California’s Old-Vine Connoisseurs

From sites planted more than a century ago, field blends offer something uniquely delicious and meaningfully American
California’s Old-Vine Connoisseurs
Both leaders in Zinfandel, Turley winemaker Tegan Passalacqua and Bedrock Wine Co. owner Morgan Twain-Peterson work with some vineyards that date to the late 1800s. (Robert Camuto)
Apr 18, 2023

Lunch conversation with winemakers Tegan Passalacqua and Morgan Twain-Peterson can get fast and geeky in a hurry. When they meet, these smart, busy and highly acclaimed winemakers feed off each other.

The two are among the co-founders of California’s nonprofit Historic Vineyard Society, started in 2011 by a group of winemakers with a mutual passion for very old—often pre-Prohibition—vineyards that can contain a dizzying number of grape varieties.

Both Passalacqua, 45, winemaker at Napa-based Turley and his own Sandlands label, and Twain-Peterson, 41, owner-winemaker of Sonoma-based Bedrock Wine Co., are voracious researchers of the state’s viticultural history. They have developed a specialty in field blends from these old, typically organic, dry-farmed vineyards planted to Zinfandel and dozens of other grapes that range from uncommon to crazily obscure.

“These old vineyards are cultural history,” says Passalacqua, a soft-spoken bear of a man with a trucker cap ever present over his crewcut. “They are a window to the past.”

Twain-Peterson, a pony-tailed former history major and Master of Wine, chimes in: “In the 1900s and 1910s, [growers] had sort of settled on varieties like Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, Mourvédre (aka Monastrell and Mataro) and Carignan. They knew how to plant vineyards to grow without water and without technology.”

Then, in 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and Congress passed the Volstead Act. In January 1920, the country went dry until 1933, putting most wineries out of business.

“We still don’t understand the impact of Prohibition,” Passalacqua asserts over the midday din at Diavola Pizzeria & Salumeria, a bustling wine-country hangout in Geyserville. “There was no tradition of winemaking left after it.”

To preserve what was left from the pre-Prohibition era of winemaking, Bob Biale of Robert Biale, David Gates of Ridge, Mike Officer of Carlisle, Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson (Morgan's dad) of Once & Future) and the two younger men joined forces to form the Historic Vineyard Society. The group has since registered about 200 California vineyards, totaling thousands of acres, that are at least 50 years old.

“One of the reasons we started,” says Twain-Peterson, “was that people were ripping out vineyards like mad all over California. After [the film] Sideways,’ they were ripping out to plant Pinot Noir.”

“We looked at these old vineyards around the state, and we found about 50 varieties—four or five with no matching genetic fingerprint,” he adds.

For the Historic Vineyard Society, Passalacqua and Twain-Peterson visit, catalog vine stock and certify the age of vineyards, many of which are small plots that have been family-owned for generations. To qualify as “historic,” the vineyard must still be producing wine, and at least one-third of the existing vines must date to the original plantings.

“One of the goals is that our kids and our kids’ kids will have old vineyards to make wine from,” says Passalacqua.

“There’s a quality you get with the old vines; you see it in the finished wine,” enthuses Twain-Peterson.

Passalacqua tops off the thought: “It’s something real. It’s not nostalgia.”

Wine Spectator blind-tasting scores over the years support that assertion, with many of these wines receiving high marks.

Personally, living in Europe, I don’t drink many boutique California wines, including those from old vineyards with yields so low that the wines can be hard to find. But over two weeks, during a March visit to the state, I immersed myself in learning about and sampling them.

These old-school field blends are among my New World favorites. It’s not just the romance of history. I love drinking different wines all the time. And these wines are an alternative to the varietal predictability of the state’s most widely planted grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Making field-blend wines can be tricky, as the different varieties (sometimes including red and white) in the vineyard ripen at different times and bring different levels of tannin, acidity, bitterness, color and aromatics to the mix. Typically, the varieties are harvested and fermented together using indigenous yeast. From vineyard to vineyard and vintage to vintage, the differences can be dramatic. But when a field blend works well, there’s a lot going on in your glass.

After lunch, Passalacqua, Twain-Peterson and I head just south of town to a series of vineyards that are more than a century old.

The first stop is Nervo Ranch, dating to 1896. There, 10 acres of head-trained vines are planted over a pair of steep shale hillsides rising up over the west side of Highway 101. Along with Zinfandel, Grenache and Négrette (a perfumed variety from Southwest France) are some 16 other varieties.

They are picked and co-fermented to produce about 200 cases annually of Bedrock’s deep, dark and spicy Nervo Ranch Heritage Alexander Valley. (The 2020 vintage, priced at $55, scored 91 points.)

Across Highway 101 is a 2.5-acre vineyard wedged between the highway and abandoned railroad tracks. The clay soils here were planted over 100 years ago to Zinfandel, Carignan and Grenache; it's now the source for the lush Turley Zinfandel Alexander Valley Vineyard 101, of which there sometimes only about 125 cases a year. (The 2018 bottling, $44, was rated 91 points.)

Heading southward along the freeway, we stop next at Ridge’s 36-acre Whitton Ranch, which since 1966 has provided the grapes for the Zinfandel-based Ridge Geyserville Alexander Valley (2020, 92 points, $50). Among the blend’s key components are two plots, totaling seven acres, from the late 19th century: the Zin-dominated field blend “Old Patch” and “Old Carignane.”

“It’s a truly beautiful piece of dirt,” Twain-Peterson says, admiring the gently sloping expanses of cared-for, gnarled, head-trained old vines.

“I feel like Geyserville was the first really American wine ever made,” Passalacqua responds. “It wasn’t trying to be anything but what it was.”

Twain-Peterson picks up there, providing a greater context for these old vineyards and their wines, their place in the world and why they are worth keeping and drinking.

“In California, we have some of the oldest vines in the world, and they’re a mélange of Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian and German and Austro-Hungarian and Croatian,” he says. “It’s a melting pot that’s truly American.”

People history Zinfandel California Sonoma

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