We read an article recently in a reputable publication that proclaimed Zinfandel as California’s “heritage grape,” and went on to describe this grape varietal as “a quintessentially American phenomenon. It’s zesty, rugged and loud, challenging to rear, a lover of barbecue.” This characterization of Zinfandel is not uncommon and we have even heard more casual wine consumers refer to Zinfandel as “American’s wine grape.” As charming as this characterization is, it does not stand up to reality or, more importantly, science.
The story of original sin involves a fruit and a man named Adam; in his case, the fruit was allegedly an apple. In the case of “original Zin,” a man and a fruit are again involved, but in this case the man is named Miljenko and the fruit is a grape. As Adam was fascinated by the apple, Miljenko Grgic (Americanized to Mike Grgich when he came to this country), had a deep fascination with grapes.
In 1959 Mike Grgich arrived in Napa Valley and started working at Souverain Cellars & Vineyard where he encountered Zinfandel grapes on their property. Studying the canes, leaves, clusters, berry color and size, and, eventually, the juice the grapes produced, Grgich was convinced that Zinfandel was anything but a “quintessentially American phenomenon.” To his eye, Zinfandel and the indigenous Plavac Mali grape from his native Croatia were one and the same. Zinfandel, therefore, originated from his native Croatia. For many years, he steadfastly maintained this conviction and shared it with anyone who would listen.
In 1990 Mike Grgich made his first return trip to Croatia since leaving the country thirty-six years before in 1954. To him, the similarities between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel were still apparent during this trip and he remained convinced they were the same grape varietal. On his next trip, in 1993, Grgich stepped it up a notch and actually took Napa Valley Zinfandel clusters, leaves and canes with him to Croatia to do a literal physical side-by-side comparison. His conclusion? The same grape.
Almost 5 years went by before Grgich took a step that would settle the question once and for all as to the relationship between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel – a step that would prove Grgich both right and wrong. This step involved connecting with Dr. Carole Meredith, a professor in the renowned Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis. Her area of expertise was – and yes, this really is a thing – grape genetics. As a grape geneticist, Dr. Meredith studied the genes of grapes to understand how those genes contribute to making the grapes and vines they way they are. She had a particular interest in the history of wine and understanding where specific grape varietals came from, which made her a perfect investigative partner for Mike Grgich.
In 1998 Carole Meredith and Mike Grgich got together and he shared with her his opinion about Zinfandel and Plavac Mali. This visit inspired Carole to go to Croatia herself that same year to see for herself if she could definitively solve the Zinfandel-Plavac Mali puzzle. She took samples from over 150 Plavac Mali vines from vineyards in the most renowned growing areas of Croatia, including the Peljesac Peninsula (where Mike Grgich has a winery today called Grgic Vina) and the island of Hvar. Upon returning to U.C. Davis with her samples, Dr. Meredith performed a series of genetic tests on them and reached a definitive conclusion: Zinfandel and Plavac Mali were not the same grape. What she did discover through her tests, though, is that these two grapes are related. As she put it, Plavac Mali is the “son” of Zinfandel; in other words, Zinfandel and another grape together produced Plavac Mali. So after nearly 50 years of believing Zinfandel was his native Plavac Mali, Mike Grgich turned out to be wrong. But something interesting would happen soon after that would make him right again, sort of anyway.
Never one to give up, Carole Meredith continued her work, having connected with two professors from the University of Zagreb who were looking for help in using DNA tools to understand better the indigenous Croatian grapes and how they would be impacted by modern development and globalization. The three professors continued to search for the elusive connection to Zinfandel and, lo and behold, they found it! Near the port town of Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, nine Crljenak Kastelanski vines were found that DNA testing determined to be a 100% genetic match to Zinfandel. As it turns out, Zinfandel was not Plavac Mali but it was indigenous to Croatia. Subsequent historical research has shown that Croatian Zinfandel (also known as Tribidrag) was planted as far back as the 15th century. What the Italians call Primitivo is also Zinfandel, having originated from the Croatian Tribidrag and been imported to Italy some 200-300 years ago.
We were so intrigued by this story that we made a trip to Croatia in late 2016 and soaked up as much wine and vineyard knowledge as we could. We trudged around the Peljesac Peninsula where Mike Grgich’s beloved Plavac Mali grows on steeps slopes just meters from the sea. Over the course of 2 ½ weeks we tasted dozens of Croatian wines and fell in love with the character, depth, and complexity of their wines. Our favorite? Crljenak Kastelanski (or Tribidrag if that’s easier to pronounce). We loved this wine so much that we are now importing a Crljenak Kastelanski produced by Vina Matela. We recently tasted this wine with an 86-year old winemaker partner and he proclaimed: “This is one of the best wines I’ve ever had.” We have to agree.
