Walking through an old vine vineyard with gnarled vines pushing 90 years old, Mike Officer stops to laugh.
“Imagine the stories they could tell if they had a voice,” he said. Which may be why the owner of Santa Rosa’s Carlisle Winery & Vineyards likens the feeling of walking around his 10-acre vineyard to skulking through a family crypt.
His Willowside Road vineyard was planted in 1927 by Alcide Pelletti, primarily to zinfandel grapes but interspersed with small lots of almost 50 other varieties rarely seen in the United States. It may now qualify as California’s most diversely planted old vine vineyard, but Officer and his wife Kendall had no idea when they bought the long abandoned vineyard in 1998.
“I used to ride my bike by this vineyard, and I was totally mesmerized by it,” he said. “I felt like the vines were reaching out to me.”
Curious about the mix of grapes in his vineyard, Officer cut a sample of leaves from the shoot tips of vines and sent them to the Foundation of Plant Sciences at UC Davis for DNA testing. While 87 percent are zinfandel, the remaining 13 percent represents varietals that include Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, Grand Noir, Peloursin, Trousseau noir, Tempranillo, Muscadelle, Malvasia Muscat and 30 other varietals.
Was it an accident or was it planned?
Pelletti was known as “quite the grape junkie,” Officer said, and may have sprinkled Vitis Labrusca vines throughout the vineyard to keep finches and other birds from pecking the fruit. With a bird overhead as if on cue, he added, “I don’t think it works.”
He continued, “Grand noir does seem to be planted in wetter parts of the vineyard, so there does appear to be some reason behind the planting. But without Alcide here to ask, I’ll never know for sure.”
Officer’s winemaker, Jay Maddox, refers to the vineyard as a geriatric ward, and Officer agrees.
“Every vine has its own needs,” he said. “When you prune a vineyard like this, you have to approach every vine like an individual. You have to look at what it needs. You have to see what it’s telling you from last year.”
With the grapes from this vineyard, Officer produced small batches of field blend wine. The 2013 Carlisle Vineyard Zinfandel is $47, with the 2014 vintage set to roll onto the market in the fall. The winery also sources grapes from other California growers and now produces more than 7,000 cases of zinfandel and Rhone blends each year.
Along the way, Officer was so taken by the mystique of old vine vineyards that he helped found the Historic Vineyard Society (historicvineyardsociety.org). The organization works to document and protect vineyards with vines that are 50 years or older, because they are “a genetic repository for some interesting varietals in California,” he said. Society members are still trying to determine just how much old vine vineyard acreage remains in Sonoma County.
“An old vine vineyard lasts as long as it does because it’s producing something special,” Officer said. “We find that the grapes from old vines seem to be more balanced than the grapes from young vines. We could replant this entire vineyard to young vines, and we’d have a completely different wine.”
Due to disease and tractor blight, old vine vineyards have to endure some replanting. “But these vineyards could go on forever, as long as you take care every 20 years to replenish what needs to be replenished,” Officer said.
“Maybe not everyone feels this way, but vineyards like these represent our viticultural heritage, and they’re worthy of preserving. It’s like drinking history.”