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 ( 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.

#WineWednesday Spotlight #17: Muhr-van der Niepoort Samt & Seide

Dorli Muhr of Muhr-van Der Niepoort with a bottle of Samt & Seide

Our friend James the Wine Guy just posted another great video review, this time of the delicious Austrian red Muhr-van der Niepoort Samt & Seide. The name means Velvet & Silk in German and is an accurate description of the wine’s character. Composed of 100% Blaufränkisch from the extreme eastern Austrian winegrowing region Carnuntum, it speaks with authority and elegance in equal measure.

I love, love, love Austrian red wines…I just delight in this wine. I think it’s so expressive and beautiful.

James gives this wine 94 points out of 100 finding fruit, earth, and floral aromatics. He suggests pairing it with foods like pork, beef, salmon, red sauce dishes, and anything spiced with paprika. Watch the whole review below.

Try a bottle or even better, buy our Austrian 6-pack! It includes the Bernreiter Heuriger 2014 (1 Liter), the Bernreiter Gemischter Satz 2013, the Geyerhof Grüner Veltliner Rosensteig 2014, the Geyerhof Zweigelt Ried Richtern 2011, the Muhr-van der Niepoort Samt & Seide 2012 and the Muhr-van der Niepoort Spitzerberg 2012. All 6 bottles for just $150! Sign up for Club Vino Danubia and get free shipping!

“For the Love of Wine – My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture” by Alice Feiring

If you are interested in learning more about Georgian wine and culture, you must check out Alice Feiring’s newly released book “For the Love of Wine – My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture”. We have copies available here for $25, including shipping. More about the book from University of Nebraska Press:

In 2011 when Alice Feiring first arrived in Georgia, she felt as if she’d emerged from the magic wardrobe into a world filled with mythical characters making exotic and delicious wine with the low-tech methods of centuries past. She was smitten, and she wasn’t alone. This country on the Black Sea has an unusual effect on people; the most passionate rip off their clothes and drink wines out of horns while the cold-hearted well up with tears and make emotional toasts. Visiting winemakers fall under Georgia’s spell and bring home qvevris (clay fermentation vessels) while rethinking their own techniques.

Qvevri waiting for burial. Photo: Alice Feiring
Qvevri waiting for burial. Photo: Alice Feiring

But, as in any good fairy tale, Feiring sensed that danger rode shotgun with the magic. With acclaim and growing international interest come threats in the guise of new wine consultants aimed at making wines more commercial. So Feiring fought back in the only way she knew how: by celebrating Georgia and the men and women who make the wines she loves most, those made naturally with organic viticulture, minimal intervention, and no additives.

High-tech winemaking tools. Photo: Alice Feiring
High-tech winemaking tools. Photo: Alice Feiring

From Tbilisi to Batumi, Feiring meets winemakers, bishops, farmers, artists, and silk spinners. She feasts, toasts, and collects recipes. She encounters the thriving qvevri craftspeople of the countryside, wild grape hunters, and even Stalin’s last winemaker while plumbing the depths of this tiny country’s love for its wines.

Grape hunter. Photo: Alice Feiring
Grape hunter. Photo: Alice Feiring

For the Love of Wine is Feiring’s emotional tale of a remarkable country and people who have survived religious wars and Soviet occupation yet managed always to keep hold of their precious wine traditions. Embedded in the narrative is the hope that Georgia has the temerity to confront its latest threat—modernization.

400 year old vine. Photo: Alice Feiring
400 year old vine. Photo: Alice Feiring

Alice Feiring is an internationally known author, journalist, and essayist who lives in New York City. She has been the wine correspondent for Wall Street Journal Magazine and Time and now freelances for the New York Times, Wine and Spirits, and Omnivore. Winner of both the James Beard and the Louis Roederer wine writing awards, Feiring is the author of Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally and The Battle for Wine and Love; or, How I Saved the World from Parkerization.