Wine consumers that are looking for “California Zin” should ignore the Vina Matela offering as it will not live up to expectations. Frequently fans of California Zinfandel use terms such as “jammy” or “fruit bomb” to describe their favorite wine. Matela’s Crljenak Kastelanski has nice fruit on the nose and the palate but is a much more complex, rich, and balanced wine. Fruit aroma and flavor are matched with a strong earthiness driven by the unique conditions of the mountain soil in which the grapes are grown.
You can purchase Matela Crljenak Kastelanski at www.topochines.com. Click on “Countries” and then “Croatia” to find this wine along with our complete range of white and red Croatian wines for sale. Readers of this blog can enter “Friends15” at checkout for a 15% discount. For those interested in a broader exploration of the Croatian red wines, we also offer two different Plavac Mali wines, one from winemaker Tomic and the other from Edivo. We will provide a deeper review of each of these wines in Croatian Wines, Part III.
We lived in Napa for nearly five years and did our best to visit wineries across all of the far-flung American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that make up the larger Napa Valley AVA. Of course, we tasted on the valley floor at many wineries on Highway 29 . . . along Silverado Trail . . . on the mountaintops (Howell, Spring, Diamond, Veeder. But somehow, there is one location that we had not visited: Pope Valley. Sure, we were aware of its existence, nestled on the other sound of Howell Mountain on the way to Lake Berryessa. And we had had several wines made from fruit grown in Pope Valley. But it wasn’t until a fortuitous introduction to Thomas Wargovich, the vintner at Gratus Vineyards in Pope Valley, that we had occasion to make our way there.
In fairness, there are some valid reasons why we’ve not visited any tasting rooms there. First of all, Pope Valley is somewhat remote and not really on the way to or from anywhere else that we typically visit. Second, and more important, there really are not too many tasting rooms there open for visitation. This might be the reason that Pope Valley is not at AVA yet, but we expect this status will come at some point as vineyards there produce most of the grapes that go into Napa Valley-designation wines.
So we set out one Saturday right before our Europe trip to visit Thomas at Gratus Vineyards and taste the wines that we had been hearing quite a bit about from wine bloggers over the previous several months. Seemingly, Gratus wines had become a bit of a cult hit with wine geeks of late (and for good reason we would soon learn). The drive from our home in Mare Island to Pope Valley was about an hour as we took the back way through Green Valley and Suisun wine country, eventually crossing into Napa and taking the beautiful winding roads to Thomas’ property. We knew we were in for a visual treat as we entered the Gratus Vineyards’ gate and made our way up the stunningly picturesque driveway winding its way up to Thomas’ home.
Now this is a nice driveway!
Once we got to the top of the hill and parked we could see that a great deal of landscaping and planting had been done over the years, which Thomas confirmed for us when he gave us the tour of his property. Since purchasing the estate in 2001, Thomas has planted over 300 different types of trees and other plants; on the Fall day we were there, the explosion of color was eye-popping.
After our tour, Thomas took us down to a quaint tasting room on the property where we settled in to get a taste of some of the wines we had been hearing so much about, and to learn more about Thomas and the Gratus Vineyards story. I have to say, the wines really are special and I understand what all the fuss is about: Gratus makes elegant, balanced, creative wines that capture the essence of the terroir but also have an Old World sensibility that I always appreciate.
We kicked off the tasting with the one white wine that Gratus produces – their 2018 Rhone White Blend ($29). Most of the wine tastings we attend in Napa Valley seem to kick off with one of two white wines – Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. While I enjoy both varietals when done well, I am getting bored with them lately, especially the trend of making 100% stainless steel versions that produce wines with little to no body or mouthfeel. By contrast, the Gratus Rhone White Blend was a lively, interesting, luscious white wine, a blend of Grenache Blanc (50%) and 15% each of Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier, and 5% Picpoul Blanc. This wine was aged in neutral oak for seven months which contributed beautiful color and texture and flavor. The wine balances fruit and acidity nicely and is excellent quality for the price.
We next tried a rose wine, a 2016 on Gratus’ new label L’ovey. Thankfully, this was not another rose of Pinot Noir but instead an intriguing blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot made in the saignee method. This wine has a vibrant salmon color, intense floral and strawberry notes on the nose, and on the palate more strawberry. While this is a dry wine with nice acidity, there is some sweetness on the palate and lots of body. Nicely priced at $23.
While we definitely enjoyed the white and rose, the “wow” moments of our tasting came when Thomas transitioned us to the Gratus red wines. Our first red wine tasted was the 2016 Gratus Malbec, a deep and dense purple color filling my glass.
Even better than I was expecting
I have had Malbec wines from France and Argentina and this 2016 Gratus Malbec resembled neither – or perhaps, more accurately, it had the best attributes of each resulting in perhaps the best Malbec I have had yet. There was lovely black fruit on the palate without being excessively fruit forward; there was nice acidity and integrated tannins that make this a wine perfect for food but easily consumed without. At $55 a bottle we think this is a steal for such a high-quality Napa Valley red wine and it makes us wonder why more vintners aren’t planting this varietal in the valley.
