What?! No state grape?!

Californians are proud of their state symbols. Take for example, the official state flower – the California Poppy – an ornamental plant with its cup shaped flowers in bright shades of yellow, orange and red. Many can name the state flower, although few may readily recall that it was Sarah Plummer Lemmon who advocated its adoption as the State’s symbol back in the 1890s. The bill was eventually passed by the California Legislature and signed by the Governor George Pardee in 1903, recognizing the Poppy as the State flower. Similarly, most denizens of the State would be able to identify the artichokes and the avocados as California’s official vegetable and fruit, respectively, albeit the two proclamations in 2013 by the then Governor, Gavin Newsome, may not immediately come to mind. Or the fact that the State bird is the California Quail; the bird’s hardiness and adaptability were deemed fitting characteristics for the young, feisty state in 1931, just as the golden blooms of the California poppy were deemed a suitable symbol for the “Golden State.” And the California Grizzly Bear, designated as the state animal in 1953, is, of course, honored on the State flag. The list could go on to include other examples to make the point that most, if not all, of the State’s symbols have formal recognition and a basis behind their designation.

Zinfandel, Californians’ favorite wine grape, on the other hand, is a different story; it is an anomaly. Ask any native, or better yet Google the name of the grape variety that is commonly associated with the state of California, the answer is unequivocally Zinfandel. Zinfandel is clearly the darling of California. And yet, the government has never endorsed the beloved grape; there is no state designation making the varietal the official wine grape. It is even more interesting, however, to note how this variety has become the people’s favorite – forget any State recognition.

Widely grown and more importantly, widely appreciated, the black-skinned variety, also known as Primitivo, is actually not native to the state. Its ancestral roots are in the Old World. According to a recent DNA analysis, this vitis vinifera vine’s birthplace was Kastela, Croatia being genetically equivalent to the Croatian grapes Crljenak Kastelanski and Tribidrag, as well as the Primitivo grape grown in Apulia, in southern Italy. The grape’s journey from its native land to the New World in the early 1800s marked the introduction of the variety to the United States, first on the east coast. Zinfandel cuttings were part of a larger shipment of other species from the Austrian Imperial Nursery sent to a botanist residing in Long Island at the time. George Gibbs had requested this cargo of various plant cuttings for his research. It was only later, during the Gold Rush, that Zinfandel made its debut in California, when Gibbs and his associate nurserymen decided to join the Gold Rush enthusiasts and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. The precious Zinfandel cuttings had crossed the country with them to its new home. The overnight population explosion triggered by the Gold Rush generated an increased demand for wine – especially from the influx of Europeans with their daily wine consumption culture. Zinfandel’s popularity in California soared right about this time. It was the perfect grape for the times, as the variety had a high yield and its high sugar content could be fermented into high alcohol wines in abundant quantities. Most sources place the first California Zinfandel wine production in Napa, but it quickly extended to other areas to become the state’s most widespread variety. True, there were intervals when Zinfandel lost its appeal. Not least, of course, during Prohibition, but also in more recent times when the sweet, so-called “White Zinfandel” came into vogue in the mid-1970s. Even though strictly speaking not a native, the variety has, however, been treasured by Californians ever since its first appearance on the scene. This, despite the State’s reluctance to officially recognize its importance. There were a couple of legislative attempts by the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, ZAP (a group founded in the early nineties to advocate, preserve and educate about the Zinfandel grape.) The group was instrumental in getting a bill introduced by the State Senator Carol Migden to have Zinfandel designated as the “official wine of California” in 2006. But it was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is quite possible that concerns of alienating the producers of other important varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, has been a factor. After all, was it not a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that achieved worldwide recognition for California wines by competing and winning against the best of Bordeaux at the Judgement of Paris in the blind tasting competition between California and Bordeaux wines in 1976?

Whatever the explanation, it is quite a fascinating tale that a grape variety of European origin making its way to California – in a rather roundabout fashion at that – has established such an unexpectedly auspicious place for itself. Could it be that Californians put this grape on a pedestal because its history is so intertwined with the formative history of the State itself? In any event, it is, undoubtedly an integral part of the “melting pot” that is the Golden State. . .