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Doug - HVS

A message from the publisher:

As a native Californian, I grew up learning how our state was settled by europeans beginning with the Spanish missions and the land stampede that came with that news of gold being discovered. The migration west brought a rich list of cultures; Hungarian, French, Finnish, Italian, German, Austrian, Swiss and Portuguese who had in common a history of farming and viticulture. Once these people established themselves in either the Sierra Foothills, or the farmlands of the North Coast they developed vineyards of their own using what they knew from the old country. There were no university classes, no soil science or irrigation engineers to guide these pioneers. They planted rows based on the width of the horse teams that pulled the plow, put their tongue to the dirt to test for pH and relied on generations of experience on how to deal with pests and diseases. They established a patchwork of vineyards across the state beganning in the late 1850’s running from the Central Valley to Dry Creek Valley dedicated to growing grapes, initially for personal consumption and ultimately destined for commercal sale. 

By the time I started learning about the place I was born, over a hundred years had transpired since the Gold Rush and suburban development was clearly on the minds of the growing baby-boomer generation. Cities like Santa Rosa and Napa began to spill over into tracts that had once supprted an agrarian culture. Ugly old gnarly vines were knocked down to make way for the surveyors plotting out the subdivisions, malls, courthouses and playgrounds - the American dream.  Not appreciated at the time was what these vines represented. Unlike plots of wheat, hay, corn or spinich, grape vines take years to develop character specific to where they are planted and once they are gone need to be re-established. Untold numbers of acres of unique viticultural DNA disappeared as sodium lamps replaced smudge pots.

Fast forward to 2010 and a group of young winemakers from Carlisle, Bedrock and Turley help create the Historic Vineyard Society; a non profit organization to develop a registry of old-vine plant material in California. As a writer, I am interested in what goes into a bottle of wine. As a native Californian, I believe there is much work to be done to help preserve this plant DNA and educate consumers about what makes these wines unique.

Doug Wilder, publisher - pdwr


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Entries in Purely Domestic Wine Report (1)

Monday
May212012

Survival of the thickest: 130 years of old vine vineyards in Sonoma Valley

 

  

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. 

BEDROCK VINEYARD | 1886

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).

 

 

FREDERICKS VINEYARD | 1937

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. 

 

 

PAGANI RANCH VINEYARD | 1884

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. 

 

OLD HILL RANCH | 1885

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. 

In conclusion

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. 

For more information on Historic Vineyard Society.