Vintage Vintages

Old-Vine Wines

In praise of reds: Savoring the taste of tradition among Sonoma County’s time-honored wines

By Steve Bjerklie

The vines that produced the grapes for a recent afternoon’s glass of zinfandel had once been owned by a Civil War general, and, after him, by the father of William Randolph Hearst. The land on which the vines still grow had once been owned by Gen. Mariano Vallejo, who gave it to his children’s music teacher in exchange for piano lessons. The man who had poured the wine, Harry Parducci, once drove grape trucks from Sonoma over to Christian Brothers in Napa Valley for his father, Enrico, and sold the brothers zinfandel grapes for $35 a ton. He smiled a little tiredly but contentedly as I tasted the wine his son, Harry Jr., had made, Valley of the Moon’s 1993 Sonoma Valley Old Vines Reserve Zinfandel. “It’s pretty good, eh?”

Yeah, it was pretty good. Like a Vermeer is a pretty good painting. The wine was deep, leathery, and well-grained; the sound of a cello would describe its complexity. “There’s a lot of history right there,” Parducci says. “People, land. No one really knows when that vineyard was planted. It’s old, all I know.”

Have a taste of these classic wines from Sonoma County.

This is zinfandel’s golden age, and no zinfandels in the world are better than the zins made from Sonoma County’s old vineyards. Indeed, it might be more accurate to say this is the golden age of old vineyards in general. As it happens, Sonoma County has the best of those, too.

“Old vines absolutely make better wines,” says Joel Peterson, partner and winemaker at Ravenswood in Sonoma, and one of the heroes of zinfandel’s ascendance. His Old Hill Vineyard and Wood Road/Belloni Vineyard zinfandels, both from Sonoma County grapes, have won rafts of awards and legions of devotees. “There is a depth of flavor in the grape when old zinfandel’s ready to pick. The berries have succulent fruit, flavors of strawberry and raspberry, with a thickness of the flavor at the center.”

“Old vines produce berries with extraordinary intensity,” agrees Sean Thackery, a specialist in old-vine wines who makes several celestially named blends–“Orion,” “Sirius,” “Pleiades”–under his own eponymous label. “They have a wonderful forwardness of fruit.”

Gordon Binz, who makes zinfandel for Renwood from the 127-year-old Grandpere vineyard in Amador County, says that “vines carry on like a human being. It’s not until they’re 40, 50, or 60 years old that the character and balance come out. In their 70s and 80s, production drops, but there’s new complexity to enhance the character and balance.”

Kent Rosenblum of Rosenblum Cellars, who makes a zinfandel from 80-year-old vines in Sonoma County’s Samsel Vineyard, concurs. “I can tell by looking at the grapes whether the wine’s going to be good.”

Thackery, who was once an art dealer in San Francisco, adds, in reference to himself, Binz, Peterson, and Rosenblum, that “finally, some guys have come along that take some of these old vines seriously. These vineyards are works of art. They were planted the way vineyards ought to be planted–dry-farmed, no irrigation–and a lot of them are on St. George rootstock, which is wonderful from a winemaker’s point of view.”

Peterson, who learned how to unwrap zinfandel’s gifts from the legendary Joe Swan, says that “farming and location are the two keys to a great, old vineyard. They’ve got to be dry-farmed and head-pruned. Head-pruning and zinfandel go together like mom and apple pie.” He comments that every old vineyard presents a specific challenge, or opportunity. In the case of Old Hill, the vines receive lots of sun, so the berries are thickly skinned. “There’s more tannin there, so the challenge is to balance it. Wood Road’s more acid, which has to be balanced with more fruit.”

Until fairly recently, says Peterson, zinfandel was the “ugly stepchild of cabernet. You got $5 a bottle for it. At that price, there was no way you could age it in French oak, and there was no way the growers could be happy with the limited production of old vineyards, which produce one and a half or two or maybe three tons an acre. They wanted younger vines that could produce six or seven tons an acre.”

But now, with top-priced zins fetching $15-$20 a bottle, the finest wine-making techniques and technology can be applied to once-lowly zinfandel.

Though zinfandel is the wine most commonly made from old vines, zinfandel is by no means the only grape growing in Sonoma County’s old vineyards. Turn-of-the-century and 19th-century plantings of alicante, sangiovese, carignagne, petite sirah, mourvedre, barbera, and other Mediterranean wine-grape varieties can be found throughout the region. Nearly all the old vineyards were planted by Italian or German immigrants, though a few were hobby farms for wealthy aristocrats, including Vallejo, state Sen. George Hearst, Joseph Hooker (the Civil War general), and, of course, Buena Vista winery’s founder, Agoston Haraszthy, the self-proclaimed “father of the California wine business.”

