A Tour of Historic California Vineyards
This month I toured some of California’s oldest vineyards with a group of winemakers who make wines from these vineyards. The vineyard tour and the dinner that followed were organized to raise funds for the Historic Vineyard Society, whose mission is to document and preserve these precious pieces of California’s vinous heritage.
California’s first vineyards were planted starting in 1779 by Franciscan missionaries directed by Father Junipero Serra. The vines planted were what have become known as Mission grapes, or Criolla, a term that covers a few varieties of pink grapes traditionally used for sacramental wine. The first non-Mission grape plantings in California, with European, or vitis vinifera, grapes used for fine wine making, were Jean-Louis Vignes’s plantings in Los Angeles in 1833.
Northern California, especially Sonoma, became the focus for plantings shortly after some settlers there declared their independence from Mexico in 1846. Following the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded Alta California to the U.S., and in 1850 California became a state. One of the vineyards we visited, now known as Fredericks Vineyard, is thought to have been the first hillside vineyard planted, also in 1850.
The first non-Mission grapes were planted in Northern California in Old Hill Ranch Vineyard, one of the other vineyards we toured, in 1852. Hungarian merchant Agoston Haraszthy, who founded Buena Vista winery, made several trips to France, Spain and Italy in the 1850s and early 1860s to obtain cuttings of an estimated 300 varieties that he brought back to California.
Old Hill Ranch, which had been planted largely to Zinfandel, won an award in Europe for its wines in the 1860s. The press it obtained for receiving this award led to heavy plantings of Zin in Northern California in the 1860s and 1870s.
Unfortunately, these European grapes lacked resistance to the indigenous American phylloxera louse which infects and poisons vine roots. These early plantings were therefore destroyed at about the same time as virtually all the vineyards of Europe were decimated by the phylloxera that had hitched a ride on cuttings of American grapes brought to England by botanists in the 1850s. As a result, the oldest vines still producing in California date back to the mid-1880s, when vineyards were replanted by grafting European grapes onto phylloxera resistant American and hybrid rootstock.
By the time of the replantings, in the 1880s and 1890s, Italians and other Europeans with winegrowing experience had arrived in the area. Their experience with planting a variety of grapes, so as to have a mix of grapes for blending, contributed to the phenomenon of “field blends” in many of these early California vineyards, dominated by the Zinfandel that had already proven successful. Other commonly planted grapes were Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Carignane.
According to Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood, who led my portion of the tour group, Zin was ideal for planting in many different locations because it is much more flexible than a grape like Cabernet Sauvignon, which gets vegetative in flavor when it’s not fully ripe, or can taste like rubber tires when it gets too ripe. Zin varies with the topography and climate where it’s planted. It typically takes on more strawberry and red fruit characteristics, but as the climate gets warmer, it can go from boysenberry, to mixed red and black fruit flavors, to blackberry, with lower acidity and higher tannins.
A mix of blending grapes can be used to accommodate the way Zin expresses itself in a particular site. Carignane gave acidity when Zin got too ripe. Petite Sirah provided tannins. Alicante Bouschet brought high concentrations of anthocyanins for color. So according to Joel, Zins contributed the perfume and spice, but mixed black grape blends produced a combination that was more balanced and capable of aging—important considerations at a time when wines had to be much more structured and sturdy to survive in an era before the refrigeration and bottling techniques we have today.
In three of the vineyards we visited—Old Hill Ranch, Bedrock (formerly part of Madrone Ranch) and Pagani Ranch—30 or more different grape varieties can be found.
The primary purpose of the non-profit Historic Vineyard Society, founded by Joel’s son and fellow winemaker, Morgan Twain-Peterson, and other winemakers, is to catalog California’s historic vineyards and to identify and preserve the diversity present in these field blend plantings. The other founding members are David Gates of Ridge Vineyards, Mike Officer of Carlisle Vineyards, Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars and the organizer of the day’s event, Mike Dildine.
