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Sullivan reconstructs Zinfandel's journey through history—taking us from Austria to the East Coast of the U.S. in the 1820s, to Gold Rush California, and through the early days of the state's wine industry. He considers the ups and downs of the grape's popularity, including its most recent and, according to Sullivan, most brilliant "up." He also unravels the two great mysteries surrounding Zinfandel: the myth of Agoston Haraszthy's role in importing Zinfandel, and the heated controversy over the relationship between California Zinfandel and Italian Primitivo. Sullivan ends with his assessments of the 2001 and 2002 vintages, firmly setting the history of Zinfandel into the chronicles of grape history.
AMERICANS IN THE ENGLISH COLONIES OF NORTH AMERICA GREW grapes from Florida to New England. In the early days of the republic, they took vines west to the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. The growers were most successful when they raised grapes to eat. There were no great successes in the field of winemaking, although there were some admirable failures.
The grapes the Americans used fall into three categories: the native varieties found growing in North America, the European vinifera varieties transported to the New World, and the chance hybrids between the two. (In the nineteenth century American nurserymen began deliberately producing such hybrids.)
In the more southerly climes, winegrowing demonstrated the most potential, thanks to the warmer climate and the heterogeneity of the population. But as one looks north along the eastern seaboard, one finds fewer and fewer persons who thought of viticulture in connection with wine production; such views were rare north of the middle colonies (later states). You could draw a line north of Long Island and west to the Hudson River Valley as a sort of geographer's limit of serious winegrowing.
Viticulture as a source of table grapes was another matter. Between 1810 and 1835, Massachusetts saw the development of an interesting horticultural fad that gradually grew to be something of a small but serious commercial enterprise: the growing of grapes in hothouses. This hobby, which soon began to earn serious money for some of its adherents, was not simply intended to protect the plants from the icy winter climate. The special fad, developed from ideas already flourishing in England, called for vines to be forced by artificial means of heating so that they produced marketable bunches of delicious dessert grapes as early as March and April, when the ground outside the hothouse might still be deep in snow. New Englanders could draw on extensive English experience with this complex culture, first described in detail in a nurseryman's handbook in 1724.
It sounds easy, but in fact it was tricky. The first requirement was plenty of free time and a bit of capital. (I have yet to hear of a humble dirt farmer involved in such a venture.) A grower would begin by building a glass greenhouse facing south with adjustable lights (windows) to let in a little air on clear, cool late-winter days when the vines might fry in temperatures over 95ºF. To take care of the freezing days, and particularly the nights, a heating system had to be installed nearby with pipes that conveyed heated air to the greenhouse. Usually there was a hot-water furnace with many cords of wood stacked to fuel it. A trusted servant was often employed to keep the heat up during the night.
In the first year the vine received a normal greenhouse regimen. Then, the following March, forcing began. In the second year the heat was turned up on February 15; in the third year it was turned up on February 1. Each year the date was moved back fifteen days until eventually the furnace was fired up on December 1. By then the vines were dormant in the New England climate. The idea was gradually to trick the vines into thinking that spring had arrived only two months after they had lost their leaves in the fall. It worked. (And it still does. I put a potted Zinfandel plant through such a routine for five years, substituting a refrigerator and a short period in a freezer for the New England climate. The vine finally leafed on December 23 and made a remarkable New Year's table decoration the year before it died.)
J. Fisk Allen, then the leading American authority on the process, tells us that buds on forced vines started pushing around January 20. By February 10 many vines had shoots two and three feet long. By late February most varieties had blossomed, and Allen figured he would usually start thinning bunches for higher flavor in early March. Dark grapes were well colored by April. Allen noted that his Zinfindal (note the spelling) colored later in the month. He usually was able to harvest this variety in May or early June. Of course, Allen was describing what he thought were the best practices for top quality. Growers who pushed earlier and harder, with earlier ripening varieties, didn't have to wait until May. April bunches on the Boston market brought up to $2.00 per pound (a price comparable to more than $25.00 in the year 2000, when corrected for price inflation in constant dollars). Grapes ripe in May commanded only about $1.25.
One incentive that helped propel this forcing culture beyond the simple greenhouse stage in the 1830s in Boston was the news of London prices for top-quality April grapes, as reported in English gardeners' publications, which were widely copied by American newspapers. Bostonians rightly surmised that such prices might be had at home. Allen tells us that a price equivalent to more than $50.00 per pound in year 2000 dollars was not unheard of when this market was first developing.
