5 Sonoma Valley wineries where you can sip history in old-vine reds
Maybe it's cold outside. And if it is, you can warm the palate, heart and soul with red wines produced from vineyards 50 years and older, whose grapes are transformed into wines that are exotically rich and spicy and also offer a hint of history with each sip. Ancient vines are rooted throughout California, with an excellent concentration of them in Sonoma Valley. Many tasting rooms in the Valley of the Moon offer at least one bottling made from elderly grapevines, although these five are rather gaga over vinous geriatric gems.
There is no formal definition of an 'old' vine, though many winemakers say 50 years is the minimum age. Zinfandel, petite sirah, carignane, Alicante Bouschet and other grapes planted in California vineyards in the late 1880s, and which survived Prohibition, remain viable today, though in decreasing acreage as more profitable grape varieties are taking over. The time to drink the old-timers is now.
Tom Mackey, a dean of old-vine winemaking in Sonoma Valley, was the founding winemaker at St. Francis in 1971 and retired from there in 2011. Mackey, Ravenswood Winery founder Joel Peterson (he started the brand with Reed Foster in 1976) and other Sonoma growers and winemakers are driven by a deep appreciation for the intensity of wines — mostly reds — produced from ancient vines, and a desire to keep venerable vines in the ground as long as possible.
'Walking these vineyards, one can't deny the sense of history and continuity,' Mackey said. 'These vines are not as much a commodity as a family member. Vintages are remembered as much as (by) what occurred that year with the relatives as with the weather, harvest date and crop size.
'Like all agriculture, there must be a profit or, at least, expenses must be met. As a vineyard ages, the yield diminishes and the vines themselves become more fragile. A tractor nudge can knock them over. They are not immortal and eventually will need replacement. But while they are here, they represent a bit of permanence in an all-too-transitory world. Winemakers come and go, yet the vineyards remain.'
To that end, the Historic Vineyard Society was founded in 2009 by David Gates of Ridge Vineyards, Mike Officer of Carlisle Vineyards, Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars, Morgan Twain-Peterson (Joel Peterson's son) of Bedrock Wine Co. and others.
It maintains a registry of heritage California vineyards, all of which were planted no later than 1960, in an effort to ensure senior vines are appreciated and preserved.
At a time when farmers might be tempted to replace them, the society campaigns for the preservation of old vineyards in similar fashion to historic homes and buildings being saved for posterity. (historicvineyardsociety.org)
Tasting rooms come and go, too. Ravenswood Winery, one of the most passionate, modern- day producers of wines from ancient vines, had its Sonoma visitor center closed in May 2019 by property owner Constellation Brands. Ravenswood continues to bottle wines from old plantings, though no tasting opportunities are available now. Here are five Sonoma Valley wineries that offer not just one but several wines made from vines planted long, long ago.
Bedrock Wine Co.: Since its founding in 2007, Bedrock has become one of the most ardent embracers of old-vine plantings and wines produced by them. Co-founder and winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson was raised on old-vine zins by his father, Ravenswood's Joel Peterson. Today, Twain-Peterson, a Master of Wine, bottles several ancient-vine wines for Bedrock, many of them poured at the Sonoma tasting room. The company purchased the 152-acre Madrone Ranch vineyard near Glen Ellen in 2005 and renamed it Bedrock Vineyard, and it serves as not only as a wine-grape source but also as a repository for some 26 varieties, many of them planted a century ago. Planted in 1854 by Gen. William 'Tecumseh' Sherman and Gen. 'Fightin' Joe Hooker, the vineyard passed through several owners, among them the Hearsts, Parduccis and Domenicis, before falling to Bedrock. So many of its small-lot wines hail from old vines from throughout California, yet two locals stand out: The Bedrock Heritage Red Wine Sonoma Valley ($46), a mélange of two dozen grape types; and the Compagni Portis Vineyard White Wine Sonoma Valley ($30), an exotic mix of gewurztraminer, trousseau gris, riesling, burger and other increasingly rare varieties.
Wines from historic Pagani Ranch and Old Hill Ranch in Sonoma Valley are also among the jewels from Bedrock. Gen. Joseph Hooker House, 414 First St. E., Sonoma, 707-343-1478, bedrockwineco.com (appointment only)
Cline Cellars: Fred and Nancy Cline's winery might be in Sonoma, yet it gives visitors an opportunity to taste old-vine wines from Oakley in Contra Costa County, where as a kid, Fred helped his grandfather, Valeriano Jacuzzi (of hot tub fame), grow grapes. Fred founded Cline Cellars in Oakley in 1986, specializing in old-vine zinfandel, mourvedre and other Rhone Valley grapes. He married Nancy Cline in 1986 and relocated the winery to Sonoma, yet continues to make bold, richly flavored reds from Oakley, in addition to chardonnay, pinot noir, viognier and other varietals.