Find Your Zin on the California Zinfandel Trail

By Sandra Crittenden

The Zinfandel grape’s origins were debated for years, until DNA was finally able to explain how it journeyed from Europe to America to become the darling of California. The Zinfandel grape is genetically identical to the Croatian grape called Crljenak Kaštelanski.

The grape would first travel from its original homeland of Croatia into Italy where it would find its second home and flourish in Puglia, a region in the heel of the Italian boot where it is believed to have been originally transported by the Romans.

Its next journey would be many centuries later, when the grape arrived in New York in the 1820s in a mixed shipment of grapevines sent to a nursery in Long Island. The red grape, first known as Crjenak and then Primitivo, would soon make it to California where it would become known as Zinfandel and become the most widely planted grape in the state by the end of the 19th century.

The exciting part of this journey that began so long ago is that some of these original vineyards still exist. While the term Old Vines is sometimes seen on wine, the term does not have a true or legal meaning in the U.S. though the Historic Vineyard Society in California considers vineyards 50 years and older to meet the criteria.

For those seeking the alluring depth and elegance in a wine that has been made from grapes grown on thick gnarly vines that have been lovingly maintained for generations, opening a bottle of Zinfandel from one of these historic vineyards is the best way to find this type of Zen.

Fortunately, wine drinkers can head out on the California Zinfandel Trail, either literally or virtually, and taste the grape that California still calls its own.


Zinfandel is grown across the state and the unique growing features in each region contribute to the personality of the wine that is made there. From Lodi, known as the Zinfandel capital of the world, down south to Paso Robles, each area’s terroir will influence the profile of the Zinfandel grown there.

Explore a single vineyard by tasting wines from multiple producers that source it or select bottles from several esteemed sites to compare which region produces your preferred style. The similarity that can be found in these old vines is naturally low yields of intensely flavored grapes but climatic and soil differences will influence aromas, flavors, and structure.

In Lodi, seek wines from the Soucie Vineyard, located in the Mokelumne sub region. This vineyard was planted in 1916, by the grandfather of the current owner, Kevin Soucie. These 105-year-old vines are self-rooted and head trained in sandy loam soil and benefit from the cooling effects of the Delta Breeze, which blows directly over creating one of Lodi’s biggest diurnal swings.

The Stampede Vineyard, which takes its name from the nearby rodeo grounds, also thrives on its own roots, unique in the modern world of vineyard planning where almost all grape vines are grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstock.

Wines from Marian’s Vineyard and the Lizzy James Vineyard are also recommended. Wines from these vineyards can be found for purchase at, click on “store” then “old vines” to find current offerings.

ZINRQNE3LThe Fields Family Stampede Vineyard is highly recommended, their use of used or neutral oak barrels and native yeast fermentation allows the beauty of the Stampede Vineyard to shine.

Lodi has twenty historical vineyards, though not all planted to Zinfandel, making it an interesting and delicious destination for wine lovers.

In Sonoma, the offerings are as unique as the different sub-appellations, but Dry Creek Valley is considered to be the most Croatian-like terroir in the state. The limestone soils and hilly terrain are reminiscent of the grape’s original homeland, and Zinfandel has thrived there.

Ridge Vineyards is known for their Lytton Springs bottling that is sourced from a vineyard planted in Dry Creek in the 1900s, while the oldest Zinfandel patch they farm is over 130 years old and is part of the Geyserville bottling that is currently available at Spec’s for under $45.

In the neighboring Russian River Valley, Acorn Winery sits on the historic Alegria Vineyard which was planted in 1890 where they produce their Heritage Vines Zinfandel along with other unique field blends and in nearby Napa Valley, Cab may be king but Robert Biale is making exceptional Zinfandel from Aldo’s Vineyard planted in 1930, in the Oak Knoll region.

Heading further south to Paso Robles, the Dusi family still owns and manages two renowned vineyards, the Benito Dusi Vineyard planted in the 1920s in San Luis Obispo and the Dante Dusi Ranch in Paso Robles planted in the 1940s, their wines are available online.

Turley Wine Cellars makes wine from the Dusi vineyards along with a beautiful Zinfandel from the Pesenti Vineyard, an organic dry farmed vineyard that was planted in the 1920s. Turley sources Zinfandel from across the state making them an excellent guide to taste the differences in each unique grape growing region.

Like Malbec finding greater success in its second home in Argentina than it did in its original home of France, the same is true of Zinfandel. As researchers were working to identify the origins of California’s favorite grape in the U.S., in the grape’s original home in Croatia, it had almost been forgotten.

Croatia would eventually import the Zinfandel rootstock from California and bring the grape full circle. Croatia now has about 250 acres of what they call Crljenak planted.

Ideally, wine lovers would get a designated Wine Break holiday to take time off to enjoy a new wine region every year. The California Zinfandel Trail website has created featured routes to help Zin seekers find the best juice regardless of the region.

Since a wine travel holiday may not be in the cards for many this winter, consider taking a virtual tour this month and cruising the California Zinfandel Trail virtually with wine from the outstanding vineyards mentioned above.

Zinfandel is a great pairing for meaty meals, like grilled sausage or steaks, but it is also excellent with a wider array of food than may be expected. From red sauced pasta to Vindaloo curry, chili, wild game, and salmon, Zinfandel can surprise with its versatility. The bright acidity, moderate tannins, and fruit-forward spicy flavor is an excellent complement to bold flavors.

This winter, hit the California Zinfandel Trail by opening a bottle from one of these historic vineyards and taste America’s viticultural history in your glass.