Concentration & Complexity: Four Historic California Vineyards
I find being in and around vineyards uniquely soothing and nurturing. Maybe it’s because they are usually part of a pastoral landscape. I may be triggered too by knowing they are devoted to producing a special product—one that brings pleasure and conviviality.
I find it especially delightful to visit a very old vineyard. The gnarly vines in these vineyards, which can live to be well over 100 years old, often develop large weathered holes in the middle of the trunk that make you wonder how the vine still produces fruit given that it appears to be hollow. These kinds of vineyards have special stories to tell. They also produce incredible wine.
In advanced age, a vine’s vigor is greatly reduced and it produces relatively small amounts of fruit. That fruit usually has significantly greater flavor concentration than fruit from younger vines. Unlike other very concentrated types of wine, however, concentration resulting from advanced vine age tends to produce very balanced wines—with plenty of acidity and good tannin structure to support the sugars and richly concentrated fruit.
These are the reasons I jumped at the opportunity to join the Historic Vineyard Society tour again this year visiting some of California’s oldest vineyards. The non-profit Society was founded by several prominent California winemakers to catalog California’s heritage vineyards and to identify and preserve the diversity present in their field blend plantings. The annual tour—this was its third year—is the organization’s primary fundraiser as well as a great way of raising awareness regarding these special vineyards.
In my report on last year’s tour here, I summarized the history of wine grape plantings in California and the state’s heritage of vineyards composed of a mix of black grapes. I also explained there why the oldest vineyards still in production date back to the mid-1880s, after they were replanted on phylloxera resistant rootstock following the devastation of the state’s vines by the same destructive louse that devastated the vast majority of Europe’s vines from the 1870s to 1890s.
One of the vineyards we visited this year—the Whitton Ranch Old Patch, source of much of the fruit that makes up Ridge’s famous Geyserville Zins—dates back to this period. The others on our tour were the Seghesio Family Chianti Station, which dates back to 1910; Henderlong Ranch, planted in 1927; and Turley’s 101 Vineyard whose exact age is unknown but which contains vines pre-dating Prohibition.
Our tour guides were Ridge winemaker David Gates, Seghesio family member Ned Neumiller, Turley winemaker Tegan Passalacqua, and Nalle winemaker and proprietor Doug Nalle.
Following our afternoon in the vineyards, we ended with dinner and a tasting of 14 wines from these and other older vineyards at Seghesio Family Vineyards. The standout wines of the evening were the truly fabulous old vine Zinfandel that Nalle makes from the Henderlong Vineyard—one of the greatest and most complex Zins I’ve ever tasted; Turley’s 101 Zin; the Seghesio Sangiovese from the Chianti Station old vines; and the latest edition of the Ridge Geyserville, from the 2011 vintage.
For my tasting notes on all 14 wines from older vines poured during the dinner, including a couple of unusual white wines, see the end of this report. Here is what I learned about each of the four vineyards we visited on May 11.
Whitton Ranch Old Patch
The original vines here were planted in what is now Sonoma’s Alexander Valley appellation in the early 1880s by A. Boutin, an orchardist who was a colleague of Luther Burbank. Boutin called his estate “Heart’s Desire.” The highly unusual spacing here—8.5 feet between rows and 4.5 feet between vines—is attributed to the dimensions of the wide tiller Boutin used to prepare the ground. It was the same tiller he used, attached to his team of horses, for planting fruit trees.
Old Patch is a traditional field blend of Zinfandel (60%), Carignane (25%), and lesser quantities of other black grapes such as Alicante Bouschet, Grenache, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah and Syrah. Some of the rarer vines have been identified in the past year through DNA testing as St. Nicaire and Petite Bouschet. The vines that thrive generally in old vine vineyards like this in California are Zinfandel and Carignane, which are not susceptible to the wood diseases that tend to kill off Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot after 50 to 60 years.
The Trentadue family owns the vineyard. Leo and Evelyn Trentadue, owners of a successful jewelry business based in Santa Clara Valley, south of San Francisco, had first purchased the Monte Bello Vineyard there. They sold that historic vineyard to Ridge after buying Whitton Ranch in 1966 and moving north the following year.
Of the vineyard’s 36 acres, almost one-half when the Trentadues purchased it were planted to Chenin Blanc, French Columbard or badly virused Merlot. Ridge took a 32-year lease on the property, with the understanding that Ridge would replant the white and virused vines and hire Leo and Evelyn’s son Victor as vineyard manager. Victor now also farms other vineyards for Ridge that Ridge has purchased since 1990.
When replanting, Ridge’s team used field selections of Zin from the older vines, taking some from Whitton Ranch, as well as from two other old vine vineyards: Picchetti and DuPratt. Ridge is trying to duplicate the mix of vines at Whitton Ranch, using cuttings from this and other old vine vineyards, in its newer vineyard plantings, like they did when they replanted part of the historic Fredson Ranch Vineyard in 2000.
