The Gold Rush and Rhone Varieties in the Sierra Foothills
Placerville is a fitting place to start. Once known as 'Hangtown' for the town's fierce justice and frequent hangings, this place served as a major hub during California's gold rush. There is even a (creepy) commemorative hanging man that marks the spot of the historic Hangman's Tree (not pictured here for your sake).
<--That's where James Skinner came in. He moved from Scotland to Massachusetts in 1842, then headed west to California, seeking his fortune. He made it to Coloma (the site of the original big gold strike), but went instead to the Sierra foothills, ending up in a town called Rescue. Skinner set up a ranch along the Pony Express trail, planted grapes, and started making wine and brandy.
Skinner's contribution to early California wine may have been lost had it not been for his ancestors discovering their connection to him by chance. They set up a new Skinner winery-- Skinner Vineyards--a short drive from the 1800s location, and planted many of the grapes James Skinner worked with, including grenache, carignane, and petit bouschet (fittingly-- the 'Skinner clone' of petit bouschet).
Lodi's Bechtold Vineyard
Geyserville's Treasure Trove of Old Vines....
For a wine geek, this enthralling plot of ancient vines is where you want to be. It was incredible to stand among vines that are older than my great grandparents. After all, what other agricultural product can service four generations over the course of its life cycle? Being around vines this old sparks a true communion with the past. Planted as a field blend in the 1880s, this patch is predominantly zinfandel, with other Rhone varieties mixed in, such as grenache, syrah, and carignane.
Several other California vineyards planted in this era are composed of similar field-blend ratios: zinfandel predominance, with a blend of Rhone varieties backing it all up. This Fin de Siecle field blend 'recipe' that mixes grape material from the Rhone valley, with zinfandel cuttings likely from Italy or Croatia, mirror the melting pot of international communities living in California after the Gold Rush.
Old Vines at Lytton Springs
An Ancient French Grape in Paso Robles
Though Paso Robles' wine history dates back to the late 18th Century, Prohibition cut short over a century of wine momentum. A new generation of wineries emerged with renewed strength in the 1990s, and today several producers are looking to the past to build a future.
At Tablas Creek, a deep focus on Rhone varieties has been the winery's mission. A recently-released 100% terret noir wine caught my attention. Tablas Creek orchestrated bringing the grape to the US, and it's a unique offering for both its rarity and its flavor profile.
The Tablas Creek terret noir wine parallels the wine heritage of Paso Robles-- both experienced a surge of popularity in the late 19th century (terret noir was heavily planted in southern France in the 1850s). The ancient terret grape and the once-stalled wine region of Paso Robles both have a "new" story to tell, despite their deep ties to the past.
The first bottling of Tablas Creek terret noir was released in 2013. This 2014 Tablas Creek terret noir is their second bottling.
The wine is delightful-- it's light and refreshing, with complex overtones of floral aromas and hints of earthiness. To contextualize it, it reminds me so much of Jura poulsard. If there were more of it, this would be a fantastic wine for restaurants, because it has that unique ability to pair with meats, vegetables, and fish-- it can unite a table of different a la carte choices.
Living History in Santa Barbara Country
As you travel farther south, the oldest vineyards get younger and younger.
The oldest living syrah in Santa Barbara County can be found at Zaca Mesa. The Black Bear Block, planted in 1978, is a testament to the local wildlife you might find wandering through the block (in addition to bobcats, cougars, and wild pigs, oh my!).
Today, Santa Barbara Country is well known for great syrah. This vineyard helped set all that into motion with the Zaca Mesa bottlings in the early 1980s.
A Jewel in the Santa Maria Valley
When you arrive at Bien Nacido, you unmistakably enter a special place. To get here, a long, hot, semi-flat drive suddenly opens up into a Brigadoon-like valley, with round mountains that rise up around a valley that winds through a lush paradise of vines that spill down the hillsides to the mixed crops below that push up from the valley floor.
New Ground in Santa Barbara
A second generation of Santa Barbara winemakers has taken root among the founders.
One of the movers and shakers over the last few years has been Stolpman Vineyards in the Ballard Canyon AVA, an AVA established in 2013, with a deep commitment to syrah from the outset.
The Stolpman family, along with winemaker Sashi Moorman and vineyard manager Ruben Solorzano have a unique perspective on wine. They aren't afraid to take risks or experiment, and because they push limits with vine density, yields, farming methods, and dry farming, the wines are exciting to taste.
At Stolpman, you'll find some unique viticulture.
This syrah vineyard is planted using the layering technique -->
It's an age-old method (possibly the oldest technique?) of propagating a vineyard. Plant material is stretched out, laid on the ground, and when new roots sprout, a new plant is established. At first, the new plant benefits from its connection to the root system of the mother plant, but over time it builds up its own strength.
Layering growth is exponential-- the first few years are slow going, but things pick up once you gain a critical mass of vines.
As with any own-rooted vines, you risk phylloxera exposure, but ultimately, having a vineyard like this for comparison with other vineyards might answer the question: is there a quality difference in the wine between young vineyards planted by cuttings, and young vineyards planted by layering?