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Clone Wars: The Zinfandel Saga

Let’s face it. The wine industry, much like the Star Wars franchise, attracts a fair amount of geeks. Those obsessive-compulsive white, male, over-fifty attorneys who worship Parker aren’t so very different from their younger, obsessive-compulsive white, male brethren who worship at the throne of Lucas. But when you get to talking clones in the wine world, you enter a whole new realm of nerdiness. The science of identifying and classifying grapevines is called ampelography and its lexicon of clones, hybrids and crosses is enough to get many a sci-fi enthusiast interested in the otherwise unflashy world of botany.

Consider the sad case of Chilean Carménère, the least of Bordeaux’s noble six grapes, which languished unloved in the Central Valley of Chile where it was wrongly identified, labeled and sold as Merlot for years. It was zealous ampelographers who redeemed this lost vine and restored it to its original inky splendor as France has little to no Carménère left after the phylloxera devastation of the late 1800s. Here in the US, our own clone wars have largely centered on Zinfandel in recent years. When I teach about Zinfandel, I like to acknowledge it as California’s homegrown star but the truth is that our “native” old-vine Zinfandel plots are anything but endemic. (The only truly native grapes aren’t fine wine-producing vitis vinifera vines at all but rather are good ol’ vitis lambrusca, or table grapes that the Pilgrims might have munched on back at the original feast.)

The story of Zinfandel in California features Gold Rush tales of Italian immigrants and thirsty padres whose need for sacramental wines protected zinfandel from extinction during Prohibition. Old-vine plots of Zinfandel in the Golden State are one of our great natural treasures alongside Yosemite’s Half Dome, towering redwoods and sparkling Pacific coastline. It’s a grape that has endured the vagaries of wine fads too – when a stuck fermentation at Sutter Home created problems for Zinfandel maker Bob Trinchero, he found a way to market the sugary, pink wine as “white Zin.” This blush wine still outsells red Zinfandel by about six orders of magnitude in the US, even as the sweeter style has fallen out of favor with critics and consumers alike.

But just what IS Zinfandel? Is it actually unique to California or not? Curious UC Davis researchers began to unravel the mystery in the late 60s when a site visit to Puglia at Italy’s southern tip revealed our cherished zin had a genetically identical twin named Primitivo. But the grapey family saga expanded from there when Croatian winemakers claimed a triplet in Plavac Mali, a suspiciously similar vine found on the Dalmatian coast. European paternity suits! So exciting in an otherwise, pardon the pun, dry-farmed field. It fell to UCD Professor Carole Meredith to straighten Zinfandel’s crooked family tree; her team eventually and somewhat salaciously declared contender Plavac Mali was actually a parent of Zinfandel – incest on the vine?! The almost extinct Crljenak Kaštelanski variety, found lurking in Ivica Radunić’s Croatian vineyard, is in fact the missing triplet and is now thought to be the genetic origin of both Puglia and California’s beloved fruity reds. You say Primitivo, I say Zinfandel and for the love of God, let’s leave it to someone else to say Crljenak Kaštelanski. With this clonal case closed, we can focus on what lovers of the grape enjoy – easy-drinking red wines that offer amazing value no matter what we name the juice inside.

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