“Feiring’s lively account is a good place to begin for wine lovers seeking a head start on exploring a vastly underappreciated wine-producing country.”—Kirkus

“By the time you’ve picked up this book, Georgian wine will be internationally known—thanks in no small part to Alice Feiring, who has put her passion and pen behind it. What do God, Stalin, and truth have to do with great wine? Follow her on her journeys into a rich and fascinating culture and find out.” —Christine Muhlke, executive editor of Bon Appétit

“With charm, flair, and deep human compassion Alice Feiring immerses us in the ancient contradictory culture of Georgia. Reading her vivid prose one can almost sniff the orange blossom notes in the wines, savor the eggplant rolls filled with garlicky walnuts, and share epic feasts with a cast of unforgettable characters. How lucky we are to have her as our guide to this fascinating, singular country.”—Anya Von Bremzen, author of The Art of Soviet Cooking

#WineWednesday Spotlight #16: Shumi Tsinandali


This week James the Wine Guy reviews Shumi Tsinandali, an appellation controlled white wine blend from the Republic of Georgia. The indigenous grapes Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane combine to create harmonious flavors and aromas of citrus.

This is a superb wine…really spectacular! On this I’m getting notes of moist stones, green and yellow citrus zest, quince, and passionfruit. Gorgeous minerality to this wine, lean yet assuringly generous at the same time…seek this wine out!

If you are not familiar with James’s wine reviews, he creates videos for each wine and posts them on YouTube. Watch the video below to see his full evaluation of this “compelling” wine!

Beyond Bull’s Blood

San Francisco Magazine features an interesting article by John Capone in their latest March issue, exploring the diversity of Hungarian wine “Beyond Bull’s Blood”.

Thanks to sommeliers and wine buyers eager to introduce “new” bottles to their customers, Hungarian wine is enjoying newfound respect on the well-vetted lists of restaurants like the Progress, Petit Crenn, Lord Stanley, Octavia, and the Slanted Door, and occupying hallowed shelf space at institutions like Bi-Rite and Bay Grape.

Our Northern CA Sales Manager Eric Danch says:

What’s most encouraging is that many of these wines don’t linger on lists; they move and get reordered. We’re seeing this in numbers; there’s undeniable growth. This year, we’re bringing in at least eight brand-new producers.

What are the sommeliers saying?

Jeff Berlin of À Côté on 2011 Fekete Béla Juhfark: “A fascinating grape that cab be rich and ripe, but always displays the (terroir) or its volcanic vineyards.”

Courtney Humiston of Petit Crenn on Patricius Sparkling Brut: “…drinks dry but has enough richness to carry your meal”.

Flora Gaspar of Da Flora on 2013 Vylyan Portugieser: “discreet spice, the jammy fruit backed by subtle tannins, and the slight lick of acid”.

Chaylee Priete of The Slanted Door on 2013 Bott Teleki: “a perfect food wine that’s loaded with minerality”.

Read the whole story here.

Lulu McAllister of SF’s NOPA on hometown hits and new favorites

Lulu Mcallister. Photo: Wine & Spirits Magazine
Lulu McAllister. Photo: Wine & Spirits Magazine

Great interview by Luke Sykora in the latest Wine & Spirits Magazine with Lulu McAllister, one of San Francisco’s top sommeliers behind the wine lists of Nopa and Liholiho Yacht Club. She had some nice things to say about Blue Danube Wine Co and the Hungarian grape, kadarka!

This year I’ve really loved working with kadarka. It tastes brooding in terms of aromatics and fruit profile, but it’s actually fairly zippy, leaner than the color in the glass would suggest. They call it “bull’s blood,” so sometimes I will explain that to people. It can handle a wider range of flavors than most medium-bodied, thicker, more rugged wines can handle. I can actually pair it with lighter dishes and it can hold its own when heavier dishes come out. I wouldn’t say it’s like pinot noir exactly, but it works in a similar way. Eric Danch [the northern California sales manager] at Blue Danube, is kind of the guy for these funky grapes. His portfolio is one of the most exciting out there right now; he’s going all-in on wines that are really obscure for most people. And if he says, “You’ve got to try this….”

Read the whole article here.

#WineWednesday Spotlight #15: Muhr-van der Niepoort Blaufränkisch Spitzerberg

Dorli Muhr of Muhr-van der Niepoort

…in abstract terms, this wine from the growing region Carnuntum at the far eastern end of Austria offers a marvellous combination of purpose and charm.

More elegant than most of the monumental Blaufränkisch that neighbouring Burgenland produced in the blockbuster red wine vintage 2012, the colour is a deep ruby red with violet highlights, showing slightly lighter at the rim.

A vivid and multifacetted aromatic profile incorporates subtle hints of the old cigar-box – both the substance of which the box was made and its contents – which manifest themselves as a light spiciness on the surface of a bouquet characterised by deep, dark cherry and blackberry fruit.