Several New England greenhouses had been built in the eighteenth century, the first in the Boston area by Andrew Faneuil in the 1750s. Between 1800 and 1810, when the forcing fad was still a few years away, several families of means built them with the specific intent of raising vinifera grapes for the table. One such gentleman central to the solution of part of the Zinfandel mystery was Samuel Perkins, who built his greenhouse near Brookline and had marked success at an early date, particularly with the Black Hamburg and Muscat of Alexandria varieties.
Perkins and others like him, from Long Island to southern Maine, read English gardeners' publications and ordered vines from English nurserymen. They were often just as interested in apples, plums, and pears, but those are part of a different story. We can get a very clear picture of the grape varieties available by reading English books and periodicals from the 1720s onward and from American horticultural periodicals. (None dealing strictly with viticulture had yet appeared.)
Of these imported varieties, virtually every one that proved successful in New England could have been found in English nurseries before it arrived in America. We would classify most of these varieties today as table grapes, but a few have been used successfully to make good wine.
The following list of such varieties is partial, perhaps amounting to less than a quarter of the varieties we know were grown in New England greenhouses. But together these probably account for 95 percent of the grapes grown in this manner. One variety well known in Boston in the 1830s is not on the list, however, because it never appeared on any English nursery list or in any English horticultural publication from the 1720s to the 1860s. It is the vine that Bostonians were calling the "Zinfindal" in the 1830s. But the list does include a grapevine grown in England (marked) that, when it arrived in California under this name, was the same as the Zinfindal. The list also includes four varieties usually classified as wine grapes (marked) that Allen and others thought were good for eating and that were usually raised for this purpose in New England.
-Black Hamburg (or Hamburgh)
-Black St. Peters
-Cannon Hall Muscat
-Grizzly (grey) Muscat
-Muscat of Alexandria
-Muscat of Frontignan
The Black St. Peters is something of a mystery variety before it became settled in California. Many vines with "St. Peters" in their names were known in England and were imported into New England and Long Island. What this vine was on the East Coast is not clear, although Allen's description is almost identical to that of his Zinfindal. But we know for sure that whatever arrived in California in the 1850s under that name and survived in the state's vineyards in later years was the same vine that was by the 1870s universally accepted as the Zinfandel in the Golden State.
* * *
The Zinfandel/Zinfindal came to Boston in the nursery pots of George Gibbs of Long Island, an amateur horticulturist much interested in viticulture. His name is all but forgotten, though his wife's name survives, attached to a grape variety she brought from Smithsville, North Carolina, to Long Island in 1816. She presented it to William Robert Prince, the noted nurseryman, and he named it for her-the Isabella. It became one of the East Coast's most popular native varieties.
Beginning in 1820 Gibbs imported several shipments of vines from Europe. We have a partial record of his acquisitions from the Austrian imperial nursery collection in Vienna. In 1820 he imported twenty-eight varieties, five of which originated in the Kingdom of Hungary, then and until 1918 an important part of the Austrian Empire. The names Gibbs listed for the vines in this shipment included some that may be slightly familiar to us today: for example, "Chasselas," "White Muscat," "Frontenac." Others, perhaps not so familiar, included "Early Leipsick," "Faketi," and "Schumlauer." There was also the Frankenthal, which J. Fisk Allen later likened to the Zinfindal.
Gibbs had a very close relationship with his neighbor William Robert Prince, whose work A Treatise on the Vine (1830), written with the help of his father, was described by historian Thomas Pinney as being "of an entirely different and higher order" when compared to any previous text on American viticulture. (In 1793, Prince's father, William Prince Jr., had established the Linnaean Botanic Gardens in Flushing, Long Island, discussed in chapter 1; William Prince Sr. had earlier established the country's first commercial nursery.)
The Princes also imported vinifera vines from Europe in the 1820s, many from England, and many too from the Austrian Empire. William Robert Prince's catalogue entries for these vines in later years can be confusing without a clear understanding of the political geography of central Europe in the nineteenth century. Vines from the German-speaking portions of the empire he listed as being from "Germany," meaning from a land where German language and culture dominated. (There was, of course, no country called Germany until the unification process of 1870-1871.) The capital of the empire, and the site of its imperial collections, was the very German city of Vienna. Vines from the Kingdom of Hungary, which comprised lands covering more than half of the empire, Prince listed as being from Hungary. (It goes without saying that the king of Hungary was the Austrian emperor.) These terms, "Germany" and "Hungary," in the Prince nursery catalogues have been a continual cause for misunderstanding from the 1880s until recently.
