In 1989, I made my first Sangiacomo Merlot at Ravenswood. I learned of this vineyard from Dave Ramey, who had encouraged the Sangiacomo family to plant it for his use at Matanzas Creek. I continued to make Merlot from Sangiacomo Vineyard until the early 2000s. Ultimately, Constellation decided that Ravenswood’s focus should be on Zinfandel, not Merlot. At about the same time, Matanzas Creek discontinued its purchase of the Sangiacomo Merlot fruit.
I had assumed that the Sangiacomos had pulled all these grapes out and replaced them with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so I was happily surprised when my son, Morgan, told me he had been talking to Mike and Steve Sangiacomo, and they mentioned a section of Merlot still remained on the Kiser Ranch. I was very fond of the Merlots that Sangiacomo was making. Fortunately, the Sangiacomo family was gracious enough to sell me some of the Merlot block’s remaining fruit for Once & Future.
This block, formerly 13-year-old Riesling vines, was budded to Merlot in 1987 and interplanted to reduce spacing in 1991. The soil is shallow gravel clay-loam, which is ideal for Merlot. Originally, the trellis was a bilateral cordon vertical shoot position set-up. Due to the timing of the Carneros winds, which are frequently coincident with flowering and fruit set, a great deal of shatter resulted in very low crop levels. In some years, this imparted a fairly strong jalapeño character to the grapes. To combat this, the Sangiacomos have added an additional fruiting cane to the system, which increases the crop, bringing it into balance with the canopy and providing more harmonious ripe flavors. The combination of soil, trellising, crop, and canopy management, along with the cool Carneros climate, produces some of the most delicious Merlot in California.
2016 Carneros Merlot, Sangiacomo Vineyard - $55
The wine is 100 percent Merlot, fermented with indigenous yeast and aged in French oak. Rich fruit, herb, vanilla, and cedar notes lead seamlessly into the lush velvety texture and full cherry berry fruit flavors, accented with hints of tar and mineral. Delicious to drink in the near term, the ripe tannins and bright acidity promise flavor development over the next decade or more. I recently opened a bottle of 1995 Ravenswood Sangiacomo Merlot, which was aging beautifully and more than satisfying to drink.
Forcini Vineyard is an old (circa 1900) vineyard planted on the far eastern edge of the Russian River Valley AVA, just off the south side of Limerick Lane. This area of the Russian River tends to be warmer than most of the appellation and, in fact, there are those who believe it has some kinship to Dry Creek. Indeed, the wines have some of the boysenberry blue fruit and bright acidity that are typical of Russian River, but also exhibit a ripeness and fullness that are more characteristic of Dry Creek.
The soils are sandy clay loam; the vines are relatively large and head pruned. The vineyard is at least 90 percent Zinfandel with interplanting of Negrette, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Alicante Bouchet, and a few other grape varieties.
2016 Russian River Zinfandel, Forcini Vineyard - $42
Fermented with indigenous yeast in small open-top stainless fermenters, punched down by hand, and aged in 30 percent new French Oak, the wine is bright and fresh. It drinks very well at the moment, but will evolve nicely for a number of years.
Oakley Road Vineyard
The soils at Oakley Road vineyard are so sandy that early growers in this region were disparaged as “sandlappers.” Little did those wags know that the delta sands, with their Phylloxera inhibiting properties, would be the key to the survival of some amazing 100-plus-year-old, own-rooted, unirrigated vines. The micro climate of Oakley allows grapes to ripen early. It is not so much that it is hot during the growing months—the average temperature is about 74 degrees with the nights in the mid 50s and the days in the 90s during the month of July and August—but that the sandy soils warm earlier in the year than most other areas in California, and vine growth starts sooner. As the season progresses, the grapes continue to ripen consistently in spite of the cooling maritime winds from the Carquinez straits, due to the reflected sun from the Antioch sandy soils.
The resulting wines can be, in a word, graceful. The combination of own roots, old vines, deep sandy soils, and cooling afternoon breezes seems to encourage gentle, suave wines. Some winemakers like to make big, powerful, dark wines from these grapes, though I believe the wines are much more enjoyable, interesting, complex, and finer when picked earlier.
