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Olden Age of Wine

Christopher Gardner

Grape Taste: Veterans like these old-vine zinfandel plants at Guglielmo Winery make more complex wines.

Passing years only heighten the quality of California's historic grapevines

By Steve Bjerklie

PETER MIRASSOU claims he's unemotional about it. "You can't fall in love with your business," he says. "Especially farming." Still, when the bulldozers arrive at his family's winery on the eastern outskirts of San Jose on Aug. 1, one wonders if even the legendarily taciturn Mirassou won't feel a twinge in his throat.

After positioning the growling machines at the edge of some incredibly valuable property, the drivers will lower the 'dozer blades, step on the gas and push into the last living zinfandel vineyard planted by Peter's grandfather. In front of the blades, 85-year-old zinfandel vines will heave out of the ground like bones out of a quake-broken cemetery. Root balls the size of plaza fountains will be pulled from soil they have tasted since 1911. The craters left behind will be filled, smoothed over and, eventually, paved. Mirassou says he can't afford to replant the vineyard with new cuttings of merlot or chardonnay or even mourvèdre or sangiovese, California's trendiest new wine varietals. "You fall in love with your business, that's when you start making bad decisions."

So someday soon, on the same land where the older Mirassou, also named Peter, once planted, pruned and tended his beautiful zinfandel vines, families will perhaps plant and tend vegetable or flower gardens. Kids will scamper, swim and shout. Bikes and cars will migrate on roads bedded onto the old vineyard furrows.

"Houses," says Peter Mirassou about why the old vineyard will disappear. Across the five generations of the Mirassou family that have made wine in Santa Clara County, the same difficult decision has been faced and made many, many times.

The passing of a Mirassou mogul.

When the old Mirassou vineyard comes out of the ground, another small slice of Santa Clara County's agricultural legacy will disappear, the victim of land-value insanity. The tragedy, if it can be called that (and Peter Mirassou, to be sure, wouldn't), is twofold. Not only is another living chapter of Santa Clara County history closed, but this is zinfandel's golden age, and of old-vine zins especially.

It is also a time of renewed interest in California's other historic grapes and vineyards, including decades-old plantings of sangiovese, carignane, petite sirah and barbera, among others. Santa Clara County's vineyards, though pared down to about 1,200 total acres from a high of 8,000 acres as recently as 1948, offer arguably the greatest range of historic varietals of any wine-producing county in California.

Getting Older And Better

'TWO WORDS describe the quality of fruit from old vineyards--extract and complexity," explains Stillman Brown, who has become something of a fanatic on the subject of old vineyards as winemaker at Jory Winery in Gilroy. ("I'm pathological about grape quality," he admits.) Though Jory owns no vineyards of its own, Brown makes a number of outstanding blends from old-vine grapes he buys from various historic Santa Clara County vineyards.

The names the winemaker provides his wines betray his weakness for puns and wit: "Red Zeppelin," "Old Barrister," "Black Hand." (Jory Winery's lively newsletter, written by Brown and called "The Thief," includes suggestions for good wine/movie combinations.) "The extract is fruit and flavor intensity," he says, "and complexity refers to all the other flavors you find in the fruit in addition to the inherent grape flavor. Typically, old vines have had to struggle for years. They've developed big root masses which go way down into the ground, picking up minerals which come out in the flavor of the fruit. The result is simply an immense amount of flavor."

Brown makes two petite sirahs, one from old-vine grapes grown in Santa Clara County, one from grapes in the Paso Robles region near Santa Barbara. "When I'm done working with the Paso Robles grapes, I can wash my hands clean, even though petite sirah's a pretty dark juice," he says. "But after I've got them in those Santa Clara grapes, my hands are stained purple for days. Something up here makes those grapes super-rich."

