Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dossier Zinfandel: A Great New Wine Movie

It's not going to be part of the crush of Christmas season movies - and that's a shame - because the as yet unreleased Dossier Zinfandel (made by Croatian television) was really one of the most satisfying and compelling movies I've seen this year.

It screened in Napa as part of the Napa Valley Film Festival a few weeks ago, with a wonderful expert panel on stage after the screening - Carole Meredith, the U.C. Davis researcher who helped make the connections and verify the final discovery of the origins of Zinfandel, and David Gates, vineyard manager for Ridge Vineyards, who oversees the care of some of Sonoma's most treasured old vine Zin vineyards.

The film's subject? The search for the origins of the grape that Americans call Zinfandel. It's a detective story like no other and it takes about 20 years of ups and downs before the treasure is found. 

The filmmakers travel everywhere to get their story straight - they see Joel Petersen, of Ravenswood, travel to the Oriental Library in Vienna to learn about Zinfandel's travels to the New World as a table grape, and get the history of what was then called Black St. Peter's from California wine historian (and Zin fanatic) Charles Sullivan. Sullivan recounts how Capt. McCordray brought the grape west to California where it was planted in Napa on the Osborne Estate (before Harasthy may have brought it to Sonoma, a myth perpetuated by his son Arpad Harasthy, who mastered the art of making Zin into a sparkling wine years later).

Zinfandel is still the most widely planted grape in California - mainly due to its success during Prohibition as a shipping grape that could be sent East by the trainload to home winemakers there. Zin was the most versatile of grapes - made into table wine, brandy, sweet wine, sparkling wine or just into raisins. 

After Prohibition when 75-80% of wine was sweet wine, Zin lingered.

For most Americans, the film recounts, their introductory wine was white Zinfandel. 

One clue to the mystery of Zinfandel's origins emerged in Bari in the Puglia region of Italy in 1967 with the Primitivo clone. From Primitivo, the hunt continued to Croatia and the Plavic Mali grape that Mike Grgich grew up with. When Grgich arrived in America and worked for Lee Stewart at Souverain Cellars on Howell Mountain (today Burgess Cellars), he thought that what Americans called Zinfandel looked an awful lot like Plavac Mali. In the end, he was right.

David Gates, vineyard manager for Ridge, and Carole Meredith, retired
genetics professor from U.C. Davis, who released her first vintage of
Tribigdrag this year
In the hunt for Zin's origins, there were some unbelievable synchronicities. Carol Meredith, a key player in the unfolding story, told the audience afterwards how she had been yearning to find someone in Croatia who was a genetics researcher when an email popped into her inbox from a Croatian genetic researcher who wanted to know more about Zinfandel's origins. She traveled to Croatia with her U.C. Davis research assistant - who just happened to be Croatian and could, of course, translate for her.

I won't go into all the details here, but the film does a fine job of twisting and turning this way and that just like the best detective movies. 

In the end, it turns out that as a varietal Zinfandel has a more ancient known history than Cabernet Sauvignon, dating back to at least the 13th century. It's thought that Zinfandel was in fact the noble grape of the Dalmatian coast, treasured by the Hapsburgs.

I loved this movie most of all for the Croatians in it - a big, fat, sweaty peasant turns out to harbor a few remaining vines of Tribidrag (Zin by any other name) in his vineyard (the researchers checked hundreds of individual vines) that lead to the key discoveries. A wonderful old lady sings a hilarious little song about how all the women smile and laugh when they drink the new batch of Tribidrag. 

After the film, there was a reception at Grgich Hills Estate to celebrate with Zinfandel and Plavac Mali wines (the latter from Grgich's vineyards in Croatia). 

Croatian Television's last California film followed the adventures of Mike Grgich, winemaker and world famous celebrity. It was never officially released here, although some kind of deal was struck that allowed Grgich Hills to provide copies to the press and its wine club members. 

This new film was every bit as good and a great followup. Let's hope someone finds a way to release it here. However long that takes, it will be worth the wait. After all, how many great wine stories like this can there be?

PS Blue Danube Wines, which imports wine from Croatia, also blogged about this film (and attended the same screening, as I can see the back of my head in their photograph of the event) and wrote a good post about the chronology of the discovery.

If you want to raise a glass to Zin, Grgich Hills' Zinfandel is widely available and a very suitable toast.

POSTSCRIPT, JUNE 13, 2014

Happily Grgich Hills has begun distributing this DVD in the U.S. It's for sale at the winery for $15. It's also for sale at Ridge Vineyards tasting room.

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