where zinfandel originated or what it really was.

The link between zinfandel and a largely unknown grape from Italy’s Apulia region called primitivo, a producer of rough and ready quaffing wines, came in the 1960s, though it took the advent of DNA testing in the 1990s to make the identification solid. DNA testing provided some surprises. Winemakers in Chile, for example, were astonished to discover that what was assumed for decades to be vineyards filled with merlot vines actually held an obscure grape from Bordeaux called carmenere, now touted as the country’s signature grape. Still, while the research may have linked zinfandel definitively to the Old World, it still didn’t explain the grape’s origin.

Matters get a bit confusing here, but thanks to the efforts of the determined Carole Meredith of UC Davis and scientists at the University of Zagreb in Croatia, the mystery was finally unraveled in 2001. It seems that zinfandel-primitivo is one of the parents of a Croatian grape variety called plavac mali. Motivated by the connection to Croatia, researchers made extensive expeditions through the vineyards of the Dalmatian coast and found nine surviving examples of crljenak kaštelanski vines, which turned out to be identical with zinfandel.

Does it matter that these connections have been made? Only, I suppose, if history means anything to you. For my part, I like knowing that the story behind the zinfandel wine I might be enjoying takes it back to what used to be known as the Balkans, where it was cultivated at least since the 15th Century, that the grape was taken to Apulia in the mid 18th Century and mutated into primitivo — implying “the first to ripen” — and that a link between zinfandel and primitivo was established. A story in every bottle, n’est-ce pas?

On the other hand, though zinfandel was among the first European grapes to be brought to this country, we should hardly honor it with the label “the All American grape.” After all, grapes thrived in the New World long before European explorers and settlers arrive on these shores. European wines grapes belong to the species Vitis vinifera. Native American grapes occur in several species, including Vitis labrusca (catawba, cayuga, Concord) and Vitis rotundifolia (muscadine, also known as scuppernog). Wines made from these grapes and other native American vines tend to be metallic and foxy, and while they may be of regional interest, as table wines they’re not commercially viable. The point, however, is that if any grape should be known as the “All American” or the “American heritage,” it’s one of these. Not that I’m trying to dethrone zinfandel from its rightful place as a European pioneer in America and a significant marker in the history of the California wine industry. After all, zinfandel arrived in the New World nearly 200 years ago. Anyone whose ancestry on this continent goes back that far deserves every honor and acclaim.

In a few days, I’ll post an entry about issues in zinfandel wines, primarily ripeness and alcohol level, based on about 100 examples I tasted at the annual ZAP conference, held in San Francisco last week. ZAP is an acronym for Zinfandel Advocates and Producers. The non-profit organization encourages research into the history and implications of the grape and the preservation of old vineyards.

Image of zinfandel grapes from lodiwine.com.