Old vines are undoubtedly an “it” thing in today’s wine world, but why? The answer might not be so easy to define.
In this episode, Contributing Editor Matt Kettmann talks with winemaker and old-vine advocate Ian Brand on winegrowing history throughout California’s Central Coast. They discuss the area’s current old-vine status, and why wine growers, makers and consumers alike are attracted to these distinctive bottlings.
The history behind the vines themselves are fascinating and lend a taste of history to each glass of wine made from those storied sites. Every sip deepens that perspective, too.
From classic brands and sites in San Jose and Santa Clara Valley to a younger generation of winemakers that are rediscovering old-vine hotspots, particularly around the Monterey and San Benito Counties, this episode gives you the low-down on which producers to watch and what bottles to try to experience the Central Coast’s can’t-miss wines made from old vines.
Read about more fascinating old vines from around the world in this article.
Listen to another podcast episode about the Old Vine Project here.
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Lauren Buzzeo 0:08
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor here at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, Contributing Editor Matt Kettmann talks with Winemaker and old-vine advocate Ian Brand on California’s winegrowing history throughout the Central Coast, in order to highlight the area’s current old-vine status. Old vines are undoubtedly an “it” thing in the wine world right now, but why? Well, the answer might not be so easy to define, but we’ll hear some of the reasons why wine growers, makers and consumers alike are attracted to these unique and distinctive bottlings. From classic brands and sites in San Jose and Santa Clara Valley, to a younger generation of winemakers that are rediscovering old-vine hotspots, particularly around the Monterey and San Benito Counties, we’ll give you the lowdown on which producers to watch and what bottles to seek out to experience the Central Coast’s can’t-miss wines made from old vines.
But first, a story from our sponsor Wente Vineyards about their Make Time initiative. If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s the importance of making time to do what matters. Whether that’s taking a few minutes to connect with loved ones, a few hours testing a challenging recipe for a wonderful family meal, or a few days to create your new home garden because you’ve always wanted one. Whatever you do, for yourself or for others, remember that time can rush by in the blink of an eye. And when we take those hours, minutes or days to do something truly meaningful, what was once a smudge on the calendar becomes a moment of timelessness. For five generations, the Wente family has believed in the importance of making time and have seen and felt the joy that ensues from these moments. The Wente team is truly inspired by the happiness and connection created when people make time to enjoy a glass of wine on the tasting lounge, patio with friends, or at home sharing stories of the day over a glass of wine. To that end, Wente made its company vision to inspire people to make time for what matters. Because at the end of the day, wine is really about people, and the moments you make time to share together and the memories you hold on to. If there is one thing the team at Wente wants you to walk away with today, it’s to encourage you to be intentional, and take time to create meaningful memories. So take a moment and commit to making time for whatever matters to you. Visit WenteVineyards.com for daily inspiration and tips on how you can shift daily routine into meaningful moments. Whatever you choose to make time for, Wente will be here to help make it memorable.
Matt Kettmann 3:10
Hello, everyone, thank you for joining us today. I am Matt Kettmann, contributing editor with Wine Enthusiast Magazine, in charge of covering the Central Coast and Southern California. Today I’m joined by Ian Brand, the head winemaker and owner of I. Brand & Family Wines, which makes a lovely lineup of wines, including Le P’tit Paysan, La Marea and a number of other brands. He also consults with wineries all up and down the Central Coast and is expert in my mind on a lot of the old vines of the Central Coast, which have come from somewhat forgotten vineyards, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Ian, before we dive into that, tell us a little bit of your background and how you got from the East Coast to the West Coast and got into winemaking.
Ian Brand 3:53
Sure. After school I was a pretty good vagrant and didn’t do a lot in the way of work for a while. And was making my way across the country for the third time and ended up with an old ’71 VW microbus and drove it over the Sierras and landed in Santa Cruz. I ran out of money in Santa Cruz and didn’t have a job and the first gig I got was in the lab at Bonny Doon. And from the lab I went to the cellar and from Bonny Doon I went to Big Basin Vineyards, where I did vineyards and the cellar up there, and that’s in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And in 2008 we moved down to Salinas and started our own project. Eventually, we got our own winery facility and have been doing our brands and some custom work and consulting on vineyards. Generally, trying to elevate and showcase this region.
