The resurrection of California’s lost vineyards and grapes

My playlist over the years has always been on the heavier side of rock and roll, but like everything in life as we grow older our tastes evolve. It is only natural. In music I found myself going back to the old. To the classics of heavy rock from Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin or to the more obscure Budgie, Uriah Heep, and Sir Lord Baltimore. From there I found new bands who had modernized that sound without losing its fundamental grit and soul. Bands like Graveyard, Kadavar, and Uncle Acid and The Deadbeats. Bands that would not be out of place then, but they still feel like they are charting new sonic territories today that is different from everything else that has come since. It’s as if they went back to the beginning, but where everybody went right and went on from there for 40 years, they are going left. 

More often than not, when I am listening to this music I am drinking wines made by new, modern producers in the new world. Their stories seemed to run similar courses. These new winemakers, these young upstarts, are doing something very different to anything that has come in the last 40 or so years since the Judgment of Paris and Robert Parker’s influential shift of the entire industry. They are going back to a point in time and where everybody turned right and kept going, instead now they are turning left. 

 Germany's Kadavar. Easily at home in the 1970s as they are moving heavy music forward in 2018 and beyond.

Germany's Kadavar. Easily at home in the 1970s as they are moving heavy music forward in 2018 and beyond.

California has an interesting and unique history in the wine world. A budding wine region with lots of promise cut down in its youth by prohibition and forced to start again. The Judgement of Paris seemed to have the same effect on the California wine industry as a breakout band in a new genre. Think Mötley Cruë to hair metal, Nirvana to Grunge, or Guns n' Roses to whatever the hell Guns n' Roses were. All of a sudden California Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir were the hot tickets and so winemakers looked to produce these wines. They jumped on the bandwagon because this is what was hot, this is what people wanted, and to some extent, the evolution of industrial winemaking meant they could produce these wines with consistency between vintages. These wines were recognizable, easy to make, and easy to sell which means winemakers could make money more easily from them. Vines that had stood since before prohibition were being challenged again to make way for moneymakers. Let's be clear that this is not a knock against California's expressions of these noble grapes, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon for example still ranks as some of the best in the world, but there is a lot of shit out there too.

Tastes evolve over time, and when you don't have the tradition that some of the old-world regions have where the grapes allowed in making a specific wine are heavily controlled you have a region that can evolve with tastes over time. That seems like a really wild thing to say about wine when growing vines is a painstaking process that reserves its greatest rewards for decades of patience, but in the United States that is very true. Sometimes the results are awesome, like California's experimentations with Albariño, but when the vines are measured on the volume of their yield like Carignan, then it means that a lot of these vines get destroyed once they have outlived their usefulness. 

Those new experiments are exciting and its a beautiful evolution of California, and indeed American wine as a whole that is taking it to new places, but the alternative path being forged is by those going back, looking at history, looking at what has come before and said "what if instead of going right at this point, we went left." Its challenging history to ask, what if California never found fame through Cabernet Sauvignon in 1976? What if instead, we forged ahead with some of those other varieties that existed in the 1930s, the early 1900s, and even before then. It reaching back, starting again from that point and going forward with what we know today.

Lost vineyards, old vines, and the dangers of strip malls

California is a land of immigrants, many of them from wine producing regions around the world. Italy, France, even Croatia to name but a few. Many of these immigrants brought over their grapes from home, sometimes just bringing clippings in their suitcases. These vines grew in small lots, backyards, and gardens, making wine as a point of nostalgia but seldom making it into the mainstream. Some did, and much like immigrant tales of over a century ago, have forged new identities that are quintessentially Californian, as if they had been raised from the dust.

For a lot of people, Zinfandel is so ubiquitous with California wine that it might have been considered the signature grape of the state. It makes a robust and sometimes high alcohol content red wine (we won't talk too much about the sweeter White Zinfandel) that divides opinion. Its roots were a mystery until it was identified to be genetically identical to Primitivo, an obscure grape from Italy. Zinfandel is an immigrant's tale vinified. Today there are Zinfandel vines that are over 100 years old still rooted deeply into their soil, squeezing out bright and vibrant yields that under the careful hands of devoted winemakers is making for much more elegant and refined wines.

