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The Allure of Old Vines on the Central Coast

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For many, the enjoyment of wine is intertwined with its deep and fascinating history, from meticulous Middle Age monks of Burgundy to Spanish friars who tended California’s first vines during the 1700s. So when a winery labels a bottling as “old vine,” consumers will generally pay more for this connection to the past.

Unfortunately, there’s no regulation in the United States for what constitutes “old vine.” Some say it should mean a century old, others a half-century, or even a couple of decades. In my estimation, once vines extend beyond 30 years, they’ve logged enough vintages to qualify.

I have great respect for vineyards that extend back further, but there won’t be much “old vine” in California if the designation is too restrictive. That’s especially true on the Central Coast, where modern commercial winemaking dates just to the late 1960s.

Still, California is home to a handful of lauded older vineyards from the modern era. These include Bien Nacido in the Santa Maria Valley, the Talley family’s Rincon Vineyard in the Arroyo Grande Valley and the cliff-top plantings of Mount Eden and Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Old-vine vintners will tell you that these deeply rooted vines can make more interesting wine than their younger brethren, more focused on minerality, earthy flavors and structure than opulent fruit. Here is a look at three vineyard sites in the Central Coast that showcase old vines.

Black Bear Block Zaca Mesa
Black Bear Block, first planting of Syrah in Santa Barbara County / Photo by Dane Campbell

Black Bear Block

“I really believe vines are like people,” says Eric Mohseni, Director of Winemaking and Vineyard Operations at Zaca Mesa in the Santa Ynez Valley. It’s home to the almost 40-year-old Black Bear Block, the first planting of Syrah in Santa Barbara County.

“Old vines have memory,” he says. “They can react to adverse conditions better than younger vines.”

But that’s only when disease isn’t in the mix, which became a serious problem for the block about five years ago. With the help of Coastal Vineyard Care, Mohseni has tried a number of techniques to preserve the block.

“It’s like an old person,” says Mohseni. “You’ve got to give them their vitamins and do exercises to make sure they respond well.

“Year in and year out, what I see is an elegant tannic structure,” said Mohseni. “They’re not rambunctious, they’re not too coarse. They have a refinement about them that is absolutely striking. It has this commanding presence, but they’re respectful to the palate. I can only attribute that to the age of the vines.”

His primary goal is to preserve the block for as long as possible, and with it, a unique slice of history.

Ken Brown, who planted the block in 1978, received the Estrella clone cuttings from Gary Eberle, who got them from a block off-campus of UC-Davis rumored to come from Chapoutier on the hillside of Hermitage. Mohseni is having the vines certified as the Zaca Mesa Clone by UC-Davis’s Foundation Plant Services, which will make them available for other vintners to purchase.

“They will be cataloged as a California heritage clone,” he says. “That’s one way we’re trying to preserve the lineage of that block.”

Sanford Benedict Vineyard
Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, planted in 1972 / Photo by Jeremy Ball

Sanford & Benedict

A similar process is underway at Sanford Winery, which owns the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. The oldest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines there were planted in 1972 by Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict.

These would produce the wines that put Santa Barbara County on the map for Pinot Noir, which led to the creation of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, not to mention the movie Sideways. The winery is in the early stages of having its Pinot Noir vines certified by UC-Davis as its own clone, and may follow suit with its Chardonnay.

The designation would be the pinnacle of eight years of work by winemaker Steve Fennell and his team. They’ve been diligently assessing the health of the vines, pulling out unproductive blocks and replanting where necessary. Still, they have 23 acres of 45-year-old vine Chardonnay and 28 acres of Pinot Noir.

“There are many myths in the wine world, such as this idea that stressed vines always make better wines,” says Fennell. “It’s true to an extent, but they also have to be healthy plants. If you go below a certain level of health, regardless of quantity, you’re not gonna get quality.”

Because they’re larger plants with greater carbohydrate storage and deeper roots, Fennell agrees that such vines seem to have less variability from vintage to vintage. They also offer more earth tones and less primary fruit in the finished wines, he says. But Fennell also believes that the historic allure is more compelling than just flavor alone.

“It adds such color to the story,” he says. “People get excited about it, even though there are still nebulous concepts as to what old vines give to the wine. For us, it really is more about preserving the history and helping the institutional knowledge and having those plants available for future plantings.”

ENZ Vineyard

Though most have given way to housing tracts, a handful of pre-Prohibition vineyards, some over 100 years old, remain on the Central Coast.

One is the ENZ Vineyard in the Lime Kiln Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), a tiny appellation in rugged San Benito County, just east of the Salinas Valley. Its original plantings of Zinfandel and Cabernet Pfeffer date to 1895, along with Mourvèdre that goes back to 1922.

In recent years, these grapes have gone predominantly to Kenneth Volk. The pioneering vintner founded Wild Horse Winery in Paso Robles in 1981. He sold it in 2003 to start his own namesake brand, which he’s now selling in preparation to retire. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley pay most of his bills, but the professorial Volk is also fascinated with obscure varieties and old vines.

“The old vines are basically more in balance with their environment from having been there through the years,” he says. Deeper roots allow these vines to mine more of the soil’s nutrients. “They know the cycles of the growing season and respond to it better.”

But Volk also cautions to not believe all the hype.

“As much as I love old vines, there’s a bit of fallacy to old vines that they are necessarily always superior to younger vines,” he says. “If you go back to the [1976] ‘Judgment of Paris,’ of the California wines that were poured, none of those vineyards were older than 10 [years old], and most were four to six years old.”

That said, he believes that old vines typically result in more savory wines.

“I try to not use the term ‘minerality,’ because I think it’s abused,” he says. “But there is definitely a characteristic that you get off of that property that manifests itself, whether it’s Zinfandel or Mourvèdre.”

Like Mohseni and Fennell, Volk’s fascination centers more on the history of the vineyard than the wine itself.

“The original vineyard was planted as a source of libation for the people who lived in the valley at that time, when there were about 600 people,” says Volk, adding that the region produced much of the quicklime used for building San Jose and San Francisco. “Now there are like six. It’s changed dramatically.”

What hasn’t changed so dramatically, however, is California’s thirst for interesting wine, and those gnarled Zinfandel, Cabernet Pfeffer and Mourvèdre vines that keep us all satisfied.