Matt Kettmann 4:54
Great. Randall Graham at Bonny Doon has worked with some older properties over the years. When did you kind of figure out that old vines were a thing? And how did you start finding them up in that neck of the woods?
Ian Brand 5:09
I noticed a lot of things were working over, you know, over the years in different fingers of working with vineyards. And one thing we noticed is that sometime around 20–25 years old, the vineyards start showing a different level of depth in terms of flavor. There’s a little more, I think, because of the larger root structures, balance in the way. Then that level and initial character in depth continues to grow and evolve as the vineyard gets older. When we move down to Salinas, I really wanted to make sure that that what we were making was wine that was of the place. And so I’ve spent a lot of time learning the vineyards and the properties and the histories and kind of connected dots in this region. I came across a lot of vineyards that were 30, 40, 60 years old, 100 years old. I began seeing it as part of our job as being a conduit and provide that continuity to the history of the region, and then what comes next.
Matt Kettmann 6:16
It turns out you were kind of in a hotspot for that, especially if you start talking about the old vineyards of San Jose, Santa Clara Valley and then down into particularly San Benito County and that whole Cienega Valley, where a lot of wine history for California really kind of started, right?
Ian Brand 6:37
Well, it’s interesting history and we should probably go into that. What’s great about the CienegaValley is, for various reasons that we’ll get to, it was lost in time. So you have a style of planting and varieties and vineyards that survived that are healthy, that are vibrant, and that were just kind of behind this shadow kind of behind the shadow of Almaden. So it’s a really interesting place, really great wine growing soils. But the importance of understanding how all these vineyards got there and what’s there and why it’s there—you kinda have to tap into the 107 year history of commercial wine growing in California, and go back to the nurseries and the early industry around San Jose in the peninsula, where where your family’s from, Matt.
Matt Kettmann 7:31
Yeah, I’m a fifth generation Santa Josean. I’ve lived in Santa Barbara for 25 years now, but my family is from the east side of Santa Clara Valley, kind of the Evergreen area. There’s actually a Kettmann Road there that is not much to speak of, but it’s there. They were shepherds back in the 1850s. The Kettmann name is actually German, but he was Catholic and so we married Irish pretty much all the way down. So My bloodline’s pretty much Irish, but we were there in the 1850s. So the so the kind of first California winery boom, if you don’t count the Franciscans bringing in mission grapes, which we’ll talk about a little later, too, I think. But that was kind of 1860s, 1870s, right? I mean, there were some nurseries in San Jose that we’re delivering, bringing vines in fromFrance and propagating them and then dispersing them all around that region, right?
Ian Brand 8:28
The first commercial vineyard in the Santa Clara County was actually up, I believe, in that Evergreen region. And it was planted by Louis and Pierre Pellier, who were the owners of one of the two major grape vine nurseries in San Jose at the time, the other one being William Pfeffer. Then Pierre Pellier’s daughter married Pierre Mirassou. So the origins of the Mirassou name and that expansion, we’re out in the Evergreen region. Then the other early vineyard was down in the Blossom Hill region, and that was what became Almaden near Guadalupe Creek. And Charles Le Frank and Paul Masson, and everyone else came out of that Almaden lineage.
Matt Kettmann 9:18
Yeah, and those names I mean, Almaden is a region of San Jose, a little bit more of a tony, nicer region, than where I grew up on the east side, but I had a lot of friends from Almaden. I grew up, you know, right by the old Mirassou vineyards. I remember riding my bike through vines. Now they’re all houses. The city made them save the winery structure because it’s a historic building. So they did that and then, I remember, this is when I got into college, going back and visiting my parents who still lived in that area then, and I think, La Rochelle had taken it over at some point. I remember going wine tasting in the old Mirassou building, which was pretty cool. But then came another wave of intense development there. The building is still there, but it’s basically the last time I saw it, it seemed like it was covered in some sort of protective, warehouse-looking thing. There’s no more romance to it. They used to try to do a farmers market there, but I don’t think that happens anymore. It’s just a little bit of a sad situation, unfortunately. Really the whole Santa Clara Valley, you know—that was what the considered the most fertile ground on the planet. It’s now all houses, which is understandable, but a little bit sad. So yeah, I grew up in that region and riding through those vines. It was an interesting place. We were on the kind of the fringes of the suburban development at that point. Now it’s pretty much developed all the way up into the hills there. So those vines were then sent all over the place—tthat’s what started kind of Santa Cruz Mountains type wines, right? And those vines obviously made it down south a little bit into Monterey County. How did those vines spread as far as you know?
