A half dozen years ago, a group of California winegrape growers and vintners got to talking about what a shame it was to see old vineyards disappear, especially when there aren’t a lot of them left.
“We wanted to celebrate the old, dry-farmed vines,” says Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars, which has vineyards across the Golden State. “We decided to try to protect the vines that were planted to last.”
Those vines differ in significant ways from today’s, which are not planted to last, Passalacqua says. Like most other crops, vineyards are now planted to get production as quickly as possible. It’s been that way in California viticulture since the 1960s, when modern farming techniques were implemented.
But there’s another reason you don’t see many vineyards in California that date from the 1960s and ’70s. Many of those vineyards were planted on the AXR-1 rootstock — a Vitis vinifera/American hybrid — and were attacked by the phylloxera aphid, which wiped them out.
Most vineyards planted after that, in the 1970s onward, were trellised, irrigated — drip irrigation was just starting — and fertilized to get them going. But while that treatment certainly does produce large yields relatively quickly, Passalacqua says the vines seem more prone to problems down the road, such as disease susceptibility.
“They’re like modern football players — pumped full of fertilizers or juice as the case may be,” he says. “While they’re productive, they have a short career and die.”
It’s not as if people in the industry don’t recognize the value of the old vineyards. Perhaps Americans don’t prize them as much as other countries, which treasure them. But even consumers are attracted to the wines, which are increasingly being marketed as made from old vines. And with good reason, Passalacqua says.
“It’s the oldest vines that seem to make the most balanced wines. Don’t say best, don’t ever say best,” he emphasizes. “But they are the most balanced.”
The chief problem is the old vines certainly weren’t planted with the idea of mechanization in mind, and so they must be hand-picked. With the cost of labor rising, it’s no wonder that a couple hundred acres of old vines were recently ripped out near Lodi, where Passalacqua himself has a vineyard that was planted in 1915.
“It costs four to five times as much to harvest by hand, and in addition, you can get more production from newly planted vines,” he says. “Growers tell me it just doesn’t pencil out.”
Historic Vineyard Society
The founding members of the group, who still make up the Board of Directors, formed a non-profit organization, the Historic Vineyard Society (HVS), in an attempt to preserve these old vineyards. Its mission is accomplished “through educating the wine-drinking public on the very special nature of this precious and depleting state, national, and global resource.”
They use a definition established by Congress for “historic,” 50 years or older, which helps them in establishing protection protocols. Many of the vineyards are much older than that, however, dating to the 1880s. They don’t know what the oldest vineyard in the state is — though many stake a claim to that fame — but Passalacqua says it won’t be long before economically feasible technology is available to find out.
While all the members do have older vineyards, Passalacqua says they’re not trying to increase the value of the wines they produce.
“Charging more money is not the mission of our group. We’re trying to educate the public that these are treasures, and there are still a lot of farmers out there who don’t know what they have is a treasure,” he says. “It’s something that has to be protected, and it’s special working with people who appreciate agriculture. It is agriculture, not agribusiness.”