By TOM BENDER For The Union Democrat

There is not a day that goes by that there is not some declared national honor being bestowed or marketed in some form.

Wednesday, one of California’s favorite wines has its day in the spotlight as we celebrate National Zinfandel Day!

This is one recognized celebration that most wine enthusiasts will have no trouble toasting, hopefully with a glass of Zin. One of California’s most important grapes and historically interesting wine, Zinfandel has grown in popularity and can be found in almost all California wine-grape growing regions. The grape prefers warmer regions and is one of the more sensitive types when it comes to potential wet conditions or lack of sun. This brings me to the unlikely source and history of Zinfandel and its original trek to California.

Last month, I was asked by the Calaveras County History Museum to do a talk on the history of wine production in the county. My research undoubtedly included Zinfandel, one of the most heavily planted vineyard selections during the Gold Rush.

It appears to have made its way to Calaveras County in the late 1850s along with a number of eastern native grape varieties including Catawba, Isabella and Muscadine grapes. A fair a number of Mission vines were planted in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties in the early 1850s, because they were readily available due to extensive planting of the variety along the coast. Unfortunately, the Mission grape did not necessarily make good wine. But a new variety arrived a few years later from an East Coast nursery and seemed to do very well in our foothills. Enter Zinfandel, or Zenfendel, as it was called by the New Englanders who brought it here. Yes, I said New Englanders!

DNA testing has provided information that Zinfandel most likely came from Croatia and has connections to the Primitivo grape grown in southern Italy, along with a similar grape found in Hungary.

Thought to have been imported to Long Island in the 1820s from a nursery in Austria, the grape was originally called Black St. Peter. A nursery in Boston, owned by Charles Hovey (apparently no relation to our respected local winemaker, Chuck Hovey), grew them indoors for table grapes. He eventually labeled the grape as Zinfandal and shipped a number of vines, along with East Coast varieties, to Stockton in the 1850s, where it found its way to the foothills.

It is thought that Zinfandel was probably used for raisin production in the 1850s but became part of the Calaveras planting boom in the late 1850s. The number of wineries continued to grow into the 1870s, and the county was producing upward of 100,000 gallons. By 1880, tax records show that there were upward of 64 winemakers and 112 growers in Calaveras County with a good share of the producers being of Italian origin. My guess is that a good share of their production was Zinfandel.

Currently, the oldest producing vineyard in the county is the Ghirardelli Vineyard near Burson, which has 7 acres that were believed to have been planted in 1900. Milliaire Winery produces an award winning, low yield Zinfandel form this historic vineyard.

Zinfandel styles can be all over the board in the state with jammy, richly textured reds from Lodi or Paso Robles regions to spicy, well-balanced old vine Zins from Sonoma and particularly the Dry Creek Valley. But some of the best examples are in our own backyard with a number of flavorful old vine Zins coming from Amador County, our neighbor to the north.

Closer to home, in Calaveras County, Newsome Harlow Winery, Hatcher Winery, Milliaire Winery, Black Sheep Winery and Locke Vineyards have had great success with Zinfandel.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Zinfandel fits right in with the tradition of the holiday and should compliment most of the foods on the table. But don’t wait till next Thursday to crack a bottle of Zin. There are upward of 300 wineries in California producing Zinfandel, so finding one should not be a problem.

Tomorrow is its special day, and this full-flavored red, with a colorful history, deserves the recognition.

Sonora-area resident Tom Bender has taught classes on wine in Columbia College’s Culinary Arts program since 1979. He managed the Columbia City Hotel, and its award-winning wine cellar, for many years and now manages a wine bar at a Modesto specialty market. He is also a wine maker. Contact him at wineguy@goldrush.com.

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