Saving California History


The 1998 Zinfandel from the Heritage Vineyard is a fine, vibrant wine. But there’s much more to it than that; it’s a wine that carries the weight of history.

A joint production by the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) and UC Davis, the Heritage Vineyard Zinfandel provides a bridge between a vanishing past and a potentially glorious future. Its vines are survivors of some of the oldest vineyards in California.

Among the legions of otherwise sane people who happen to be passionate about Zinfandel, it is an article of faith that the most exalted wines come from vines that were planted prior to living memory. There is no scientific evidence to support this view, yet the faithful actively venerate ancient Zinfandel vines, investing them with a kind of talismanic power.


At a time when everything in California wine seems brand new, while some European vineyards and caves have been producing wine since Roman times and before, the old Zinfandel vines and their wines seem to satisfy a thirst for some direct connection with the past.

Zin fans experience genuine, often profound grief upon hearing that one of the old blocks has been destroyed to make way for a more profitable Cabernet or Chardonnay or Merlot vineyard. Sadly, that happens with alarming frequency. The knowledge that there are only about a few dozen acres of turn-of-the-century Zinfandel vines left in the world-and that the number dwindles vintage by vintage-only heightens the old-vine fervor.

It’s not just the age of these vineyards that’s so compelling, but also the fact that people have been making wine from the same vines for generations. Walking those rows in golden autumn light, watching birds feast on raisined second-crop grapes, it’s easy to feel the presence of the past. The old vines stand like sentinels of time, twisted by hardship, covered with moss and lichen, with whole ecological communities of insects and reptiles living in and around their cracked, stringy trunks.

The individual vines are as different from one another as people are. Each old body shows the wrinkles and scars of its experience, the marks of the bad years and the good years. In winter dormancy they look all gnarled and dead. Then one sweet spring day a little perfectly formed leaf appears. It’s a sign that this ancient stalk is summoning strength from deep underground for another sustained effort.

By summer’s end the leaves are yellow and red as the exhausted vine fades back into death-like slumber. Yet it leaves an exquisite gift: a few small bunches of intensely flavorful grapes. And for maybe the hundredth time someone will make wine from that fruit, and for years to come those who drink the wine will share in a rich tradition.

Zinfandel’s modern renaissance began at Ridge Vineyards, and the old-vine mystique was part of it from the beginning. In a sense it was accidental. In a 1985 interview, Ridge founder Dave Bennion (who passed away two years later) told me that he originally meant to specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon.


“I thought it was really important to make wine from mature vineyards,” he said, “but in the mid-’60s there just weren’t any mature Cabernet vineyards. When we started looking around California, what we found instead were some really old vineyards that were Zinfandel, with things like Petite Sirah and Carignan mixed in. So we made Zinfandel.”

From the first vintage on, they made and bottled the wines from individual vineyards separately-as many as 21 separate wines in some years. Since 1964 Ridge has released 350 Zinfandels under more than 60 different labels.

Paul Draper became Ridge’s winemaker in 1967. He spent the next three decades discovering and evaluating old Zinfandel plantings throughout California. The Ridge wine library stands as a bottled record of that exploration; all but a few of those wines have been from single vineyards or sections of vineyards, and most of those vineyards have been very old.

Although Zinfandel remains one of the most widely planted red grapes in California, most of that acreage is planted to three industrial clones that were chosen for high yield and disease resistance but have also gained a reputation for yielding inferior wine.

Further, the clones have been thermally treated to eliminate fan leaf and other viruses that infect grapevines, and while the absence of virus is considered a great advantage by virtually all commercial grape growers, there is a strong feeling among many winemakers that the heat treatment may severely limit the vine’s expressive range.

Enter Jim Wolpert, head of the Viticulture and Enology Department at UC Davis. In the mid-’80s, Wolpert became aware that California’s richest viticultural heritage was endangered.


“Red Zin prices weren’t too good, and some of the old vine stuff was going to white Zin, which was just a crime,” he says. “Then some of the older growers started selling out. We were concerned that the bulldozers would come in and this stuff would be lost.”

Individual growers in the private sector began mobilizing to propagate new vineyards from old plantings, but there was no comprehensive central program.

A few years later, Wolpert was doing field work in Tuscany when he got a wake-up call. His counterparts in Italian viticulture were frantically trying to save Sangiovese, the primary grape of Chianti, from the increasing homogenization of clonal material in the vineyards and the resulting loss of character in the region’s wines.

