Zinfandel Grapes, California’s Gold Rush, and the US Wine Industry

What did the California Gold Rush and excellent zinfandel wine both have in common? How intertwined were these two historical events occurring on opposite sides of the country? However, you might be surprised to hear they were intimately connected at every point during history. It is well-known that Zinfandel is one of the most popular red wines produced in California and the United States.

Throughout history, this wine has managed to conquer numerous wine-loving hearts across the globe. The history of this unique American wine is a long and unpredictable story filled with defeats, destiny, and culmination. During the late 19th century, it became prevalent. Zinfandel, the grape that made America’s wine industry, is a native of Croatia.

The history of Zinfandel grapes in America begins with the arrival of Croatian settlers in California during the time of the Gold Rush in California. In fact, this Gold Rush was the primary reason for the development of California. It brought many people into the state and helped build its economy, political structure[1], and democracy.

The Gold Rush has had a long-lasting effect on the state of California, which can still be felt even today. 

Did you know? The first documented planting of Zinfandel grapes was by a Croatian immigrant named Agoston Haraszthy

Today there are many different strains of Zinfandel, but there are only two main types: Old Vine and New Vine. Old Vine Zinfandel is usually dark purple and has more intense flavors than New Vines because they have been around longer and have had more time to mature.

New Vines are lighter in color and tend to have brighter fruit flavors than Old Vines because they were grafted onto a rootstock, making them more resistant to disease. Primarily, the Zinfandel grapes were introduced in America because they could be easily made with the head pruning technique without any special equipment. Italian immigrants make the most Zinfandel grapes. They also plant it in large quantities and produce wine from it.

Zinfandel grapes

Purple grapes produced by Terra Slaybaugh

In the 1850s, after the California Gold Rush, timber and wire shortages led to high demand for Zinfandel grapes. The Zinfandel grape was imported from Croatia, then called “Black Hungarian.” Italian immigrants brought their knowledge of field blends and actualized the concept of field blends by mixing up to four different grape varieties together (Petite Sirah, Bouchet, Alicante with Zinfandel) to produce wine[2].

California Gold Rush

The California Gold Rush was a significant event in the history of the United States, second only to the American Revolution. A massive influx of Americans and foreigners in the state of California started in 1849 to explore gold in this region. The numbers are uncertain, but more than 300,000 men, women, and children made their way to California by sea and by land[3]. The California Gold Rush lasted from 1848 to 1855.

It was the first of many gold rushes in the United States in the mid-19th century. The Gold Rush of California began on January 24, 1848, when James Marshall found gold at a mill near Coloma in northern California. News of this discovery spread rapidly throughout the world, and more than 100,000 people (mostly men) soon traveled to California, hoping to become rich[4].

Consequently, these miners started to search for gold along rivers and streams throughout the state. They also dug into hillsides and moved tons of dirt, looking for gold nuggets they could pan out of their hands or pick up off the ground. The fast-growing town of San Francisco became a major port city during this time, as countless ships were arriving at the port with supplies for miners. However, such an unexpected and sudden influx of people into the state negatively affected California’s Native Americans and its environment.

Outcomes of the California Gold Rush

California becomes a US state: The discovery of gold in California led to an influx of people from around the world, and this eventually led to its annexation by the United States in 1850, according to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This was a crucial treaty, as it added more land to the United States, which would help them grow as an empire. Nonetheless, the most significantly-negative outcome of this event was that many Native Americans were killed off due to diseases brought by Europeans and conflicts over land ownership between Native Americans and European settlers.

Zinfandel grapes are a type of black-skinned grape variety used to make red wine that originated on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast and is now grown worldwide. This variety was introduced to California by Count Agoston Haraszthy, who served as Hungarian consul general in San Francisco during the Gold Rush Era. In the 1880s, Zinfandel grapes were demolished by an epidemic known as Phylloxera. Zinfandel vineyards turned out to be the first vineyards replanted in the root system from 1885. By the middle of the 20th century, the fame of Zinfandel grapes had reached its pinnacle in California[5].