The Spitzerberg. Photo: Jon Bonne/The Chronicle

On the palate, the wine delivers such a solid sense of substance that one is not really prepared for the grace and delicacy of its overall impression. The luscious texture of the Blaufränkisch fruit (again, dark cherries and blackberry) is supported by a nearly seamless framework of soft, ripened tannins and pert acidity, coming together in a finish that integrates this great vineyard site’s storied minerality with the generous material grown on the vine.

Excellent length, comparatively low alcohol – 13° on the label and I think (for once) somebody is telling the truth – even though the wine is very approachable and gratifying to drink now just after release, it should have a long and happy life in the cellar; at ten years of age it should fool more than one blind taster into thinking that they have Chambolle-Musigny in their glass.

Introducing Muhr-van der Niepoort – Pinpoint Precision on the Spitzerberg

The Spitzerberg

Spitzerberg is the last and least of the Lesser Carpathians. It is neither spitz – pointed, nor Berg – a mountain; a slump-shouldered acclivity at best, covered mostly with trees and only partially with the vine, situated in a protected nature preserve. In the easternmost Austrian winegrowing region Carnuntum, it lies closer to Bratislava than to Vienna. Grapes have been grown here for centuries, taking advantage of the hillside’s position as the first elevation encountered by the warm and dry air masses that stream northward from the Pannonian plain, but its vineyards had fallen into a state of neglect and desuetude for most of the recent decades.
Blaufränkisch Spitzerberg
Muhr-van der Niepoort’s top wine, Blaufränkisch Spitzerberg – as well as their Blaufränkisch Samt & Seide – are distinctive, in that the estate has chosen not to model their wines on examples from the Leithagebirge, the Eisenberg and or Gols, but rather expresses the contrast of their meager and parched hillside soils to the moisture-retentive heavier ground down around Lake Neusiedl. Spitzerberg offers an elegant, subtle and mineral-driven perspective on the confluence of old vines and fossil limestone; long-lived and long on the palate, fine and densely packed. The vines are old – not Sonoma Zinfandel old, but 40–60 years of age – Burgundy old, rather… Samt & Seide (Velvet and Silk) is bottled from vines between 10–30 years old, and shows a rounder character while still projecting the message of the earth in which the vines grow.

Muhr-van der Niepoort is the viticultural collaboration between Vienna’s doyenne of marketing in matters of taste – Dorli Muhr – and the Oporto master, ringleader of the Douro Boys, Dirk Niepoort. The estate started out with a mere 0.3 hectares of vines handed down through the Muhr family, and has grown to its current size of twelve hectares, with no further significant increase anticipated. With this expansion, Dorli and Dirk (the two Ds facing on the label) have taken the lead in restoring this marvelous vineyard land to its potential.

Dorli Muhr
Dorli Muhr, owner of the Muhr-van der Niepoort estate

All work is done by hand, and the cellar – actually more of a shed – houses no new barriques, so the flavoring is kept to a minimum. Every vintage sees creation of several microvinifications: with autochthnonous yeasts – some foot-trodden, some whole cluster fermentation, some with extended periods of maceration – all undertaken in order to learn from the vines and the grapes, to determine what brings forth the most distinctive expression of site and substance.

In a winegrowing region best known for its affable and quaffable Zweigelt, the Spitzerberg is something of a viticultural island, a core of granite blanketed with limestone, which offers the ideal soil for growing a grapevine that is steadily becoming regarded as a member of the upper echelon worldwide, the Blaufränkisch. Sitting flavor-wise in the center of an angel’s triangle between Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Syrah, the Blaufränker remains distinctively Austrian; most of the finer examples are grown in nearby Burgenland, where the variety thrives under a wide variety of interpretations.

A few years ago I went for a ride with Dorli out to her native Carnuntum village of Rohrau and took part in a singular ceremony where the fifteen growers who have vines on the Spitzerberg (and their guests, including myself and Falstaff magazine editor Peter Moser) tasted the wines of the current vintage blind, and then voted among themselves to determine which could be permitted to bear the name Spitzerberg on the label in that particular vintage, and which must unfortunately be declassified and sold as Blaufränkisch Carnuntum. Severe and demanding criteria have been set, which even fine growers cannot always meet. From the 2006 vintage, for example, only four wines were selected to carry the name Spitzerberg.

