In Sonoma’s Bedrock Vineyard, I’m surrounded by 124-year-old twisted vines with the arthritic look of stumpy bonsai trees.
The mad mix includes a couple of dozen varieties. Bedrock winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson points out familiar zinfandel, little-known bastardo, nearly extinct castets and some grapes no one’s yet identified.
He makes a pretty delicious red that contains almost all of them.
“Old vine field blends are the only California wines that aren’t ersatz,” says the 32-year-old. “They’re unique. What’s magical is the sum of the parts.”
His dozen or so red and white cuvees from historic vineyards are among the state’s most fascinating wines, high on bold personality, with warmth, intensity, perfumed aromas and layers of flavor. Tasting them, I’m drinking California wine history.
While Sonoma has the largest concentration of old vineyards in the state, they’re in danger of disappearing.
Twain-Peterson is one of the people on a mission to save them.
In old tan shorts, grey shirt, and a three-day beard, he tours me around this vineyard he owns with his family, filling me in on its backstory. The founders, in 1854, were “Fightin’ Joe” Hooker and two-time shipwreck survivor and banker William “Tecumseh” Sherman, who later became famous Civil War generals.
After root-louse phylloxera wiped out the vines in the 1880s, mining magnate Senator George Hearst, father of newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, splashed out part of his fortune from the Comstock Lode on the property. He replanted in 1888 and the vines are still going strong.
Back in the day, every grower’s vineyard mix was different. Harvested together, diverse red grapes were sold under the catchall phrase, “mixed blacks.”
Blending grapes, says Twain-Peterson, helped vintners make balanced, all-purpose wines: petite sirah had tannin and body; carignane added aroma and bright acidity; alicante bouschet, an intense red color. Zinfandel was usually the predominant one, as it is in Twain-Peterson’s fragrant, spicy, savory 2011 Bedrock Heritage red blend ($40) from 22 varieties in his vineyard.
Unlike most winemakers, who ferment and age each variety separately and blend later, he gestalts a picking date for all and ferments and presses them together.
I’ll admit I’m not usually a zin fan. Most are too sweet, alcoholic and jammy, with a cough-syrup kick.
But the top ones made from old vines, like Ridge Lytton Springs, Carlisle Monte Rosso, Ravenswood Old Hill Ranch and Bedrock Sonoma Valley, are deeper and more balanced.
“Old vine mixed blacks are my favorite wines to drink; they’re the most soul-satisfying,” says Twain-Peterson. His stunning 2011 Bedrock Papa’s All-Blacks ($30) has deep red fruit aromas laced with allspice and powerful, rich, peppery flavors.
He makes this last wine with his dad, pioneer zinfandel producer Joel Peterson, who founded Ravenswood Winery in 1976 and was one of the first to make old vine zin.
As we head up Highway 12 in Twain-Peterson’s messy truck to see other famous old vines, he tells me how he rode along when his father scouted vineyards, picked grapes at age three and made his first wine, “Vina Bambino” pinot noir, at five.
After studying at Vassar and Columbia, he ditched his plan to become a history professor, founding his tiny Bedrock Wine Company in 2007.
The appeal of old vines, roughly defined as 50 or more years old, isn’t just history. The vines’ deep roots withstand droughts, grapes ripen more evenly and the juice has more intense, concentrated, complex flavors -- all of which explains why so many of the world’s top winemakers in Australia, Chile, France and elsewhere suffer from old-vine adoration.
Being Joel Peterson’s son got Twain-Peterson in the door when it came to cajoling grapes from owners of historic vineyards. He was also a beneficiary of the economic downturn. Mid-size wineries were already hurting in 2007 and dropping contracts. He snapped up whatever grapes he could get, from famous spots like Pagani Ranch.
For growers the downside to old vineyards is economics. Twain-Peterson calls them “victims of pinot madness,” recounting how the Silverado Group bought Barbieri vineyard in 2007 and pulled out its hundred year old vines to plant more lucrative and fashionable pinot noir.
In 2010, hoping to stem this tide, Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery, who’d bought fruit from Barbieri, joined with Twain-Peterson, and other producers to found the non-profit Historic Vineyard Society. Their goal: to register (and verify) all California’s vineyards planted before 1960. So far the inventory lists 219.
In July, Burgundy’s grand Cote d’Or vineyards may be added to Unesco’s World Heritage sites. When will California recognize its own legendary old vines carry the state’s viticultural history and bestow historical landmark status on them?
Next week, the Rare Wine Co. will offer some hard-to-get old vine bottlings, with profits going to the Historic Vineyard Society.
Most of these thrilling, unique wines, like Bedrock’s, can be had for under $50.
(Elin McCoy writes about wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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