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The Unlikely Story of California's Favorite Hungarian Wine

zita kisgergely

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Question: What was the trendiest wine in America and elsewhere in the 1970s, and what could it possibly have to do with Hungary, whose wine industry was suffering from state consolidation and mass production during that era? The answer is a varietal most Hungarians are unfamiliar with, as unfamiliar as Americans are with its origins. But zinfandel, the grape associated with deep shag rugs, Charlie’s Angels, and a very young California wine industry, would not have taken root as the first real California trend-setting wine were it not for an adventurous, pioneering Hungarian named Agoston Haraszthy, who, among his many laurels, is said to be the first Hungarian to permanently settle in the then new USA, in the year 1840.

Many horticulture historians don’t just credit Hasaszthy with introducing the grape to California, they also credit him with revolutionizing the wine industry in California through his methods, many of which lay the cornerstone for modern American viticulture, so much so that he is known as “the Father of California Viticulture”.  Of course innovative minds also have their failures: he originally tried growing grapes in the cold Midwestern state of Wisconsin, one of the last places you would identify with wine or wine culture.

 via Wikipedia Commons

via Wikipedia Commons

Having moved to California to get rich during the Gold Rush, he turned from mining to grape cultivation. Unsatisfied with the local variety of grapes, and thinking fondly of home, Haraszthy is said to have ordered kékfrankos (Blaufranhkisch) seedlings from Hungary, which were eventually bred into to the zinfandel grape. But the story of zinfandel’s introduction to America does not come without some controversy, however. It is speculated that Haraszthy had ordered a kekfrankos – but while being shipped, a seedling from Dalmatia from a wine called primitivo was mislabeled as kekfrankos, and what we know as zinfandel is indeed primitivo from Croatia. But never mind that, it can still be called Hungarian, as Dalmatia at that point was still part of the Austrian Hungarian empire.  

Another version of the story has a horticulturist called George Gibbs importing a grape called tribidrag, which would eventually become the zinfandel we know today. But even this alternate take on the wine’s history has a Hungarian twist: Gibb was said to have dubbed it 'zinfandel' as a play on the grape’s Hungarian name, tzinifándli (which, if we are being honest, only sounds vaguely Hungarian).

So, while Bull’s Blood, which was a novelty wine in the US under its Socialist state-controlled entity Hungarovin, and the ever growing cult of Tokaj dessert wine, are commonly identified as Hungarian, it may be that the most popular Hungarian imported grape in American is indeed zinfandel. Moreover, the grape is staging a comeback after being overtaken by chardonnay in the 80s, then pinot noir in the 90s and 00s as the California trendy grape.

No matter which story of zinfandel's arrival in America is true, it was certainly through Haraszthy’s viticulture methods that the grape rose to prominence. These days it is a long way from any Hungarian kékfranos in flavor, and is also a long way from the flacid 1970's zinfandel that was so popular, which is a good thing. Perhaps it is time to re-introduce the grape to Hungary and enjoy some 'tzinifandli,' and honor Haraszthy, international wine legend.

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via Wikipedia Commons

Flatpack Films is based in Budapest, Hungary. We are a film company that offers an inspiring and professional work atmosphere for our local and international clients. Since our inception, our focus has been providing the best of the best in terms of local production resources, locations, cast, and technical teams to ensure that whatever the production we facilitate, we do to highest standard possible.