Sunday, August 29, 2010
Man, ya gotta hand it to Matt Cline. Dude tells it like it is, and the way it is actually is the way he tells it. And I don’t mean that in the obituary sense. C’mon, you know what I’m talking about: When the best descriptors in an obit notice include “he marched to his own drummer’ or “not afraid to speak his mind,” not to mention “some said curmudgeon” or “irascible,” you know they were talking about a mean SOB in life.
Matt’s not dead, and he’s a cool dude.
Sitting down to chat with this venerable winemaker the other day, I opened with my stock line about Kathy and I, living in Oakley, CA for just now one year, being blown away by the sight of old-vine vineyards directly beside new housing developments, in one of which we now live. I got schooled immediately.
“More like housing developments right beside old vineyards,” he noted. Touché, Monsieur Cline.
As noted before, the Cline family, and the Jacuzzi side of la familgia, have been a major presence in CoCo County, and our Oakley burg in particular, for generations; their roots to the region as deep as those of the century-old vines themselves. Matt calls the gnarly, ancient plants “stupid vines”: They’re old, content to rest in infertile sand, unproductive, and only too happy to withstand the river delta winds that can shut down their physical ripening “just like fog.” But, as he opines, major brands like Rosenblum and Bonny Doon “would have been nowhere without Oakley fruit.”
For over 16 years, beginning in 1984, Matt worked alongside his bro Fred at the family biz, Cline Cellars, watching production ratchet up exponentially from 300 cases to 250,000 cases annually.
Matt eventually struck out on his own to found, with his wife, Erin, and partners, the Trinitas label, making his first vintage in 2001. He made Trinitas’ early wines at Wente, south of Oakley in Livermore, before eventually making the move to their own facility in Napa. A few years later, with the ‘05s in the barrel and the ‘06s in the tank, Matt contemplated buying out his partners. To his pleasant surprise, the partners made a generous offer to buy HIM out.
He sold on Christmas 2006. The day after Christmas, he and Erin started Three Wine Company. One of their first releases was “Rotten Riesling,” a late-harvest-style varietal wine with grapes affected by the “noble rot” botrytis fungus, and which proceeded to win the San Francisco Chronicle Sweepstakes Award.
The interesting thing about the sale of Trinitas is that Matt’s Oakley-area grape contracts were not part of the deal. And that’s when Matt schooled me again: A surprising number of these orphan vineyards in unusual locations through the region are actually owned by housing developers and corporate concerns who persuaded old-time growers to sell their acreage. And, when the economy went south and stalled development, many of the new owners decided that it made sense to just leave the vines and lease them out to other growers and winemakers. It’ll be interesting to see just how many of these small, area vineyards, that Kathy and I pass daily, we’ll still see if the economy improves.
BTW: you know that vineyard right beside the Oakley Post Office? Matt leases it! It’s planted to Alicante Bouschet and Mataro (Matt never call it “Mourvèdre” If “Mataro” was good enough for the immigrants who planted it, it’s good enough for Matt), and he co-ferments it with Zinfandel for some of his blends. He also leases some plots of Petite Sirah, and sources old-vine Carignane from the Lucchesi Vineyard located on a sand dune in an area purchased by the state of California as a waterfront preserve.
Matt Cline doesn’t have much good to say about over-ripe, super-extracted Zinfandels flooding the marketplace. “It needs some Carignane and Petite Sirah for complexity," he states. Emphatic to the end, he repeats, in case anyone missed it, “Zin ain’t Zin without some Carignane.”
Which actually makes a great segue to a couple of bottles that Kath was able to obtain. The Three 2007 Lucchesi Carignane is sourced from that state-owned sand dune vineyard mentioned above. It’s an absolutely gorgeous bottle of wine: a look of translucent coruscating garnet, and a nose of earth, citrus peel and smoky chocolate-covered cherry. It’s bright in the mouth, with hints of white pepper and a fine acidity contributing to the long finish.
Three’s 2008 Contra Costa County Petite Sirah is a big bruiser. Swirling the wine shows off a heavyweight with a blue edge to indicate its relative youth. It shows off a nose of dried blueberry, with boysenberry jam and touches of tobacco and cedar. Earthy berry flavors on a frame of nicely integrated tannins go on and on.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
OK, “Grease”-ey meets cheesy, but check out the photo above, with that ancient, wizened, gnarly limb intertwined with the sand.
Wait, that’s my arm. But the sand is the real deal. That’s what these 100-plus-year-old vines have been rooted in. As noted before, I can kill mint in a backyard garden. But these wine vines thrive for a century in this shi-ite?
We’ve written previously about the Larry Turley Zinfandels sourced from local plots (and we’re still trying to locate those local plots) in Oakley, and how the winds from the delta, formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and the eastern winds from San Francisco Bay, conspired to form a whipped-up land that time forgot. A soil scientist at UC Davis opines that these sandy, wind-borne sediments were deposited from dry riverbeds at the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, suggesting a drought during the Holoscene Epoch, the most recent period of the Cenozoic Era. Skool me, bruvah!