Morgan and other HVS board members can readily identify 20-25 varieties by sight. They’ve found dozens of varieties in these historic vineyards. Some are extinct elsewhere, like Castets, which is nearly gone from France. They’ve also found seven different types of Muscat and lots of Mission-type grapes. Some are still a mystery as there is no matching DNA for them in the database that now includes 10,000 grape varieties.
We ended the day with a delicious barbecue dinner accompanied by wines made from the vineyards we had just visited. The group also heard from U.C. Davis Professor Emeritus Carole Meredith on her ultimately successful search for Zinfandel’s origins, in Croatia, which I’ve previously written about here. The dinner was held under a tent in the middle of Bedrock Vineyard, which was purchased by Joel Peterson in 2004.
The next portion of this blog will summarize each of the four vineyards we visited, including what I learned about identifying grape varieties and the farming techniques being used to preserve these historic vines.
Bedrock Vineyard (formerly part of Madrone Ranch)
This beautiful vineyard was originally planted in 1854 by William Sherman and Joe Hooker, prior to their service as generals in the Civil War. Sherman, then a banker in San Francisco, funded the operation, while Hooker was supposed to be in charge of the farming. Their aim was to grow grapes and farm produce for the then burgeoning population of San Francisco. Unfortunately for the partnership, Hooker didn’t work that hard at farming, so he and Sherman ended on bad terms. Sherman reportedly had his revenge, however, when he was in charge of supply operations during the Civil War. He regularly delayed provisioning General Hooker’s troops.
The vineyard later passed into the hands of George Washington Whitman and then to the former American Consul to China, Eli T. Shepherd. Morgan Twain-Peterson has read Shepherd’s journals of woe at the Sonoma County Wine Library in Healdsburg. In the final two years of his oversight, from 1886-1887, the first vines on rootstock were planted, though this was likely the hybrid Lenoir which was not totally phylloxera resistant. The entry for December 1887, when Shepherd sold the property to Senator George Hearst, reported that the gleeful Shepherd had just bought his wife a diamond ring and couldn’t wait to move back to the East Coast.
Hearst replanted, starting in 1888, on phylloxera resistant rootstock he was able to obtain thanks to his connections with the University of California. He replanted to mixed black grapes, three-quarters of which were Zinfandel, but with some blocks that were up to 40% Alicante Bouschet or Grand Noir de la Calmette. Besides the old Zin that dates from that period, there are amazing ancient vines of Mourvèdre, Grenache and even Mission grapes in this vineyard, from which Morgan and others are still making terrific wine. Of the vineyard’s 153 acres, about 33 contain these old vines.
The vineyard was sold by Hearst’s widow, Phoebe Appleton Hearst, to the California Wine Association, which held the deed through Prohibition. It was later sold to the Parducci and Domenici families. Following a conflict, reportedly settled by a coin toss, the Domenicis took control of what is now the Bedrock Vineyard in 1953 while the Parduccis took a smaller section of the vineyard with its winery (Valley of the Moon).
When Peterson purchased, the vineyard was not farmed that well. They removed 40% of the fruiting positions and cut back on irrigation, among other things. Now the vineyard is yielding a healthy two to two and a half tons per acre. It is currently managed by Diane Kenworthy of Sunbreak Vineyard Services in tandem with Joel and his son, Morgan, who also owns Bedrock Wine Co.
Ravenswood, Carlisle and Bedrock were the first wineries to get grapes following the sale to Peterson. Lately Turley, Biale and Dashe are also making wines from these grapes.
The Bedrock Vineyard has a section that’s on Los Robles cobblestones and loams, and then it changes to Tuscan Red Hill Series. On that portion it’s planted 8’ by 8’.
Old vine Mourvèdre is found in a middle section. According to Morgan, it’s rare to be seen in a relatively cool location, as it has one of the longest ripening periods of any variety, next to Nebbiolo. Morgan picks it at 19 brix for his Rosé, Ode to Lulu.
Carignane is always the tallest vine. The Carignane block of the vineyard is on the rockiest soil, yielding high toned spice components to blends, with lift. Carignane leaves look scrunched up and wrinkly compared to Zin leaves. Alicante Bouschet has shiny leaves that are slightly curled, like its parent, Grenache. Grenache has large clusters and shiny leaves.