The soil here includes relatively young alluvial soils from the Russian River, including a lot of gravel, on top of a water table that is fairly high in the Spring. David Gates calls this combo a “sweet spot” for Zin. David told us they can irrigate the vineyard, but usually don’t.
David explained that you can easily identify the old vines both from the very wide diameter of the trunks and because they tend to lie lower to the ground, typically below knee level, than more recent plantings.
The Chianti Station Vineyard was originally planted on the western bench of what is now the Alexander Valley appellation by the founder of the Seghesio Family Winery, Edoardo Seghesio, in 1910.
Edoardo’s descendant, Ned Neumiller, the fifth generation of the family to be involved in making wine in California, told us that Edoardo, who had arrived here from Piedmont, Italy, in the 1880s, had planned to return home to marry his sweetheart who was waiting for him there. His supervisor at Italian Swiss Colony, where he worked from 1886 to 1902, convinced him, however, to await the arrival of the supervisor’s niece, Angela Vasconi, who was on her way by boat from Italy. Edoardo and Angela married in 1893, and became a formidable team, with Edoardo focused on the vineyards and making the wine while Angela took care of marketing and sales.
The couple purchased a modest house on 56 acres of prime vineyard land in 1895, and Edoardo first planted Zinfandel. In 1910, Edoardo and Angela purchased additional land surrounding the railroad station in what was then known as the village of Chianti. That same year Edoardo planted a 10-acre vineyard on this property to a field blend of Sangiovese.
As a winemaker at Italian Swiss Colony, Edoardo had worked with Sangiovese. Four different types or “clones” of Sangiovese have been identified in the one and a half acres of original vines that remain from the 10 acres Edoardo originally planted. One of these clones has very small berries. Another, which Ned referred to as “Mutt and Jeff,” consists of both small and large berries. The third is a standard type of Sangiovese clone, while the fourth has elongated clusters and produces lighter colored wines. All are planted on St. George and 1212 rootstock.
Ned told us this was the oldest planting of Sangiovese in the U.S. It is not strictly dry farmed, since it’s in a location that receives a lot of sun, but they use the drip irrigation, installed in 1987, as little as possible.
In addition to the Sangiovese, the vineyard contains small amounts of Canaiolo Nero, and the white grapes Malvasia and Trebbiano. The latter are the 10 vines found in the last four rows. Ned’s grandfather told him they were “payment to the pickers,” but those grapes now generally go into the blend produced from this vineyard.
Ned told us that Sangiovese grapes are prone to bleaching, so they like to leave the lateral shoots to grow to give the bunches more shade. Ned told us they use cover crops to limit the need for commercial fertilizer. They try to grow the cover crop as tall as possible and then use a spader that ploughs it back into the ground. They let it dry and sit for four weeks, then finish it off with a disk.
The old Sangiovese vines are head trained, also known as Gobelet, with two buds per spur. Ned told us the vines were ready for another pruning pass to open up the center of the vine.
The vineyard is regularly swept by eight- to 10-mile-an-hour winds, which keep the vines dry, reducing the chance of mildew and rot.
This is one of the first blocks the Seghesio team picks, generally at about 26 brix. Seghesio employs a crew of about 27 pickers, many of which are the same year after year through the H2A immigration program. Agricultural employers can join this program, as Seghesio did nine or 10 years ago, if they provide the workers housing and pay a higher than average age. The program requires that the workers return to their home country within 72 hours of the end of harvest.
The Seghesio crew picks overnight, starting at 2 am, and can bring in up to 116 tons per day. Seghesio currently owns a total of less than 10 acres of old vines, averaging about 60 years old. This includes the Rattlesnake Hill Vineyard across the road from Chianti Station, which was planted during Prohibition mainly to Sangiovese with a little Zinfandel, and which goes into the Chianti Station label sold through the Seghesio tasting room.
Edoardo and Angela actually once owned the 1,100 acre Italian Swiss Colony vineyards which they bought shortly before Prohibition in the belief that Constitutional amendment would never finally be ratified. The family was primarily a bulk wine producer for many years. It wasn’t until 1983 that Edoardo and Angela’s descendants first bottled wines under the Seghesio Family label.
This vineyard was planted primarily to Zinfandel on St. George rootstock in 1927 by Fred and Ruby Henderlong, the grandparents of Doug Nalle’s wife Lee. It is located in what is now the Dry Creek Valley appellation in Sonoma County, and consists of 945 vines on gravelly clay loam with eight foot by eight foot spacing. In addition to the Zinfandel, which makes up 96% of the vines, it also contains about two percent each of Petite Sirah and Carignane, as well as a few Valdiguié vines.