Ian Brand 11:15
The next place that really developed, after those early vineyards in the 1850s was around the Stevens Creek area. And the Stevens Creek area was the center of premier wine growing in California at that time. I think a great deal that has to do with all the limestone in the soil around Stevens Creek. That’s where the old Kaiser Permanente quarry is, right below Montebello and Mount Eden.
Matt Kettmann 11:42
Obviously Ridge makes the Montebello and that’s a fantastic wine. It’s been a classic California wine for decades, and Mount Eden is an extremely well known brand making Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cab. I’m not sure how old their actual current vins go back to, but they’re on that, you know, storied Paul Masson to Martin Ray earth up there in the mountains there. So, basically the soils were just good for vines in that region?
Ian Brand 12:10
Yeah, and you began having Californians going over to the premier regions of France, especially Bordeaux, and taking cuttings from the best vineyards pre-phylloxera. So, you had vines from Lafite and Margaux that were then being propagated in the San Jose area. And so there’s some really interesting Cabernet genetics in these older vineyards that are not reflective of the clones out of Napa, the Beringer clones or the 337s or the new clones from France. They’re just a totally different cluster morphology and style.
Matt Kettmann 12:56
Were they effectively suitcase cuttings brought in without records [in 1860] or were they actually being imported in a registered way?
Ian Brand 13:10
It’s a lot of kind of story and hearsay where they came from. There is a story that after phylloxera hits some of these first growth Bordeaux Chateau, they actually came back to the San Jose area to get cuttings from these vineyards to take back to replant their vineyards. It’s a good story, but I can verify it. And the oldest remaining vineyard of those is the small La Questa parcels that are up in Woodside, kind of in backyard areas, just west of the 280 that Woodside Vineyard still makes.
Matt Kettmann 13:51
So you’re thinking you’re thinking those go back to 1860s?
Ian Brand 13:55
No, those vines are from like the ’30s and ’40s as far as I can tell—maybe the 20s—but those are kind of the oldest remaining of that thread. Everything else has been pulled out.
Matt Kettmann 14:09
And those are Bordeaux varieties or Pinot?
Ian Brand 14:12
Matt Kettmann 14:15
Have you had the wines?
Ian Brand 14:16
I have not had La Questa for a while, but I have had some and they’re kind of very vintage dependent. The Pinot goes back to Almaden. Paul Masson and the Pelliers did bring in Pinot and then Paul Masson got better clones and you’ve got the Mountain Winery and they start working on sparkling wine, Almaden and Paul Masson.
Matt Kettmann 14:46
A couple of ways to bring this conversation a little bit further south—one is that Almaden became massive. Many of our listeners probably remember huge jugs or boxes of Almaden in your parents refrigerator. I certainly do. It became one of the biggest brands, I want to say in California history, until you get into maybe the modern more conglomerate eras. And they moved a lot of that wine growing and production or probably all of it down into the San Benito County. But a slightly more fascinating connection is that you mentioned Pfeffer being one of these nurseries. And so there’s this grape that’s called Cabernet Pfeffer that’s grown at the Innes vineyard in the Lime Kiln Valley. I recently had the Ser, which is Nicole Walsh’s brand. She makes a Cab Pfeffer and it was just an awesome zesty and, indeed, peppery wine. Pfeffer means I think “pepper” in German. But those are two ways to bring it down into that region. I also want to mention that a lot of this information, I’m sure you’re getting to some extent from Charles Sullivan’s book, Like Modern Edens, which for those who are into wine history, which clearly we both are, it’s a fascinating read. It’s all about how the wine industry developed in the Santa Clara Valley. It’s so fun to kind of follow the fingers of what happened there into the modern world. I think you, of all the people in particularly our relative generation, is really kind of exploring that in a very hands-on, experiential way, which I think is cool. Tell us a little bit about how you found your way into San Benito County and what some of gems you’re finding there are.
