An Interview with Jasenka Piljac Zegarac, author of “Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story”

Author Jasenka Piljac Žegarac
Author Jasenka Piljac Žegarac

A group of Blue Danubians are preparing a trip to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast around the middle of April. As we started to put together our agenda we realized we should make visiting the original Zinfandel, or as the grape is known in Croatia, Crljenak Kaštelanski vineyards a top priority. This brought to mind the book written by Jasenka Piljac Žegarac, one of the scientists on Dr. Carole Meredith’s team who participated in the discovery of Zinfandel’s Croatian heritage. We got in touch with her to find out more and prepare for our own journey of discovery.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What is your professional background?

I was born in Croatia, but largely educated in the US where I completed both my high school and college education (UC Davis, biochemistry). I come from a family of well-established research scientists, physicians, and authors. Therefore, although my background is in plant biology (PhD) and natural products chemistry (postdoctoral work), I’ve always had an interest in medicine, medical research, and science writing.

2. What brought you to UC Davis to trace the origins of Zinfandel?

My family moved to Davis from Croatia in early 1990s, due to ongoing collaborations that my parents had with researchers from UC Davis. But, I believe that a touch of fate brought me to Prof. Carole Meredith’s lab in 1997. In my last year of undergraduate studies, I was looking to gain some hands-on laboratory experience. While searching through the job postings, I came across an advertisement for a research assistant position in her lab. At the time, Prof. Meredith was conducting cutting-edge grape genetics studies and I immediately got interested in her projects. But, I did not start with research work right off. I slowly worked my way up and got more involved in research after returning to work in the lab on several occasions.

The Zinfandel project started about a year later, in 1998, and I first got involved as a translator, then as Prof. Meredith’s companion during the fieldwork in Croatia, and later as a researcher. I should add that in my career as a research scientist, I’ve never encountered a group of scientists who were so cooperative and fun to work with as the Meredith group. This first positive experience was very encouraging to me as a young scientist.

Vineyards along the Dalmatian Coast
Vineyards along the Dalmatian Coast

3. Share a bit about this exciting research project you played a role in. What were some of the critical moments?

There were many ups and downs in the research, as well as some funny, lost-in-translation-type moments during our vineyard-hopping trip in Croatia in 1998. We met many Croatian vintners who helped us find our way through the vineyards along the coast. Everyone was excited about the possibility of having the true Zinfandel in their vineyard. It was a real opportunity for me to see the impact that scientific research can have on the lives of people outside the lab. And this is when the idea to write a book first came to my mind.

We were collecting leaf samples for DNA analyses in the last weeks of May, and the decisions about which vines to sample were largely based on leaf morphology. The problem was that most leaves resembled those of Zinfandel, and that there were so many vineyards with Zinfandel “suspects” on Dalmatian islands. However, to our disappointment, none of the many candidates turned out to match Zinfandel during the 1998 trip, and the discovery of Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag came two years later.

4. What is your theory on how Zinfandel came to be in Croatia? When did it arrive in the US?

I think that we will never really know for sure. One theory proposes that Zinfandel was included as an accession from the Schonbrunn imperial collection, and brought over to the East coast by George Gibbs along with many other European grape varieties. But I also think that we cannot exclude the possibility that one of the many Croatian immigrants traveling to North America brought a cutting of Zinfandel along as a ”piece of home”. Winemaking is so integrated into the lives of people from Dalmatia, because in coastal Croatia, vine products were the only source of income for many families for centuries. I would not be surprised if vines were one thing that Dalmatian immigrants could not part with during their voyage to America.

poster knjiga naslovnica piljac

5. In Croatia, the grape is called by many different names, most commonly Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag. There seems to be much debate about what the grape should be called. What is your opinion?

This is a difficult question. Winegrowers become attached to the names used traditionally for grapes in their region, which is also often their home. This is a matter of tradition and a family/national legacy, if you will. There is a lot of emotion involved in taking “ownership” of a grape name, and it is not much different than taking ownership of our personal names. It would be best to let the winemakers growing Crljenak and Tribidrag decide, or include both names as synonyms.

6. Plavac Mali, Vranac, Blahtina, Babic, Plavina, Lasin- these are just a few of the grapes thought to belong to the same family as Zinfandel. What can you tell us about the family aspect of the grape?

Some of the grapes you mentioned (Plavac mali, Babic, Vranac, Plavina) are still well-established in Croatia today. In fact, Plavac mali and Babic are the two most prominent red wine grape cultivars of central and southern Dalmatia. Due to their resilience and quality. these grapes have survived the turbulent Croatian viticultural past, which included pests, diseases and challenging economic conditions. Plavac mali, the “child” of Zinfandel, has at least a 150-year long tradition in Dalmatia. Babic vines thrive on the karst terrain surrounding Primosten, and Babic vineyards have been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List due to their exquisite natural beauty.

To sum it up, Zinfandel is closely related to some very resistant, well-known, and high-quality red grapes of Croatia, which have also realized their winemaking potential.

Crljenak Kaštelanski clones planted at Lytton Springs on July 18th, 2015. Photo: Ridge Vineyards
Crljenak Kaštelanski clones planted at Lytton Springs on July 18th, 2015. Photo: Ridge Vineyards

7. Ridge Vineyards announced last year a planting of Crljenak Kaštelanski clones in California at their Lytton Springs vineyard. What are your thoughts? Have you heard of many other projects like this? Do you think CK has a future in CA?

Yes, I think that Crljenak Kaštelanski has a future in CA. I think that Zin lovers will be very interested in comparing and contrasting the attributes of wines made from Zinfandel and Crljenak Kaštelanski grapes grown under similar conditions. If you want to learn more about a person you just met, then you go and meet their family. If you want to learn more about Zinfandel and understand its full potential as a wine grape, then you need to go and meet its relatives as well.

cover-za web
Cover of the multimedia CD ”The Wine Resources of Croatia – The Homeland of Zinfandel”, in English and Croatian

8. What else have you been up to since working on this project and writing your book “Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story”?

I launched a science/medical writing business (www.thescientistwriter.com) in the scope of which I help clients from the food, pharma and biotech industries with scientific and medical content development. This work lets me combine my passion for science and medical research, with my writing talent, into a service that helps my clients effectively communicate important research findings. I write for both professional and lay audiences on a range of therapeutic areas and scientific topics.

More then ten years after publishing “Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story”, it gives me great satisfaction to continue working on dissemination of important scientific and medical research findings to wide audiences.

Jasenka welcomes any inquiries about her research work and writing here.

Browse all Croatian wines here.