California Honors Historic Vines

Group hopes Assembly resolution sways growers to maintain old vineyards

by Andrew Adams
R.W. Moore Vineyard
This vine is part of the historic R.W. Moore Vineyard in the Coombsville AVA of Napa Valley. The vineyard has produced quality Zinfandel for more than 100 years.
Sacramento, Calif.—Despite Prohibition and the changing whims of America’s wine drinkers, some growers in California have managed to nurture vines that have been growing for decades if not more than a century.
The vines produce grapes that some say make vibrant, interesting wines but also provide an almost literal connection to the roots of California’s viticultural heritage. To honor these vineyards, the California Assembly passed a resolution to note: “Historic vineyards are beautiful and treasured survivors that have lived through the ravages of Phylloxera, economic downtowns, consumer popularity fluctuations and, in many cases, Prohibition and world wars.

    Historic Vineyard Tour

    The society will host its third annual vineyard tour and dinner May 11. Board members and winemakers will lead a tour of historic vineyards followed by a dinner at Seghesio Family Vineyards in Healdsburg, Calif. Contact the society at (831) 747-0255, or visit historicvineyardsociety.org for more information.

While resolution HR 9 doesn’t confer any special legal protection or historic status on the vines, proponents of the old vineyards hope it will make growers think twice about replanting them. “We’re pretty excited that the state has actually, in our opinion, done something pretty significant,” said Bob Biale, co-owner of Robert Biale Vineyards in Napa, Calif., which produces wine from old vines, including those from Aldo’s Vineyard (planted in 1937).

Biale said he was at the state Capitol to celebrate the passing of the resolution in April. Assemblymember Tom Daly, who represents the Southern California cities of Anaheim and Santa Ana, introduced the bill, but it was Daly’s chief of staff David Miller who worked with the nonprofit Historical Vineyard Society to draft the resolution.

Mike Dildine, a founding member of the group, said he was thrilled with the resolution and grateful to see it passed. “Old vineyards are an under-appreciated treasure, and we’re happy to get some official recognition.” (See related story from 2011.)

The resolution notes that the vines provide a “living repository for wine grape budwood and genetic material” as well as a “living window” to the methods of California’s pioneer wine growers like head trained vines, dry farming and field blends.

Dildine, who is a committed fan of old vines and doesn’t work in the wine industry, said the resolution adds a little more weight to the argument for preserving old vineyards. He said group members have discussed pursuing some type of tax break for old vines similar to tax measures that have helped preserve historic buildings and even historic cars. “We’d like to continue to find more ways for growers to protect these vineyards.”

While their longevity and grape quality can be phenomenal, old vines also produce fewer grapes per acre, and are often planted with a mix of varieties. Most wineries pay by the ton, and often pay lower prices for grapes from a mixed field than those of a single variety.

In light of growing U.S. wine consumption and a scarcity of open ground for new planting, growers will likely see extra pressure to improve the efficiency of their vineyards to take advantage of rising grape prices. Faced with those market changes, 50-year-old Petite Sirah vines start looking less attractive compared to new Cabernet or Pinot vines.

Biale said growers need to be convinced to save those vines, and the resolution puts a little indirect pressure on them when making replanting decisions. The same is true for vines that may be 20 or 30 years old: While not historic now, they could be if left in the ground. “We’re marching forward here, and there’s still vines that could turn into old vineyards,” he said.

The society has listed 217 vineyards that are older than 60 years and registered 57 of these. Many are in California’s North Coast and already well known by consumers and the media. Some of these include the Monte Rosso vineyard in the mountains above Sonoma Valley and the Lytton Estate vineyard in Dry Creek Valley (made famous by Ridge Vineyards winery).

These are examples Dildine said were easy to catalog. The next step will be searching out historic vineyards in lesser known areas. He said he believes there are many historic vineyards in the Lodi AVA that are mixed in with large-production lots, and they just need to be identified. “I think we’re going to have a lot of fun tracking them down,” he said.

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