The Historic Vineyard Society Will Save the Day

I don't know if "old vine" vineyards produce wines of any specific characteristic. I've tasted a whole bunch of them over the years and walked through a number of such vineyards. But I just can't say what to expect from any vineyard labeled "old vine".

Historic vineyard

However, I can say with some surety that the historic character and implications of these vineyards to California and to the wine industry is more valuable than anything one can say or experience about the wines produced from them.

That's why I was very excited to read about the Historic Vineyard Society in Doug Wilder's Purley Domestic Wine Report and then to visit the website this new organization has created.

The best way to experience an historic vineyard is to fine a way to abruptly compare it to a relatively new vineyard. That's the first step. If you don't see the difference, then don't bother going forward with further investigation. The next thing to notice is the often variety of varieties that exist in these vineyards. More often than not, when you are looking at a vineyard planted before 1960 or so is that these are field blends: vineyards holding a number of different types of grapes meant to be harvested all together and crushed together to deliver a specific wine experience. This is done rarely if at all today.

The next step is to let the caretakers of these vineyards recant the history. Be careful and listen to there passion. Listen to them channel the meaning of the vineyard as it was originally intended to be understood. Listen to them recount the history of those who planted it, what the wine industry was like at the time of planting and listen carefully to them tell you the cycles of founding, use, disrepair and repair these special places went through. You'll get two things out of this experience: 1) a history less and a 2) a lesson in intent and passion…both useful.

The folks behind the Historic Vineyard Society explain they are:

"dedicated to the preservation of California’s historic vineyards…accomplished through educating the wine-drinking public on the very special nature of this precious and depleting state, national and global resource."

They have a tough road ahead of them but I dearly want them to succeed.

My most informative experience with an historic vineyard was in working with Will Bucklin of Bucklin Winery and the owner of the Old Hill Ranch in Glen Ellen, California. Planted originally in 1851, this vineyard possesses some mightily old vines. The vineyard is a field blend containing more than 25 different varieties including Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Carignane, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Peloursin, Lenoir, Tempranillo, etc., etc., etc.

Old Hill Ranch is a monument to living history and exactly the kind of vineyard the folks at the Historic Vineyard Society are looking to preserve and showcase. And I love how they are doing the showcasing.

The criteria for getting on the registry of historic vineyards is fairly straightforward:The vineyard must currently be producing grapes used in wine now being produced, it must have been planted no later than 1960 and at least 1/3 of the producing vines must be traceable to their original planting date.

Currently more than 200 vineyards are in the registry.

Who is behind this heroic effort?

David Gates (Ridge Vineyards)
Mike Officer (Carlisle Vineyards)
Jancis Robinson (author and wine critic)
Tegan Passalacqua (Turley Wine Cellars)
Morgan Twain-Peterson (Bedrock Vineyards)
Mike Dildine

The potential of this new Society to educate wine lovers, history buffs and preservationists seems to me to be unlimited. These are treasures they are counting and promoting and recording. They are parts of history we not only can observe and learn from, but also taste. That's pretty cool.

13 Responses

  1. Mike Officer/Carlisle Winery - July 28, 2011

    Thanks for the support Tom. It is a tough road (economics typically rule) but we’ll keep plugging away. These old-vine vineyards are historical treasures. One thing we’re learning is the diversity in many of them is far greater than anyone realized. We have discovered varieties like Persan, Castet, Mollard, Albillo Mayor, Grec Rouge, Criolla Mediana, Feher Szagos, and Aramon. Many others too!
    Mike Officer

  2. Tom Wark - July 28, 2011

    I have no idea what you’ve done to shine light on this effort, but clearly with time and a little money, a great deal could be done. And I think it is important that the Society find creative ways to explain the import of these vineyards to CA and U.S. winemaking history.
    Of course, there is also the fundraising aspect. But, I’m pretty sure there are a variety of ways to make that work.
    In the end, thank YOU for starting this effort. It really is important and exciting.

  3. Doug Wilder - July 28, 2011

    Thanks for reposting this on your site. I couldn’t figure out where all my pre-espresso traffic was coming from until now 😉 As I mention in the article, Old Vine Zinfandel has been special to me for a long time. It can’t be over-emphasized what a precious resource these old vine sites are and how important it is to protect them – creating a registry is the first step. I expect I will become more involved with HVS going forward.

  4. Tom Wark - July 28, 2011

    I’m with you on the importance of this effort and of these vineyards. I’ve always said that there ought to be an effort to designate various vineyards as National or State historical landmarks. That might be a nice project for the HVS to take on. Frankly, I’d love the chance to work on behalf of these folks to publicize there efforts. There are stories here.

