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".
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.
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)
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.