The Bedrock Wine Company is one such winery making a case for old vines making good wines. They set out to preserve or rehabilitate vineyards that were first planted by the pioneers of California winemaking. The argument is that if these vines survived two world wars, prohibition, and the fleeting tastes of the 20th century, then their wines too will have survived the test of time. They have a couple expressions of Zinfandel which are rich and exquisite, but they refuse to stop there. You'll find them working with Carignan, Mourvedre, Petite-Sirah, and even Gewürtztraminer and Riesling to name but a few. Some, like Carignan, have found their way back into the favor of modern wine drinkers, but many remain obscure, like Trousseau Gris which still has just one vineyard in the entire state sitting in the Russian River Valley. 

 Hardly the most picturesque vineyard. Nestled below a power plant the Evangelho vineyard has stood the test of time to produce some amazing Zinfandel.

Hardly the most picturesque vineyard. Nestled below a power plant the Evangelho vineyard has stood the test of time to produce some amazing Zinfandel.

These old vineyards brought back to life offer us a peek into what was in California, much like playing an old vinyl record of Robert Johnson. You can hear the hiss purring in the background of Sweet Home Chicago as the jangling guitars and moody treble of his voice makes his way through the song. We could recreate the song, and indeed much from the early days of blues, using the same guitars et.al but to simply recreate the sound would seem artificial. We would best be served by taking what we know and expressing ourselves as a reflection of our times. The blues we write today would sound very different from the early years, but they would still be the fucking blues and they would be awesome. A century-old form of music still used to reflect the moods of the time. Its just going to be different. 

These old vines have been lost and found, changed hands, and made finally made their ways into the hands of people who truly want to care for them. Sadly many have been lost to developments and strip malls, with winemakers in the not so distant past reluctant to rehabilitate forgotten vineyards with obscure grapes. A new wave has saved the many that remain from similar fates, a wave of younger winemakers who are not interested in the over-industrialized business of wine, but rather the craft and artisanship of making interesting and beautiful wines that are much more rewarding and often easier to drink. The way that they handle them is going to be different, both in appreciation to the history, heritage, and appreciation of all the things that these vines have been through, but simultaneously forging a new path with what we know about wine today. It is using the same instrument and resources to create something new and reflective of the world around them.

Reaching back to 1960 or 1890

What has been so cool about this modern/retro hybrid movement is its varied starting points. We are not going back to one place, but rather varied points of interest that are bringing some hidden chapters in California's wine heritage to the forefront. As a growing and experimental wine region void of any strict rules, California has long been a place of experimentation and expression that has brought in new wines, new vineyards at various points in time. Old vines are awesome, whether they come from the 1890s, the 1930s, and even the 1950s and 60s. Modern winemakers are taking those pieces, those tools, those resources, and expressing them in ways that show who they are as modern artisans and craft makers.

In decades past we have seen grapes come and go, sometimes introduced by forward-thinking grower ahead of their time, sometimes planted by immigrants bringing with them a reminder of home. Sometimes it feels as though there is little explanation why grapes like Counoise, Valdiguie, or either of Trousseau Noir or Trousseau Gris should have such a long history in California but they do, they exist, and we see a new era of winemakers taking them on. Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope is one such hero, taking on grapes that represent California's viticultural heritage and transforming them into beautiful, delicious wines that in any other setting would seem to be all over the map when working with Gewürtztraminer, Saint Laurent, Chenin Blanc, and even Pinot Grigio in a Ramato style. Today, in California, this just makes sense. Its a snapshot of history, heritage, and who the people of the state are today, a blend of immigrants from all over the world who came to make their way. As Matthew mentioned to Fortune...

Many obscure grapes exist in California because immigrants brought them over and planted them in their backyards. As an immigrant country, isn’t having an eclectic selection of grapes what California is all about?
— Matthew Rorick to Fortune

In the same article another one of our heroes harps on the value of Valdiguie, noting that this amazing light-bodied red wine is not as esoteric as we might think. California Valdiguie goes back to early 1900s, but has had something of a troubled history. Its been in and out of fashion, as happens with some grapes, but through all of that it has come out on the other end to be one of the most delightful and delicious red wines you can find. If you like light-bodied red wines from Beaujolais or Burgundy then with Valdiguie you are in for a real treat. This is no clone meant to replicate the exquisite Burgundy and Bordeaux wines, this is a wine that can give a serious showing for American winemaking in the 21st century.

