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Many of California’s Oldest Vineyards Are Endangered

The Rare Wine Company recently arranged the tasting of Joseph Swan wines which I attended.  This tasting was part of their continuing efforts to support California’s historic vineyards (to read that article click here [1]).   In The Rare Wine Company’s November 16, 2010 newsletter, collections of wines were offered for sale that were made from grapes grown on some of California’s oldest vineyards. Proceeds from the sale were donated to the Historic Vineyard Society. Below is a slightly edited version (information about the wines offered for sale omitted since they are already sold) of what The Rare Wine Company had to say about California’s oldest vineyards and the Historic Vineyard Society.


The Fight To Save California’s Oldest Surviving Vineyards

In 1905, an Italian immigrant, Italo Barbieri, planted a vineyard on Olivet Road in Santa Rosa, California. The mixtureof varieties can be best described as “Mixed Blacks,” predominantly Zinfandel, but bolstered by an indeterminate number of other varieties, including Grenache and Alicante.

For 102 years, the vineyard produced wine of power and complexity from its mixed vines. It gained its widest fame after 1975, when it was owned by DeLoach who made a superb Barbieri Zinfandel, while selling small lots to other producers. But then, in 2007, the vineyard changed hands again, and the new owners pulled out the old vines to plant Pinot Noir.

Among those who’d been buying Barbieri fruit was Carlisle’s Mike Officer. Seeing Barbieri’s magnificent old vines ripped out convinced him that something needed to be done to preserve such historic vineyards. He had already lost one early site, Gum Tree Ranch (planted 1900), to a land developer, and he’d nearly lost two others—Papera (1934) and Montafi (1926)—to replanting.

And so earlier this year, Mike met with several other producers, and they devised a plan to inventory the state’s remaining old vineyards and raise consumer awareness of these viticultural treasures. They formed the non-profit Historic Vineyard Society. The Rare Wine Co. soon joined them in their work, and we are proud to help launch the society with an exclusive offer of Historic Vineyard wines….

 Only The Names Change

 Mike Officer’s experiences are of course not unique. In 1990, Ridge’s vineyard chief, David Gates, lost a plot of spectacular old Barbera vines at Sonoma’s Rancho Pequeño that were pulled out for Chardonnay. About the same time, he lost the Park-Muscatine vineyard on Howell Mountain. And a few years ago, Ravenswood lost its best Petite Sirah vineyard to satisfy the nation’s thirst for more Russian River Valley Pinot.

Every decade or two, a new wine fashion sweeps the state, causing the destruction of more old vineyards. In the 1970s and 1980s, Zinfandel virtually disappeared from Napa Valley, replaced by Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay. Not only did the Valley lose its once-predominant grape variety, it also lost a century’s worth of genetic adaptation.

But America’s thirst for Pinot Noir has been a far greater threat to California‘s viticultural history. While California wine was relatively small business in the 1970s and 1980s, today it is very big business, and Pinot Noir is seen as the Mother Lode by many in the industry. In fact, Pinot Noir has already surpassed Cabernet in acreage, with up to 2,000 new acres planted annually. Some of these new vineyards have been planted on land new to grapevines; but a depressing number are pushing aside historic vineyards, including some dating from the 19th century.

 Mixed Blacks’ Magic

 These early vineyards weren’t homogenous like today’s; they represented the full diversity of European viticulture. And they were often planted as field blends finetuned to a particular microclimate.

In warm spots like Dry Creek, Carignane was interspersed to provide extra acidity; in cooler parts of the Russian River Valley, where Zinfandel was on the margin of ripening, Alicante and Petite Sirah added color and weight. Blending was as important as in Champagne and Barolo, but in California the blending happened in the vineyard.

 Orion’s Secret

 With the passage of time, the composition of these vineyards was forgotten. The Rossi Vineyard that gives Sean Thackrey his iconic Orion is not pure Syrah as some would assume it to be. Like other vineyards of its era, it is Mixed Blacks. In other words, in addition to the Syrah predominating in the Orion blend, an untold number of other varieties contribute to the wine’s complexity.

Today, this rich history stands threatened, as one old vineyard after another is ripped out to plant something more profitable. The non-profit Historic Vineyard Society wants to do something about it.

A number of important old-vine producers—such as Carlisle, Bedrock, Turley, Ridge, Ravenswood and Williams-Selyem—have already joined or made valuable contributions. Key board members also include Jancis Robinson and collector Mike Dildine. And while a statewide inventory of old vineyards and their constituent grape varieties is a high priority, the HVS’s most important goal is to raise consumer awareness of the state’s oldest vineyards.

Fair Value

 The group believes that the best way to protect these irreplaceable vineyards is to increase the value of their fruit, so that owners think twice about ripping out the old vines. Unless old-vine Zinfandel and Mixed Blacks can fetch prices rivaling Pinot Noir, many of these vineyards will continue to be under the economic threat of extinction.

It seems crazy that a thrillingly complex blend of 100-year-old Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Alicante made from tiny yields and at much greater expense should sell for less money than a Pinot Noir from higher-yielding young vines, but that is today’s reality. If these vines are to survive, consumers must understand how great these wines are and be willing to pay a premium for the privilege to drink them.

How You Can Help

The society has an impressive roster of supporters and a lot of energy, but what it needs now is money…. Tax deductible donations payable to Historic Vineyard Society can be sent to: Historic Vineyard Society, 10464 Fairway Lane, Carmel, CA 93923.”

As I have been doing for some 40 years, I will continue to track the California wines that are made from low yielding old vine vineyards using non invasive wine making techniques that produce balanced wines without excessive alcohol. The links to many of those articles are contained in the article I recently published based on the Joseph Swan tasting mentioned earlier (to read that article click here [2]).                                      




Also, to follow the historical involvement of the Underground you can read the old issues and updates which are called Retrospective Reviews by clicking here [2].  These reprints and Retrospective Reviews are being posted on a regular basis so watch for them.

Soon The Rare Wine Company will have their second offering of Historic Vineyard wine assortments. I encourage all of you who love older wines and may not be familiar with some of the older California wines to try them. And, to sign up for The Rare Wine Company newsletter click here [3].  Their newsletter is an interesting read and offers many nice wines including the upcoming Historic Vineyard wine assortments. Also, to read the entire November 10, 2010 Rare Wine Company newsletter on the Historic Vineyard wines click here [4].

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson