Viniculture

02.22.14

The Pleasures of America’s Oldest Vines

America may be a young country and our wine industry even younger, but there are old vineyards that produce seriously delicious wine. Seek them out writes sommelier Jordan Salcito.

California’s oldest vineyards hold some very deep secrets. A handful of parcels interspersed throughout the state have survived everything from Phylloxera and Prohibition to the Great Depression. In addition to producing great wines, these vineyards offer important insight into our collective national past.

A couple of years ago, while out to dinner with a friend, I drank a glass of Turley Wine Cellars “Bechtold Vineyard” Cinsault. She ordered it. I was skeptical. But that wine, a balanced blend of supple fruit, focused acidity and sweet spice, was my wake-up call. Some of California’s best wines these days are coming from these ancient vineyards. And the vineyards, which generate lower yields and are often expensive to farm, are at risk.

Few people are as well-informed about America’s viticulture history as Morgan Twain-Peterson. The proprietor of Bedrock Vineyards and a founding member of the Historic Vineyard Society Morgan has been making wine since age five (in its heyday, his Vino Bambino Pinot Noir graced lists at esteemed restaurants like Gramercy Tavern). He also has a history degree from Vassar College and a graduate degree in American Studies from Colombia. And he’s passed the notoriously difficult Master of Wine exam.

“Old vineyards are self-selected,” he explains. “If a vineyard is 120 years old, it’s able to thrive.”

After graduate school, Morgan returned to California, purchased the Bedrock Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, and founded a winery in its name. Bedrock is not California’s oldest vineyard, but its history is especially colorful and well-documented. “We know more about Bedrock than we do about most other vineyards on account of the people who owned it,” Peterson explained.

Past owners include General M.G. Vallejo, commandante of the Mexican territory Alta California, George Washington Whitaker (who planted Mission grapes and fruit orchards), General Joseph Hooker (bankrolled by William Tecumseh Sherman, a San Francisco financier), Eli T. Sherman (former American consulate to China), and Senator George Hearst, William Randolph’s father.

These vines are indirectly linked to one of the most notable idioms of our day. Hooker and Sherman split on poor terms; Hooker owned his former partner a lot of money. A few years later when America erupted in Civil War both men became Union generals, Sherman’s responsibilities included divvying up food rations for the Union Troops. Hooker’s company received notoriously small rations. Nevertheless, he found ways to sustain his troops’ spirits. Arguing that his men fought better when they slept next to ladies, his company traveled with collection of women ordered to do exactly that. Bedrock, one could argue, spawned ‘hookers.’

“I think it’s very funny that we now call the vineyard Bedrock,” Peterson mused. 

Bedrock’s next owner, Eli T. Sherman, leaves us detailed historic and viticultural accounts through his farming diaries, which have been well-preserved thanks to his post as American consulate to China (he held the position when the United States passed the China Exclusion Act). Sherman’s s old farming journals chronicle a series of hardships, including farming Phylloxera-infested vines. One of his final entries, from December 24th, 1887, reads “Sold the property to Senator George Hearst. Moving East. Glory, Hallelujah.”

In Bedrock vineyard, gnarled, head-trained vines resemble fruit orchards more than the archetypal “vineyard” with manicured vines in tight rows. More than twenty-two grape varieties flourish including Mission, Syrah, Petit Syrah, Alicante Bouchet and Zinfandel. Peterson suspects that one of the reasons so many types of vines exist in the vineyard can be traced back to Phoebe Appleton Hearst, George’s wife and a member of the board of trustees on a university that eventually became University of California at Davis.

East of Sonoma, Lodi is a treasure trove of ancient vines. The Bechtold Cinsault vineyard, still family owned by elegant Wanda Wook Bechtold and her husband, Al, represents another living piece of history. Vines date back to 1886, and some of California’s most compelling wineries are working with the site. Wanda, an artist and historian, spent over five years researching her family’s past in order to publish a book. Her winery, Jessie’s Grove, includes a one-of-a-kind winemaking museum.

Tegan Passalacqua, winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars, founding member of the Historic Vineyard Society and a native Napa man renowned for his deep understanding of farming practices and California vineyard land, is also responsible for connecting a handful of other compelling growers—like Gideon Beinstock, of Clos Saron, to the vineyard. Clos Saron’s “Out of the Blue,” a shockingly great value and magnificent wine, is made with Bechtold fruit.

Older vines produce smaller yields, so many landowners have been pulling out the historical vines in order to replant with younger, higher-yielding vines that bear popular varieties like Cabernet and Chardonnay. Lodi’s highway slices through uprooted vineyards in which the ancient vines have been plucked from the ground and piled in mounds of gnarled, wooden refuse.

The older vines are generally head-trained. Pruning them, Peterson explains, is a science and a dying art. He also shared insight into major factors that differentiate ancient vines.  “Old vineyards are self-selected,” he explains. “If a vineyard is 120 years old, it’s able to thrive.” Additionally, very old vines have developed root systems that can be forty feet deep. These systems protect wine during drought years. Lastly, they are self-regulating and tend to produce fewer clusters and therefore more concentrated wines that effectively evoke a sense of place.  

Christina Turley, of Turley Wine Cellars, shares this zeal for California’s heritage vineyards. “Old vines often mimic older people,” she shared. “They’re more sure of themselves, they’ve weathered many storms over the years, and they regulate themselves naturally.”

Rarely can history deliver as much pleasure as it does from these vineyards. The Historic Vineyard Society has catalogued many vineyards. The best way to appreciate them, though, is to taste for yourself.