White zinfandel is one of America’s most popular (and affordable) wines. But unlike other wines, it doesn’t have a long history and it’s not an old European style. White zinfandel was invented in the United States… by a series of accidents.
Red, Red Wine
The zinfandel grape has been grown in the United States since the 1820s. It came to North America from Austria in 1829, when a Long Island plant nursery owner named George Gibbs brought home some grapevine cuttings from the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Nursery in Vienna. But during the ship voyage back, the labels on the cuttings got mixed up. Gibbs sorted it out… or at least he thought he did. Gibbs actually mislabeled the primitivo vine sample as zierfandler. In 1851, a California wine grower named Agoston Haraszthy (often called the father of the California wine industry) bought a sample of Gibbs’s “zierfandler,” Americanized the name to zinfandel, and planted the grape in California.
Zinfandel arrived in California at the perfect time. The California Gold Rush brought hordes of people to the West Coast for the first time. Settlers also discovered that California’s climate and soil made it the perfect place to grow wine grapes. Zinfandel, especially, thrived — it can grow in many different kinds of soils and climates and, on average, produces twice as many grapes as other kinds of vines. Haraszthy sold cuttings to numerous other winegrowers and zinfandel quickly became the most produced grape in California. The wine made out of it was red, hearty, and had a high alcohol content. From the 1850s to the turn of the century, zinfandel was the most planted grape and best-selling wine in the United States.