Ian Brand 16:53
Part of the way I’ve been looking at the area that I’m working in is that it’s an area that, from a macro level, never quite got figured out and divided up, at least in the modern era. So there have been various ideas of wines that have popped up. St. Lucia Highlands, the Shalom, the whole Shalom group in the in the ’70s and ’80s that have made a lot of sense. But there isn’t a you know, this greater idea of “Oh, this stock comes from here. And that stock comes from there.” So I’ve been trying to look at the various pieces and valleys and canyons and mountain regions and figure out what works there and what should be planted, especially as the climate evolves. In doing so, knowing that some these old vine vineyards existed, I wanted to pull the ways that they were planted and the varieties they worked with, and some of that that knowledge and evolution, and then combine it with some of the more modern ideas of what you should do and plant, and maybe come to like a greater synthesis of how we should grow. Specifically, when you see modern vineyards, they’re all on a vertical shoot positioning system, all upright. There’s ease of picking, ease of maintenance of vines, but also that leads to increased sun exposure and increased exposure for your various sprays to keep the mildew off. Those were styles of vine growing that were developed in much more humid regions, and much less sunny regions. So you go back to these old vineyards, and they’re kind of this more head-trained, filtered sunlight that in some ways, works better with some varieties. And then start getting into the history and who planted these vines, and why were they planted there? What was their access to vines? Why were they selecting these varieties? Getting back to Cabernet Pfeffer and the Cienega Valley, they began planning that in 1852 or 1854. It was a man named Theophile Vaché, who started wineries up around the Cienega Valley, and he and his brother were working with the early wineries down in the Los Angeles region. He was really good friends with William Pfeffer, and so we’re sourcing a lot of his vines through him. He had planted what is now the Eden Rift and DeRose properties. So the Cienega Valley is a valley that drains down into Paicines and off to the Cienega Valley there are kind of side canes and side valleys. There are three side valleys in a row that are planted with grapes. At the far north, you have the old Vaché property, which is now Eden Rift and DeRose. Then you have a dolomite and limestone mine on the hill, and the next property down is the old El Gavilan vineyard, which is now Gimelli and the Wirz property and then you have Mount Harlan. Then on the on the south side of Mount Harlan is the Enz property, the Lime Kiln Valley.
Matt Kettmann 20:03
And Eden Rift—I once stayed a night up there with the those guys they’re doing some fascinating stuff. We had a great dinner with Josh Jensen from Calera came and hung out and the Waller brothers were there. I stayed in the Dickinson house, which is the old Victorian mansion. I just recently tried the Dickinson Block Zinfandel which is 100ish year old vines. When I taste old vine wines I often expect a bit more of an earthy expression, almost like secondary, tertiary flavors that just kind of come out of this historic vine. In that case, that Zinfandel is actually pretty sprightly and fresh and fruity, which I found fascinating for an older vine. Before we even go deeper south, I don’t want to forget the Grenache and, I believe, Zin, from Desante vineyard right up in the Gilroy and Morgan Hill area, which is Southern Santa Clara Valley before you get into San Benito County, which is more Hollister and south. That’s a fascinating vineyard. I’ve been out there with the bureau Keno guys before and those are crazy old vines. Tell us a little about those wines. I know you make some wine from there too, right?
Ian Brand 21:30
Sure. So in the 1870s and 1880s in California, you started having a lot of immigration, especially from northern Italy. And those immigrants spread out over the Santa Cruz Mountains, which were large largely logged at that point, have since regrown but were actually fairly bare. Then down through the Santa Clara Valley. The collections of grape vines that they planted were a little bit different than the grapevines that were planted in the 1860s, 1870s. It involved a lot more Zinfandel and a lot more of the hardier and productive grapes. You see a lot of Zinfandel, a lot of Mataro and Grenache and Carignan surviving the Santa Clara Valley. Most of the old vines that survive are in the kind of Redwood Retreat, Uvus Canyon, Hecker Pass area. The healthiest of those vineyards are run by the Besson family, which has two parcels. One is about 10 acres of Grenache that I was planted in the 19-teens, and then a smaller block of Zinfandel and a tiny bit of Mission that was planted I believe in the 1890s.