"Old vines absolutely make better wines," says Joel Peterson, partner and winemaker at Ravenswood up in Sonoma, and one of the heroes of zinfandel's ascendance. His Old Hill Vineyard and Wood Road/Belloni Vineyard zinfandels have won rafts of awards and legions of devotees, which in turn have brought renewed attention on old-vine zinfandels and other old-vine wines from throughout the state. "There is a depth of flavor in the grape when old zinfandel's ready to pick. The berries have succulent fruit, flavors of strawberry and raspberry, with a thickness of the flavor at the center."

"In Santa Clara County we don't receive as much rain as they do in Sonoma and Napa," Brown explains further. "Our dry years are very dry, so our plants tend to be more stressed than elsewhere. That makes them work harder and dig deeper, which adds to the complexity of the fruit."

The low yields of older vineyards--a ton or two of fruit per acre, compared with four or five tons per acre for young vines--are both a blessing and a curse. The low production improves flavor and prices, but sometimes forces winemakers to make the hard decision to rip out old plantings in favor of trendier, higher-producing new vines such as merlot, or sometimes to trade in an old vineyard for a new use altogether.

Brown says he understands the business reasons why some old vineyards are put to the plow, but as a wine artist he decries their loss. "You can do things to make young vines low-yield and increase the intensity of their fruit, but wines from them tend to be simple. You can't go out and plant an old vineyard." He adds: "We definitely need more Italian and Rhone varieties planted in California so there will be more old vineyards in the future."

"These old vineyards are works of art," says Sean Thackery, an old-vines specialist who makes several celestially named blends: Sirius, Pleiades and Orion. (The last vintage of Sirius, 1993, Thackery felt compelled to label "Doomed Vines" because the decades-old petite sirah vineyard he got the grapes from fell, like the Mirassou vineyard, under the bulldozer's blade.) "They were planted the way vineyards ought to be planted, and a lot of them are on St. George rootstock, which is wonderful from a winemaker's point of view."

Old vineyards are head-pruned rather than trained on trellises, and dry-farmed rather than irrigated, because that's how the vineyards back home in Europe were farmed. The vines themselves are of two characters. An old zinfandel or carignane or petite sirah vine after the winter pruning looks as sturdy and humorless as an old judge. But in the summer, with bright green-leafed canes shooting in all directions like fireworks, the old vines get silly and look like George Clinton.

"It was mostly older Italians who did the original pruning on these vineyards," says George Guglielmo, whose grandfather, Emilio Guglielmo, began the family winery in Morgan Hill in 1925. "They were laborers; that was their culture. When they prospered they brought in others to do the hard work, but they kept the old way of farming."

The Roots of An Industry

GEORGE HUSMAN, a horticulturist at the University of Missouri who came to California to grow wine in 1881, described his fellow wine farmers as "comparatively poor men, many of whom have to plant their vineyards, nay, even clear the land for them with their own hands ... and work their way up by slow degrees to that competence which they hope to gain by the sweat of their brow."

In Santa Clara County those "comparatively poor men" were largely Italian immigrants, most of whom arrived in the years of the great Mediterranean migration to the U.S., 1880 to 1910, when 20,000 Italian-born immigrants poured into San Francisco. The history of Santa Clara County's old vineyards and wineries is musical with Italian names: Bevilacqua, Pedrizzetti, Filice, Colombano, Fabretto, Bertero, Fortino, Bonesio, Roffinella.

Many of these families put in their first vineyards in the county in the 1920s. But the Italians were preceded by several decades by French pioneers--the forebears of the Mirassou family, for example--and before them by the Spanish padres of the El Camino Real missions, who founded the wine industry in California with vineyards of Mission grapes planted for the production of sacramental wines.

But not quite all of it was sacramental, though wine from Mission grapes is simple and sweet and makes a poor food accompaniment. In the 1920s, an Englishman went to the most famous restaurant in Warsaw, Poland, called Fukier's, specifically to taste a wine he had been told was "the choicest and most expensive dessert wine" on the menu. The waiter told him the restaurant was lucky to still have a few bottles of what the Englishman, after enjoying a glass, described as a "rather syrupy" wine, "resembling a good sweet Malaga in taste." He said the wine was still "in good condition," which was remarkable considering that it had been made 100 years earlier at a California mission.