“They were going around looking at old farms and in people’s backyards, looking for old plantings of Sangiovese,” recalls Wolpert. “And they said, ‘Maybe you should be doing the same thing with Zinfandel.”’

In 1989 the Heritage Zinfandel Vineyard was born. Wolpert hit the road on reconnaissance missions that came to be called Old Zin Safaris. Working with UC Davis Extension Viticulturist Emeritus Amand Kasimatis and extension farm advisors in several counties, primarily Rhonda Smith (in Sonoma County) and Ed Weber (Napa County), Wolpert began identifying Zinfandel vineyards planted prior to 1930 a nd collecting budwood from them.

Like his Italian counterparts, Wolpert found the old vineyards in odd locations-in backyards, along driveways, in the midst of newer plantings. Most were fragments of what had been much larger vineyards; presumably the best blocks, because they’d survived.


David Gates (Ridge Vineyards), Joel Peterson (Ravenswood) and other Zin-knowledgable producers pitched in to help locate old plantings. Because funds available for the project were minuscule-’Basically, we’re just talking gas money,” says Wolpert-the team members worked as volunteers.

There were some dramatic moments. Once the volunteers literally took cuttings a few steps ahead of a bulldozer that was uprooting vines behind them.

When time allowed, they attempted to establish age and pedigree. “We tried to do as much research as we could on each vineyard,” Wolpert says. “In a lot of cases there were property records or tax records, or there would be oral history from neighbors and people who had lived in the area for a long time.”

When research failed to turn up anything, they went on instinct. “When you start seeing holes in the trunks you know you’re into an old vineyard,” Wolpert says. “Those things don’t happen unless there’s a lot of time involved, so we developed an eye for those things. It wasn’t critical whether it was 60 or 90 years, as long as it had the right appearance.”

The 1.1-acre Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard is a kind of Noah’s Ark of Zinfandel, a concentration of genetic material comprising 90 selections taken from 63 old Zinfandel vineyards in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, Contra Costa, San Luis Obispo and San Joaquin counties (seven vines were propagated from each selection).

In the hope of allowing each vine to express its true nature, the vines are being grown the old-fashioned way: grafted onto phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock, head-trained (like little trees), spur-pruned and largely dry-farmed. Even an untrained eye can pick out the scant acre of Zinfandel in one corner of the property: While all the surrounding vines are trellised in various ways, the head-pruned Zin block is an image from California’s yesteryear.


Wolpert picked a small amount of fruit in 1997, but the first significant crop was harvested in 1998. That’s when the Heritage Zin team began to evaluate the vines within viticultural parameters such as cluster weight, berry size, cluster tightness. In the 2000 vintage, microvinifications were made from 10 separate selections at UC Davis.

The object is to determine whether the characteristics that made a given selection seem desirable in its original vineyard were genetic or site-related. The most promising selections will then pass to the Foundation Plant Material Service at UC Davis, which will do further testing for virus. The inaugural Heritage Zin was made at Robert Biale winery. The ’99 was made at Cline Cellars, and the 2000 at Joseph Swan Vineyards.

Unfortunately, unless you’re a real Zin freak, you’ll probably never taste these wines. Only 102 cases were made and most of it was poured or auctioned off at the 10th annual Zinfandel Festival in San Francisco late last month.

There are two particularly interesting features of the Heritage Vineyard. One is that a few selections of old-vine Petite Sirah are included, and also the parents of Petite Sirah, Pellersin and Durif. “We couldn’t stand not to, although we can’t see the economic importance of anything but Zin,” says Wolpert.

Perhaps more interesting is that the modern heat-treated or White Zin clones have been included in the planting. Wolpert wants to find out once and for all whether these much-maligned clones will confirm their reputation for mediocrity or prove that they can produce distinctive wine if grown correctly.

“I think there’s a predisposition to thinking old is better than new, but I’m not persuaded by that,” says Wolpert. “There are some people making very nice wines from the heat-treated clones, and I’ve seen a vineyard in Lodi that was planted in 1908 and it’s White Zin stuff.”


Just last week the first cuttings were taken from the Heritage Block to be sent to the FPMS. If all goes well, the process will result in certified old clones.

On the other hand, 90 selections from 63 vineyards isn’t much in the big picture. It can’t come close to duplicating the diversity of plant characteristics that exist in the pre-Prohibition vineyards, where individual vines have had many years to become ever so slightly different from their neighbors.

It may well be that these big, complex old-vine Zinfandels we’ve come to know in the very last part of the 20th century will be the last wines of their kind.


Smith is writer-at-large for Wine & Spirits Magazine.