To many, 117 years doesn't sound like that long. But let's think back to 1886. The Civil War was only twenty years behind a recovering nation. Gold had been discovered only 38 years earlier and California had only been a state for 36 years. Coco-Cola was invented in Atlanta, GA and Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
But 1886 didn't mark the beginning of grape growing or even Zinfandel in Amador County. According to Eric J. Costa in his book Old Vines - A History of Winegrowing in Amador County, the county's first known grape grower was Massachusetts native Benjamin Burt who first planted grapes in 1852. By 1855, Amador County sported 4,740 grape vines or about six acres of grapes.
In 1857, New Hampshire native and Jackson physician Dr. Samuel Page bought an orchard and vineyard originally belonging to Horace Killam. Page expanded the vineyards and planted a grape he referred to as Black St. Peter's. This is significant to Amador grape history because, according to wine historian Charles L. Sullivan, New England Black St. Peter's and California Zinfandel grapes were identical.
Zinfandel came to the United States in 1829 from the imperial nursery in Vienna, Austria. Imported by Long Island nurseryman George Gibb, "Zinfandal" vines were sold to Bostonian Samual Perkins in 1831 and by the late 1830's New Englanders were growing Zinfandal as a popular table grape.
Exactly when the first Zinfandal vines arrived in California is uncertain. Some of the first items to be shipped from New England around the horn to California in 1849 were tree and vine nursery stock.
Amador's first Zinfandel vines were most probably brought to California from New England in 1855 by Sacramento nurseryman A.P. Smith. At about the same time, San Jose nurseryman and wine maker Antoine Delmas imported Black St. Peter vines from the east.
Exactly when the first grape vines were planted in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County is unknown. "Most of the old records of who planted how much of what where were lost when the original farms house burned." says fourth generation Valley grower Ken Deaver. "The only records we have are old newspaper articles and some documentation from local and state agricultural commissions."
One such report was the census of August 1870 indicating several Shenandoah Valley residents in possession of wine from what was most likely the 1869 vintage. Figuring at least five years for vines to mature enough to produce wine grapes, vines must have been in the ground at least in 1865.
Two of the notable names of those having wine in 1870 were Adam Uhlinger (600 gallons) and John J. Davis (200) gallons.
Swiss immigrant Adam Ulinger came to Amador County in 1856 from Iowa. By 1867 Ulinger considered himself a "vine grower" and by 1869 was making substantial amounts of wine and became the first truly commercial winery in Amador County. Because Ulinger realized Mission grapes limitations in making good "claret" it is suggested that at least some of those early vines were Zinfandel.
Ulinger's winery was built of hand hewn native oak timbers and rock quarried on site. His fermentation and storage casks also fashioned on site of native oak by neighbor John J. Davis. Today, the old winery is a museum on the property of Sobon Estate and is open to the public at no cost.
In 1852 John J. Davis headed for the California gold fields from Iowa. Originally from Indiana, Davis worked five years as cooper before venturing west. Arriving in Placerville, Davis was a fair placer miner who made enough to settle on a 117 acre ranch in the Shenandoah Valley in 1859. By 1870, Davis one of the most successful fruit ranches in the valley with 43 "improve" acres including at least two acres of grape vines.
With experience as a cooper in the east, Davis opened a Cooper Shop in the valley in 1869 and advertised his ability to manufacture and repair wine casks. Samples of his craftsmanship can be seen in the 500 gallon oval shaped oak casks on display in the old Ulinger (Di Aoustini) winery at Sobon Estate.
The Deaver family came to Shenandoah Valley as school teachers. Grover Deaver was the teacher at the Shenadoah School and, as was tradition in those days, boarded with a local resident. That local was John Davis's son, Joseph Davis. Some time later, Grover brought his wife Elizabeth and three children, Willard, Ruth and Ken from Fiddletown to live in the valley. After both Grover, and Joe's wife passed away, Elizabeth married Joe in 1927. Elizabeth's son Ken, kept the Deaver name and became a rancher. Ken Sr. managed the original Davis vineyard for John Davis's daughter Mary and eventually inherited the property in 1964.