Which one? Well, a traveler to Mission San Jose in 1806 described the wine he was served there as "sweet, and resembles a Malaga." But since Mission San Jose was chronically plagued by Indian problems, limiting the mission's farming enterprises, it is entirely possible that the wine the Englishman enjoyed in Warsaw a century after it was made came from the next mission over, Mission Santa Clara de Asis, which enjoyed great prosperity and maintained excellent vineyards from 1785 to 1830.

The first "noble" grape varietals--cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, primitivo (now called zinfandel)--were brought to Santa Clara County by Pierre Pellier, who founded what eventually became Mirassou Vineyards in 1854, and by horticulturists Charles LeFranc, Louis Provost and Antoine Delmas. By 1858 Delmas owned 350,000 vines of some 105 varieties, and his wine took first prize at the state fair in 1859. Delmas also grew fruit trees and ornamental plants, and contributed greatly to the Santa Clara Valley's reputation as the "Garden Spot of the World," although he is perhaps best remembered, and cursed, nowadays as the man who introduced to California the Helix aspersa, our all-too-common garden snail.

Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

NO ONE KNOWS WHO today has the oldest vineyard in Santa Clara County. Ridge Vineyards' renowned Monte Bello vineyard, from which Paul Draper makes world-famous cabernet sauvignon, traces its origins back to 1892.

Older vineyards than Monte Bello are difficult to find anywhere. Phylloxera, the occasionally epidemic louse that sucks the life out of grape vines, nearly ruined the California wine industry in the 1870s and 1880s (as it threatens the industry now). Charles Bundschu, the state's viticultural commissioner in 1914, wrote that phylloxera "totally destroyed" what he called "the beautiful vineyards in the Santa Clara Valley."

The 127-year-old Grandpere vineyard in Amador County's Sierra foothills region, from which Gordon Binz at Renwood Winery makes dense, luscious zinfandel, is thought by many to be the state's oldest continuously producing vineyard. Binz makes the analogy that "vines carry on like a human being. It's not until they're 40, 50 or 60 years old that the character and balance come out. In their 70s and 80s, production drops but there's new complexity to enhance the character and balance."

Kent Rosenblum of Rosenblum Cellars, a zinfandel specialist based in Alameda, says he's found a half-acre of 137-year-old zinfandel vines, ten years older than Grandpere, in Contra Costa County. If he has the age right, those vines were already two years old and producing grapes when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War. "Kent's kind of secretive about it," says Ravenswood's Peterson. "But really, it gets to be kind of a pissing match over who has the oldest."

It took Santa Clara County only 10 to 15 years to bounce back from phylloxera. By 1900 it was again one of the top wine-producing counties in California and remained so until the disaster of Prohibition. With the Repeal in 1933, the county again bounced back. However, after World War II the epidemic of housing consumed three-quarters of the county's vineyards. The value of land far outsoared the value of wine grapes. Many grape growers and vintners made the logical choice, as Peter Mirassou makes now.

"The vineyards have been sold bit by bit," George Guglielmo comments. His grandfather, Emilio, emigrated to America in 1908, eventually making his way to San Francisco. He came from the same region in northern Italy, Piedmont, that had been the birthplace of many of Santa Clara County's Italian winemakers (and, incidentally, also of most of San Francisco's salami makers).

Emilio worked for years as a laborer in a tannery. It took him more than a decade to save enough money to buy his dream: land for vineyards in the Santa Clara County. "Suburban development has taken over the wine business here," Emilio's grandson says. He adds, with a bit of resignation, "I understand it. At $100,000 an acre for a housing project, well, you're never going to get that for wine grapes."

Stillman Brown is resigned, too, to a sharp degree. When I tell him about what's scheduled to happen Aug. 1 at Mirassou, he lets two silent seconds pass. Then he groans.

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From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of Metro

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