Lauren Buzzeo 22:57
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Matt Kettmann 23:34
We’re hyped on these kinds of old vines and a lot of winemakers are and I’m sure somms are. Do consumers jive on this too? Are they into these these historic vines? Is that something that you think we’re fascinated with and they’re not, or do you think they’re into it too?
Ian Brand 23:54
I think they’re into it. I think consumers are fascinated by the story. I think they’re accustomed to quality being higher. What’s difficult is that old vines doesn’t have a strong definition in the market. For me, and this comes from asking Morgan Twain-Peterson and Tegan Passalacqua what their definition would be. It’s vines over 50 years old qualify as old vine. So if I’m making the wine and the average vine age is over 50, that would qualify as an old vine wine. But in the Napa Valley, it’s over 20 years old [that] they’re talking about their old vines. And 20 years old in the Central Coast is maybe starting to think about getting old. I’ve seen winemakers with vines that are 15 years old put old vine on the label and, you know, come on guys.
Matt Kettmann 24:45
“Older than our new vines.”
Ian Brand 24:46
Older than our new vines, yeah. I think that up in the Willamette Valley, they’re guilty of a lot of that too. I mean, the oldest Willamette Valley vines are, I think, from the late ’60s. But you see vines from the late ’80s or the ’90s called old vine Pinot Noir.
Matt Kettmann 25:03
Is there any legislative movement to codify that or not really? It’s just not being looked at?
Ian Brand 25:09
It’s just not really being looked at. California winemakers are not that heavily into rules, compared to our Eastern or European counterparts that seem to just love codification of rules. There could be some value in doing that. The benefit is right now there are a handful of wineries and winemakers that are very taken by the old vines and are working hard at their preservation and conservation and there’s the Historical Vineyard Society who is working hard both on the genetics side and on the preservation side to keep these vineyards in the ground, like Carlisle, Bedrock, Turley and Sandlands.
Matt Kettmann 25:58
[The Historical Vineyard Society has] a fascinating website. Anyone who’s hasn’t looked at that website should go to that. It has an entire list of what they’re considering old vineyards and a pretty detailed bit of information on each of the vineyards. I was looking at it in preparation for this talk, actually, and I was like, oh, man, this is a website I could spend all day on. I had to get off of it because I felt like I was gonna be there too long. But they’re doing really good work. They’re really into it. It’s fascinating. They’re not necessarily into rules either, but I could see that kind of work leading to somebody going, “Hey, maybe we should at least make some rule, like 50 years. Why not?” Let’s move down the coast a little bit. Monterey County has a very established winemaking tradition these days, but there’s not a lot of super old vines stuff in Monterey County, is there?
Ian Brand 26:55
That’s true. So you had the development of Cienega and Santa Clara in the 1800s. You had some development in Paso Robles in the 1920s. By enlarge the Central Coast began getting planted out in the 1960s. So in the early ’60s you had I think the third or fourth generation of Mirassous seeing Monterey as a frontier to move into. They were followed by Paul Masson and Wente. Then you had some going up into the mountains around there. There were some tax breaks that were created for planting vineyards in the late ’60s and that’s when you saw the old Durney property go in. And the old HMR estate that Adelaida has now and Paso Roble and the Bates Ranch. So you saw more extensive planting of those kind of boutique or remote vineyards in the late ’60s because of that tax break. And you also saw in the ’50s and ’60s, when Almaden moved down the Cienega, you saw more planting around San Benito county in the ’50s and ’60s. That’s also when you get down into the Santa Maria Valley when the Nielsen vineyard was planted, and then in the early ’70s through Santa Barbara County,
Matt Kettmann 28:25
I hung out with you at the the old Durney vineyard in Carmel Valley, which is kind of in the middle of nowhere, but really fascinating planting. It’s now owned by the Massa family, right? And they’re trying to bring that back.
