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Experimenting With Vine Stress

Zaca Mesa replants old vineyard with tighter spacing and own-rooted cuttings

by Andrew Adams
zaca mesa winery
Central Coast winery Zaca Mesa planted a new vineyard with tighter rows and closer spacing in an attempt to produce fruit similar to a neighboring vineyard that is 34 years old.
Los Olivos, Calif.—The production team at Zaca Mesa Vineyard & Winery is looking for the concentrated flavors of an old vineyard by experimenting with ways to plant a new vineyard.

Zaca Mesa’s estate vineyard Black Bear block is comprised of own-rooted Syrah vines from Chapoutier in the Hermitage region of the Northern Rhone Valley. Eric Mohseni, winemaker at Zaca Mesa, said the 34-year-old vines could be the oldest in the Central Coast. “It’s always been pretty amazing fruit,” he said.

In the hope of recreating some of the power of Black Bear, Mohseni said he is experimenting with planting on own-rooted cuttings from the old vineyard as well as adopting tighter spacing and low-to-ground 20” trellis wire. “We thought it would be pretty neat to try something like this,” he said.

The new planting (dubbed Mesa C) is 18 acres, of which nearly 7.5 acres are planted with “artisanal” clones on their own rootstock, and a little more than 3 acres are planted in tight rows and with low trellis wire.

Fostering vine competition
Mohseni said the idea is to see if the tight rows and low trellis wire will help younger vines yield the concentrated flavors and solid, well-integrated tannin structure that he finds in the Black Bear block. “There’s natural competition, so the vines are really going to struggle,” Mohseni said. “There’s less fruit per vine, and I think you’re going to have deeper concentration.”

Mohseni planted with a mix of clones in the rest of the vineyard to achieve vine diversity. He said he expects to bottle wine from the new vineyard after the 2015 harvest. “I believe that this block will be the pinnacle for Zaca Mesa and will produce some of the best Syrah in the Santa Ynez Valley,” he said.

The Black Bear Syrah is Zaca Mesa’s most expensive offering, listed for $60 on the winery’s website. Zaca Mesa produces 30,000 cases per year, according to WinesVinesDATA. All the wines under the Zaca Mesa label are produced from the winery’s 244 acres of estate vines in the Santa Ynez Valley AVA.

Mohseni said vineyards and especially Syrah vines have suffered in parts of California, as growers have been quick to pull out vines or graft on whatever happens to be popular. Only a few vineyards, like the Black Bear block, have the history to show what the vines can yield when they mature, he said.

The original vines are still virus-free, and Mohseni said it will be interesting to see if the vineyard site and tight 6-by-4 spacing will yield the concentrated flavors and lower alcohol levels similar to the Black Bear block.

Posted on 07.12.2012 - 22:15:36 PST
Wow, positive attitude. I work with a 16 year old block of suitcase Syrah on own root, in Paso Robles that continues to improve in quality and health. I see a lot of potential and far less financial pitfalls in own root in this particular area. You may have a lot of difficulty in your particular region with it, but don't think you have all regions figured out. If you can pull off own root, I think it is the best expression of the clone. Open your mind.

Posted on 07.14.2012 - 08:49:54 PST
I agree with Jim. Phylloxera is found nearly everywhere. Unless you are in some isolated uninhabited island or clearly outside the natural surviving conditions of Phyloxxera, forget it. This seems to me to be the dream of someone that has no feet in reality. The vineyard will either be unsustainable soon, or they will be soaking it with Assail or other anti-phylloxera insecticides. This is not the vision I have of high dollar wine. It is hardly being in commune with nature and working with it.

Posted on 07.26.2012 - 19:23:35 PST
Yanosh is exaggerating a bit. It is not common in South America, and I manage a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in the mountains of West Texas that has been productive on its own roots since 1987. I planted another 11 acres of vinifera nearby this year, and I am confident that there is no phylloxera in the area or I would not have done it. Grafted vines are a blessing where phylloxera exists, but a burden in areas with harsh winters and frequent drought. If you don't need to graft, why do it?
Adam White

Posted on 07.11.2012 - 08:48:54 PST
Sounds like an ideal way to disseminate grapevine leafroll virus.
New York Viticulture

Posted on 07.11.2012 - 19:45:56 PST
Phylloxera was spread from North America to Europe, and South Africa, and South America and to New Zealand and Australia. Believe me, it will surely move from wherever it is now - most probably in winery's own blocks - to this ungrafted vineyard with great ease. Phylloxera moves on equipment such as backhoes and harvesters, on hand crews' clothing and boots, and (some evidence) on the wind. You can predict that it will be found on roots by the 6th leaf, show declining vines by year 8 and be a totally non-economic vineyard by year 10 or 12.
Jim W

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