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.
The time to drink the old-timers is now.
“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.
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 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 Street East, Sonoma, 707-343-1478, bedrockwineco.com. (appointment only)
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.
Ask for the Big Break Vineyard Zinfandel Contra Costa County ($37), made from vines planted more than 80 years ago, and the Ancient Vines Carignane Contra Costa County ($23), made from vines planted in the early 1900s through the 1940s.
24737 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 707-940-4044, clinecellars.com.
Ledson Winery & Vineyards
There is more than just jaw-dropping, French Normandy-style castle architecture to lure visitors to the winery Steve Ledson built on Highway 12 near Kenwood in the early 1990s. A variety of experiences are offered, as one would expect in such a grand space, including tours, multiple tasting spaces for nearly every varietal common in California and a marketplace offering sandwiches, gourmet condiments and gifts.
Yet Ledson, a native Sonoman, would most want guests to appreciate his commitment to bottling wines made from old vines. The Ledson Estate Ancient Vine Zinfandel Sonoma Valley ($68), for example, comes from grapes planted in 1887. Estate Old Vine Syrah ($46) and Estate Old Vine Barbera ($54) are both from Sonoma Valley. And Ledson’s Ciapusci Estate Old Vine Zinfandel Sonoma Valley ($36) was planted to clones taken from a 154-year-old vineyard on Mendocino Ridge in Mendocino County.
7335 Highway 12, Kenwood, 707-537-3810, ledson.com.
St. Francis Winery & Vineyards
Tom Mackey retired in 2011 as the founding winemaker at this eastern Santa Rosa winery, having acquired grapes from multiple, old-vine sites over his 31 years at St. Francis. He also mentored Katie Madigan in the wiles of and ways to produce old-vine reds (Chris Louton is co-winemaker, focusing on Bordeaux varieties).
Madigan’s Old Vines Zinfandel Sonoma County ($22) is a blend of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah grapes from vines aged 50 to 100 years and is a flagship bottling at a great price. The Tres Viejos Old Vines Zinfandel Sonoma County ($48), from vineyards 70 years old and more in the Alexander, Russian River and Sonoma valleys, is small in case production yet well worth asking for at the visitor center. It won the “Best of the Best” award at the 2019 North Coast Wine Challenge.
For a taste of an old-school, old-vine “mixed blacks” blend, don’t miss the Eletto Heritage Vines Red Wine Sonoma County ($52), a field blend of Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, Carignane and Zinfandel.
100 Pythian Road, Santa Rosa, 888-675-9463, stfranciswinery.com.
Founder Peter Wellington sold his property to the Belmonte family in 2014, and the new-ish owners – Henry Belmonte and his parents, Vittorio and Maria Belmonte of VJB Cellars – have made several upgrades to the Wellington property since their acquisition, among them a new winery and tasting space and replanting of some of the vineyards.
One thing has not changed: Wellington’s devotion to old-vine zinfandel. There are three, estate Sonoma Valley bottlings, and the 2016s have just been released. Named for the year in which the vines were planted, the Wellington Estate 1882 Zinfandel Sonoma Valley ($44), Estate 1912 Zinfandel Sonoma Valley ($42) and Estate 1924 Zinfandel Sonoma Valley ($39) are remarkable for their complexity.
11600 Dunbar Road, Glen Ellen, 707-934-8604, wellingtoncellars.com.