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The Rediscovery of the Gold Country Clone

November 28, 2001|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

History is a tapestry woven from countless interrelated stories. I'm particularly fascinated by the history of a wine region such as Napa Valley, because the tales all involve my favorite subject. Most of the stories are compelling human dramas. The stories of George de la Tour and Beaulieu Vineyard, the Beringer family and modern pioneer Joseph Heitz come immediately to mind.

Other stories have less likely heroes. A professor and a clone, for example.

A clone is a genetic variation of a grape variety. The differences between two clones of, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, are tiny, yet on some level each clone has its own character, which is asserted to some degree in the wine made from its fruit. The clone may have less influence on the wine than soil and climate, but at the upper levels of quality, where every little detail makes a difference, the voice of a vineyard is inflected by the genetic makeup of the vines. In an increasingly defined appellation such as Napa Valley, the introduction of a new clone can be a significant, if subtle, point of distinction.

You might not picture an academic plant virologist and an obscure selection of Cabernet Sauvignon starring in a buddy flick. Still, the tale of Dr. Austin Goheen's rediscovery of the long-lost Clone 6 is rather dramatic. It has become Napa Valley folklore.

Clone 6, a.k.a. the Jackson Clone, is valued for noble red wines with deeply concentrated flavors that are at once rich and crystal-clear. It surfaced during clonal trials at Beaulieu Vineyard during the late 1980s. It consistently produced dark, complex wines that stood out year after year, and BV wine master Joel Aiken has bottled it separately--to wide acclaim--since the '94 vintage.

Just in the last few years it has become one of the important elements in the increasingly refined expressiveness of Napa Valley wines. In viticultural terms, it's an overnight sensation.

This exciting "new" clone also happens to be one of California's oldest Cabernet selections.

Like all Cabernet, Clone 6 originated in Bordeaux. It showed up in California during the late 19th century--and was promptly misplaced. It was evidently first planted by UC Davis viticulture professor Eugene W. Hilgard at an early university agricultural station south of San Francisco. Sometime in the 1880s, it was included in a mixed planting at a field station near the mining town of Jackson in the Sierra foothills.

"The Gold Rush was winding down, and the university was expanding its role in the California wine industry," says Jim Wolpert, chairman of the viticulture and enology department at UC Davis. "They put the station in the foothills to take advantage of all the unemployment, to get people who had been mining involved in growing grapes. But then they realized how expensive it was to operate the vineyard in such a remote location." The field station was abandoned around 1890--and effectively disappeared for 70 years.

Fast-forward to 1963. UC Davis viticulture professor Goheen was searching California vineyards for virus-free vines that could provide clean material for propagation. He found a small plot of clean Mission vines, and the owner said he had obtained his budwood from "a mysterious planting in the woods of Amador County."

Goheen contacted Amador County farm advisor Bob Plaister, who agreed to take him to the site, by then in private hands. To his surprise, Goheen was not welcomed with open arms.

In a 1982 letter, Goheen wrote of his first visit to what he believed to be an abandoned University of California experimental station. In 1963, the owner was a Mr. Fantozzi, a stonemason in nearby Jackson. Goheen wrote that Mr. Fantozzi "was very suspicious of my motives when he learned that I was associated with the University of California. The reason for the suspicion was not apparent to me at first because my intent was purely to check whether any vines might still be alive in the mystery plot.

"The story unfolded that Mr. Fantozzi had inherited the land upon which the vines had been grown from his parents, who in turn had obtained title to the land through squatter's rights."

Apparently, at one time the heirs of the original owners had joined the University of California in attempting to reclaim the property. "The Fantozzis won their claim, and in their eyes, the university was among the bad guys," Goheen reported. "As soon as Mr. Fantozzi learned that I was associated with the university he bristled."

Goheen eventually talked his way onto the property. He found vines, but not much of a vineyard. "The plants were abandoned as far as cultivation or irrigation [goes] and the native vegetation of the foothills area gradually encroached to reclaim the land. Bushes and trees grew at random among the vines and fruit plants, but the outlines of the vine rows, the roads, the reservoir and foundation of the buildings remained."

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