In 1829 Gibbs received a shipment of vines from Vienna and sent Prince a note listing them. "You may depend on [them] as genuine as I recd. them from the Imperial Garden at Schoenbrunn." No vine labeled anything like Zinfandel was listed, but there were some unnamed vines that must attract our attention. One was a "rough black" grape taken from Hungary to Vienna, "prolific, a very good grape." Was this the Zinfandel? We can't be sure, but later, when Prince began listing Zinfandel in his catalogue, he noted that it had been "introduced by the late George Gibbs ... from Germany," meaning from Vienna. We can't be certain which one of Gibbs's shipments he meant, but we can be very sure that Prince knew that the vine had come to Long Island in these shipments from the Schoenbrunn nursery collection.
At this point we should take a closer look at the geography of the Austrian Empire, both to understand previous references to Hungary and to see how its political components were related. Later this knowledge will also make recent scientific discoveries concerning the origins of Zinfandel more understandable.
The Kingdom of Hungary had been reconquered from the Turks by the Hapsburg rulers of the Austrian Empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These Hungarian territories, the so-called Lands of St. Stephen, were dominated demographically by Magyars (Hungarians). But many other peoples were included. The kingdom was huge when compared to today's Republic of Hungary and included much of what is today Croatia and Serbia. It also included much of Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania. It may help to illustrate this complexity by noting that the Hungarian (Magyar) Agoston Haraszthy, of California wine fame, was born in the kingdom, although his home village is today in Serbia, not far from Belgrade.
Vines from all parts of the empire, including those from Croatian areas along the Dalmatian coast, were referred to in the Prince catalogues as being from Hungary. And such vines were collected and made part of the general imperial collection in Vienna. It is not difficult to understand how a person might be confused trying to find historical viticultural remains from the old kingdom in today's Republic of Hungary, which is about one-fifth of its size.
One can't help wondering about the origins of the name "Zinfandel." There is no record of any vine with such a name in European vineyards in the nineteenth century or before, nor is there any record of a vine with that name being shipped to the American East Coast. And yet Prince's 1830 Treatise contains a list of foreign varieties of recent introduction with two entries for the "Black Zinfardel of Hungary," one of them being "parsley leaved." Could this be a reference to the vine in the Gibbs 1829 import shipment? It is certainly possible, and Prince also used this exact notation in his 1831 catalogue.
I am inclined to believe that it was not, for, as we will see, the Zinfindal later in the Prince nursery came to Long Island from Boston, by way of Samuel Perkins. But somehow Prince had this word, "Zinfardel," in his mind in 1830, before Gibbs's vines traveled to Boston. Later J. Fisk Allen, the country's most learned viticultural scholar, the first ever to give a detailed description of the Zinfindal/Zinfandel, carefully and explicitly avoided such an assumption. We may never know where Prince picked up that word, but he, Allen, and Gibbs all knew where the popular Zinfindal of Boston in the 1840s had come from and who had brought it here. And has anyone ever seen a parsley-leaved Zinfandel?
We are not through with 1830. That year George Gibbs went to Boston for the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (MHS), of which both he and Prince were corresponding members. There he made a fine display of his "foreign"-that is, vinifera-vines, his European imports. The aforementioned Samuel Perkins acquired some of Gibbs's vines and was soon advertising cuttings of the "Zenfendal" for sale in Boston. Two years later William B. Roberts, who ran Perkins's nursery, advertised "Zinfindal" vines for sale in Boston.
Excerpted from ZINFANDEL by CHARLES L. SULLIVAN Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
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1. How I Solved the Historical Mysteries Surrounding Zinfandel—Sort Of
2. Sojourn in the East
3. Ho! For California!
4. Plant Your Vineyards! Begin Now!
5. Boom! 18721890
6. The Haraszthy Myth
7. The Stealth Grape, 18911918
8. Prohibition and the Fresh Grape Deal, 19191933
9. The Two Faces of Zin, 19341969
10. Of Pendulums and Roller Coasters, 19701990
11. Fat Years, 19912001
12. The Mystery of Origins Solved—Probably
13. Into the New Century
Appendix: Regional Summaries