Thursday, November 13, 2003 (SF Chronicle)
The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
Just two years ago, DNA testing proved that Zinfandel, "America's Heritage grape," in fact originated in Europe. UC Davis professor Carole Meredith found an exact genetic match of Zinfandel in, of all places, Croatia, where the grape is called, of all things, crljenak kastelanski.
That discovery did absolutely nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of California Zinfandel fans, who through the organization Zinfandel Advocates and Producers still gather for a weekend in San Francisco each January to revel in the zesty wine. Croatian roots have not deterred ZAP's 6,300 members from their almost patriotic fervor for the grape.
Equally nonplussed are ZAP officials, who continue to zealously promote Zinfandel as America's Heritage grape, whether or not it technically comes from Dalmatia. Zin's ancestry is irrelevant, says Donn Reisen, the president of Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino and this year's ZAP president.
Zinfandel has been the backbone of U.S. wine production for more than 100 years, from its prominent role on the table of 19th century immigrants to the modern "lite" version, White Zinfandel, and the excellent, spicy red Zinfandels made today, Reisen says. (White and red Zinfandel are made from the same grapes using different vinification methods.) Zinfandel, in fact, was bumped from its No. 1 position just five years ago, by Chardonnay.
In addition, Reisen says, the oldest Zinfandel vineyards in the world are in California, where some 100-year-old vines are still producing. And Americans, through decades of cultivating and crafting Zinfandel, have truly made the wine their own, much like the Burgundians have with Pinot Noir and the Germans have with Riesling, he says.
These days even Europeans consider Zinfandel the quintessential American wine, says Reisen, whose company exports throughout Europe.
"America is a melting pot of cultures and Zinfandel, like the European immigrants to the U.S., is part of our American history," he says. "Zinfandel is the epitome of California vinifera."
So the Zinfandel boosting continues, as does ZAP's most ambitious project, a 3.5-acre experimental vineyard in Oakville that is considered a major step toward improving Zinfandel wines.
The Heritage Vineyard, modeled on long-term European studies of grapes like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese, is now in its 10th year -- and will likely continue for decades. ZAP and UC Davis, the partners in the project, hosted a vertical tasting at the Oakville site last week to spread the word about the effort.
While you wouldn't necessarily know it from tasting California Zins, Zinfandel growers are operating at a competitive disadvantage relative to producers of varieties that the Europeans have been analyzing for many years; a vineyard study of Champagne varieties is in its 50th year, for example.
The Heritage Vineyard is meant to even the odds. Scientists there are attempting to isolate each of the Zinfandel clones that have evolved over the years in California and identify their characteristics: Which permutations are heat and cold resistant, which are better suited to wet or dry conditions, which produce smaller or larger berries.
"It's about getting the right clone in the right place," Reisen says. "Thirty years from now, growers will be able to choose the best clone for the best area."
Currently, Zinfandel growers are operating in the dark when they buy new vines. Nobody has a clue how many clones there are, let alone which conditions each prefers. DNA testing on plants is not refined enough to distinguish between clones and close relations, which is why they must be identified through painstaking vineyard observation.
"You may know that Joe Blow in Dry Creek has great Zinfandel, but there's no way to know if it's the clone or the site," says Joel Peterson, winemaker for Ravenswood Winery and co-chairman of the Heritage Vineyard Program. In the future, satellite projects in different Zin-growing regions will help match clones to climates.
For an apples-to-apples comparison, the Heritage clone vines are cultivated identically, with the same type of pruning, irrigation, rootstock and so on. Test wines are made using the same yeasts, the same amount of skin contact and grapes harvested at identical sugar levels. The wines don't necessarily taste good, but they are serving their scientific purpose of parsing out differences between the vines.
Once the study gets further along -- it is now in Phase 3 and the first clone has yet to be identified -- vines will be cultivated by commercial nurseries. If all goes well, the first Heritage clone will be released for sale in 2006.
ZAP has donated more than $140,000 toward the Heritage project, but it won't profit from the venture, says Peterson. "The only ones who will benefit economically are the growers," he says. And, of course, consumers should enjoy better wines.
Apart from its commercial application, the Heritage Project is serving history by saving genetic material from old grapevines that would otherwise have been lost. UC Davis enologist James Wolpert and his team gathered the Heritage vines on driving trips they call "Zinfaris," visiting well-regarded vineyards from Alameda County to Southern California's Cucamonga region.
All of the vineyards were planted before 1930. "We'd ask people to tell us the history of the vineyard and they would start with Gen. Vallejo," Wolpert told the group in Oakville last week.
At least two of the ancient vineyards that contributed samples have already been razed to make way for development, says Wolpert, chairman of Davis' enology and viticulture department. "If it were a building, someone would have slapped a National Historic Monument plaque on it," he says.
The Heritage Vineyard may help settle an ongoing debate about the relationship between Zinfandel and a genetically similar variety, Primitivo.
While often mistaken for each other, Primitivo vines in the Heritage Vineyard are showing subtle differences -- looser clusters, smaller berries and more vigor than the Zin.
"Primitivo looks like Zinfandel, but it's on the outside edge of all of the variations," says Peterson.
Last week's tasting of vintages 1997 through 2003 provided little information about the various clones, nor was it designed to. It wasn't the cookie-cutter, laboratory wines that were poured, but rather commercial wines that are made by a different ZAP winemaker each year from leftover Heritage grapes. Those wines are sold each January to raise money for the Heritage Vineyard.
Once the project has gotten further along, clonal tastings will be offered, organizers say.
The tasting did accomplish one important goal, which was to dispel doubts about the choice of Oakville -- a Napa district known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, not its Zin -- for the Heritage Vineyard. Even the oldest Zins, made when the vineyard was very young, were of good quality.
Wolpert says the university's Oakville research station was chosen for its central location and the area's viticultural reputation. "Davis is nowhere, viticulturally speaking," he says.
Send news, tips and information to Carol Emert at firstname.lastname@example.org
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