Ian Brand 28:40
The first blocks were planted in ’68, ’69. And then there’s some stuff from ’71, ’78 into the ’80s. It’s progressively planted from cuttings. But this is kind of part of the interesting piece. When I went back and tried to figure out where those cuttings were from, the best story I could come up with was quote-unquote, we got them from Grandma Miras. So the Mirassou family that was part of the Pellier family that brought a lot of the vines down to Monterey County was also passing these Bordeaux vines that essentially go back to the 1850s, 1860s in the San Jose region up to this vineyard in Carmel Valley. There’s some continuity in the morphology of the clusters, essentially the genetics, between what’s going on there and the old stagecoach block on Bates Ranch, which was also a ’68, ’69 planting.
Matt Kettmann 29:50
Where’s Bates again?
Ian Brand 29:51
Bates is up Redwood Retreat. It’s the canyon just north of Hecker Pass. So if you head up Watsonville Road, near the old Besson vineyard and the old Fortino vineyard, which you take a left about three miles up and head up Redwood Retreat, and that’s where like the Vanumanutagi Vineyard is and Mary Carter…
Matt Kettmann 30:18
You make some wines from there right?
Ian Brand 30:20
From Bates? Yeah Bates is a great property. It’s an amazing Santa Cruz Mountain historic property. It’s got a lot of verve and panache.
Matt Kettmann 30:31
So let’s shoot down to Paso. I know a good amount about Paso. There’s the Ueberroth vineyard, which is a Turley-owned property. So Tegan Passalacqua, the winemaker there and one of these strong proponents of the historical vines, makes some pretty massive Zinfandel from that old vine, as well. And there’s the Dusi vineyard, which you actually see when you’re driving on 101. It’s right there on the right. I think it’s on both sides of 101 actually, so 101 probably ripped out X number of acres of vine from the old Dusi vineyard there. And you mentioned the HMR vineyard, which—this was shocking to me when I learned this—but the first, from what I have heard, the first Pinot Noir planted on the southern Central Coast was that HMR vineyard in Adelaida district in Paso Robles. Paso Robles is not known necessarily as a cooler climate region, but if you get into those hills to the west, it can be quite quite chilly. I recently had both the HMR vineyard’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Adelaida winery, and those are fantastic, really interesting wines. The Pinot is not like a zesty, sprightly version, there’s a bit of a richer profile to it.
Ian Brand 32:10
Whether it’s with rosé techniques or orange wine techniques or Pinot Noir techniques, one person figures out, “Oh no, what we need is we need to do more whole berry and open tops and cold soaks like this” and then that style proliferates until someone else figure something else out and then that style proliferates. It’s just a set of techniques that work their way through the the winemaking community.
Matt Kettmann 32:35
Well, and it’s that that pendulum too, right? It’ll swing both ways. It’ll swing very deeply into richness, and still is there for a lot of people, but that’s kind of what I see in my tastings, swinging back towards lightness and brightness. And someone’s going to push that probably a little too far for most people’s tastes and then that’s gonna start to swing back as well. You know, what I’ve been finding facinating is we’ve been focusing mostly on Central Coast, more or less northern—what we called Northern California. But once you get to Santa Barbara, and then you go south, and you actually run into this small little town called Los Angeles, which also used to be just like San Jose, the center of winemaking for Southern California. We planted grapes, all over these places that eventually sprouted suburban developments. But there are still some parts of LA that have old vines, particularly Rancho Cucamonga area. You know, again, some of these vines planted late 1800s, early 1900s, and most of it’s housing, but there are some vineyards down there that still exist. There’s one I’ve had a couple different wines from recently. One was a Municipal Winemakers’ Dave Potter. I don’t know if you know Ian, but you guys would hit it off. He’s a really cool guy and super into the history. He’s actually from Cucamonga originally. He makes a Grenache from Hofer Ranch, which is a fascinating wine, lighter in style, still super fresh, but it kind of has some of this savory, I don’t know, history flavor to it, if you will. And then Mikey Giugni from Scar of the Sea, who you probably do know. His wines across the board are fascinating, but he also is from Cucamonga originally, and he makes a Hofer Ranch that I just had the other day. It was one of these wines where I tasted it and immediately thought of hiking through this the the Santa Barbara mountains here, which have nothing to do with Cucamonga but that kind of Chaparral dried sage smell and flavor was just like booming off of the the nose and palate of that wine. It was almost one of those wines that transports you in a way. It was not super complex or super rich or super deep, but It was just something that transported me and made me really fascinated. I always wonder if that’s like history talking to me through these vines. Do you find when you’re when you’re tasting these wines from older vines, are there times where you’re like, “Wow, I feel like I’m tapping into some ancient wisdom here?” Is there any kind of magic in these vines to you?