A more recent outing found Ms Muhr and myself seated at a table for six in a swish restaurant in Düsseldorf with a couple Dutch wine merchants, AWMB headman Willi Klinger and Italian grower Angelo Gaja. There could be no clearer indication of the Blaufränkisch’s gustatory kinship with Nebbiolo than the seamless fashion in which Muhr-van der Niepoort’s 2010 Spitzerberg led in to the king of the Piemontaise hill’s 2004 Barolo Sperss. And Signore Gaja was in no way stingy in his praise of the Austrian red.

The current Blue Danube Wine Co. import portfolio is rounded out with with a distinctive, foot-trodden fermented- on-the-skins Grüner Veltliner (complemented with 10% Riesling) called Prellenkirchen, which occasionally shares the fate of Moric’s Grüner Veltliner and Pepi Umathum’s Hárslevelű, of not being awarded a registration number by the local (somewhat hidebound) tasting authority.

#WineWednesday Spotlight #14: Shavnabada Rkatsiteli

Photo: Holley Robbins
Photo: Holley Robbins

2003 Shavnabada Rkatsiteli from Kakheti, Georgia is one of those wines that really transports you to another place and time. Wine expert and The Vinguard founder Pamela Busch recently listed it as one of her Top Wines of 2015:

An extinct volcano 2300 feet above sea level, Shavnabada is a mountain that has housed a Medieval monastery of the same name. It was restored in 1992 and the monks have been making wine on the property since 1998. Certified organic, they are old school and ferment and age the wines underground in amphora for years, 12 in the case of the Rkatsiteli. Every time I think of this winery, images of Sean Connery from In the Name of the Rose pop into my head. Amber colored, with toasted nuts, spice and dried stone fruits, one door of flavor leads to another – it’s pretty astonishing.

Wine cellar, or marani, at Shavnabada Monastery
Wine cellar, or marani, at Shavnabada Monastery

This “astonishing” wine is made from hand harvested grapes under the strict supervision of the monks. The grapes are foot trodden in a traditional wooden press, and are not fined or filtered before being bottled by hand. The bottleneck is covered with beeswax from Shavnabada’s own bees. Interestingly enough they produce literally tons of wild honey each year in addition to wine.

Try this rich amber wine with hearty dishes, like braises or stews, and it might become one of your top wines!

Orange wine isn’t what you think it is

"There's a pleasant, unexpected surprise waiting in those glasses of orange wine." - Robin Shreeves
“There’s a pleasant, unexpected surprise waiting in those glasses of orange wine.” – Robin Shreeves

Orange wines, or perhaps more accurately described as amber wines, have been gaining more and more popularity with wine consumers. Writer Robin Shreeves gives these wines a try with the help of Keith Beavers, wine educator and owner of New York City’s In Vino Restaurant & Wine Bar, for Mother Nature Network.

What is orange wine?
The simple way to explain orange wine is that it’s white wine made like red wine. For white wine, the skins of white or red grapes are separated from the juice immediately. When red wines are made, the juice and the skins are left together for a time, imparting the color and the tannins from the skins, seeds and stems into the wine.
Orange wine is made from the juice of white grapes that have contact with their skins for a time before fermenting, imparting an orange or amber tint to the wine.

See Robin’s notes on a few of the “orange” or “amber” wines we import:

Photo: Robin Shreeves
Photo: Robin Shreeves

Oil was what jumped out at me the first time I breathed in the scents of an orange wine — although I got motor oil, not linseed. Our host chose Piquentum Blanc’12 from Croatia made from the malvasia grape as our introduction, a wine he refers to as “Fisher Price My First Orange Wine.” The juice spends just a few days on the skins before fermentation, giving it more of a yellow-orange color than a deeper amber.

The wine confused me at first. I liked it, but there was no familiarity to the taste. My brain didn’t know what to do with it. There was a little sour apple, some earthiness and savoriness to it, and a hint of citrus. This wine was paired with roasted vegetables resting on toasted sour dough bread, all topped with plushy-on-the-inside burrata. It soon became clear this is a very good food wine.


Next Beavers opened Rebula 2012 from Kabaj winery in Slovenia. The photo taken in the low light of the restaurant doesn’t do the beautiful color of this wine justice. It has contact with the skins for 30 days, giving it more of an orange hue than the Piquentum.

The time spent in contact with the skins gives the wine a heavy tannic structure, which was a surprise to me because, again, my brain didn’t know what to do with it. My eyes saw an orange wine, and my brain expected it to be more like a white or a rose instead of a red.

Read the whole article here.