Joel reports they’ve made maybe 1% profit on the vineyard in the best year since he bought it from the Domenici family. They bought a spader and have been adding soil inputs. The spader digs down up to 14 inches and relieves soil compaction.
Kenwood Winery used to make wine from Fredericks; now Turley is. Tegan Passalacqua, Turley’s winegrower, guided us through the vineyard.
Dick Fredericks bought Upper Weiss Vineyard from the Weiss family. Some sources indicate this was the first hillside vineyard planted in California, as far back as 1850. The current plantings date to three periods. In 1937 cuttings of the Weiss clone Zin were planted on St. George rootstock on the gentle south facing slope, with Carignane and Trousseau Noir. The terraces were planted in 1943. The third section (non-historic) was planted to Zinfandel in 2008 with cuttings from the Hayne Vineyard in Napa, and the Dupratt Vineyard in Mendocino. This section, about three acres, replaced a block of Ruby Cabernet dating back to the 1940′s.
Different sections of the vineyard can ripen a month apart, due to the different exposures and aspects. The vineyard is organically farmed by Chuy Ordaz and his Palo Alto vineyard management team in cooperation with Turley Wine Cellars.
The vines are all head trained (goblet). Joel explained that goblet works well for Zinfandel as its clusters are heavy and don’t work well with trellises. Some growers reduce Zin yields by eliminating a wing; others wait until veraison to cut off the parts of the cluster that are still green.
We could smell they had recently sprayed with sulfur dust, to ward off mildew. Bunch rot, mildew and botrytis are the biggest winegrowing problems in this area. There are no problematic insects to speak of. Carignane is highly susceptible to mildew. Zin is fairly resistant.
The dry farming techniques they are using are much like those employed in the 1880s: sulfur dusting, and ripping out areas prone to frost. Tegan explained that in dry farming, what’s below ground develops at the same rate as the growth above ground. When there’s extensive watering, the growth above ground dominates. So dry farming ensures balance. The rootstock selected is drought resistant St. George. St. George is a rupestis or desert rootstock. The soil is Tuscan Red Hill Series, which has good water holding capacity without being boggy.
They took off 40% of the fruiting positions in 2007/2008, and are now getting 2 ¼ to 2 ½ tons to an acre. Most Zin vines have some leaf roll virus. Since they relieved the vines of the extra positions, the signs of leaf roll aren’t showing now until right near harvest.
Tegan explained that they are on a three-year replant schedule with Turley’s old vineyards. They irrigate with buckets and make tea with worm castings to water the vines. New vines only get two five-gallon buckets the first year.
This vineyard had the most profound impact on me of the four we visited. There was something I can only describe as holy in its layout, with those steep terraces, and the immaculate farming of their 70-year-old vines. That and the long vistas of vineyards that can be seen from several different directions thanks to the steep terraces.
Will Bucklin, who used to be a winemaker at King Estate in Oregon, manages and farms Old Hill Ranch Vineyard. His mother, Ann Teller, owns the vineyard. Will’s stepfather purchased the property, which is adjacent to the Sonoma State Hospital, in 1980.
The vineyard was founded in 1852 by William McPherson Hill. Hill had come to California from Philadelphia in the Gold Rush of 1849. He bought 2,000 acres in Sonoma in 1851 with profits from San Francisco real estate. Hill was the first in Northern California to bring in non-Mission grapes. His grapes came from Peru by way of a ship that docked in the San Francisco Bay that happened to be carrying grapes.
Hill replanted in the 1880s, after phylloxera, to a field blend. They count up to 30 different varieties planted there. Hill sold most of his land in 1898 except for this last remaining 40-acre parcel of which 12 acres were replanted in 1885. Hill’s son, Robert Potter Hill, managed Old Hill until 1960.
