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Saving California History

A new Zinfandel vineyard is built from very old vines.

February 14, 2001|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The 1998 Zinfandel from the Heritage Vineyard is a fine, vibrant wine. But there's much more to it than that; it's a wine that carries the weight of history.

A joint production by the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) and UC Davis, the Heritage Vineyard Zinfandel provides a bridge between a vanishing past and a potentially glorious future. Its vines are survivors of some of the oldest vineyards in California.

Among the legions of otherwise sane people who happen to be passionate about Zinfandel, it is an article of faith that the most exalted wines come from vines that were planted prior to living memory. There is no scientific evidence to support this view, yet the faithful actively venerate ancient Zinfandel vines, investing them with a kind of talismanic power.

At a time when everything in California wine seems brand new, while some European vineyards and caves have been producing wine since Roman times and before, the old Zinfandel vines and their wines seem to satisfy a thirst for some direct connection with the past.

Zin fans experience genuine, often profound grief upon hearing that one of the old blocks has been destroyed to make way for a more profitable Cabernet or Chardonnay or Merlot vineyard. Sadly, that happens with alarming frequency. The knowledge that there are only about a few dozen acres of turn-of-the-century Zinfandel vines left in the world-and that the number dwindles vintage by vintage-only heightens the old-vine fervor.

It's not just the age of these vineyards that's so compelling, but also the fact that people have been making wine from the same vines for generations. Walking those rows in golden autumn light, watching birds feast on raisined second-crop grapes, it's easy to feel the presence of the past. The old vines stand like sentinels of time, twisted by hardship, covered with moss and lichen, with whole ecological communities of insects and reptiles living in and around their cracked, stringy trunks.

The individual vines are as different from one another as people are. Each old body shows the wrinkles and scars of its experience, the marks of the bad years and the good years. In winter dormancy they look all gnarled and dead. Then one sweet spring day a little perfectly formed leaf appears. It's a sign that this ancient stalk is summoning strength from deep underground for another sustained effort.

By summer's end the leaves are yellow and red as the exhausted vine fades back into death-like slumber. Yet it leaves an exquisite gift: a few small bunches of intensely flavorful grapes. And for maybe the hundredth time someone will make wine from that fruit, and for years to come those who drink the wine will share in a rich tradition.

Zinfandel's modern renaissance began at Ridge Vineyards, and the old-vine mystique was part of it from the beginning. In a sense it was accidental. In a 1985 interview, Ridge founder Dave Bennion (who passed away two years later) told me that he originally meant to specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon.

"I thought it was really important to make wine from mature vineyards," he said, "but in the mid-'60s there just weren't any mature Cabernet vineyards. When we started looking around California, what we found instead were some really old vineyards that were Zinfandel, with things like Petite Sirah and Carignan mixed in. So we made Zinfandel."

From the first vintage on, they made and bottled the wines from individual vineyards separately-as many as 21 separate wines in some years. Since 1964 Ridge has released 350 Zinfandels under more than 60 different labels.

Paul Draper became Ridge's winemaker in 1967. He spent the next three decades discovering and evaluating old Zinfandel plantings throughout California. The Ridge wine library stands as a bottled record of that exploration; all but a few of those wines have been from single vineyards or sections of vineyards, and most of those vineyards have been very old.

Although Zinfandel remains one of the most widely planted red grapes in California, most of that acreage is planted to three industrial clones that were chosen for high yield and disease resistance but have also gained a reputation for yielding inferior wine.

Further, the clones have been thermally treated to eliminate fan leaf and other viruses that infect grapevines, and while the absence of virus is considered a great advantage by virtually all commercial grape growers, there is a strong feeling among many winemakers that the heat treatment may severely limit the vine's expressive range.

Enter Jim Wolpert, head of the Viticulture and Enology Department at UC Davis. In the mid-'80s, Wolpert became aware that California's richest viticultural heritage was endangered.

"Red Zin prices weren't too good, and some of the old vine stuff was going to white Zin, which was just a crime," he says. "Then some of the older growers started selling out. We were concerned that the bulldozers would come in and this stuff would be lost."

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