Friday, July 22, 2011

A Gathering Of Old Vines

They're short and stooped. Their limbs are stiff and gnarled. They're thick through the trunk. Their skin is flaky. Many need to be propped up to keep from toppling over. No wonder they're so often likened to old men. But rather than old men, they're grape vines, very old grape vines. For 60 or 70 or maybe 100 years they've been yielding fruit that goes into many of California's more esteemed wines.

Lots of vineyardists and vintners cherish and fawn over older vines. A few of these farmers and winemakers, all based in Sonoma County, think the country's elderly vineyards deserve more respect and protection. About a year ago, they formed the Historic Vineyard Society. A few days ago they organized for a handful of wine writers a casual tour of four older vineyards in Sonoma County.

Mike Officer at his Carlisle Vineyard outside Santa Rosa
Weather-wise, they couldn't have scheduled the tour any better. The temperature was in the 70s. Low scuttling clouds kept the group in soft shadows much of the afternoon. The vineyards included the Carlisle just west of Santa Rosa, and the Whitton Ranch and the Lytton Estate just outside of Healdsburg. Soil compositions, exposures, drainage, slope and the like varied from site to site. Nevertheless, the elder statesmen of the vineyards more or less all looked alike - short, dark, stubby, hung with bunches of grapes still small and green, their canopies of leaves and tendrils full and wild.

At each stop, the vines for the most part were zinfandel. But each vineyard also was dotted with other varieties, scattered randomly through the rows. At Carlisle Vineyard, owner Mike Officer, who also is president of the Historic Vineyard Society, says he's counted 31 varieties other than zinfandel in his 10-acre spread, planted in 1927 by Alcide Pelletti, an immigrant from Tuscany. Officer hasn't identified all of the vines, but those he has include such historic workhorses of the California wine trade as alicante bouschet, petite sirah and carignane, as well as rarities like grand noir de la calmette.

This speckling of other grapes in a vineyard given over largely to one variety is repeated at the next stop, Whitton Ranch, though the diversity isn't as far ranging as it is at Carlisle. Whitton Ranch, owned by the Trentadue family, is believed to have been planted in 1882. Since 1966, Ridge Vineyards of Cupertino has been buying fruit off the vineyard for its celebrated "Geyserville" proprietary wine, largely zinfandel but also including petite sirah, carignane, alicante bouschet and mataro, also known as mourvedre.

At Lytton Estate, where the older sections were planted in 1901 and 1910, the mix is almost identical. Ridge Vineyards has been making a zinfandel from the vines since 1972, and in 1992 bought the winery on the site and the prized vineyards around it.

The first question these vineyards prompt is  whether this seemingly haphazard array of vines was by accident or intent? Did the oldtimers who cultivated the vineyards simply lack the wherewithal to identify correctly the vines they were putting into the ground? No, said vineyardists guiding the tour, the pioneers knew exactly what they were doing. Certain patterns emerge in the blends, they note. As you move north in Sonoma County, more carignane can be found in the old zinfandel vineyards, said David Gates Jr., vice president of vineyard operations for Ridge Vineyards. It's warm up there, and the early vineyardists wanted carignane co-planted and co-fermented with their zinfandel to boost the wine's acidity, a trait highly valued in carignane. As you head south, petite sirah becomes more prevalent because it is valued for the color and structure it can give zinfandel that might not get as ripe as it does in the warmer valleys to the north.

David Gates, flanked by old vines at Lytton Estate
Such field blends are rare today, though some growers and winemakers again are experimenting with the technique. For the most part, however, winemakers prefer to receive and ferment one variety at a time, then blend afterwards in the cellar. That preference, in fact, has led to the pulling of some older mixed vineyards and replacing them with plots devoted to a single variety. The loss of older vineyards because of that sort of specialization is one reason that Officer, Gates and a few others took the initiative to create the Historic Vineyard Society.

Older vineyards also are jeopardized by economics; as vines age, their productivity drops, tempting vineyardists to replace them with new vines that yield more tonnage. Urban encroachment also can endanger older vineyards.

At its website, the Historic Vineyard Society has created a registry of more than 200 older vineyards. Several of the names will be familiar to anyone who relishes vineyard-designated zinfandels, including Nichelini, Puccini, Lubenko, Mohr-Fry, Grandpere, DuPratt and Zeni, among others. Any grower with a vineyard that he or she feels qualifies for the registry can add its name to the list. The society's officials then undertake a review to verify each vineyard's age, starting with a casual physical survey of the vineyard itself.

To qualify for the registry, a vineyard must have been planted no later than 1960, it still must be producing grapes, and no less than a third of its existing vines must date to the original planting. Though the society's directors feel they can fairly accurately gauge a vineyard's age simply by touring it, they also will consult agricultural-commission documentation, tax-assessment records and the like to validate a vineyard's age in cases of uncertainty and dispute.

The group, which has as a consultant the British wine writer Jancis Robinson, was inspired to create the society largely because it wants to help preserve older vineyards as important physical links to the country's wine heritage, says Officer. But he also draws a parallel with efforts to preserve the nation's older historic buildings; those preservation efforts often include tax breaks for people who own them. "Why not do the same thing for historic vineyards?" he muses.

So far, the organization has raised what few funds it's needed through "blind donations" and a sale last fall of wines made from several older vineyards. Eventually, the society would like to stage tastings of wines from historic vineyards both to raise funds and to raise public awareness of their existence and contributions. "We want to raise public awareness of how special these vineyards are so they can be kept in the ground," says Officer.

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