In the 12 acres of old vines, the percentage of grapes planted is over 60% Zinfandel, 15% Grenache, 7% Alicante Bouschet, 2.5% Petite Sirah and Peloursin, 1.3% Grand Noir, 1.2% Tannat, 1% Mourvedre, 1% various table grapes, and 5% a mixture of Carignane, Syrah, Trousseau, French Columbard, Cinsault, Charbono, Lenoir, Palomino, Chasselas, Tempranillo, Petite Bouchet, Muscat and a few unknowns.
Producers who have made wine from this vineyard include Davis Bynum in 1975 and 1977; Mount Eden 1976; Roudon-Smith 1978 and 1979 (unfortunately with a lot of new oak); Topolos 1980–1983; Ravenswood 1984–present; and Bucklin, Will’s label, from 2000 to present.
According to Joel, the vineyard was dying when Will took over in 2000. Joel first saw the vineyard in 1975 when it was owned by a real estate developer. He reported it had become a hippy commune, full of blackberries and coyote brush.
They have replanted with budwood from the old vines, and added quite a bit of Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet, taking out some of the mixed types. Petite Sirah is one of the shorter lived old vines planted—usually lasting only 50-60 years.
The vineyard is entirely dry farmed. In 2000 the yield was only about one-quarter to one-half ton per acre. Now, with substantial work, soil management and organic farming, the yield is up to one and a half to two tons. Will uses a cover crop that gets mowed in the Spring and plowed back into the soil.
Joel and Will debated which were the biggest wildlife consumers of grapes. Joel blamed the deer, and the lack of a deer fence pre-2000 for substantially reducing yields. Will claimed that coyotes were bigger grape fanciers than the deer. Coyotes are also a hazard because they chew up drip hoses in trying to get at the water.
They generally do two harvests per year—a primary harvest for Zin, and then two weeks later for the later ripening mixed varieties. The Zin harvest often ends up with some Petite Sirah and Mourvèdre. They split the harvest evenly between Ravenswood and Bucklin.
Will is planting some new acreage to field blends, one to Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignane, and another to Muscat and other white varieties for a field blend white.
Pagani has been in the same family since the late 1880s. It is about five miles north of Bedrock in the Kenwood area, and was noticeably cooler than Bedrock, which lies in what they call the “banana belt.” The Bennett Valley Gap brings airflow to the Kenwood area that keeps it relatively cool.
Pagani Vineyard is on valley bottom land. It is more radically mixed than Fredericks, more along the lines of Old Hill Ranch. There is also more Alicante Bouschet, which makes the wines darker.
Angela and Felice Pagani came from Italy to Sonoma Valley in the late 1880s and purchased the ranch and planted these vines. It is unique in having very narrow rows. The vines are head trained and the vineyard is dry farmed. The vineyard used to be plowed by horses before tractors and discs were invented. They currently have 187 acres planted, 55 of which contain old vines. Eighteen acres alone contain Alicante Bouschet. Its leaves turn a bright red with patches of purple in the Fall, which makes those vines a distinctive local landmark.
Dino Pagani Amantite is a partner and the vineyard manager. He used to be the grape buyer for St. Francis. He told us that with the cool climate and exotic black grapes, a major problem at the vineyard is frost. Another problem is the tight spacing—7’ by 7’, which is hardly room enough for a tractor, leading to what the farmers jokingly call “tractor blight,” the elimination of a vine by errant tractors.
Some blocks are more pure Zinfandel and some are more mixed blacks. In response to a question from Joel, Dino estimated that it cost $3500 an acre per year to farm these old vines. The youngest vines are from 1922, but the family has started a new planting project under Dino’s leadership. The new plantings are also head trained with metal stakes, with front and back drip irrigation.
Joel claimed that Pagani’s hallmark is dark Santa Rosa plum fruit and richness, partly due to the high degree of Alicante Bouschet. Joel claims that Zinfandel by itself is lighter and “more Burgundian” than when blended with mixed blacks. Ravenswood has one old vine 100% Zin from grapes planted in 1900 in Big River.
Wineries that make wine from Pagani fruit are Seghesio, Ridge, Bedrock, Robert Biale, Wellington, Berthroud and Carlisle. Ridge began making its Ridge Pagani Zin back in 1991.
