Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Alicante Bouschet, Dead Or Alive?

Alicante bouschet, Mohr-Fry Ranches
For years, the Lodi wine trade has made a big deal of billing its vineyards as "sustainable." It's a sketchy term difficult to interpret, but thanks to this frank and balanced account of what's going on in one of Lodi's more historic and respected vineyards, we now have a fixed definition: $2,500 per ton. That's what it will take to sustain the historic 12.5-acre block of alicante bouschet in the vineyard of Lodi's Mohr-Fry Ranches. The owners, however, aren't getting it, so they are planning to bulldoze the plot, planted in 1921. This year's crop could be the last.

Granted, alicante bouschet isn't the most popular grape on the California wine scene these days. Yet, it's shown itself to be quite capable of producing red wines of such character that they win high awards on the competition circuit. Two months ago, the weekly wine column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee focused on one such wine, the Harmony Wynelands Winery 2009 Lodi Alicante Bouschet, the only interpretation of the varietal to get a gold medal from our panel at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in January. The wine was wonderful, a straight-forward take on the blossoming perfume, rich jamminess, uncommon complexity and exquisite balance that alicante bouschet can yield when grown and manipulated affectionately. You know where this is going, correct? The grapes that yielded the wine were grown on the Mohr-Fry Ranches, in the very block destined to be bulldozed.

Despite such and similar acclaim, alicante bouschet just isn't destined to be a major player on the California wine scene. There simply isn't much of it planted, and the effort that will be needed to nurture it into fine wine and then to educate a consuming public unfamiliar with it just may be too costly and daunting for farmers and vintners to tackle.

But as the Harmony Wynelands alicante bouschet shows, it's a grape and a wine worth keeping around; surely, awards like the one bestowed by the Chronicle judging will help raise its esteem, perhaps even to the point that the grape can command $2,500 or more per ton. Maybe the folks at Mohr-Fry should give it at least a few more years. The plot already has been around for 91 years, so why not wait until its 100th anniversary to see where things stand?

Incidentally, when I wrote of the Harmony Wynelands wine I heard from another producer of alicante bouschet, John Smith of Oakstone Winery and Obscurity Cellars in the Fair Play district of El Dorado County. In January, I'd written in The Bee about his Obscurity Cellars 2009 Fair Play Serendipity Hill Vineyard "Alice’s Biscuits" Alicante Bouschet. You can tell that I rather like the varietal.

At any rate, John Smith chastized me for giving the impression in the column about the alicante bouschet from Harmony Wynelands that only two examples of the varietal had been entered at the Chronicle competition. True, the panel on which I sat judged just two, the two entered in the class "Rhone Other Varietals & Blends" priced more than $20. Unbeknownst to me, two other alicante bouschets had been entered, but in a class not judged by our panel, "All Other Red Varietals/Blends" priced more than $20. That's where John Smith and one other Mother Lode vintner had entered their alicante bouschets. Smith's alicante bouschet got a gold medal in the Chronicle to go along with other gold medals it won at the Orange County Fair and the California State Fair. Two things are clear here: One, vintners aren't sure how they should enter alicante bouschet in wine competitions; should it be considered a Rhone Valley varietal or not? Second, other judges also really like alicante bouschet.

When I contacted the executive director of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, Bob Fraser, he explained at length about how the classes have grown so complicated and potentially confusing. I won't go into the historical details here, but just point out that with the Chronicle's next competition in January alicante bouschet and other minor varietals will be assigned to classes of their own. "No stand-alone varietal wines (will be) merged with the blended categories," says Bob Fraser. "We will have additional varietal categories and a catch-all 'all other red varieties' for the obscure varietals," he adds.

Thus, all's well on the alicante-bouschet front, at least as far as the Chronicle competition is concerned. There's still that Lodi matter that needs a happier solution. Let's run the figures. The alicante bouschet portion of the vineyard yielded 1.45 tons per acre last year, 2.37 tons per acre the year before. If someone were to pay $2,500 per ton for the alicante bouschet, they'd likely be investing between $45,000 and $75,000. I don't think I can persuade my wife to let me tap into the retirement reserves for that kind of money for that kind of gamble. On the other hand, as I say, alicante bouschet is rising in esteem. Stay tuned.


  1. 12.5 acres of old vine AB, seems like alot to me, given the market, if I were the owners I might replant 8-9 acres and leave 3-4 acres of the old vine beauties.

  2. I heard that Dick Cooper may graft some vines over to Alicante Bouchet. Mike Roser, winemaker at Cooper, makes a fabulous AB.

  3. As with all other businesses, it comes down to dollars and cents, income and expense. With the current high demand for replanting to new vineyards to meet sourcing needs of mainstay programs, at rates of return per acre that work, things move on. You can replant a clone of an old vine but one cannot replant an old vine. Tough decisions to retain historic aspects of regional diversity.

  4. Ray Zanini grows alicante bouschet in the Fiddletown AVA.