Historic Vineyard Society has announced their 2014 Vineyard Tour will happen on May 10th. This is a a once-a-year opportunity to visit some of the most unique and important terroir in the world and learn about what makes them special by the people who farm them. I have watched this organization grow from their first event in 2011 when we could all fit around one table and believe they do a tremendous job of creating awareness of the importance of this fragile and valuable legacy of winegrowing in America.
The truth about California
Have you traveled south of Salinas on 101 through California’s Central Valley in August? Then you know what I am talking about, vineyards that stretch seemingly to the horizon on both sides of the road; a monolithic mass of perfectly uniform fruit hanging heavy like cow udders, ripening in the sun. While most of this fruit goes to table grapes, it does leave one to wonder how much of that Thompson Seedless winds up in simple mass-produced jug wines. The answer is likely more than you imagine. Even though it is easy for most of us to dismiss this genre of wine as a mere commodity, it does bring home an unalterable truth - California is a fantastic place to grow grapes and that is a really, really good thing…
I’ve known that virtually all my life. My dad came from the wheat fields of Kansas, and my mother spent part of her youth among the peach orchards in Lodi, so appreciating stuff that grew out of the ground was in my DNA, I guess. By the time I came along we were living in the East Bay of San Francisco and the wine country of Napa and Sonoma regularly beckoned us to pile in the ‘51 Plymouth with a cooler full of salami and cheddar sandwiches wrapped in wax paper held closed with a toothpick, watermelon, and Cragmont Cream Soda (don’t forget the opener!) and take the two hour drive to wine country for a summer day. I loved going to Italian Swiss Colony in the ’60s where my brother and I could play hide and seek around the vines that looked like bushes, filling up on the sweet grapes (and not caring much for the seeds). Back then, my dad liked the idea he could fill his gallon jugs straight from a cask, white or red for a couple bucks. This was about the extent of my understanding of wine at least for the next fifteen years. At the time, I had no appreciation that the best place to hide from my older brother would have been behind an 80 year-old, head-pruned, dry-farmed Grand Noir de la Calmette. But life is funny how decades may pass and you suddenly find yourself back where you were as a child, realizing you now fully appreciate where you are and somehow, the vine, now nearly as thick as my calf is still there because others care to find ways to sustain it.
Discovering and appreciating viticultural treasures
In 1990, I got into the wine business knowing very little, working in a San Francisco retail shop. Shortly thereafter I read a book called Angels Visits, by David Darlington, about the mysteries surrounding the origins of Zinfandel in the USA. Two of the major characters the author extensively profiled and interviewed were Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, and Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, both pioneers in creating wines that represented a unique terroir. Because the book dealt with an area I grew up in, as well as being new to the wine profession, I hungrily read it usually with a bottle of one of their wines at my elbow. In no small way, their contributions were instrumental in raising red Zinfandel to the popularity it enjoys today and by virtue of that created demand for the unique vineyards that produce some of the best examples. A new generation of winemaker/vineyard manager is working to expand the awareness of the irreplaceable resource these sites represent.
Historic Vineyard Society
Just a little less than a year ago, I learned of the existence of a new non-profit organization called Historic Vineyard Society with a mission to create a registry of old-vine plant material within California and by doing so, develop a historic record database, as well as raise awareness among wine consumers of the significance of old vineyards and their unique contribution to the culture of wine. The people on the advisory committee represent some of the most respected names in the industry and I immediately wanted to know more. As a northern california native, their efforts to do this interested me professionally as well as intellectually. To explain why old vines are important, it helps to go over the last 130 years in some detail.
The Sonoma County wine grape culture | 1880 - 1920
Much of the grape growing in California after the Gold Rush leading up to Prohibition, was done by immigrant farmers on small plots of land with the biggest influx occurring right around 1880, only fifteen years after european plant material arrived with Agoston Haraszthy, the founder of California’s first bonded winery, Buena Vista (1857). In addition to raising animals and growing food, these farmers planted grape vines and tended them with horse drawn plows and virtually nothing in the way of chemicals to battle pests.
