Extending Zinfandel’s California Legacy

As work gets underway for the 2016 vintage, let’s take a look at the new kid on the block here at Monte Bello.  Please meet Monte Bello’s newest arrival: Zinfandel from Croatia.  Given that Zinfandel is known as the ‘California Grape’, it may come as a surprise that Zinfandel originated in Croatia as much as one thousand years ago.  Its historic name is Tribidrag. If you look up Zinfandel in the recent and most complete listing of the Grape Varietals of the World by Jancis Robinson you will be referred to Tribidrag.

IMG_3153_cropThough we made our first few barrels of Zinfandel in 1964 from 19th century vines near the base of the Ridge, our very cool climate is not well suited to the varietal. It needs a warmer region like Sonoma or Napa to consistently ripen. For example, in 2015 the few Zinfandel vines lower on the Ridge at Jimsomare did not ripen fully, meaning we will not produce a vintage for that year.  So why are we planting Zinfandel here at Monte Bello?


As an early pioneer of Zinfandel, Paul Draper, Ridge’s Head Winemaker and CEO, sought out old-vine vineyards from Sonoma and Napa to Paso Robles and the Sierra foothills as early as the 1960s.  The planting of the Croatian clones –Zinfandel’s long lost brothers – is the most recent and natural outcome of Paul’s quest to extend Zinfandel’s legacy in California.

Ridge supported efforts to search out and identify the handful of Zinfandel vines that had survived in Croatia. After ten years, only eighteen vines have been found.   The first vine identified was a young vine in a recently replanted vineyard near the coast.  It was a variety unknown to local growers who invented a name for it referencing their region, Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Ridge became more interested when two old vines were discovered in a village on the cliffs above the coast. The locals knew it well as earlier it had been widely planted in their area and carried the name Pribidrag with one letter changed over the centuries from historic Tribidrag.


Pribidrag 43.1 planted for the first time commercially in the U.S.

We helped arrange to have cuttings from the young vine and two older vines imported and any viruses eliminated. Those are the three clones we first planted in our Lytton Springs vineyard in an experimental block. However, Lytton Springs, Geyserville and all but one Monte Bello ranch are planted to vine cuttings taken from the healthiest old vines in our best vineyards. They are what the French call “selection massal” and do not represent a single vine, i.e. a clone, but many vines from a block and have not been treated to eliminate viruses.


For this reason, we need to have a “mother” block to provide “clean” cuttings for future planting at Lytton Springs.  We selected a plot at the Rousten Ranch, the only part of Monte Bello planted entirely to “clean” clones of the Bordeaux varietals and a small amount of clean Chardonnay.

Zinfandel is traditionally head pruned as in all our vineyards,  but in this ‘mother block’ it is cordon trained to narrow the distance between both the rows and vines in order to produce as much bud wood as possible for future planting given that the cordon produces many more canes. Likewise, the spacing matches the cane pruned cabernet rows at Rousten and allows for tractors access.


Led by David Gates (Vice President of Vineyard Operations) and Viticulturist Kyle Theriot, this project at Monte Bello marks Ridge’s second commercial planting of Zinfandel’s Croatian sibling clones of the two Pribidrag and one  Crljenak Kasteljanski vine.

IMG_3158Tucked away in the Hills of the Rousten Ranch, the “Mother Block” sits at an elevation 2,200 feet. It is isolated from our other traditional plantings in order to minimize exposure to viral infections such as Grapevine Leaf roll or Grapevine Red Blotch.

As a Mother Block, this parcel will be used initially for the purpose of harvesting bud wood (as opposed to fruit) that will then be used for plantings at Lytton Springs. Once the vines on the Mother block are fully mature, Ridge is planning to make a few barrels of the wine.

When brought to Rousten, the infant vines’ roots were trimmed prior to planting.  Any knotted or stringy root growth were removed to promote the growth of new roots that will expand vigorously into the soil.   The vines were planted in virgin soil, and an organic fertilizer is added to further promote the vine’s growth.

As these vines grow, resident Viticulturist Kyle Theriot and his team will be trimming each vine back to 2 buds until they grow a shoot that will be strong enough to become the trunk of the vine.

Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello

Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello

Over the next years we will be looking after the development of these new and exceptional vines, and we look forward to sharing the wines they produce in the coming years.

Categories: Vineyards

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4 replies

  1. When we visited Croatia they told us that Plavics was the Zinfandel source. That did induce us to bring a bottle home. It wasn’t a great wine.

    • It was thought that Plavac Mali was the source until the late 1990’s when Carole Meredith proved via DNA testing that Plavac is a cross between Crljenak & Dobričić. So Zinfandel is essentially a part of Plavac.

  2. A very interesting post. And one that continues Ridge’s industry-leading efforts to inform and educate wine consumers and collectors. Bravo.

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