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Making The Old, New Again

In my last post, I discussed the ravaging effects that the phylloxera plague had on the vineyards of Europe. As I mentioned, the solution to this blight came in grafting traditional European Vitis Vinefera vines onto the Vitis Labrusca rootstock that was native to the northeastern region of America. The result has become a never-mentioned heresy in France, that their most famous vineyards are actually growing on American roots.

But there is an interesting flipside to this story. About the same time as the phylloxera scourge swept through Europe, a large selection of European vines were brought to California and planted throughout Sonoma and elsewhere. This meant that some old vine plantings in California are arguably more European than anything in Europe.

In 1861, Agoston Haraszthy, who is frequently referred to as the father of California viticulture, was appointed by the governor to find the “ways and means best adapted to promote the improvement and growth of the grape-vine in California.”  Haraszthy was the kind of adventuresome entrepreneur that readers of The Bizzy Life will find inspirational.

Haraszthy claimed that he was forced to leave Hungary in 1841 because his liberal political activities had drawn the wrath the Austrian royal family. He settled in Wisconsin and founded a winery that is still there, now called the Wollersheim Winery. He abandoned this effort when he concluded that Wisconsin winters were too severe to make great wines. He moved into the lumber business, made a small fortune and founded the town of Sauk City, Wisconsin. But he had his sights on a larger fortune.

The California gold rush caught his attention, but by 1852 Haraszthy realized he had missed the boom years and would be better served capitalizing on the hard work of others. When a branch of the U.S. Mint opened in San Francisco in April 1854, Haraszthy built a smelting refinery, called Eureka Gold and Silver and then he schmoozed his appointment as the first U.S. assayer and refiner for the Mint. A grand jury investigation of his operation led to a federal indictment charging Haraszthy with the embezzlement of $151,550 in gold.

A civil trial fully exonerated Haraszthy when he provided his own forensic evidence that quantified the loss of gold as resulting from inefficient smelting practices. He proved that this gold blew out of his smoke stacks leaving gold residue from soot samples he took from rooftops around San Francisco. True or not, it was a brilliant defense. And fortunately for wine lovers, this experience soured Haraszthy on gold refining and drove him back to viticulture.

In 1856, he bought a small vineyard northeast of the town of Sonoma and renamed it Buena Vista. He offered to sell the vines to the state, propagate them in his Sonoma nursery, test them to determine which were best suited to the California soil and climate, and distribute them to would-be winemakers throughout California. The Legislature refused the offer, leaving Haraszthy to distribute the vines at his own expense. Determined to be paid for this effort, he finagled a commission from the State to procure cutting from Europe, and off he went. He traveled through France, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain before returning with more than 100,000 cuttings of more than 350 different varieties of vines, fruit and nut trees.

Upon his return, the State of California reneged on this agreement and refused to pay him for his self-motivated boondoggle. When the state refused to reimburse him for his efforts he quite literally left in a huff. He sold all of these vines in a public auction, pocketed his profits, and moved to Central America. There he built a lumber mill to process Central American hardwoods and started a sugar plantation with plans for distilling rum. His death was a colorful as his life. Tragically, alligators ate Haraszthy while he was crossing a river in Nicaragua. But his legacy in California remains huge. The entire fruit and nut industry owe him a debt of gratitude, and we wine lovers should toast him with a glass of old vine Zinfandel at every opportunity.

As early as the 1870s, Haraszthy’s son Arpad Haraszthy claimed that his father brought the first Zinfandel to California. However, Charles Sullivan argues in his history of Zinfandel, that others had already brought the Zinfandel grape to the East Coast as early as the 1820s and to California in the 1850s. Academic quibbling about the “first” California Zinfandel aside, Haraszthy is responsible for many of the vines that became or parented the “old vine” plantings that still exist in California today.

Ironically, by the middle 1860s, the vines at Buena Vista were growing brown and weak. In fact, this was the result of the first infestation of phylloxera ever seen in California. His viticulture blessing on California was also its curse. Poetic justice, perhaps, for the mistreatment Haraszthy received from the State and Federal government. In the case of phylloxera, what goes around, really does come around, eventually.

The approach that Haraszthy took when acquiring those first vines was logical on the surface. He reasoned that by taking cuttings from the best vineyards of Europe would ensure the best vineyards in California. However, in my humble opinion, this logic took California viticulture down the wrong path for then next 100-plus years. The state is dominated by grape varieties from microclimates nothing like those found in California.

