A full century before Byan Adams got his first real six string, Croatian immigrants were planting 10 acres of Zinfandel in Amador County. That history lives on in liquid form as the 1869 Zinfandel from Scott Harvey Wines.
“Old Vines” — or Vieilles Vignes in French — is published on wine labels quite often, but there exists no legal definition in either country as to how old the vines have to be to use the term. The older the vineyard gets, the smaller the yield, the deeper the roots, and (hypothetically), the better the wine. So while there’s no legal cutoff for the term, I’d say the 143-year-old vines in Vineyard 1869 qualify.
Even more impressive than the fact that the vines are still healthy and producing beautiful Zinfandel clusters after so long is what the vines had to survive to make it this far. They not only survived the outbreak of phylloxera, a destructive root-feeding louse, which reached the west coast in the late 1800′s, but have continued to thrive even with its prevalence in the region since. The vines probably owe thanks to the unusually sandy soils of the site, which phylloxera struggles to survive in.
After phylloxera, the biggest man-made obstacle arrived in 1920 as alcohol prohibition was enacted throughout the United States. During the 13 years that alcohol was effectively illegal, a handful of vineyards in California managed to survive either by producing wine for religious regions or shipping the grapes to the east coast for home winemaking, which was not banned under the amendment. According to the back of the 1869 label “moonlit nights of unregulated distillation” helped the vineyard survive. I supposed there was a third reason some vineyards survived.
Aided by illegal activities or not, the great thing is that this vineyard managed to survive to produce a wine which in itself is a piece of history.
I was lucky enough to be offered a tour of the vineyard by the Scott Harvey staff. On a warm day in late September, the vines sat peacefully waiting for harvest, aside from the vineyard dogs nibbling at the low-hanging bunches. In some ways I was expecting more — to see something akin to an old person desperately clinging to life. But the vines looked as healthy as many of their teenage relatives, albeit with impressively large trunks. Of course, all of this is for naught if the resulting wine doesn’t cut it, but it does.
I brought along a bottle of the 2009 1869 Zinfandel to high elevation in South Lake Tahoe and enjoyed it thoroughly with great pizza and better friends.
Upon pouring the wine — which looks more like Pinot Noir than Zinfandel — one of my friends commented, “this is the least-zinny zin I’ve ever had.” I knew exactly what he meant — this wine shows its own personality and avoids the over-ripe fig and raisin flavors which mark so many California Zinfandels. The first thing I thought of upon tasting the wine was Big Red gum (in a good, cinnamon way), and it certainly delivers a punch of fall spice flavors to the palate. Rather than attempt to describe the flavors in detail, however, I’d recommend anyone who finds themselves near Sutter Creek, California to stop in and taste the wine — it’s worth the effort.
Looking back at those days in Tahoe, thanks to pizza, friends, and the 1869 Zin; well, those were the best days of my life.