As is generally true in Dry Creek Valley, mornings are foggy, the sun returns in the afternoon, and nights get quite cool. These conditions allow for gradual ripening, leading to harvest usually by mid-September.
Doug Nalle, who started Nalle Winery in 1984 after working in the wine business for over 10 years, and who lives on the property with Lee, told us that although the soil is ideal, his preferred climate can be found about two miles north, where a little less morning fog leads to less mildew and rot pressure. He describes the area where Henderlong is located as the “coolest spot in Dry Creek Valley” since winds come up off of the nearby Russian River and head north. He explained that on an average day, “if it’s about 84 degrees here, it’s 92 degrees up at the dam.”
The clay in the soil retains sufficient moisture into the summer to allow dry farming. According to Doug, Dry Creek Valley’s bench land is “everything from Dry Creek Road up to the slopes.” To the left of the road is the “bottom land,“ which Doug says is “too cold and wet for Zin.” Sauvignon Blanc does well there.
In Doug’s succinct view, “There’s a lot of mystique about old vines. Some of it is BS, but most of it is pretty good.” He is also a big fan of the field blend found in many historic California vineyards. In his view, this blend gives greater complexity to the wines, giving them “a little more color, structure, and other flavors.” Zin, by itself, “tends to be a little hollow in the middle,” according to Doug. The mix of grapes including Petite Sirah and Carignane “adds structure, fills it out.” He told us the Zin from this vineyard has good acidity, “but normally you would want a little more Petite and Carignane” than the nearly four percent planted there.
The Henderlongs lived here for 40 years. Their sons, including Lee’s father, later farmed the property before it passed to Lee’s cousins, the Saini family. Doug and his son Andrew tell the Sainis how they want the vineyard farmed. They let Doug and Andrew do the “fine tuning,” like the leaf pulling. Doug and Andrew had recently pulled off, just prior to bloom, the suckers—shoots appearing from the ground, apart from the trunk–on the vineyard’s left side, which ripens earlier.
Doug explained that “things can go wrong during bloom,” so they leave some extra clusters on through blooming. Wind moving around and through the budding grape clusters enables them to self pollinate. One typically expects about two thirds of the clusters to bloom and set fruit. Doug told us, “if bloom was perfect, without too much wind or any heavy rain, you would end up with twice as much fruit” as they typically get. In 2011, only one-third of the fruit set. Yields from this vineyard vary from 2.5 to 3.5 tons per acre. They make 50 to 60 cases of wine per ton. Yields in 2012 reached an extraordinary 4.5 tons after three thinning passes.
Doug and Andrew make their complex, delicious Zins from the Henderlong Vineyard fruit by using open top fermenters. They rarely punch down, preferring to pump over with gentle irrigation two to three times per day. The fermenting temperature gets up to the low 90 degrees. They press a little before the fermentation gets to dry, and the wine goes into neutral oak barrels for 20 months.
Larry Turley found this two-acre, old vine vineyard through an ad that appeared in the local classifieds in 1995. It is located in Alexander Valley south of the town of Geyserville, boxed into a small area between the 101 Freeway from which it takes its current name and old railroad tracks that have been out of use since about 1992. The owners who sold it to Turley did not know when the vineyard had been planted, but the diameter of the older vine trunks and the mix of vines, including a section of Blue Portugieser that was subsequently pulled out, places it in the pre-Prohibition era.
After purchasing the vineyard and determining that only about 25% of the vines were still alive, Turley’s team replanted in 1996 with trellised Zinfandel. Turley winemaker Tegan Passalacqua told us Turley no longer uses a trellis system when they plant Zin, preferring to head prune. The current varietal mix is 95% Zinfandel and 5% Carignane. The unusual spacing is 12 feet between rows and five feet between vines, similar to that of the nearby Whitton Ranch Vineyard.
The vineyard is non-irrigated and organically farmed. It is typically harvested the first week of September and yields wine with high natural acidity—between 3.38 and 3.45 finished pH. Tegan attributes the high acidity to the steady moderate wind that blows through the vineyard, and to the gravelly clay soil.
According to Tegan, once the grapes on the part of the vineyard on the slope–which flowers and goes through verasion first–begin to “dimple,” the grapes are ready to pick. They pick the old vines separately, putting the production from the younger vines in their Juveniles blend. Every year since 1997 the fruit from the old vines is responsible for Turley’s lowest production single vineyard bottling, called “101,” averaging 150 cases a year and sold only through their mailing list.
I got to try this concentrated beauty during the dinner tasting, and it is delicious and capable of long aging.