In fact, California is the only Mediterranean climate outside of the Mediterranean region. So, had Haraszthy taken his logic one step further, he would have restricted his search for vines to warmer regions and taken his cuttings from the best vineyards in northern Spain, central Italy and the Rhône valley of France.  Had he done this, today Roussanne, Tempanillo, Sangiovese and Syrah would rightly be the dominant grapes of California, instead of Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir. And, California wine lovers might not consider Napa the center of the universe.


Here are my own favorite “old vine” recommendations from Mediterranean grape varietals:

Seghesio Family Vineyard, Nonno’s Clones – Sangiovese, (Alexander Valley, California) ±$30

Seghesio is the oldest grower of Sangiovese in California, The thin, unforgiving topsoil at their Home Ranch Vineyard in Alexander Valley “devigorize” the vines, providing the lower yields desired with this variety. In addition to the ideally conditions of this site, these are 70+ year old vines from Sangiovese clones that Edoardo Seghesio left the family. Sourced from the neighboring experimental vineyards at Italian Swiss Colony, these clones came to this country in the late 1800s.

Sangiovese is the dominant grape of Chianti and shows its true potential in Brunello a region that uses 100% Sangiovese.  At least fourteen Sangiovese clones exist, of which Brunello is one of the most highly regarded. An attempt to classify these clones into Sangiovese grosso (including Brunello) and Sangiovese piccolo has caught on with wine writers.


Cline Cellars, Ancient Vine Mourvèdre  – Mourvèdre, (Contra Costa, California) ±$20

The Ancient Vine Mourvèdre draws from the oldest, and most historically significant vineyards for this varietal in California. These shy-bearing vineyard blocks produce fruit that of stunning concentration. This concentration comes as a result of dry farming practices and naturally restricting yields to only 2 to 3 tons per acre.

Mourvèdre is a Rhône varietal best known for producing the generous wines of southern Rhône valley and Provence regions. The best French examples of Mourvèdre come from Chateau Beaucastel in the Châteaunuef-du-Pape region and from Domaine Tempier in Bandol.  Known by many names (Mataro, Balzac, Monastrell, etc.) the search for an ideal microclimate and location for Mourvèdre in California isn’t a recent phenomenon although there were only a total of 829 acres planted in 2004.

Cline Cellars was founded in 1982 by brothers Matt and Fred Cline. Their grandfather Valeriano Jacuzzi planted vineyards in Contra Costa County in 1896, so the brothers had grape growing in their genes. Their old vine Mourvèdre was used in many of the great “Rhone Ranger” wines of California (Ridge Vineyards Mataro, Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant and Edmunds St. John Rocks and Gravel) until Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon fatefully suggested that the Cline brothers make their own wines. Once they did, these other notable wineries lost their source for old vine Mourvèdre.

The Mataro from the Bridgehead and Evangelista vineyards made by Ridge Vineyards in the 1990s are the best examples of Mourvèdre made in California and hold up well to aging based on the ones I have purchased in auction from winebid.com.


Louis Martini, Monte Rosso, “Gnarly Head” – Zinfandel, (Sonoma, California ) ±$40

Although the Louis Martini winery is located on the Rutherford Bench of Napa, the Monte Rosso vineyard is not in the Napa Valley. Owned by the Martini family since 1938, the Monte Rosso vineyard is nestled in the Mayacamas range nearly 1,000 feet above the Sonoma Valley. Monte Rosso or “Red Mountain” was so named for its rich, red, volcanic soil.) It is a steep and rugged mountain vineyard with a desirable western exposure overlooking the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma County.

Monte Rosso cabernet sauvignon vines are also the source of superb, vineyard-designated wines; and its mountain-grown Syrah is a revelation, albeit one that is in very small supply. But the vines at the heart of this site, and the oldest plantings there, are zinfandel (comprising 39 acres – probably the largest collection of old-vine zinfandel in the state.) They are believed to have been planted in the 1890s and early 1900s after phylloxera wiped out the first plantings from 1880.

Fruit from this location has been made into Monte Rosso Zinfandels by the likes of Ravenswood, Rosenblum and T-Vine just to name a few Zinfandel heavyweights. Ravenswood made the Monte Rosso brand name most famous, as they had access to this fruit since the early 1990s. However, this deal was terminated by Louis M. Martini Winery at the direction of Martini’s new owner, E & J Gallo Winery.

Wines from the Gnarly Head vines at Monte Rosso embody the layers of complexity that characterizes the unique varietal character of Zinfandel. Ancient head-pruned vines produce dramatic and brambly berry flavors with many spicy and earthy notes. The wine exhibits an inky, dark plum color with concentrated aromas.  It is like drinking history itself.

Suggestions for further reading:

Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine, by Charles Sullivan

Angels’ Visits: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel, by David Darlington

Father of California Wine: Agoston Haraszthy, by Theodore Schoenman

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