Wandering through Lodi vineyards, it's easy to stumble across thick, lichen-covered, gnarly old vines, many falling over, still pushing out another vintage of green grapes.
But which vineyard has the distinction of being Lodi's oldest continuously-producing source of winegrapes?
I had thought it was Jessie's Grove's Royal Tee vineyard, planted by the property's first owner, Joseph Spenker, back in 1889.
However, after chatting with Joseph's great granddaughter and author, Wanda Woock, I discovered that a 20-acre block of Cinsault, just northwest of the oak grove was the first of Joseph's plantings in 1885.
Cinsault, which I roughly pronounce with complete disregard for the final consonants as "san so," is a red winegrape with origins in France's Rhône Valley, used primarily for blending.
Also known as Black Malvasia and Malvasia Nera, Cinsault, as wine, heads toward flavors of grapefruit and red berries with perhaps some lead pencil rusticity.
According to Wanda's book Jessie's Grove, Joseph Spenker purchased the original Cinsault vines from William West, the owner of our area's first commercial winery, El Pinal in Stockton.
Many years later, Joseph's vineyard was passed down to Wanda and farmed by her husband, Al Bechthold, who lent his name to the ancient vines that we now call Bechthold Vineyard.
Resisting the urge to completely rip out the vines to plant the most popular varieties, such as Chardonnay and Merlot, has finally paid off for Al and Wanda, now that some of California's most cutting-edge wineries have discovered the vineyard.
Jon Bonné in his 4th of July "Thirst" column for the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned that avant-garde winemakers are rediscovering grapes and places, and used Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault as a case in point:
The vines "have made their way into a (sort of) rosé by Scholium Project and a red from Turley Wine Cellars. To have labels with sommelier cred tackle Lodi Cinsault isn't just radical. It's a nod back to what previous vintners understood before ‘old vine' became a cliche: Great fruit is there if you look hard enough."
With his own family's vines just the width of a dirt road away, Kevin Phillips and his Phillips Farms crew took on farming of Al and Wanda's vines a few years ago, growing the grapes not only for Scholium and Turley, but also for his family's Michael~David Winery and our own Pantheon Cellars.
You can sample the Rosé style of this old Cinsault in Scholium's 2009 Rhododactylos Phillips Farms ($22) and past vintages of respected winery Bonny Doon's Vin Gris De Cigare. Turley offers full-throttle concentration in its 2008 Cinsault El Porron ($22).
From my point-of-view as an industry-observer, it is extremely gratifying to see outside wineries excited about cherry-picking Lodi's most interesting, high-quality vineyards. It's also nice to see another Lodi winegrape grower getting above-average prices for a year of work.
Speaking of the Phillips family and Rhône-style wines...
For the second year in a row, Michael~David Winery has won the high honor of having their 2007 6th Sense Syrah ($16) named as one of the top ten Syrahs of the world. 387 Syrahs/Shirazes from 27 countries were blind-tasted in June during the 4th Annual Syrah du Monde in France's Rhone Valley.