The grape that survived
In January of 1920 the United States Government decided that the consumption of beer, wine and spirits would no longer be allowed and this of course resulted in many vineyards being ripped out and replanted with walnut, plum and other such crops. One vine survived and the demand was such that the price for a ton of its grapes went from $30 to a peak of $375.
A quite well known secret was that folks could make up to ten gallons of wine at home for their personal use and so the demand increased for hearty, fairly thick skinned grapes, that could travel to the big East Coast cities without breaking and starting to ferment, and Zinfandel was the grape of choice. For this reason there are more old vine Zinfandel vineyards in California than any other.
Earlier this month my wife and I had a wonderful morning with winemaker Charlie Tsegeletos of Cline Vineyards in Sonoma and as he took us through the vineyards and as we tasted barrel samples in their cellar, we spoke of their farming practices that he called “the green string way”. Chemical pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers were shunned. Organic cover crops, compost teas, crushed volcanic rock, oyster shell and sheep grazing were employed. Each had a purpose, for instance the “tea” of molasses and fish emulsion increased nitrogen content, microbes and other nutrients. Water is carefully conserved on their properties, although thankfully for them it rained for the ten days that we were in California, a much needed break from the worst drought in a century.
We have just unloaded three Zinfandels from Cline and to quote Robert Parker's Wine Advocate “This value winery has turned out a bevy of competent wines, the brightest of them being their old vine Zinfandels”. Charlie often likes to let the grapes guide his style of winemaking, but he favours red wines that have lots of fruit concentration.
Cline “Ancient Vines” Zinfandel 2012 draws primarily from their oldest, most historic and shyest-bearing blocks in Contra Costa Country, that were planted by Italian and Portuguese immigrants more than 100 years ago. These dry-farmed vineyards in phylloxera-resistant sandy soil offer stunning concentration with delicious strawberry, coffee, chocolate, ripe fruit and soft tannins that add up to a mouth-coating glass of wine so perfect with pasta dishes with light tomato sauce. $22.70.
Cline “Big Break” Zinfandel 2011 Contra Costa County is named after a levee that collapsed eighty years ago and flooded the local farmland. The grapes grow in a unique microclimate that has a band of cooling air from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers and it is possibly a grove of Eucalyptus trees that adds a minty characteristic. A firm structure, black cherries, exotic spices and toasted oak make it a natural with big, spicy foods. $32.80.
Cline “Live Oak” Zinfandel 2011 Contra Costa County comes from two ancient, deep rooted vineyards that border Live Oak Road in Oakley and it is an area where hot sunny days are followed by cooling evening winds from the river deltas. The majority of the world's most complex wine grapes grow in areas with a wide daily (diurnal) temperature variation. “Live Oak” is a big ripe Zinfandel with berries, spice, liquorice and a firm structure. As you light up that outdoor grill think of this wine with beef steak. $32.80.