Ian Brand 35:26
Are you asking about some woowoo stuff right now? I don’t know if I ever thought about like that. I mean, first that flavor profile you talk about—the kind of the dried grass and sage and chaparral—I’ve come to call that the Central Coast garrigue—I feel like that’s our version of herbs de Provence. If you’re coming from these drier mountains from south of the Redwoods, you really need to be capturing like the sunlight and the effect of the sunlight and those aromatic, kind of oily herbs. That’s just a great deal of our sense of place. Some of the old vines do capture that better, but I’ve also seen that wonderfully in younger vines out of like the Cheval region. I think that anytime you work with a vineyard, you’re working with everyone that’s worked with that vineyard, both in terms of contextualizing your wines, but also in terms of how that vineyards has been planted and maintained. That there are reasons that with these old vineyards 100 years ago, they pick these varieties and they began this style of pruning and that spacing and the the wine you make is kind of the sum of all those decisions and all those years. So yeah, you are tapping into a different set of knowledge. I think that’s the most interesting part that in, for instance, in Pinot Noir in the Central Coast, a lot was planted out in the ’90s and early 2000s. It’s the same sets of clonal material, it’s the same rootstocks, it’s the same ideas of what a planting should look like and spacings, and there’s a great deal of sameness in the results. Part of getting into these old vineyards is there’s not just the bigger root structures and history, but there’s also an individuality that’s kind of come with time. Sort of like listening to a later Dylan album, where it might be a little a little strange for some folks, but you can really get into the depth of that experience and songwriting. That’s really exciting from a winemaking perspective, because there’s just a lot more to tap into, to grab on to in making these wines. A lot more of a story to listen to, rather than just a repetitive set of techniques.
Matt Kettmann 37:59
I was talking to a winemaker who makes a brand called Cavaletti which is actually a mostly Los Angeles-based brand. And they’ve found some old vines here and there around LA. There’s actually quite a resurgence right now, in LA as far as realizing that these these vines exist and embracing them. He actually was telling me they just found this vineyard up in the Lake Hughes area, which is kind of, if you’re going up the grapevine on I-5 and you hang a right on 138, which is through the Antelope Valley, up in the mountains up there. They found this old vineyard that was next to a school. Someone just told them about it like, “Hey, I used to go to school at this place when I was a kid and there were these vines.” He went up there and he found it and it was it was at one point a pretty sizable thing. He thinks he can revive about two or three of the acres, I think. He doesn’t even know what the grapes are yet. He says it doesn’t look like Zinfandel, he can’t really tell, but he’s thinking it goes back to the 1920s or earlier. Are there any thing’s left to be found out there there? Are there some old vineyards that are in people’s backyards or on ranches that have been closed to the public? Is there more to find or do you think we found the old vines that we’re going to be looking at for the years to come?
Ian Brand 39:23
In our area there are a few backyard places. There’s the South Hart, Grenache vineyard in the Paicinas area, which I haven’t seen a South Hart labeled wine, it usually comes out through Volio or Berenger, since 2007. But there is a like a three acre Grenache block back in there. There’s a handful of things from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that are still I wouldn’t say undiscovered, but not tapped and showcased in the way that they should be. Unfortunately, there were several of those that got pulled out and Monterey in the last five years, because there wasn’t a level of interest in them. Those are some of the things that I’m trying to create wines around. We have our Cabernet, which is now average vine age of over 50. The reason we built that wine is because of two vineyard blocks in San Benito county from the early ’70s and the late ’50s that couldn’t really find a home. They weren’t producing the raw material and at the productivity that made them something that like Gallo or Constellation would go after, and they were too large of a block and not sexy enough for your boutique winemakers to get into. So I had to figure out a wine and a wine at a particular volume that would work in order to make those vines sustainable.