You have to be daring to work with these varietals though. Their current lack of recognition might make it difficult to sell to a consumer base that knows nothing about them. Many of the winemakers working with these varietals, however, are forward-thinking winemakers who are mixing this heritage with a progressive view of wine. They eschew mechanization in place of minimalism, diving head first into the hip natural wine movement. Their natural foundation in winemaking allows the grapes to tell their rich stories, and not have it edited to suit a narrative of what a wine "should" taste like through fining, filtering, adding chemicals, and other varied interventions. Good news for these winemakers, the public is buying what they are selling! Natural wines may have seemed obscure and weird a few years ago, but they are gaining traction amongst a younger wine generation of wine drinkers who are more discerning against the "unnatural."

Not so obscure anymore

A decade ago these grapes would have been considered obscure, strange, and downright silly for business, but tastes change. A growing younger segment of wine drinkers is placing experience and a connection to the grapes, to the soil, to the people ahead of "brand names" like Burgundy, Bordeaux, or even Napa. They are ready to embrace different wines from their parents, those who dutifully followed the wine writers of the past. We are a generation of wine lovers who want to figure things out for ourselves, to explore, and to experience through doing rather than through reading. It is this embrace of the weird, the wild, and the wonderful, that has allowed California's lost vineyards to flourish.

Okay, so more people know Pinot Noir than Counoise, and that will never change. But the mere fact that more winemakers can make it, sell it, and survive by doing so is a testament to a generation who have an open heart. Counoise, Carignan, and Valdiguie to name but a few are not as obscure as they were ten years ago. This open heart affords a greater freedom to winemakers who no longer have to follow a demand for just a handful of grapes. Instead, these winemakers can feel free to explore, experiment, and express to the world what is so amazing about California. Its no longer "this is what Chardonnay from California tastes like" but rather "this is what my California tastes like." 

This is not about what Chardonnay from California tastes like, this is about what California tastes like.

Of course, we should not throw Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and other noble grapes under the bus here. They are a part of the heritage of California wine. These wines did, after all, help to put California on the map when nobody would take it seriously. There are some old vine Cabernet Sauvignons from some the Napa Valleys most prestigious wineries that will just blow your mind. What is maybe so incredible about the revival of so many other wines coupled with even more grapes being introduced to the state (we will save that for other articles) is that it helps to put these wines in greater context. We are seeing a state grow from being something of a factory for wine to a collection of regions with their own identities, heritages, and cultures that are reflective of the people around them.

 Broc Cellars Old Vine Carignan is a perfect example of California's rich heritage in old vines combined with forward thinking natural producers like Chris Brockway.

Broc Cellars Old Vine Carignan is a perfect example of California's rich heritage in old vines combined with forward thinking natural producers like Chris Brockway.

One wine that brings all of this together is the remarkable Old Vine Carignan from Broc Cellars. The Alexander Valley vines used to make this wine were planted sometime in the 1890s, and have stood the test of time. They are dry farmed, so their roots reach deep into the soil lapping up the precious character of the area and standing strong. They have survived the phylloxera plague that ravished wine estates across the globe, prohibition, and changing trends. The Oat Valley Vineyard where these vines stand has been farmed by generations of the same family, and this particular block is a unique story unto its own that just speaks to the wild history of California. While predominantly Carignan, the block is interspersed with Alicante, Zinfandel, and Palomino. I long pondered about who might have planted such a wild mix of a vineyard, perhaps a Spanish immigrant dreaming of wines from back home as they made their place in the new world. It's a delicious, savory, earthy, fruity wine that is bright and acidic as it is elegant. The Old Vine Carignan from Broc Cellars is not in your face, it's mellow, its chill, but it's amazing all the same. Its going back to old vines, old methods, and coming up with something that reflects who we are and what we want today and for me there no better example. Okay, maybe the Broc Cellars Valdiguie comes close with its 65-year-old vines that take us back to the days of surfing USA and maturing in the sunshine and hippy era of the sixties.

What these old vines do is add color, heritage, and distinction to California's wine culture. With modern winemakers getting their hands on these amazing vines, winemakers who appreciate the true hardiness of the of these plants that have stood the test of time, California is finally able to establish itself as a place that is rich in history, but still a hub for forward-thinking winemaking. We go back to the classics and turn left, forging a new path that is distinct from the past few decades. This is an exciting time for wine in the great state, one that will reward wine drinkers who can appreciate stories, heritage, culture, and above all great fucking wine!