Before the start of Prohibition in 1920, 22000 acres were under vine in Sonoma County alone and grapes easily sold into a burgeoning infrastructure of over 250 local wineries within a 25-mile radius of the Sonoma Courthouse. Sonoma County seemed ideal for growing wine grapes due to the good earth, high water table, mild weather and being within easy reach of commerce, banking and transportation. It pretty much was Eden at least until 1920.
The effect of Prohibition, WW II, and the Baby Boom
Prohibition mandated by the Volstead Act which lasted from 1920 - 1933 effectively reduced the number of Sonoma wineries to fewer than sixty and even three decades after repeal, in 1961, acreage of wine grapes in the county had decreased to just over half of 1920 levels. That to me is a sobering statistic: Allowing for unknown post-war planting, still thousands of acres of vines that would be well over a century old now are gone forever. Countless vineyards later sold to developers building post-war subdivisions and shopping malls for the baby boomers spilling into the suburbs.
Some vineyards survived and the question is why. There were several reasons: First, during Prohibition, there was a loophole in the Volstead Act that allowed for selling grapes to home winemakers who could legally make 200 gallons per year. The thick-skinned Alicante Bouschet was the grape of choice for the long, un-refrigerated rail journey to the east coast, but what wasn’t Alicante Bouschet; mostly Zinfandel was hugely popular among the locals. And the few bunches of Carignane, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, a dozen other “mixed blacks” or for that matter, white grapes that were interplanted in patchwork ‘field blends” resulted in a viticultural ‘spice box’ that made some vineyards extremely popular, long before wine critics came on the scene.
A little known fact is that even after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, it didn’t result in a huge boom in wine consumption. That is because hard booze is what the ‘dry whistles’ demanded. It wasn’t until 1942 when the ‘managed wartime economy’ removed distilled spirits from the shelves to meet the massive demand of grain alcohol for the war effort, used in making everything from fuels, solvents, preservatives, munitions, medicines, embalming fluid, and the top secret Norden Bombsight which according to my father who served in the Aleutians contained a cup or two of ultrapure grain alcohol. Beyond that, raisins, with their high calories and long shelf life were considered vital war material and 100% of California’s crop was requisitioned by the War Department for the duration of hostilities. This resulted in a shortage of sweet wine grapes, which were much in vogue pre-war and increased demand for relatively dry wine for stateside consumption, the only readily available alcohol. Additionally the industry witnessed the first turf battles to control and consolidate distribution that began affecting wine as well for those who could see the massive post-war opportunities.
Post war boom in dry table wine
The meteoric growth in table wines post war that was predicted in 1944 by Ed Rossi, the head of Italian Swiss Colony, did come to pass which gave those vineyards that managed to survive prohibition and were planted to the right grapes allowing them to pass through the war years intact, a ready demand for their twenty or fifty tons of field blend likely contributing to the million gallon tank farm that produced the $2/gallon jug wine my parents bought. Those vineyards that specifically grew Zinfandel received another lease on life thanks to the accidental creation of White Zinfandel by Sutter Home in 1975. The boom in this wine style kept vineyards in production while Draper and Peterson were quietly laying the foundations for creating a renaissance in american winemaking and appreciation for one-of-a-kind vineyards of unique viticultural material heritage, some dating back to 1880, or earlier.
The growing appreciation for old vine wines | 1966 - 2012
As mentioned above, most of the credit for producing wines from these iconic sites goes to Ridge Vineyards and Ravenswood. Their approaches, though both influenced by old-world practices were fundamentally different; Ridge creating iconic ‘field blends’ from otherwise unnamed single sources containing a mixture of grape varieties listed on the label and simply called Geyserville (1966), or Lytton Springs (1972), contrasted with Ravenswood (1976) approach of designating a single vineyard, such as Dickerson, Pagani, or Belloni and were varietally (mostly) all Zinfandel. This pair helped bring Zinfandel and other old-vine varieties like Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, and Carignane out of the shadows of ‘jug wine’ status and more importantly gave small independent vineyards enough of a reason to not sell their acreage to a developer. Since then, dozens of other producers are now creating wines from many legendary vineyards, the list of which is growing due in part to the existence of the HVS Registry managed by some of the best known, and most-respected proponents of old-vine vineyards in California.