Zinfandel Grape

Zinfandel is a red wine grape variety. It is used to make a range of styles, including lighter-bodied, fruity wines and heavier, more tannic wines. Zinfandel originated in Croatia[6] and is now widely planted throughout the world, particularly in North and South America, where it has a long history of cultivation. In California, it became known as “Primitivo” or “Primitivo di Gioia” (Gioia del Colle in Apulia) after its introduction by Italian immigrants from Bari in Italy.

For many years Zinfandel was the most famous wine grape grown in California; other California regions also produced Zinfandel under different names, such as Primitivo di Manduria and Uva di Corato. Zinfandel grapes are found in California, Apulia, Dalmatia, and Croatia. The vine is a vigorous grower that produces high yields of large clusters of dark purple grapes. The wine produced from this grape has a robust flavor with notes of blackberry, black cherry, and raspberry.

The Italian grape variety, Primitivo, has a long association with the Zinfandel name. The two vines shared the same DNA and were believed to be the same until recent studies. The research has revealed that they are different species of the vine after DNA testing. Zinfandel grapes have some limitations, as they are susceptible to bunch rot and uneven ripening. This can cause the fruit to fall off prematurely or fail to ripen entirely on one side of the cluster. The best way to control this problem is through good vineyard management practices, such as planting healthy rootstock varieties, pruning properly, and appropriate watering during dry spells[7].

More resources: California wines were introduced to the world’s notice by a significant event.

On this Day

February 27, 1944: On this day, a conservative hero, wine communist, and lecturer, Roger Scruton, was born in Buslingthorpe, Lincolnshire, England. He studied philosophy at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he obtained a BA (Hons) in 1964 and a Ph.D. in aesthetics in 1972. Subsequently, he taught at the University of Essex before becoming a Professor of Aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London. An enthusiastic advocate for conserving traditional British culture and institutions, Scruton has become one of Britain’s most influential writers and thinkers. His books include The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Sexual Desire (1986), and The Aesthetics of Music (1997). He has also written several novels, including Fools Rush In (2007) and An Affair of State (2009)[8].

August 3, 1936: On this day, Donald M. Hess was born. Hess is a Swiss winemaker best known for his role in the Rhône Valley wine industry. He has been described as a Renaissance man whose interests range from books and art to restaurants, wine, and hospitality. In 1960 Mr. Hess founded Valser Wasser, a mineral water company based in Germany that produces Valser mineral water for sale worldwide as well as some packaged food products such as fruit juices[9].

February 18, 1930: Born on this day, John Jess Stonestreet Jackson Jr. was an American wine entrepreneur and breeder of thoroughbred racehorses. He was a leading figure in the world of wine for over 50 years, starting the Kendall-Jackson wine business with his wife Jane Kendall Jackson in 1972. This is the story of a man who began his wine journey with nothing more than a passion for wine and a dream to make it big in the competitive wine industry. His dream came true when his company, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, won Platinum Award from the American Wine Competition. In 2010, he launched his label called Jess Jackson Wines and became an entrepreneur in the wine industry. Today, his company produces more than ten different kinds of wines sold across many states in America and other countries[10].


  1. The historical impact of the California gold rush. Norwich University Online. (n.d.). Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://online.norwich.edu/academic-programs/resources/historical-impact-of-the-california-gold-rush#:~:text=The%20Gold%20Rush%20significantly%20influenced,facilitating%20its%20transition%20to%20statehood.
  2. History of Zin. (2021). ZAP. https://zinfandel.org/learn/history/
  3. Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, April 29). California Gold Rush. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Gold_Rush
  4. Gold rush. Adobe Spark. (n.d.). Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://express.adobe.com/page/aktKAb6nN65dZ/
  5. History of zin. ZAP. (n.d.). Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://zinfandel.org/learn/history/#:~:text=Zinfandel%20is%20thought%20to%20be,the%20grape%20and%20its%20path.
  6. Maletiæ, E., et al. “Zinfandel, dobrieiae, and privacy mali: The genetic relationship among three cultivars of the dalmatian coast of Croatia.” American journal of enology and viticulture 55.2 (2004): 174-180.
  7. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zinfandel
  8. Wikipedia contributors. (2022, April 16). Roger Scruton. Wikipedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Scruton
  9. Wikipedia contributors. (2022b, May 7). Donald M. Hess. Wikipedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_M._Hess
  10. Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, January 8). Jess Stonestreet Jackson Jr. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jess_Stonestreet_Jackson_Jr.