Primer on zinfandel, the all-American (OK, originally Croatian) grape

As a hard news reporter in the 1990s, skinny notebook in hand, I heard over and over that there was no such thing as a carjacking. At the time, it seemed as if carjackings were happening daily, if not hourly.

I would call police stations, identify myself, and then ask for information on a particular carjacking.

“There is no such thing as a carjacking,” I heard time after time from desk sergeants. Eight words on auto-repeat. Sometimes they were delivered in a calm voice, and other times with an amplification and tone that indicated an unspoken preceding phrase involved taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Obviously the cops were being asked about carjackings a lot in those days, and they were tired of the word (a popular portmanteau created by combining “car” and “hijack,” but not an official police term) — maybe because they thought it might fuel copycat criminals, or maybe because they had orders from the top: Do not give credibility to the term itself. Nip it in the bud.

At the risk of sounding like the wine police, I’m here to tell you that there is no such thing as white zinfandel. And to really tighten the screws, there is no such thing as red zinfandel, either. There is only one kind of zinfandel. It is a red grape, so calling it “red zinfandel” is like classifying merlot as “red merlot.”

The thing known as white zinfandel is really a light pink, sweet-tinged wine made from zinfandel grapes but with minimal skin contact, thus, the minimal redness. Sutter Home Winery made this style popular in the 1980s, and people went crazy over it.

But zinfandel — regular ol’ zinfandel — is dry, often full of luscious fruit and zippy pepper. Plum, blackberry, cherry, raspberry. Anise and cloves. Raisiny at times, or even chocolatey. Oak aging can give it suggestions of vanilla and toast.

It is medium- to full-bodied and can be a great barbecue wine, its boldness often a good match for the big flavors that emerge from our grills. Charcoal, fire, smoke and char. Bold zinfandel flavors can come with bold alcohol content, too, often edging up to or surpassing 15 percent. In some cases it reaches a staggering 17 percent. These elevated figures, of course, make zinfandel an even more suitable cookout companion, because how much trouble can we get into if we happen to enjoy a half-glass too much and get a little tipsy in our backyards? We’re already home!

Zinfandel is considered the American grape, even though it is not exactly from here. It made its way to the United States in the 19th century but originated in Croatia. I know that you know that this doesn’t make it any less American. I mean, John Malkovich has Croatian roots, too (his grandparents), and no one would dispute his Americanness, would they? Some might even call him an American treasure. Regardless, it is safe to say that zinfandel is more widely planted in the United States than anywhere else in the world.

In California, its plantings are second in number only to cabernet sauvignon, and some of those zinfandel vines go way, way back. You could assume that generally “old vine” zinfandel will be a more complex zinfandel than a bottle that came from much younger vines. There is no legal definition of “old” when it comes to vines, but for the most part, we’re talking about vines that are 40 to 100 years old, or more. California is home to a bunch of gnarly old zinfandel vines, and finding old vine zin is pretty easy. By the way, that’s gnarly in the literal sense, not in the Jeff Spicoli sense. Well … it’s both, actually.

In Italy (specifically Puglia, the heel of the boot), zinfandel is called primitivo, and some of that is bound to cross your path here — even some of it, in the name of commerce, labeled with our word: zinfandel. If you happen to dig a little deeper, you might find a bit of actual Croatian “zinfandel,” known over there by two names: crljenak kastelanski and tribidrag. (Crljenak Kastelanski? That son of a gun owes me money!)

For anyone who doesn’t speak Croatian, crljenak kastelanski translates to “red grape of Kastela.” The people of Zagreb, Dubrovnik and Split certainly would tell you that there is no such thing as white zinfandel. Not sure what they’d say about carjacking, though.