These Oakley Road vines may not be around much longer. This part of Contra Costa (CoCo for short) is changing rapidly. It has been an industrial backwater for a long time. High tension electrical lines, a PG&E power plant, and motels that rent by the hour stand in contrast to an inordinate number of churches and an increasing reality of fast food restaurants that populate a disjointed human landscape. There is increasing urbanization as roads are widened and BART pushes east. Many of these vineyards are for sale with inflated land prices, having been designated as commercial land—the result being land costs that are more compatible with strip malls than farming. For now, the vines remain in the ground, producing viticultural treasure. And for now, we continue to make lovely wine and cherish our moment.
2016 Contra Costa Mataro, Oakley Road Vineyard - $35
Tasting Notes - Mourvedre, the famous grape of Bandol, is known by the name Mataro in California. The Mataro grape has been planted in California since the 1870s, mostly as an adjunct in blends that were Zinfandel dominated. Though scarce, Mataro is an exceptional standalone grape in a few places. One of those is Oakley. In the eastern rain shadow of Mount Diablo near the San Joaquin River, vines on their own roots planted in sand dune-like soils in the late 1800s and early 1900s continue to produce some of the most interesting and highly regarded Mataro in California. The climate conditions are perfect for slow ripening grapes like Mataro. The smoky, soft cherry, plum flavors are well developed and full, with the acid perfectly balanced and the tannins soft and round.
2016 Contra Costa Zinfandel, Oakley Road Vineyard - $42
Tasting Notes - Oakley Road Zinfandel is planted on the same sandy slopes as the Oakley Road Mataro. These vines, planted around 1900, are on their own roots. Coming out of the sand with multiple arms like hydra, they are truly bush vines. Unlike most other California Zinfandel vineyards, the fruit is carried relatively low to the ground. The proximity to ground acts as shelter from the wind, which can be moderately intense in the afternoon in Oakley, while reflecting radiated light and heat back on the grapes from the sandy soils. The vineyard has about 10 percent Carignane and Mataro interplanted with the Zinfandel. The sandy soils and the own-rooted vines tend to produce unique, suave, textural characteristics in the wines. The wines have bright, ripe flavors, and are very spicy, with fresh acidity and smooth fine tannins in the finish.
Bedrock Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel Sonoma Valley, 1888 planting
[Disclaimer: Much of this history is stolen from the website of my son Morgan’s Bedrock Wine Company, which makes the spectacular Heirloom Blend from the same vineyard. It isn’t plagiarization if it’s your own genetic material, right?]
Situated on the Agua Caliente Bench, Bedrock is one of the premier vineyard plots in Sonoma Valley. When Eugene Hilgard, the most important viticulture professor of his time, was asked in 1890 if any place in California could grow grapes to rival the great clarets of Europe, he unhesitatingly singled out this vineyard, whose history is also rife with some of the most notable figures of the nineteenth century.Founded in 1854 by Generals “Fightin’ Joe” Hooker (just back from the Mexican-American War) and William Tecumseh Sherman (a San Francisco banker at the time!), the spot has grown grapes for more than 150 years. Following the first phylloxera epidemic in the mid-1880s, it was replanted in 1888 by Senator George Hearst, a mining magnate and father of publisher William Randolph Hearst; in the early 1900s, Hearst’s widow Phoebe sold it to the California Wine Association, which made wine from it until Prohibition. In 1934, the vineyard was jointly purchased by the Domenici and Parducci families, who ran the Valley of the Moon winery; when that relationship became acrimonious, the vineyard was split, with the Parducci's taking the winery and smaller land parcel and the Domenici's taking 152 acres that became as Madrone Ranch.
In 2005, the Domenici's sold the property to the Deininger / Peterson family. We renamed it Bedrock with a nod to its soil: Tuscan Red Hill series, washed down from the adjacent Mayacamas Mountains to form the alluvial fan on which the vineyard is planted. Because the place had been cultivated harshly for 100 years, we broke up the pan with a mechanical spader and revitalized the soils with compost and cover crops of vetch, bell beans, and rye grass; the cobbly, well-drained loam, combined with long warm summer days and cool evening air flowing through the Bennett Valley Gap alongside Sonoma Mountain (a climatic profile similar to that of Joe Swan’s domain, the Forestville area of the Russian River Valley) is superb for growing Zinfandel, a tradition we’ve maintained with old-school, head-pruned viticulture.
Once and Future Zinfandel is crafted from the 128-year-old vines planted by George Hearst. The wines have an aromatic raciness and fine tannin structure that renders them elegant and long-lived.
