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California Wineries Oppose Making Zinfandel and Primitivo Synonymous on Wine Labels

A proposal by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms stirs controversy over the two names for the same grape variety.

Lynn Alley
Posted: June 8, 2002

Members of the California wine industry have been voicing opposition to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' recent proposal to recognize the terms "Primitivo" and "Zinfandel" as synonymous for use on wine labels.

The Wine Institute, an organization of California wineries, requested and received a 120-day extension from the federal agency to give wine industry associations more time to research the issue, which is more complicated and controversial than it appears at first glance.

Zinfandel and Primitivo (as it is commonly known in Italy) are currently listed as two distinct varieties on the ATF's list of approved grape names, even though DNA testing has confirmed that they are the same variety. But some winemakers who market Zinfandel argue that the wines are not similar enough to justify the move.

"We in California created the market for Zinfandel," said Bob Trinchero, owner of Sutter Home, which popularized White Zinfandel in the early 1980s, when old Zinfandel vineyards all over the state were being uprooted. "Calling a Primitivo grape wine Zinfandel would be both misleading and confusing to the consumer."

"I'm not very happy about it," said Sonoma County Zinfandel producer Carole Shelton. "I've had Primitivo in Italy and found it leaner and harder than our domestic Zinfandel, somewhat lacking in depth."

According to Ridge winemaker and Zinfandel pioneer Paul Draper, the term "Primitivo" may have been a fairly generic term applied to any number of early-ripening Italian grape varieties.

In a letter to the ATF, grapevine geneticist Carole Meredith, whose research at the University of California, Davis, identified the two varieties as the same, clarified that "because they have been propagated independently for some time," Zinfandel and Primitivo are not genetically identical. However, their differences "are no greater in degree than those commonly observed among clones within other old and geographically dispersed varieties such as Pinot Noir or Syrah," she wrote.

The ATF had set a deadline of June 9 for industry comment, but granted the extension to allow organizations such as the Wine Institute, Zinfandel Advocates & Producers and the California Association of Winegrape Growers to gather more information. "The industry needs more time to determine the potential effect of the rule on consumer confusion and the industry," said Wine Institute's legal counsel, Wendell Lee.

At this point, there seems to be much confusion within the U.S. wine industry itself. Ten years ago, a group of California growers and vintners opposed foreign imports being labeled Zinfandel, arguing that Italy was in a perfect position to flood the American market with inexpensive Italian Zinfandel made from Primitivo grapes. Similar concerns are being voiced today as, in addition to Italy, there are Zinfandel/Primitivo producers in Australia, Croatia and South Africa.

But according to the ATF, the new proposal would not affect the ability of foreign producers to market wines made from Primitivo grapes as "Zinfandel" in the United States since they are already able to do so. The agency simply wants to make the change to reflect the recent DNA research.

The ATF's April newsletter states: "The varietal designation of imported wines must comply with the laws of the country of origin. As the European Union already recognizes 'Zinfandel' and 'Primitivo' as synonymous names, Italian producers of this grape are currently authorized to import their product into the United States with the varietal designation 'Zinfandel.' The proposal will make ATF's varietal list more accurate and will allow U.S. producers to use the synonyms."

It is unlikely that many California producers would want to label their wines as "Primitivo" -- although Sobon Estates in Amador County currently has a California Primitivo on the market. But the proposal would allow wineries to blend Primitivo grapes into Zinfandel wine without having to declare the Primitivo on the label or to make their wines from 100 percent Primitivo grapes and call it "Zinfandel."

Some California producers are currently growing Primitivo clones to use for blending with their Zinfandel, believing the Primitivo clones may have some viticultural advantages and may provide additional flavor components to a wine. Kendall-Jackson winemaker Randy Ullom is experimenting with Primitivo in an effort to determine whether or not the grapes produce wine that is significantly different than those produced by Zinfandel vines.

Paul Draper of Ridge takes a global view of the whole brouhaha. According to him, Zinfandel may well take its place among the ranks of fine winegrape varieties that are being adopted in many parts of the world, just like Cabernet and Chardonnay.

"We just have to make better Zin than anyone else," he said.

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