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Old But Gold in California
By Linda Murphy
Oct 11, 2011
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Old vines are deeply rooted in California’s winegrowing history, and if Joel Peterson and his son, Morgan Twain-Peterson, have their way, grapevines that continue to produce fruit at 50, 75 and 100 years old will remain long into the future.

Joel Peterson is the founding winemaker at Ravenswood Winery, having produced his first two single-vineyard Zinfandels in 1976.  He famously worked as a laboratory scientist while making Ravenswood’s Zins on the side; only in 1992 did Peterson leave the lab for the winery full-time, after he and partner Reed Foster had turned a profit for a few years.  Zinfandels made from old vines in Northern California have always been his mission, and Peterson passed on that love of ancient things to his son, Morgan, born in 1981 and today a talented and thoughtful winemaker in his own right.

Ravenwood’s six single-vineyard series of Zinfandels have a remarkable track record for excellence, and more importantly, demonstrate that vines planted between the 1860s and the 1920s by mostly European immigrants produce intensely colored and flavored grapes that reflect the personality of each vineyard.  All six wines are made basically the same way:  Fermented with native yeasts in open-top vessels and aged for 20 months in a mix of new and older French oak barrels.  This consistent regime allows the vineyards’ characteristics to take front and center.  

The Old Hill Vineyard, Sonoma Valley’s first famous Zinfandel, was planted by William MacPherson Hill in 1862.  The Bucklin family owns it, and Will Bucklin “has brought this vineyard back from the brink,” Peterson says, farming it organically.  The 2008 vintage of the Ravenswood Old Hill, comprised of 75 percent Zinfandel and 25 percent other “mixed blacks,” has an intriguing potpourri and orange rind character not often found in Zinfandel. 

Also in Sonoma Valley is the Barricia Vineyard, planted at approximately the same time as Old Hill.  The Ravenswood Zinfandel from here typically has a cracked black pepper note (from the 24 percent Petite Sirah in the blend) and sizeable tannins achieved from tiny yields of thick-skinned grapes.  The antithesis is the Dickerson Vineyard Napa Valley Zinfandel, from 1920s vines on infected rootstock.  “Virus doesn’t allow the grapes to ripen to black plum (flavors), so we get a red raspberry character,” Peterson says.  Dickerson Zins tend to be pure, clean and claret-style rather than exotic and brambly, and have a distinctive minty aroma. 

One hundred percent Zinfandel, the Ravenswood Big River Vineyard wine is round and rich, with notes of wild berries and black plums.  Owned by Lynn and Scott Adams (of Bella Vineyards), Big River was planted in the early 1900s near the Russian River in Alexander Valley.  The 2008 Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel from 1920s-era plantings in Russian River Valley has cool-climate, structured tannins and brisk acidity and a spiciness contributed by the presence of Alicante Bouchet, Petite Sirah and Carignane in the field blend. 

Last and certainly not least is the Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley.  It’s Zin the way most people think about the varietal, classic Dry Creek Valley with cherry liqueur, briar, black spice and vanilla aromas and flavors, and a bright, vibrant finish.  Petite Sirah, Carignane and Alicante Bouschet lend complexity to the wine, from a vineyard containing vines planted in the 1880s. 

Since he was in diapers, Morgan Twain-Peterson has followed his father’s every winemaking move, and produced his own wines even as a kid.  He grew up in the old-vine vineyards and came to embrace their legacy; today, with his own brand Bedrock Wine Company, Twain-Peterson not only sources ancient vines for grapes, he’s on a crusade to save them.

Petersons father and son own the Bedrock Vineyard in the heart of Sonoma Valley (formerly the Madrone Vineyard), with 18 interplanted, field-blended grape varieties including Zinfandel and Carignane.  Morgan uses the grapes in his Bedrock brand (check out the 2008 Bedrock Heirloom red blend from this vineyard), with perhaps a wee bit of advice from his father, who continues to be the winemaker at Ravenswood after its 2001 sale to Constellation Brands.  The son has learned well, and is sharing what he knows.  

Twain-Peterson, Mike Officer of Carlisle Vineyards, David Gates of Ridge Vineyards, Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars, Mike Dildine and British wine writer/author Jancis Robinson comprise the project team for the Historic Vineyard Society (historicvineyardsociety.org), which maintains a comprehensive registry of California’s oldest vineyards.

To qualify for the registry, a vineyard must currently contribute grapes to California wines, be planted no later than 1960, and have at least one-third of the producing vines traced back to the original planting date.  More than 200 vineyards are on the list, including those Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Livermore, Lodi, Amador, Contra Costa, and Lake and Mendocino counties. 

To save these old timers from being ripped out and replaced by new vines or other development, the society would like to see classic vineyards preserved in the way historic buildings are saved from wrecking balls.  Old vines become tired and produce limited yields of grapes, and that affects growers’ bottom lines.  Some replant with more profitable vines, although others can be convinced by the likes of Twain-Peterson to continue nursing their elderly vine trunks and gnarly arms, particularly when they are paid fairly for the low tonnage they produce. 

The non-profit Historic Vineyard Society states its goal as being “… dedicated to the preservation of California’s historic vineyards.  HVS’s Mission is accomplished through educating the wine-drinking public on the very special nature of this precious and depleting state, national and global resource.”
The project team seeks qualified vineyards not already on the registry, urges growers to share their memories and histories of their vines, and alert wine lovers that old vines -- monuments to living history -- are endangered yet worth saving.