HVS celebrates their anniversary
Last year, I was invited to spend a day with the HVS advisors visiting some iconic old-vine sites and finishing the day at Lytton Springs for a convivial evening soaked in delicious wines all sourced from old vine vineyards. In attendance were Joel Peterson and Angels Visits author, David Darlington along with board members, Morgan Twain-Peterson (Bedrock), Mike Officer (Carlisle), Tegan Passalacqua (Turley), David Gates (Ridge), and Mike Dildine, (at large ambassador). With barely a dozen of us sitting at one table under the warm summer sky I felt that this was the start of something special.
Last weekend, HVS put together a well-organized day of visiting vineyards and a dinner under tents for about 100 attendees in the Bedrock Vineyard. From what I understand, the fundraising event sold out in a flash. I was honored to be invited as a guest of HVS. Divided into three buses, each led by a board member the group visited four different sites where we heard from the growers themselves discuss what it means to be the steward of this irreplaceable heritage, I have assembled a summary of the day’s visits below organized by the vineyard name, and date of the oldest extant vines. Needless to say, all of these vineyards are fully engaged in the registry, and to share their rich histories with you, I’ve included links to their respective pages within the database.
The base for the day’s activities was Bedrock Vineyard, owned by Morgan Twain-Peterson (l), and fortuitously that is where I began my day with a walk through the vines with Morgan, and David Gates of Ridge. With a plentitude of different vines (Morgan ticked off the exact number as if he was reciting his firstborn’s vital statistics), he can play with lots of different concepts. He mentioned he has his eye on a block of 120 year-old Syrah he wants to bottle by itself. You just know it is going to be pretty special.
Bedrock was originally planted in 1854 when it was known as Madrone Ranch by a pair of future Civil War Generals, William Tecumseh Sherman, and “Fightin” Joe Hooker. They eventually took their respective posts in the Union Army and their viticultural careers are only a brief footnote to their future accomplishments in either of their bios.
Twain-Peterson’s wines earned him my 2010 Winemaker of The Year recognition and the most recent vintages are reviewed in issue two of pdwr (subscription required).
Originally known as Weiss, it holds two historic blocks, planted in 1937 (Upper Block, l) and 1943, (terraces). Some attribute the first planting of Upper Block here to 1850, which would make it the oldest hillside vineyard in the state. An unusual aspect here is that the dry-farmed vines have always been grown organically. The contoured terraces on the hillside are a thing of beauty as they vary in width from 6 to 14 feet. All of the fruit coming from this vineyard goes to Turley who bottles the wine as a vineyard designate.
If you ever want to see how diverse a vineyard can be planted, there probably is no better example than Pagani. More than thirty-five separate blocks are laid out and with the exception of four blocks planted all to Zinfandel, contain nearly as many different varietal mixes. Owned by the Pagani family since 1884, it claims to have the narrowest rows around and the vineyard looks exactly as it did in the 1900’s. However they are putting in some new blocks to keep up with demand.
Vineyard Manager, Will Bucklin describes Old Hill Ranch (l) as one of the oldest continuously farmed vineyards in California. It was established in 1852 by William McPherson Hill, the first viticulturist to import non-Mission grapes into Sonoma. The 40 acres of land, containing 12 acres of replanted vines (1885) were retained when Hill sold most of the estate in 1898, and was managed by his son, Robert Potter Hill until 1960. Along with Pagani Ranch, this vineyard is considered by many to consistently produce some of the best Zinfandel on the planet.
Once we returned to Bedrock Vineyard after a day of tromping through the dust, the organizers were ready to open up cases of their wines to match up with the hearty food from Cochon Volant. There was plenty of old vine wine being passed around and as mentioned above, for me the Turley Zinfandel, Fredericks Vineyard was exceptionally good. The highlight of the evening for me was listening to retired UC Davis plant geneticist, Dr. Carole Meredith discuss her research efforts that eventually led to the successful discovery of Zinfandel in what is presumably its native environment. I plan to sit down with Carole in the near future and have her talk about this on video.
The growth of HVS has been exponential with at least 100 people turning out for this sold-out event, making our core group of barely a dozen last year look very small by comparison. The people who are involved in this project are doing very worthwhile work that will lead to more recognition for the historic significance of old vine parcels and grow awareness among consumers to more fully appreciate what wines made from these properties represent.
Disclosure: As an independent writer, I will continue to cover non-profit HVS events and support its growth and outreach in any way I can. Comprehensive independent reviews of wines found in the registry may appear at pdwr subject to the same rigorous evaluation I use for all other wine reviews.
Cover Story:: Historic Vineyard Society – ancient vines and the men who love them Doug Wilder originally published July, 2011, by Doug Wilder
It was 1991 and I had only been in the wine business for about a year. In that short time, however, I had already developed interest in Zinfandel produced by Ridge and Ravenswood. It would be difficult to find two producers further apart in their philosophies on how wine should be created; Ridge, made by Paul Draper (since 1969) and founded in the early ’60s by scientific types from Stanford Research Institute, approached winemaking with his head, and his winery had Silicon Valley literally at its feet. From their perch 500 meters high on Monte Bello Ridge, the valley sparkled during the night and the winery itself was quickly becoming a jewel-like icon. Up in Sonoma Valley cattle country, Joel Peterson was setting up Ravenswood, (led by his heart) and both producers began to produce a continuum of extraordinary Zinfandel from old vines, rare sites of enormous character that seldom exceeded 600-700 cases.
I remember reading the reviews from Charlie Olken’s Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wines on both producers and they always received the highest marks. Curiously, they were both after the same thing, using the heritage vineyard sources in the north coast to make wines with great
character that like the vineyards themselves; some planted in the early 1880s, would stand the test of time. It was at this time I bought a book by David Darlington, called Angels’ Visits - an inquiry into the mystery of Zinfandel, a chronicle of the origins of Zinfandel arriving in America. Darlington in this heavily researched book, that in some ways read like a spy mystery, delves deeply into Ridge and Ravenswood, their winemakers, influences, approaches and ultimately the similar success making what still remain iconic wines even though both are now under corporate ownership. I absolutely devoured this book - turning pages while a bottle of Ridge Geyserville, or Ravenswood Belloni sat at my elbow. Since it pretty much unfolds in the San Francisco bay area, where I was born, it was no trouble to envision places like Palo Alto, Berkeley and Sonoma.
The vineyards sought out by Draper and Peterson, among others, were established by immigrants from Hungary, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and Germany in the decades following the gold rush and were usually planted on their own rootstock.Yet a typical vineyard could potentially contain well over a dozen varieties of grape, from Golden Chasselas to Zinfandel. It was standard practice to harvest and crush everything together, thus each vineyard would create something unique. How and why they chose what to plant, and more specifically, where a particular vine would be located are questions that have the modern-day stewards of these vineyards scratching their heads over. Unfortunately many of these old vineyards have been torn out in the name of progress. It hasn’t been uncommon to lose them to housing developments, especially in the pro-growth counties of Sonoma and Santa Clara over the last generation. However a good amount was lost during prohibition when it was legal to ship by rail, lugs of wine grapes for home winemaking. Because of its tendency to develop rot when subjected to long, unrefrigerated travel cross country, wineries tore out the 40 year-old Zinfandel vines and adapted their production to new plantings of Alicante Bouschet, a grape with thicker skin that would tend to survive the rigors intact. In the last forty years staunch advocates of farming old vineyards have developed into what many would consider the elite class of producers. Along with Ridge and Ravenswood, other wineries such as Acorn, Arnot-Roberts, Bedrock, Robert Biale, Rosenblum, Carlisle, Seghesio, Trentadue, Turley, and more make some of the best arguments for sustaining these sites by putting superior wines on the table. Despite these efforts, there wasn’t a central repository of viticultural evidence in existence that would serve as a consumer resource.
Historic Vineyard Society
A recently formed 501c3 non-profit known as Historic Vineyard Society, whose mission statement is: “accomplished through educating the wine-drinking public on the very special nature of this precious and depleting state, national and global resource” holds forth the best hope to make this happen. With a project team consisting of:
David Gates; Ridge, Mike Officer; Carlisle, Tegan Passalacqua; Turley, Morgan Twain-Peterson; Bedrock, Jancis Robinson; Author and Wine Critic, and Mike Dildine; at large.
