The second of two columns about viticulture in Sonoma County, Calif.
Mike Officer was heartbroken. One of his favorite zinfandel sources, a vineyard whose oldest vines were just over the century mark, was being torn out and replanted with pinot noir. Modern viticulture and the allure of pinot were triumphing over California history.
The loss of that treasured vineyard in 2007 became the inspiration for the Historic Vineyard Society, a group Officer founded with other like-minded winemakers to catalogue and preserve the Golden State’s oldest vines. Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine and Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars were co-founders. Winemakers from Biale, Ravenswood and Ridge vineyards have since joined the effort.
“Old vines zinfandel” has been a marketing phenomenon in the past three decades, but there is no standard definition of “old vines,” and the vineyards where they grow are not always well documented or even maintained. The Historic Vineyard Society lists 230 vineyards across California that were originally planted before 1960 and still have at least a third of the vines from the original planting.
For Officer and his wife, Kendall, the fascination with old vineyards began when they started their winery label, Carlisle Winery & Vineyards. (Carlisle is Kendall’s maiden name.) Mike traded a career in software development for winemaking after producing zinfandel in his garage for several years. In 1998, the couple bought a 10-acre vineyard with a house on flat land west of Santa Rosa, in the southern part of Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley appellation, and named it Carlisle Vineyard. They no longer live there, but the vineyard is still an important part of their operation.
The vineyard was planted in 1927 by an Italian immigrant, Officer told me when I visited him in mid-February. The vines were primarily zinfandel, but through ampelography — the study of grapevines — and DNA testing, Officer was able to determine that 13 percent of the vines were a hodgepodge of 39 grape varieties, including several whites.
Officer drove me in his SUV to a small vineyard he manages for other owners. It’s off Olivet Road, in a part of Sonoma County that’s laid out in a grid pattern similar to that in subdivisions elsewhere, but with larger lots and backyard vineyards. This two-acre plot was called, appropriately enough, the Two Acre Vineyard. He’d been told the old vines were zinfandel, but testing showed the vineyard was mostly mourvedre, with some syrah, petite sirah, peloursin, carignan and alicante bouschet, grape varieties commonly planted by Italian immigrant vintners in the early 1900s. There were five vines of zinfandel.
The first few vintages, Officer produced about 75 cases of wine from the Two Acre Vineyard. Now, after several years of tending the vines and improving their health, he consistently produces 250 to 300 cases.
“The biggest problem with an old-vine vineyard is that someone will own it for decades and give nothing back to it,” he said. “As long as you make that investment periodically, there’s no reason these vineyards can’t last as long as we want them to.” Unless someone wants to build houses or plant pinot noir.
The old vineyards scattered throughout Sonoma County and elsewhere in California are in stark contrast to the meticulous high-tech vineyards of modern viticulture, with densely planted vines matched to soil types. Officer and his cohorts use modern DNA technology to identify vine varieties. But they eschew today’s control-minded approach of fermenting each variety separately and blending during aging, favoring instead the traditional “field blend” approach of throwing everything together into the fermenter. Ask them the blend of wine in your glass, and they’ll tell you the blend of vines in their vineyard.
“We believe there’s some good juju from all these varieties fermenting in tank rather than separately,” Officer says. His Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel, featuring all 40 varieties from his old back yard, is soulful and savory, suggesting mulberries and meat.
The previous afternoon, I sat at a picnic table under a catering tent in the middle of Bedrock Vineyard with Morgan Twain-Peterson and his father, Joel Peterson. Zin fans know them: in the 1970s Peterson founded Ravenswood Vineyards, one of the “three R’s of zinfandel” along with Ridge and Rosenblum wineries, while his son has developed a dedicated following for his own single-vineyard wines from old vines.
Bedrock Vineyard, in Sonoma Valley, was originally planted with Mission grapes in 1850 by Joseph Hooker, an Army officer who became a Union general in the Civil War. It was later owned by George Hearst, father of William Randolph Hearst, who planted zinfandel and other varieties from 1888 to 1895. When Twain-Peterson took over the vineyard in 2004, the vines were stunted from years of irrigation and herbicides. It took five years of working the soil and “dry farming” — without irrigation — to rejuvenate the vineyard. Today, it lends its name to Twain-Peterson’s Bedrock Wine. He also makes extraordinary wines from older vineyards in Contra Costa and Mendocino counties as well as Lodi, most of them available only through direct-to-consumer sales. He calls the wines “heritage” if zinfandel doesn’t dominate the blend. “That also puts the emphasis on the site rather than the grape,” Twain-Peterson explained.
Cataloguing these vineyards can help recover some of California’s wine history. “We’re finding vines that don’t exist in DNA databases,” Twain-Peterson said. At Bedrock, he has identified 24 varieties.
“You can make good chardonnay or pinot noir anywhere,” Peterson said, an implicit jab at today’s rock-star vintners along the Sonoma Coast. “These vineyards make wine you will find nowhere else. We are preserving a tradition of mixed vineyards that are dry farmed and making something that is essentially Californian.”