For my notes on the wines based on old vine vineyards that we sampled at the dinner, see below. If you have not yet tried a wine based on one of California’s heritage, old vine vineyards, one or more of these would be an excellent place to start.Bedrock
2012 Bedrock Wine Co. Mourvedre Ode to Lulu Rosé – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
From magnum – light yellow pink color; tart peach, light cantaloupe, tart orange nose; tasty, balanced, juicy, tart peach, tart Rainier cherry palate; medium-plus finish 92 points
2008 Bedrock Wine Co. Syrah Lauterbach Hill Russian River Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Bricking very dark red violet color; very aromatic, savory, pepper, rosemary, dried herb nose; tasty, lavender, pepper, dried berry, tart black fruit with firm tannins yet; could used 2-plus years more; medium-plus finish 93+ points
2011 Bedrock Wine Co. Sémillon Lachryma Montis, Botrytized Old Vine Monte Rosso Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
From 375 ml – light medium orange color; baked pear, apricot jam, orange marmalade nose; rich, syrupy, baked pear, baked apricot, apricot syrup palate with low acidity; long finish 91 points
2011 Carlisle The Derivative White – USA, California, Sonoma County
Light medium lemon yellow color; intriguing, aromatic, lemon oil, floral, sunflower oil nose; appealing, complex, oily textured, tart peach, safflower oil, orange oil palate; medium-plus finish (66% Semillon, 24% Muscadelle, 10% Chaselas; 13.7% alcohol) 92+ points
2008 Heart’s Desire Zinfandel Ponzo Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Bricking very dark red violet color; mature, dried black fig, dried berry, tar nose; tasty, mature, rich, dried berry, black fig, raspberry coulis, black cherry palate; medium-plus finish (13.4% alcohol) 92 points
2010 Nalle Zinfandel Henderlong Ranch – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
Dark ruby color; appealing, aromatic, dried berry, ginger spice cake, dried black currant nose; tasty, complex, dried raspberry, dried cherry, ripe raspberry, cinnamon, raspberry coulis palate with a core of tart cherry; medium-plus finish (13.9% alcohol; one of the best Zins I’ve ever tasted, from vines planted in 1927) 95 points
2011 Ridge Geyserville – USA, California, Sonoma County
Dark ruby color; tart berry, dried berry, dark chocolate nose; tasty, complex, dried berry, licorice, tart black cherry, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (76% Zinfandel, 16% Carignane, 4% Petite Sirah, 1% Alicante Bouschet, 1% Mataro; 14% alcohol; best young Geyserville on release ever?) 93+ points
2008 Ridge Mazzoni Home Ranch – USA, California, Sonoma County
Dark ruby color; intriguing, baked berry, berry compote, ripe black fruit, pepper nose; tasty, complex, peppery, tart black fruit, dried berry palate; medium-plus finish (50% Zinfandel, 49% Carignane, 1% Petite Sirah; 14.5% alcohol) 93 points
2011 Robert Biale Zinfandel R.W. Moore Vineyard – USA, California, Napa Valley
Medium dark ruby color; lifted, white pepper, tar, dried currant nose; dried black currant, tar, licorice, dried berry palate; could use 2-3 years bottle age; medium-plus finish (15.5% alcohol) 92+ points
2011 Seghesio Family Vineyards Zinfandel Home Ranch – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
Very dark cherry red color; lifted, tart raspberry, dried berry, chocolate nose; rich, poised, silky textured, chocolate raspberry, ripe raspberry, dried berry, sandalwood palate with good balance; medium-plus finish (14.8% alcohol) 92+ points
2009 Seghesio Family Vineyards Sangiovese Chianti Station – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
Medium dark red violet color; aromatic, ripe red berry, ripe red currant dried berry, tar nose; tasty, complex, dried berry, red berry, mineral, spice palate with medium acidity; could use 2-plus years; medium-plus finish (probably the best California Sangiovese I’ve ever tasted, from very old vines–planted in 1910) 93+ points
2009 Turley Zinfandel Vineyard 101 – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
Nearly opaque red violet color; appealing, lifted, ripe berry, baked black cherry, black raspberry nose; rich, delicious, black cherry, black raspberry, black currant palate; long finish (15.7% alcohol) 94 points
2003 Turley Zinfandel Keig Vineyard – USA, California, Napa Valley
From magnum – cloudy, bricking dark magenta color; maturing, dark chocolate, black pepper, dried mushroom nose; appealing, mature, black trumpet mushroom, dried mushroom, tar, dried berry palate; medium-plus finish (15.5% alcohol) 92+ points
2008 Turley Zinfandel Fredericks Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
Bricking dark purple red violet color; dried berry, ripe berry, tar, spice nose; complex, rich, ripe berry, licorice, dried berry, tar palate showing a little heat; medium-plus finish (15.9% alcohol) 92+ points