While the original planting records are gone and passed-down information is a bit hazy, the Davis/Deaver vineyard planted in 1886 may be the oldest producing vineyard in Amador County. This is some evidence however, in the form of a U.S. Geological Survey map, that suggests Grandpere vineyard on Steiner Road was in existence in 1869.
Only about 200 acres of truly old vines are left in Shenandoah Valley today. Some of these old vineyards including Story, Esola, Fox Creek and the famous Eschen Vineyard in Fiddletown were propagated with cuttings from the original Davis/Deaver vineyard. The origin of other old vineyards including Teri Harvey's Orginial Grandpere Vineyard are more uncertain.
There is no wine industry standard for applying the term "Old Vine". In many cases, the term is applied for marketing purposes and may refer to wines made from grapes from 20 to 30 vines. Other vintners consider old vines as those planted prior to prohibition (1920) or World War II (1940). Vineyards over 100 years old are being referred to more and more as "ancient" vines.
In reality, the term "old vine" may have viticultural base. Many veteran winegrowers and winemakers agree that vines can be considered "old' when they become self-regulating.
According Shenandoah Valley grower and winemaker Leon Sobon, "I think grapes become self-regulating/self balancing at 35 to 40 years but it depends on the growing conditions. Self-regulating vines kind of take care of themselves. Canes never get too long and the vines don't shoot a second crop anymore which limits crop size."
Consulting winemaker Don Reha says that self-regulating vines tend to produce consistently smaller yields of grapes with more intensity, color and flavor. "There are only so many flavor and aroma components in a given area of vineyard", Reha says. "The vines want to naturally distribute those components over a smaller volume of fruit. Therefore wines from old 'old vines' tend to be more intense and concentrated."
Is there really a difference between mature and "old vine" Zinfandels? That's up to you to decide. Visit some of the Amador wineries that feature old vine Zin and taste for yourself.
Amador Old Vine Zinfandels
Amador Foothill Winery
2001 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel - Esola Vineyard. Grapes from Esola Vineyards 65 year old vines produced a wine of luscious fruit flavors with complex spice, earth and black berry aromas. An intense wine with rich flavor, ripe tannins, firm acidity, and exceptional balance.
2000 Zinfandel. Deaver doesn't always use old vine fruit in their Zins but the 2000 is 100 percent old vine. Rich an opulent with signature spiciness, this wine is a classic Amador Zinfandel. Wonderful black fruit flavors with lively berry, cherry and pepper aromas are exquisitely balanced with velvety tannins and nuance of oak.
2000 Sadie Upton Zinfandel. An opulent Zinfandel full of big, firm black cherry fruit with a bouquet of freshly scraped cherry bark. Grapes for this fruit dominant wine were harvested from the vineyard planted by John and Sadie Upton in 1922.
1998 Terra D' oro Zinfandel Deaver Ranch. A classic old vine Zinfandel made from grapes from the original Davis/Deaver Vineyard. Nearly black in color, the wine is marvelously complex with aromas of super-ripe blackberry and black raspberry fruit mingled with scents of raisin, anise, pepper spice and oak vanillin. Lush flavors are well balanced with soft tannins and excellent acidity.
2000 D'Agostini Brothers Zinfandel. Unique maple and blueberry aromas are followed by brilliant acidity and bright berry flavors with firm tannins. The D' Agostini vineyard was planted in 1920 and has been tended by the family ever since.
2001 Fiddletown Zinfandel. A stunning wine with intriguing aromas of spice, cherry, and concentrated fruit. Highly complex featuring multiple toasty, dusty-cherry flavors typical of the Fiddletown Lubenko Vineyard planted in 1910.
2000 Picnic Hill Zinfandel. Planted about 1900 with cuttings from the original Davis/Deaver vineyard, grapes from Picnic Hll make wonderfully dark, spicy "old-style" Zinfandel. Loads of black cherry and blackberry flavors set off with a touch of casis and firm tannins.