Lenoir, also known as Black Spanish, is of the species vitis aestivalis. It was one of the first American grape rootstocks tried for phylloxera resistance, before St. George became the standard.
The hills rising to the west from where the vineyard currently ends used to be planted too, with vineyard and other fruits. Those plantings have grown over, however, and the hills are now full of trees.
I’ve driven by this vineyard hundreds of times in my wanderings in Sonoma, as it lies only a mile south of my sister’s place in Kenwood. It’s great to finally know the story behind this magnificent piece of California history, and the riches it contains.
Wines Tasted with Dinner
- 2011 Bedrock Wine Co. Heirloom Compagni Portis – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
Light lemon yellow color; aromatic, a little oxidative, tart peach, grapefruit, saline nose; complex, tangy, light-bodied, tart peach, light lemon oil, mineral, tart green fruit palate; needs 1 year; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
- 2010 Carlisle The Derivative White – USA, California, Sonoma County
Light lemon yellow color; lifted, lemon oil, apple skin, floral nose; tight, tart lemon oil, mineral, tart citrus, apple palate; medium-plus finish (76% Semillon from Monte Rosso vineyard, 24% Muscadelle from Pagani Ranch) (89 pts.)
- 2011 Bedrock Wine Co. Mourvedre Ode to Lulu Rosé – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
Light salmon pink; light tart currant, tart blood orange nose; tart orange, mineral, tart citrus palate with a light sense of white pepper; medium finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
- 2009 Bedrock Wine Co. Zinfandel O Brother! Bedrock Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
Very dark ruby color; intense, black raspberry, licorice, black cherry nose; tasty, silky textured, intense, tart black raspberry, tart black cherry, anise, black currant palate with subtle herbs and good acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (only 1 barrel, from Bedrock’s rocky Block 42, made by Morgan’s brother Galen Peterson) (93 pts.)
- 2010 Bedrock Wine Co. The Bedrock Heirloom – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
Very dark ruby color; intense, tart black cherry, black currant, anise nose; rich, black currant, tart black cherry palate; needs 3-4 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- 2009 Bucklin Mixed Blacks – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
Very dark ruby color; black currant, ripe red currant nose; tart red currant, black currant, black cherry, cinnamon, tart black fruit, licorice palate with depth; medium-plus finish 92+ points) (92 pts.)
- 2008 Bucklin Zinfandel Old Hill Ranch – USA, California, Sonoma County
Medium dark red violet color; dried berry, licorice, black currant nose; rich, tart black currant, tar, herbs palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 2008 Carlisle Two Acres – USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Dark ruby color; herbs, tart black fruit, tart black currant nose; tart black fruit, tar, tart black currant palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (old vine Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Carignane and Alicante Bouschet) (91 pts.)
- 2008 Ravenswood Zinfandel Old Hill – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
Dark purple red violet color; tart black currant, licorice, baked berry nose; tasty, ripe black currant, tar, black fruit palate; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
- 2009 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
Dark red violet color; light raspberry, ripe currant, black currant nose; tasty, youthful, tart black currant, loam palate with medium acidity; needs 4-plus years; medium-plus finish (71% Zinfandel, 23% Petite Sirah, 6% Carignane; 14.5% alcohol) (90 pts.)
- 2001 Ridge Zinfandel Buchignani Ranch – USA, California, Sonoma County
Bricking dark red violet color; maturing, stewed plum, light tobacco, baked plum nose; mature, baked plum, stewed black fruit, tar palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- 2009 Robert Biale Zinfandel Old Kraft Vineyard – USA, California, Napa Valley, St. Helena
Dark ruby color; tart red plum, black currant nose; tight, tasty, tart black currant, ripe plum, mineral palate; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
- 2009 Turley Petite Sirah Hayne Vineyard – USA, California, Napa Valley, St. Helena
Very dark ruby color; tart plum, tar nose; tasty, tart black fruit, tar, mineral palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- 2009 Turley Zinfandel Fredericks Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
Very dark ruby color; baked berry, ripe plum, black raspberry nose; ripe berry, baked berry, black cherry, baked cherry palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)