2016 Bedrock Vineyards, Sonoma Valley Zinfandel - $42
Teldeschi Vineyard, Frank's Block
From the Here and Now, the early 1980’s seem like a long time ago!
I was a long-haired bearded young man who found himself having an unexpected luncheon with Frank and Caterina Teldeschi and their sons Dan and John…. Welcoming hosts, they represented the most recent two generations of an Italian family that had been farming their part of Dry Creek Valley since the early 1900’s. The lunch included copious amounts of wine (some made by me, some by Frank) and extraordinarily delicious food cooked by Caterina. I can still remember the menu; stuffed zucchini, homemade pasta with meat sauce made from tomatoes that Catarina grew in the back yard from seeds she brought with her from Italy as a young bride, roast chicken from her chicken yard, and a pork roast with potatoes from a wild pig Frank had caught rooting around the vineyard. To finish the meal, perfect biscotti and delicate rolled anise flavored cookies.
I don’t know whether it was the food, the wine, the people or the amicable mix of all the ingredients that created the magic, but at the end of that lunch, Frank and I had a handshake deal for 4 tons of grapes and as it turns out, a 36 plus year friendship with the family.
Over the years from that small beginning, the wine made from the Frank Teldeschi family grapes grew into one of Ravenswood’s most successful and most awarded single vineyard designated wines.
Located in the heart of Dry Creek Valley on the Eastside bench land, Teldeschi Vineyard is in the best location of a valley that might be one of the best spots for growing Zinfandel in the world. Of course, Frank Teldeschi had his favorite blocks of grapes on the ranch; one of them was a small somewhat mixed block planted in the cobbly Tuscan Red Hill Series soils that Frank claimed was the oldest block on the ranch - that would mean it was planted sometime around 1900. “Frank’s Block” is low production – around a ton and a half per acre – and includes Carignane and Alicante Bouchet in the mix.
When I started Once & Future, it seemed right to honor Frank and my long friendship with the Teldeschi family by making this favored old vineyard block into a stand-alone wine.
2016 Dry Creek Zinfandel, Teldeschi Vineyard, Frank's Block - $42
Palisades Vineyard, Napa Valley, Petite Sirah
There’s a good reason that, until the 1960s, Petite Sirah was the most widely planted grape variety in Napa Valley. As is shown by the few remaining examples, grown in the right places it does very well there, making lovely, evocative wine even darker and spicier than Zinfandel, that other “California grape” from Europe. If Napa had only had the guts to stick with Petite through the renaissance that transformed California wine, it would have been a more distinctive and interesting choice (not to mention better value) upon which to hang one’s regional hat than today’s dictatorial monarch, Cabernet Sauvignon.
The best evidence is tucked into a narrow riparian canyon just east of the town of Calistoga, at the foot of the magnificent Palisades cliffs. This is Petite Sirah heaven: The cobbly loam soil of the alluvial fan is perfect for the variety. Hot summers, cool westerly morning breezes, extended sunlight and adequate winter rainfall bless the fruit with exceptional concentration and depth. Viticulture here dates back to 1878, when James Horn, a settler from Scotland, first planted grapes; in 1908, Domenico and Gilda Barberis, recent arrivals from Italy, planted more vines along Horn’s Creek. Seven years later, they established “Bonded Winery Number 118” on the site.
Sadly, despite a capacity of more than 20,000 gallons, the winery didn’t survive Prohibition, closing down in 1932. The vineyard, however, survived. Continuing to farm it until 1992, Domenico and Gilda’s son Frank planted Petite on St. George rootstock in 1968 and again in the mid-70s. In the 90s the property was bought by Anne Carver and Denis Sutro who farmed the property, preserved the Petite Sirah and, as importantly, preserved the beautiful character of the Palisades by putting the 500 acres directly below the massif into a land trust. In 2015 Felicia Woytak and her husband Steven Rasmussen, who thankfully had the soul and character (not unlike petite itself) to ignore the prevailing commercial formula, choosing to respect and preserve the site’s heritage. Committed to organic horticulture, they’ve retained Jim Munk to manage the place’s traditional dry farming and head-trained viticulture.
The Barberis would no doubt be pleased; I am overjoyed.
2016 Palisades Vineyard, Napa Valley, Petite Sirah - $55