They are deliberately building a robust registry of documented old-vine vineyards that hopefully will serve as a model for the grape-growing world. I have known Mike Dildine through other channels for the last several years and recently received an invitation from him to attend what was essentially the first field day/dinner for the group. Seeing the weight of the project team (Twain- Peterson was my Winemaker of the Year in 2010, on the strength of his stunning field blends) along with Carlisle, Ridge and Turley plus the involvement of the peerless writer and critic, Jancis Robinson was just the icing on top to the raison d’être of protecting this heritage resource.
In early July, about a dozen of us, mostly growers, along with author, David Darlington, wine columnist, Mike Dunne and I convened at Mike Officer’s Estate Vineyard, formerly the Pelletti Vineyard, in west Santa Rosa, planted in 1927 to a field blend. The walk and talk was led by Mike, Morgan and David who each provided an enormous amount of information that I knew was important, from a viticultural standpoint, that I didn’t even attempt to write down. I spent time taking pictures of these hulking, wild-maned vines that either roared like elephants on their ‘power pole’ trunks or undulated on the ground like a stretched out python. Morgan and Mike knew the ampelography of the leaf shapes - cold.
From there we drove north to Alexander Valley where we visited the Whitton Ranch, owned by the Trentadue Family with the grapes contracted to Ridge.The vines here were planted as far back as 1882 (in the instance of The Old Patch) and support a myriad of varieties that Morgan and Mike seem all too eager to jump into and catalog each vine. Between the vines were what I would probably describe as ‘progressive cover crop’; essentially an eco-system that continues to provide habitat to beneficial insect populations throughout the growing season, as one type of cover dies, it is replaced by another. The current flavor of the month happens to be wild carrot, daucus carota offering a pit stop to spider mite predators. It is a weed that grows everywhere, but here it is used as a tool to help sustain a healthy vineyard.
From here,Tegan guided us to the Turley 101 Vineyard, which is literally in a shallow swale at the edge of the off-ramp north of Whitton Ranch. All the work in here is done by hand from weeding to irrigation from a watering can. Immediately adjacent to this sliver of a vineyard is a block for Turley’s Juvenile bottling. After a full afternoon of walking around this divine dirt, we were all hungry, and more than a bit thirsty. After a quick detour through what is known as Stone Ranch (a little spur road with barns that look like they are straight out of the 1910’s) simply because we could cruise by yet more old vines, it wasn’t more than five minutes until we lined up in front of Ridge Lytton Springs, a facility that I was visiting for the first time. After David Gates gave us a quick overview of how the vineyard was laid out and its history, we repaired to the tasting room where we were joined by Joel Peterson, Morgan’s dad. After tasting through wines including 1988 Kalin Semillon (the current release, from Livermore, 2009 Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc Old Vines and 2010 Bedrock Mourvedre Rose from 120 year-old vines, and posing for the posterity shots, we were ready to sit down for an expansive carnitas and pollo spread (which stuffed everyone there, I believe). I found myself sitting with David Darlington, Morgan and Joel at one end of the table and a collection of old-vine reds, spanning over 20 years were on deck. The one constant, regardless of age or producer was the intense purity in the wines (even the 1994 Ravenswood Old Hill magnum that Joel detected some TCA in). The evening was capped off with a trio of dessert wines from Morgan Peterson’s Bedrock; a botritized Semillon, Gypsy Canyon proprietor, Deborah Hall (who came up from Santa Barbara for the event) brought her fortified Angelica. They were joined by host Ridge’s Geyserville Essencia. All were beautiful wines.
The reason for getting together was to kick off this ambitious and groundbreaking project and I intend to support it anyway I can going forward. The preservation of this historic resource, the way things used to be was clearly the message of the evening. When I was walking past the gate, I discovered that Joel Peterson wasn’t driving a pickup truck, but rather an all-electric Tesla Roadster. Clearly his heart is still in the right place.