Sunday Morning Cigars and Old Vine Truths

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In my world few solitary activities offer more pleasure than a Sunday morning with a cigar, a brandy and coffee and the day’s hulking newspapers strewn about me. This morning was spent with that simple liquid mix, the New York Times, the Press Democrat and the San Francisco Chronicle and a Dominican of the lonsdale variety that was turned down by Jack and Alder last night after a fantastic meal that included wonderful food and wines and great conversation.

It was in the course of looking through the Q Section of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that I came across a column by Dan Berger in which he once again described all too clearly a set of thoughts that have been running though my own mind for a few days now. To wit:

The uniqueness that is often attributed to Old Vine Zinfandel has less to do with the fact that they are old than with the fact that far less of the wine is made with Zinfandel than we are led to believe.

Any Zinfandel vineyard that is has been producing for more than 80 years is likely to be only partially planted to Zinfandel. We are talking about "Field Blends". Growers who planted vineyards back in the day were planting vines to make a specific style of wine, not a varietal wine. In fact, it is only relatively recently that ‘Cabernet Sauvignon", "Pinot Noir", "Zinfandel", "Chardonnay" and other varietal designations have had top billing on a label. For many years you were much more likely to be buying California wine labeled "Barbaresco" or "Burgundy" or "Sauterne".

We don’t do this now since government rules, good sense and heightened professionalism, not to mention confidence, regulate our marketing activities. But there was time. The California "Burgundy" that was drunk was likely produced from a vineyard filled with any number of varieties planted together, one next to the other, in the same vineyard. In addition to Zinfandel, which was for many years the workhorse of California red wine production, a vineyard would also be planted with Alicante Bouchet, Carignane, Mataro and even white grapes here and there. All the grapes would be planted together then harvested together then fermented together.

Today the surviving vineyards of this type are sought out because they are unique and they often produce wines of singular character. They carry the "Old Vine" description on the label, an unregulated term that should refer to wines made from vines that truly are old, but too often are just kinda old.

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The Old Hill Vineyard owned by Bucklin Winery that is a new client at Wark Communications is one such vineyard. First planted in 1851 as the first Sonoma Vineyard planted to non-Mission vines, then replanted in 1887, the Sonoma Valley vineyard has a good deal of Zinfandel in it. But it also holds a number of other varieties such as Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Alicante, Grand Noir, Lenoir, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Bastardo, French Colombard, even simple table grapes and a number of other varieties. That it is a vineyard that produces wine of unique character can’t be challenged. Both Ravenswood and Bucklin have confirmed this with their single vineyard bottlings from Old Hill.

Too often the unique character of old vine wines is attributed to the fact that the vines produced lower yields that lead to more concentrated wine. But as Berger points out, this is hardly something that old vineyards are alone capable of doing. It’s easy enough to coax new vineyards to do the very same thing by artificially reducing yields, the crudest method of which is simply yanking off bunches of grapes during the growing season. And as the current trends in winemaking have demonstrated, concentration is not necessarily a result of low yielding vines.

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No, it is the field blend that makes wine produced from true "Old Vine" vineyards unique. And these vineyards are almost always 70 years or older.

Walking through a vineyard such as Old Hill, Kunde Estate’s "Shaw Vineyard" or Martini’s "Monte Rosso Vineyard", all located in Sonoma Valley, really should be a near spiritual experience for anyone with an active heart and mind. They are touchstone of the past, reminders of where we’ve been and conduits to that unique experience of actually consuming history. It’s an experience that does indeed trump the the Sunday morning pleasure of toking on a good cigar, ingesting the strong liquid mix and finding communion with the rest of the world through the newspapers. But this is pretty good too.

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  1. allan - December 18, 2005

    I was in California over the summer and got to visit several wineries in Sonoma. Of all the wineries I visited, Kunde stood out for its link to, and respect for, the past.
    In fact, one of the best wines from Kunde was their Prohibition Red. It was everything a wine should be, with a unique story that reached back to prohibition and a full-bodied taste.

  2. Mike Duffy - December 18, 2005

    Nice post, Tom. Eloquent and informative.
    Davis Family (a very small winery in Healdsburg) is doing some nice things in this regard as well. Check out their Zin if you get a chance.

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