Matt Kettmann 41:02
I just had that and I really enjoyed that wine too. I don’t think you’ve seen the scores yet, but I gave a pretty good score. I though it was kind of a fascinating take on Cabernet. Really showing, I would say some of that Central Coast garrigue in that wine, too. Cheers to you for fighting that fight because it is, especially for grape growers, it is an economic situation, right? I mean, a lot of these old vines aren’t pumping off as much fruit as a tightly spaced VSP vineyard would do. They’re widely spaced, they’re bush vines, they’re old so they do get tired. Do the economics work out if you can pump that fruit price up? I mean, what is the reality in that situation?
Ian Brand 41:52
There are a lot of tough discussions with growers and you have to figure out what their costs are and what their average yields are and what sustainability is. We’re interested a lot in older vineyards because this provides our connectivity, our history, and they produce better wines. These are the wines that are going to cement both the reputation of our region and our reputation. But you can’t go into a vineyard and say, “Well, your neighbor’s getting $1400 a ton for Chardonnay, and therefore this should be $1400 a ton.” Because this older Chardonnay is, like you said, because of larger space and because of age of vines, maybe only producing a couple of tons an acre. So you have to look deeply at what you can do in the market because generally these older blocks are 8, 10, 14 acres. They’re not like your little two-acre block that you can pull two tons of and make your boutique wine. Figuring out what that sustainability is and we tend to allocate more of our bottle price to fruit cost because we really feel strongly that part of our function in this region is making sure these vineyards stay in the ground and stay healthy and improve in health. The health of the vineyards is invested in, so that whatever generation comes after us has these gems to work with and play off of. But it’s not an easy undertaking by any means.
Matt Kettmann 43:31
If you were to go back in time and put Ian Brand back in the 1860s, 1870s, or even early 1900s, if we want to be a little bit more realistic about what vines would still be left, what would you have planted and where?
Ian Brand 43:45
Well, I am very high on Grenache in general on the Central Coast. I think it’s a well adapted vine to the area. I think that some of this older Cabernet material is pretty exceptional. I would have done a lot more aromatic whites in the Salinas Valley and probably down in like the Edna Valley as well. Trousseau actually does really well. When you go back to what Theophile Vaché planted at the old Eden Rift property there’s Trousseau and Poulsard and Pinot Noir back in the 1850s out there. I think that was actually a pretty good match.
Matt Kettmann 44:38
Great. Well thank you so much for your time. This has been fun. I can’t wait to go pop some old vine wines today and give them a whirl. So thank you, Ian Brand. This has been, I think, a good conversation. I hope listeners enjoy it and let us know if you want more. We could go deeper. We could go deeper into these conversations and hopefully that will help save some of these vineyards even more. Thanks for your time, Ian.
Ian Brand 45:01
Yeah. Thank you, Matt.
Lauren Buzzeo 45:05
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. There’s no doubt that there’s so much to explore and consider when it comes to old-vine wine, including those from California’s vast Central Coast. The history behind the vines themselves is often fascinating, and lends a taste of that history in each glass of wine made from those storied sites, while the depth and unique character of these bottlings offer even more pleasure and perspective with every sip. We mentioned a lot of areas and producers to keep an eye out for if you’re interested in diving deeper into the Central Coast’s world of old-vine wine, including recently reviewed selections from I. Brand & Family, Turley, Bedrock and more. Be sure to visit winemag.com/podcast for ratings and reviews from these producers and others discussed today, as well as additional links to learn more about the old vine news and wines from around the world. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find podcasts. And if you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine-loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more wine reviews, recipes, guides, deep dives and stories, visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @wineenthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.
Last Updated: June 5, 2023