Monday, April 14, 2008

Old, Old Vines

You see it on wine labels: "Old Vines." The term typically implies an intense, robust wine, probably from a winery with a history as old as California. In Sonoma County's Alexander Valley the other day, I joined a tour at Sausal Winery, which makes wine from vines from the 1870s. Acres of vines radiate out from the tasting room but there's no mistaking which are the old ones: bare in the spring, they are thicker and more gnarled than Sausal's other vines. The winery is owned by the Demostene family, whose first crush under the Sausal name was in the fall of 1973. The winery is small, producing 10,000 cases a year. The Family Zinfandel is made from vines that average 50 years of age; Private Reserve Zinfandel is from vines that average 90 years of age. The grandaddy of them all is Century Vines Zinfandel, produced from those old vines, documented to be more than 130 years old. We were shown through the winery grounds by Mark Housar, vineyard manager at Alexander Valley Vineyards, a friendly competitor and Sausal neighbor. When vines get this old, Housar explained, they have a bigger trunk and better root system. They produce grapes with a greater concentration of flavor, which translates into a more intense wine. Housar led us on foot through Sausal's vineyards and a couple of miles further to Alexander Valley Vineyards, a lovely walk that took us past a restored 1868 former one-room schoolhouse that was also the original home of Cyrus Alexander, one of the pioneers of the area. You normally can't tromp through California vineyards like this. But a tour company, Zephyr Adventures, has come up with a unique way of seeing the Sonoma wine country: multi-day walking tours from vineyard to vineyard, led by a local winemaker or owner. At a couple of scenic spots along the route, tables will be set up where walkers will sample the finished product. It's designed to be a more intense and intimate winery experience than sipping in a tasting room. As Housar said as he wound up his talk on a hilltop overlooking acres of vineyards (while enjoying a picnic lunch of Alexander Valley wines and sandwiches from the locals' favorite deli, the Jimtown Store): for wine lovers, there isn't a better place to be.

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