Grapes have been here for 150 years. Again, this type of “soil” means that the phylloxera vine louse can not burrow under dirt and kill the roots, as has happened so many times before elsewhere; sand falls in upon itself and leaves no traces. No pests, but no nutrients either?
Nature, I don’t know how you do it.
Kathy and I checked in with a Rosenblum 2007 “Heritage Clones” Petite Sirah from CoCo; not strictly Oakley, but grapes from a bit of east-neighboring Clarksburg town, too. Pretty murky-in-a-good-way look, with a nose of dried cranberry and blueberry. Big on the tongue, with nice acid and concentrated dried stone fruit, and a nicely furry tannic grip.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Well, we’re finally starting to see what all the old vine fuss is about here in Oakley and environs. The green grape clusters are starting to undergo what’s known as “veraison,” that period at the very beginning of grape ripening.
The tight clusters are starting to soften up and they start taking on all the colors of their particular grape type. And since most of the century-plus-year-old vines around the ‘hood are red/black varieties, we’re starting to see a lot of beautiful rich colors that bode well for Harvest 2010.
Check out the photo op that Kathy captured from one of the many sandy old-vine vineyards close to our house. Truly, the wine universe is unfolding as it should.
Oh, I keep forgetting to tell you about some street names here in Oakley. Even though the city seems content to sit tight on tons of untapped wine tourism potential, it’s not shy about giving a shout-out to the trade in general when it comes to municipal street nomenclature. Sherry Circle, Sauterne Way, Bordeaux Drive; even giving props to pioneers (Mondavi Court) and wineries (Korbel Court): some of it is just too much. Our local weekly paper, The Oakley Press, publishes a police blotter. A while back, it was reported that two suspects were arrested: one on Pinot Court; another on Merlot Lane. For DUIs.
Just a quick drive from Pinot Court to Superior Court.
Hey, Kath and I posted a few months ago about Ledson, that Versailles-like tourist trap-slash-winery up in Sonoma. They’re the ones that use some CoCo fruit, but were super-cagey about what vineyard sites they used. Well, we tasted the Ledson 2007 Contra Costa County Mourvèdre (unfortunately spelled “Mouvedre” on the front label). Luckily, the winemaking far surpasses the proofreading; it’s a gorgeous pour. Deep, dark plummy color; with hints of plum galette — almond paste, brown sugar — on the nose. I even detected cracked pepper and a bit of smoke. Nice and round in the mouth, with a really long finish.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
Funny thing for an alleged “investigative wine blogger” trying to discover who owns what vineyards and grows what grapes here in Oakley to admit, but I hate making “Das Call”: that picking up of the telephone to make initial contact with a local winegrower/farmer who doesn’t know me from Marvin Shanken.
When Kathy and I started this thang in April, I likened our Bay Area Web caper as a case worthy of something out of Dashiell Hammett. Truth be told, it’s more akin to Rex Stout, with me being the agoraphobically housebound Nero Wolfe, and Kath doing all the Archie Goodwin research and legwork: She’s the real “little engine that,” never mind “could,” but actually "does."
So, when K came up with the phone number for an Oakley grower whose vineyard name has been appearing, for years, on a Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel label, I studied my telephone script (not kidding), and dropped the dime.
I was hoping to speak to Stan Planchon (actually, I was hoping that I could leave a message for Stan Planchon), owner/farmer of an 8-acre vineyard that’s been in his family since 1904, and is located a few blocks west of our house.
I launched into my “hello-my-name-is … we have this wine-blog … we just moved to Oakley” rap, when the animated, dusky female voice on the other end of the line proclaimed, “Welcome to the big city!”
Gertie was in da house. And Stan’s wife and I spent the next hour swapping opinions and CoCo wine country gossip, all as she schooled me on some nuts and bolts of grape growing in CoCo. BTW: Stan couldn’t come to the phone because, at 88 years of age, he was outside BUILDING A FENCE!
The history of the Planchon Vineyard is a real study in wine trends. As noted, the property has been in the family for over a century. Currently, the 8 acres is mostly old-skool Zin, with a couple of rows of Cabernet Sauvignon, and vines yielding about a ton of Barbera.
Check this out: In the ‘80s, when White Zinfandel was the craze, Planchon sold his Zin for triple/quadruple the going rate to a particular Napa concern. Gertie always thought that it was a big waste of a great red grape, but when did you ever hear of a White Zin producer wanting great fruit? It’s crazy, yet they got top dough, so there were no complaints in Oakley.
Eventually the pendulum swung back to red, and that’s when Rosenblum founder, former veterinarian Kent Rosenblum, came a-knockin’. Stan Planchon had been making his own wine from the homestead for years; according to Gertie, when Dr. Kent stuck his nose in a glass, he contracted for half the Zin acreage, with a promise to put “Planchon Vineyard” on the label. Apparently, another Napa Zin-meister wanted a ton of Zin (contractually, Planchon was allowed to keep 3 tons for “personal use,” with no restrictions on what he did with it.). After vinting, Napa Boy wanted another ton. Word got out that someone else wanted Planchon fruit, and Rosenblum Cellars extended the contract, and terms.
