Old Grapevines Thrive in California Vineyards

New registry documents many 50- to 100-year-old vines still producing wine

by Paul Franson
Rossi Ranch Vineyard historic
Rossi Ranch Vineyard in the Sonoma Valley was planted in 1910.
Dry Creek Valley, Calif.—Despite a winegrowing heritage that began before statehood, and some vines that continue to yield grapes after a century, California has never taken stock of its ancient vineyards. A dedicated group of winemakers and vineyard owners has formed the Historic Vineyard Society to catalog, validate, protect and promote California’s historic vineyards.

It’s focusing on producing vineyards planted before 1960—hence, more than 50 years old. At least one-third of the existing, producing vines must be from the original planting date. The group is not cataloging modern vineyards growing on old sites—although others are reportedly doing that.

The organization has found working vineyards dating back to the 1880s, and a surprising number more than 100 years old. They’re scattered throughout the state, many in places less famous for wine than Napa or Sonoma. That’s predictable: In established production areas, where vineyard land is expensive, growers tend to uproot old vines and plant new vineyards that produce higher yields of more popular grapes.

Zinfandel is the most prominent grape among the oldsters, but many of the antique vineyards feature Petite Sirah, Cinsault, Grand Noir, Alicante Bouschet, Carignane, Grenache and other varieties. Many grow in mixed fields, often containing a few white varieties as well as reds. They were typically co-fermented with the hope that any under-ripe grapes would contribute acidity for balance.

Some vineyards even contain Mission, the grape originally planted by Spanish missionaries and traditionally made into Angelica (must with brandy added) for sacramental use.

The idea for the society was born when Mike Dildine asked an Internet wine forum about California’s great old vine Zinfandel vineyards. Hundreds of Zin lovers responded with old vineyards.

Others joined to create the Historic Vineyard Society. Their goal is to document facts about all of California’s heritage vineyards, and to raise awareness of the unique places these vineyards represent in California and winemaking history.

Bedrock Vineyard historic
Bedrock Vineyard in the Sonoma Valley was planted between 1886 and 1888. The vineyard site, known as Madrone Ranch, was originally planted in 1854 by General William "Tecumseh" Sherman and General "Fightin" Joe Hooker.

Visiting the vines
The society recently held its first Historic Vineyard Tour and Dinner.
Members Mike Dildine, David Gates (Ridge Vineyards), Mike Officer (Carlisle Vineyards), Tegan Passalacqua (Turley Wine Cellars) and Morgan Twain-Peterson (Bedrock Vineyards) were joined by a group of growers, winemakers and press, including author David Darlington, columnist Mike Dunne of the Sacramento Bee, and wine blogger Doug Wilder, to tour historic vineyards and dine at Ridge’s Lytton Springs Winery.

The first stop was Officer’s 10-acre Carlisle Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, which was planted in 1927 by Alcide Pelletti. Next was Whitton Ranch in Alexander Valley owned by the Trentadue family and farmed under a long-term contract by Ridge Vineyards. The mixed-black “Old Patch” in this vineyard dates to 1882, and along with another 19th-century block of Carignane, makes up the core of Ridge’s classic Geyserville bottling.

The group then went to nearby Turley’s 101 Vineyard, an 80-year old mixed black vineyard in Alexander Valley. The last stop was Ridge’s winery and vineyard at Lytton Springs in nearby Dry Creek Valley. Lytton Springs Vineyard is a mixed-black vineyard planted in 1901; source of Ridge’s single-vineyard blend of the same name. 

So far, the group has identified 202 historic vineyards in California. 100 are in Sonoma County:
• 18 are in Alexander Valley
• 18 are in Dry Creek Valley
• 38 are in RRV
• 26 are in Sonoma Valley.
Of these:
• Nine were planted in the 1880s
• 20 were planted in the 1890s
• 13 were planted in the 1900s
• 18 were planted in the 1910s
• 21 were planted in the 1920s
• 11 were planted in the 1930s
• Three were planted in the 1940s
• Five were planted in the 1950s.

Interestingly, a large number were planted during Prohibition.

Of the 29 vineyards planted in Sonoma County the 19th century:
• 11 are in Sonoma Valley
• Nine are in Alexander Valley
• Seven are in RRV
• Two are in Dry Creek.

Approximate regional totals include:
• Sonoma—100
• Napa—28
• Sierra (Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado counties)—16
• East Bay (Livermore and Contra Costa)—13
• Lodi—Nine
• Central Coast (San Benito, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties)—Eight
• Santa Cruz Mountains—Six
• Lake County—Two
• Los Angeles County (Cucamonga)—Two

The organization continues to seek other old vineyards. For more information, visit historicvineyardsociety.org or reach Mike Dildine, who is compiling the list, at mdildine@centuryca.com or (831) 642-9364.

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