It’s California Wine Month! What better way to celebrate than to kick it off by learning about California’s native grape.
It is a common misunderstanding that Zinfandel is the native California grape. In fact, Zinfandel is actually Primativo from Italy – or wait… is Primativo Zinfandel from California? There is some debate on the whole issue (the chicken vs. the egg). All debating aside, the genetic origins of this grape actually go back to modern day Croatia, so chances are it went from Croatia through Italy, then across the waters with the Italian immigrants to settle with them in California sometime in the mid-19th century. Well, at least we sleep easier at night believing that around these parts…
All said, it clearly isn’t the native California grape, just well acclimated and widely planted (10% of the states plantings – believe it or not, the majority for making everyone’s grandmother’s favorite ‘White Zinfandel’). So what then is the native grape?
Vitis californica (a.k.a. California wild grape, Northern California grape, or Pacific grape).
Indigenous to Northern California and southwestern Oregon, Vitis californica produces small sour grapes that are edible, but best used for making jams or juice instead of wine. The real winning quality for this vine and where its importance lies is in its rootstock. Vitis californica has a strong, sturdy rootstock that is used for grafting Vitis vinifera (wine grapes) on globally and can handle periods of drought conditions.
There is also the wide use of the vine in native plant gardens as it has a beautiful wild look to it, grows up to 30 ft. in length, and changes a wide array of warm colors in the fall making it highly visually attractive. It is also known to sink deep roots into the soil and be pretty self sufficient. In addition, it is very easy to train to climb trees and fences making for a great look for trellises and archways. When flowering, it is very attractive to bees, Butterflies love it in the summer, and wild birds take to it in the fall months.
Not great for producing it’s own wine, but sounds awesome for sprucing up your home garden or starting a solid root stock for your new vineyard.