Booze behemoth Diageo bought Rosenblum Cellars a couple of years ago, and founding winemaker Dr. Kent was retained as consulting winemaker for their vast portfolio of vineyard-designate Zins, Petites, Mourvèdres and other varieties sourced state-wide. But contracts will expire, and all parties are free to do the do (in a couple of years). Kent Rosenblum has already branched out to Rock Wall Wine Co., a separate venture spotlighting some small-production labels, with singularly visioned winemakers, including Shauna Rosenblum and Stefanie Jackson, sourcing grapes from This Old Hood.
I’m not the only one to hope that the big pockets of Diageo, who’ve enjoyed a long love affair with Planchon, pre- and post-Rosenblum-purchase, establish an Oakley-first tasting room/event facility surrounded by its ancient vines.
I read in today’s newspaper that Japan supposedly celebrates longevity in its citizens, but has lost track in documenting so many of them. We have 100-year-old vines in Oakley. Why can’t North America know when they’re drinking their wine?
It was an absolute hoot jawing with Gertie Planchon, and it was very satisfying to be able to finally wrap up one Oakley vineyard mystery in a straightforward fashion. Here’s one local grower whose residence is nestled within his vineyard. We know the vineyard address, we know what he grows, we know who he sells to. He doesn’t manage any other vineyards (though he and Gertie do have a property up in Oregon), and when I asked Gertie if they own any other local sites, she cracked me up. “Please, Tony! We’re dumb but we’re not stupid. Stan’s 88; he’s put his heart and soul into this place.”
Case closed, ma’am.
About an hour ago, Kath and I stopped off, after a grocery run to Trader Joe’s, for her to snap this post’s photo (above) of the beautiful Planchon grapes. What would be a better occasion to come home, and pull the cork on a 2006 Rosenblum Zinfandel Planchon Vineyard? I was doing the “winetasting” thang: look, sniff, taste. Kathy does it too, but she’s faster (and her tasting notes are better than mine). I was still working on the wine’s opaque purple color and a spicy nose of black pepper and smoky earth, when Kath proclaimed, “Hurry and get to the part where you drink!” Absolutely, uniquely delicious wine! All black licorice and baking spices, with acidity to hang it on for a long finish. Deeee-lish.
Oh, forgot to mention: Driving home after snapping the photo, we spotted Stan in front of his house. Working on a fence.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Talked last time about a tasty Syrah, from Longevity Wines, sourced from a vineyard parcel located a few miles east of our Oakley house, in the unincorporated town of Knightsen, CA.
Knightsen is one of those “land that time forgot” kinda joints: founded in 1898 by a George Knight, who, magnanimously patriarchal, combined his name with that of wife Christina Christensen to establish what was originally Knightsen Station, a stop on the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. Today, horses outnumber residents 1,500-to-1,200, and the main drag is one block of Knightsen Avenue comprising a United States Post Office (with wooden cashier wickets), Sonja’s Tavern (open, but listed for sale), and one truly dodgy-looking “deli.”
Longevity’s Phil and Debra Long have been buying Syrah from biz partners Harry Newcomb and Mike Palladino since the Longs’ home-winemaking days (a mere two years ago, before they went professionally bonded as a commercial winery), and it’s Harry and Mike’s venture in Knightsen that Kath and I wanted to check out. Phil gave us an address and phone number; we were on the hunt.
Two Knights Vineyard is a 9-acre plot planted entirely to Syrah. The vineyard property is owned by Harry, and he and Mike share in the business of the vineyard operations: grape sales, etc. Harry tells me that the “Two Knights” label is both a shout-out to their town, but also a reminder that they worked “too” many “nights” on the gig.
The vineyard, itself, is a bit of an anomaly for the Oakley-area “Old Vine” plantings. For starters, Two Knights’ plantings are kindergarteners compared to the century-old stuff elsewhere in the area; Harry planted the Syrah about 10 years ago. As well, the soil, a few miles from the Oakley Sandy Delhi Loam, has a lot of clumpy clay (much like our front yard, our alleged “garden.” The folks at our garden center couldn’t believe that our Oakley property has clay instead of sand. Dude, our frickin’ MINT died. It’s clay.).
In the past, Mike and Harry have sold their yield to Allied Grape Growers, a sort of co-op/Old World negociant-style outfit that acts as a middleman: purchasing a small grower’s output and selling it to playahs like Kendall-Jackson, Gallo or Mondavi. It’s a cool hedge for a small grower with younger vines, but with the Allied contract expiring, and the vines getting a bit more mature, here’s hoping that Harry and Mike find more winemakers like Longevity.
Which leads us to the Longevity Contra Costa County Syrah Rosé, sourced from, though the label doesn’t say, Mike Palladino and Harry Newcomb’s venture: Two Knights Vineyard. This is hardcore juice: deep, deep cranberry color with salmon highlights (nothing “bled off” with this stuff), a nose of Smucker’s strawberry, and big-time Syrah body on a lengthy finish. Kathy and I both remarked that we’ve tasted fully fermented Syrah that’s not as meaty as this Rosé. Young vines and full-throttle winemaking: Who’da thunk?