  5. Rebecca Robinson - July 28, 2011

    Hi Tom,
    On behalf of Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP), I want to congratulate and thank the Historic Vineyard Society for their great work. Focusing on these historic vineyards is such an important aspect of our collective wine culture and history, especially as it relates to old vine Zinfandel. We look forward to working with and supporting the Society to shine the light. Thanks also to Doug Wilder for his coverage. We will put a link on our website and Facebook to spread the word. Cheers! Rebecca Robinson, Executive Director

  6. John - July 28, 2011

    While the vineyards themselves are treasures to their owners, and to the wineries that get to use those grapes. What I appreciate about this group is their apparent recognition of the value of these “old” selections of different varieties to the industry as a whole.
    Take Pinot Noir for example. Dijon clones suck. There, I said it. In California anyway. “Everybody” planted them without taking into consideration that these clones were selected to do well in a climate and soils very different than what we have here.
    The selections of Pinot that have been in California from time immemorial just flat accumulate sugar at a more reasonable rate (among other advantages). The historic vineyards are where treasures like these are to be found.

  7. Philip Goodband MW - July 29, 2011

    Having visited a number of centenarian Zinfandel sites in Lodi I realise just how important this initiative is. Good Job!

  8. JohnLopresti - July 29, 2011

    There are many advantages to the historic vineyard designation initiative.
    I have several personally preferred rankings which I apply to an ‘old vines’ labeled wine. One quick test I favor for red varietals is a bit of household paper titration technique. Place a drop of the wine on a white paper towel, and observe how the chromatism spreads, how far, how much a share of the tinting is purple, or blue, or more common red colors.
    The titration test usually produces a stable end result in a few minutes. It might take several drops of wine. By then, the palate is engaged, and may compare that form of observation to the completed titration strip. It might be banned practice at judging events, yet, if I were at such an event, I would have labeled titrations as a reference for each tasted wine. Depending on several factors, often the titrations when dry serve as a meaningful reference even quite a few hours to a day after testing the freshly opened bottle.
    In genuinely old vines, there are many dark hues on the paper. Some heavily sedimented wines can reveal that with the paper test, as well, though there are varying meanings available interpreting the sediments seen. Usually, well made wines lack sediment defects; though part of organoleptic analysis typically includes initial visual examination of the cork, as well.
    The topic is more complex than a short comment in a thread.
    Pruning in its most successful practice also examines the entire mass of the vine, as there are mental equations one applies when deciding how many canes to clip. Winkler et al did much work on ratios of weight of prunings to weight of persistent wood in the vine.
    Young plots in the paper titration test clearly produce distinctly un-blue, un-purple predominant hues.
    Vine health and development articles often describe the importance of healthy and massive wood in the vine as a resource for several metabolic processes, including bud vigor and dormancy hardiness.
    Further, vine and soil imperfections and pests or pathogens can affect the quality of the permanent wood.
    A noteworthy body of literature on these topics exists behind the professional societies’ fee-based access websites; so, this comment offers no links by way of illustration.
    Still, old vines are an important topic.
    There is a winemaker who gained some fame somewhere evidently approximately near the Mayacamas, as well as in the Russian River AVA, who might have ample evidence to refute the following impression of mine; and I would defer to that winemaker, with whom I have met and barrel-tasted on the following: namely, it is my impression that vines such as those in the photo at the top of the post likely were dry-farmed, and, given their 2′ height training, probably have passed their fruit quality prime. Still, I have leapt to hasty assessments on occasion, when sizing up a towering, massive, ancient carignane vine, by thinking that such a hardy individual might produce some of the most subtle, long-lasting, complex, and enjoyable wines. Note the layperson description rather than the modern flavor spectrum lexicon.
    Still, the old vine register seems an interesting concept. The FPMS literature occasionally contains images of venerable old vines and writeups about specific clone ancestry. I think I would follow UC Davis and FPMS’ instincts on the merit of old vines.
    I would add that my personal preferences exclude bulk processed wines, and several of these keep making debuts with old vine titles on their label. It helps to know your own intentions and the business plans of the winery when trying products from ‘old’ vines.

  9. [email protected] - July 30, 2011

    We produce a number of “Old Vine” wines at Scott Harvey and Jana Wines and am interested in joining the society. In the dry land farmed vineyards, I think root depth is one of the biggest factors in the wine produced, giving the wine many demensions as the roots go through many soil types.

  10. Mary Pisor - July 30, 2011

    Just as a reminder that UC Davis established the Zinfandel Heritage vineyard in 1989 which was designed to retain and cultivate rare Zinfandel old vine selections. It was and still is a very exciting concept.
    I am very proud to have been a member of the first winemaking team with Nils Venge in 1997 and a strong supporter of the project and of ZAP. Please see:
    A shout out to Scott and Rebecca!

  11. BuckZin - July 30, 2011

    Thanks for the mention and support Tom. We’re proud to be old!

  12. BuckZin - July 30, 2011

  13. railwayman - July 31, 2011

    If you are interested in it, there is a new online game about winemaking:

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