One reads old accounts of Lee Stewart making it up at Souverain and getting awards for it. You can read about it in Jancis Robinson's giant Wine Grapes encyclopedia, but it's more fun to actually see it.
Or what does Alicantay Bousshay (hint: not a rapper) (and it's actually spelled Alicante Bouschet) look like? After all it was the grape that kept Napa's vineyards (and many others in California) from being pulled out and planted instead to prunes.
These and the famous Pets (Petite Sirah) and Zinfandel - and even Sauvignon Blanc - were the stars of the show on Saturday during the Historic Vineyard Society's annual tour which took place this year in Napa. (The 2012 tour covered Sonoma's historic vineyards.)
An all star lineup of vineyard managers, vineyard owners, and vintners - all who work directly with these vines and their wine grapes - took three busloads of fans (each paying $225 a head for the fundraiser) to four sites to see some of Napa's oldest vines - all head trained and dry farmed. (At least two of the sites were farmed organically [but were not certified].)
TO KALON I BLOCK - SAUVIGNON BLANC (1945)
To Kalon is known mostly for its Cabernet Sauvignon vines, so it was a delight to hear about its old vine Sauvignon Blanc (the parent varietal of Cabernet) in what is called the I Block, planted about 1945 or in the 1950s, on ground that was part of the Crabb estate in 1878. The grapes from these 70+ years old vines go into the Mondavi Reserve Fumé Blanc ($90).
|In the I Block with David Gates (left, vineyard manager at Ridge Wine) and Mondavi vineyard manager|
HAYNE VINEYARD - ZINFANDEL (circa 1900), AND PETITE SIRAH (1953)
Second stop was the Hayne vineyard planted in the 1900's and owned today by Otty Hayne and his descendants including Lawrence Talbott (who was present for the tour) and the Simpsons (who also make wine from its vines). [The vineyard is practicing organic.]
The vineyard had been in the same family since 1873.
Turley Wine Cellars' winemaker Tegan Passalacqua, who led the tour, makes both a Petite Sirah and a Zinfandel (generally available by mailing list only) from this vineyard. Mike Carlisle of Carlisle Winery also makes a Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel (which can be purchased online).
The Historic Vineyard Society was started in part over issues when a 13 acre portion of the Hayne Vineyard was sold by Otty's brother to Andy Beckstoffer in 2010. The price? A record setting $3.6-3.9 million for 13 acres (or about $300,000 an acre, one of the highest prices paid for a vineyard in Napa). In 2011 Beckstoffer released its first vintage of Cabernet - Kata ($175) - from the vineyard which was renamed Bourn after an earlier owner.
On the tour Passalacqua praised Petite Sirah as the varietal most perfectly suited to Napa. It was in fact the most widely planted grape in the 1950s and 60s in Napa - the glory days of Gallo wines.
But since Petite Sirah typically dies after a 20 year lifespan (it often succumbs to a fungi), these 60 year old vines are precious indeed. The fact that these specific vines have survived is due to the pruning practices used in the vineyard, Ridge Vineyards manager David Gates later explained.
As was not uncommon back in the day, the vineyard also has a few table grapes planted here and there - a practice done to feed the help. As workers harvested the wine grapes, they could also munch some Flame Tokay here and there.
Petite Sirah's history is intriguing - it was a stealth grape of its day. "No one was making it but everyone was growing it," said Passalacqua, tongue in cheek, of the variety. Hayne's Peite Sirah grapes were sold to Martini, Phelps and Beringer. It was widely used throughout California as a blending grape because of its stable color and tannin.
After laws changed mandating that varietally labeled wines had to contain 75% of the stated variety, Petite Sirah became fell out of favor.
"But Petite Sirah was the match made in heaven for Napa," said Passalacqua who has been a passionate champion for the variety.
|Lawrence Talbott, Tegan Passalacqua and Otty Hayne|
|Hayne Vineyard - Zinfandel planted around 1900|
|Hayne Vineyard - Petite Sirah - Otty Hayne planted it with|
his dad in 1953
Winemaker Mike Carlisle escorted the tour of the St. Helena Library Vineyard (the only one open to the public) which is on land owned by the city of St. Helena next to the library.
Turley also makes a single vineyard designate wine from these vines. (Leased on a year to year basis from the city, it's practicing organic").
Since this is public land, one may tour the library vines without jumping over fences or breaking the law. (But please do not enter the vineyard; stay on the established path).
The vines here (and near the Napa Valley Vintners as well as the neighboring bank) date back to the 1890's or the 1909 (when they were part of the Jackse winery, started by an Austrian couple whose winery later became the Napa Valley Vintners offices).
The Library name is fitting not only for its location but also for the contents of the vineyard - a collection which is a complex field blend. It's here that the tour participants saw a wider variety of old vine wine grapes including Alicante Bouschet, Aramon, Berger, Carignane, Colombard, Grec Rouge, Green Hungarian, Muscadelle, and more. In fact, Carlisle said, he has identified 22 different varieties here.
If you wander over to the old vines by the Napa Valley Vintners building you'll see some of the old Valdigue - or Napa Gamay - another popular old vine. (Frog's Leap "Pink" wine is a rosé of Napa Gamay.)
|Library Vineyard - David Gates and Mike Carlisle of Carlisle Wines|
|David Gates displays one of the identifiable characteristics of Green Hungarian|
The last stop on our tour was the Old Kraft Vineyard which has been lovingly restored by its current owners Bill and Margie Hart with the help of vineyard manager Bill Pease. Winemaker Robert Biale makes a single vineyard designate wine from these 110 year old Zinfandel vines.
Pease estimated that probably about 50% have been replanted, over time.
Unlike Petite Sirah, which dies after a few decades, Zinfandel (and Carignane) are naturally long lived.
In 1989, Ridge used to make a wine from its vines but the vineyard had drainage problems until the Harts purchased it and, with Pease's guidance, had a new drainage system installed.
Purchased by Frank Kraft in 1871, the vines sit on what was the original Spottswoode estate. (The Old Kraft winery is now Spottswoode's barrel room.) The Kraft vineyard was laid low by phylloxera in the 1880s and then replanted in the 1890's (boom times) when Zinfandel and Petite Sirah were widely planted (as they were until the 1960's). (It wasn't until the Mondavi era in the 1960's that Cabernet took off.)
Today the head trained vines, on St. George rootstock, continue to be dry farmed.
Biale, whose father was a grape grower in Napa, recalled the era when he was growing up in Napa and Petite Sirah and Zin still reigned. "In the 60s and 70s," he said, "it was all about the St. Helena Coop. Fifty percent of all Napa grapes were purchased by a sole purchaser - Gallo. And we were all happy about that."
Pease complimented the Harts' for their determination to preserve the old vines - physically as well as financially. "They come out here and dig up the baby olive trees that spread," he said, "for fun."
|Old Kraft Vineyard tour with vineyard manager Bill Pease (center)|
and Robert Biale, winemaker (extreme left)
|Bill Pease with the old vine Zinfandel - planted as early as the 1890's|
|In old vine Zin, the centers often become hollow|