Our next red wine was the 2016 Gratus Red Blend – 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Malbec and 5% Petite Sirah. This is a big, bold, tannic powerhouse of a wine that begs to be consumed with a slab of meat. Intense and bold aromas and flavors, a beautiful and long finish. At $80 a bottle, it is still a bargain compared to 3-digit Cabernet-driven wines from other Napa wineries; a very nice wine.
We moved on to a single-varietal Cabernet, the 2016 Gratus Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, another big, bold wine. In some ways I would consider this a classic “Napa Cab” – beautiful fruit, powerful aromas, nice tannin, silky texture. However, there is more to this wine than just the fruit: the wine is elegant, structured, and, like the rest of the Gratus wines, there is a strong backbone of acid that balances the fruit. This wine is $120 a bottle and is as good a Cab at that price as we have tasted.
A classic Napa Cab
Our final Gratus wine of the tasting was perhaps my favorite – the 2015 Petite Sirah. While this is not the most commonly-grown varietal in Napa Valley, we have always enjoyed the three Petite Sirah offerings at Vincent Arroyo. The Gratus PS was as good as anything we have tasted in Napa Valley. When Thomas poured it into the glass, I marveled at the dense, inky color and spent several minutes just savoring the aromas – spice, earth, stewed meat, dark fruit. A beautiful wine and, at $50 a bottle, one to stock up on before it is all gone.
Delicious Gratus Vineyards wines
After tasting through the entire portfolio of Gratus wine, I was having such a good time getting to know Thomas and learning about the winery’s history that I canceled by lunch reservation. Perhaps in part because of our somewhat shared family histories (I was born in Ukraine, Thomas’ ancestry is Czech and Polish), we really hit it off. He even showed off by speaking in Russian, a language that he studied in college. Instead of leaving to eat at Cook Tavern in Saint Helena, we proceeded to Thomas’ wine cave under his house where he keeps his personal collection of wines.
This is what I want to have when I grow up – my own wine cave
Thomas was so gracious with his time – and his wine, sharing a few bottles of his personal collection with us (and a couple of friends who popped in to join us).
We chatted all afternoon and I feel like it was the start of a real friendship. It is always a treat when the people making the great wines are also great people.
Thomas was a cardiologist by career until the fateful day a medical convention brought him to the Bay Area and a side field trip to Napa Valley. He fell in love with the Valley and decided to buy a spread and, as the old saying goes, one thing led to another . . . One day, he scrapped the medical career and decided the wine business would be his full-time vocation. Partnered with winemaker-extraordinaire Robbie Meyer, Thomas is producing wines he can be proud of. Visit the Gratus website and pick up some of these beauties before they sell out. Production is limited. To buy wines, go here: Buy Gratus Wine. To learn more about Thomas or the Gratus story, go here: About GratusAbout Gratus
For the past year we have been importing and selling a very unique Bordeaux-style wine from Croatia, produced by the Josić winery. We were thrilled when we read a review of this wine on one of our favorite blogs: Strong Coffee to Red Wine. With permission, we are excerpting Rick Dean’s evocative write-up on one of our very favorite Croatian wines.
I found this bottle on Topochines.com, an online wine retailer. I was drawn to them because of their selection of wines from Croatia. The shop also carries smaller offerings of wines from Italy, Spain, France, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and the USA. In 2019 they are adding 8-9 wines from Portugal. The offerings are unique no matter the country of origin, so I’m sure I will be sampling many others as well.
But it was this wine that I most wanted to try. All of the others are from indigenous grapes to Croatia but this one is a blend of recognizable, international grape varieties and I thought that would be a good place to start. The few wines from indigenous grapes are waiting for me in the cooler.
This wine is more accurately an International Red Blend with 35% Cabernet Franc, 35% Syrah, 30% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the use of Syrah that is not considered a Bordeaux varietal that makes this more of an international blend. Regardless of who’s blend it is, it is flipping delicious.
The color is deep purple. The wine is bone dry with medium-plus acid. The tannins are soft and lingering. The nose is an explosion of aromas. Never have I smelled so much in a wine before. Dried figs predominate followed by bing cherries. Next is the burn of alcohol and a bit of caramel. After a second swirl came sandalwood, sawdust and chocolate covered cherries. And finally, some cooked black fruits. This was such an exceptional smelling experience. I could have kept my nose in the glass for hours.
The flavors on the palate were a bit closed off but enjoyable all the same. Mostly was stewed black fruits like prunes and figs; followed by mild licorice and dark chocolate. The finish was lingering with the soft tannins reasserting themselves.
I am thrilled with this wine and am so glad I chose to make the purchase. I look forward to the wines from Croatia’s indigenous grapes later this winter.