Actually, Haraszthy fathered four sons and two daughters, not an industry. He appears to have died, in 1869 in Nicaragua, in the jaws of a crocodile. And unfortunately, there appears to be nothing left of the vineyards planted in Sonoma County by two utopian societies: the Icarians, who were French proto-communists living in the 1880s near Cloverdale; and the Brotherhood of the New Life, a community of followers of free-thinker and free-lover Thomas Lake Harris, who lived above Santa Rosa beginning in 1892. The Brotherhood’s wine label was Fountain Grove, and their winemaker a Japanese nobleman, Baron Kanaye Nagasawa (who must’ve been the first Asian winemaker in America).

George Husman, a horticulturist at the University of Missouri who came to California to grow wine in 1881, described his fellow vineyardists as “comparatively poor men, many of whom have to plant their vineyards, nay, even clear the land for them with their own hands and work their way up by slow degrees to that competence which they hope to gain by the sweat of their brow.”

“The immigrants planted what they knew, and lucky for us, they planted on hillsides, because that’s how they did it back home,” says Ravenswood’s Peterson. This was particularly fortuitous for zinfandel, which seems to produce better, more flavorful fruit when the vines are somewhat stressed and, in Peterson’s word, “enfeebled.”

Also, bottomlands and valley acreage tended to be used for growing hay for livestock. Except in the cases of the estates of Hearst, Vallejo, and others, vineyards were largely planted in Sonoma County for homemade blended wines–vino de tavola, in other words. Most of the plantings were red-wine types, though some white-wine grapes were also planted. “But they were grapes for wines you and I wouldn’t want to drink, like Palomino and Sauvignon Vert,” says Peterson. “Junk grapes, mostly.”

The grapes planted by the aristocrats were on a different order, however. Some of the estate growers vied with one another for who could get cuttings from the most prestigious vineyards in France. Frona Eunice Wait’s book Wines and Vines in California, published in 1889, lists Sonoma County vineyards planted with cuttings from Château Lafite, Château Margeaux, and Hermitage, the famous Rhône appellation. However, the California phylloxera epidemic of the 1870s and ’80s, and a succession of grape-price busts beginning in 1858 and not concluding until well into Prohibition, caused many of the fancy vineyards, as well as the vineyards of the immigrant farmers, to be torn out.

Though the wine business tended to bust and boom, it was certainly a big business. By 1863, 12 million vines had been planted in California; by 1873 that number had increased to 43 million. As early as 1856, Kohler & Frohling, a wine firm in Los Angeles founded by two German musicians, shipped California bulk wine to England, Germany, Russia, South America, Japan, and even China.

Zinfandel was the backbone of the immigrants’ red blends. Many of the county’s original zinfandel vineyards survived the price busts and changing tastes because the grape is versatile and easy to grow; its hardiness–and St. George rootstock–helped it survive phylloxera. Luck helped, too. “Frankly, a lot of these old vineyards survived by inattention or accident,” comments Thackery, whose “Orion” blend is made from petite sirah and other grape varieties planted in 1905. “These are the real thing, too, the true smaller clone of syrah.”

No one knows who has the oldest vineyard in Sonoma County, or even the oldest in California. The Grandpere vineyard in Amador County is thought by many to be the state’s oldest continuously producing vineyard, but Kent Rosenblum says he’s found a half-acre of 137-year-old zinfandel vines, 10 years older than Grandpere, in Contra Costa County. If he has the age right, those vines were already 2 years old and producing grapes when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., beginning the American Civil War. “Kent’s kind of secretive about it,” says Peterson. “But really, it gets to be kind of a pissing match over who has the oldest.”

The first vineyard planted in the county was the planting of Mission grapes the Spanish friars at Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma put into the ground in the 1820s, and which later came under the ownership of Vallejo when Mexico secularized the mission properties in 1834. Across the street from the Sebastiani parking lot is a large Mission vine pruned into a huge canopy; this vine is a direct descendant of the original Sonoma mission’s grapes. A few old Mission grape vines may also exist in Bennett Valley.

The contenders for oldest vineyard in the county, like the Shaw Vineyard of zinfandel at Kunde Estate, seem to have been planted in the 1880s; Shaw went into the ground in 1882. It seems probable a few of the portion of those 43 million vines from 1873 that were planted in Sonoma County might have survived. If so, they’re likely to be discovered soon. Prices for grapes from old vines have increased dramatically, especially for zinfandel. “When we sold the grapes to Christian Brothers for $35 a ton, my dad said we had to go into the wine business,” remembers Harry Parducci. “There was no way to make money in grapes at $35 a ton. Now the price is way up there, over a thousand a ton. I can hardly believe it. But I think it does these old grapes right.”

From the Feb. 28-Mar. 6, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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