Fabled Ground

THE STORY OF CALIFORNIA VITICULTURE goes back further in time than many would presume. During the late 1800s, large swaths of the state were covered with vineyards. However, the scourge of the deadly phylloxera louse, which nearly wiped out both California’s and Europe’s vineyards, left the international wine industry in serious disarray. Soon after, America’s ill-fated experiment with Prohibition, beginning in 1920, was nearly fatal to California’s winemakers. Nearly 50 years would pass before California vintners would successfully revive their earlier traditions and forge a new age of New World wine.

Nonetheless, some of the grand old pre-Prohibition vineyards survived, and they produce excellent wine today. Meanwhile, newer, equally exceptional vineyards have also cropped up, thanks to the vision and hard work of a select group of contemporary wine growers. Yet the stuff of greatness remains rare. Those few vineyards that have earned the admiration of wine professionals and aficionados alike can be described today as nothing less than legendary.

What makes a vineyard legendary? History plays a role, for sure. Consider the famous Tokalon vineyard in Napa Valley. Planted by wine pioneer H.W. Crabb in 1868 and later nurtured for nearly a half century by Robert Mondavi, this meticulously managed 500-acre vineyard sits next to the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. Today, ownership of Tokalon is shared by Constellation Brands (which purchased Robert Mondavi Winery in 2004), Napa grape grower Andy Beckstoffer, and the University of California, which owns 20 acres for research.

Tokalon, roughly translated from Greek to mean, “the highest form of beauty,” has produced outstanding wines for more than a century. In the 1800s, Tokalon wines were prized from San Francisco to Paris. Today, the vineyard’s grapes—planted to such “Bordeaux” varietals as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc—are found in wines made by such well-known wineries as Mondavi, Paul Hobbs, Schrader, Carter, Karl Lawrence, and Behrens & Hitchcock, to name a few.

“The magic of Tokalon is the sum of the parts,” says Beckstoffer, who owns 89 acres of the famous vineyard. “You can point to the soil or the climate or a whole lot of other things, but it’s the combination of everything and how they interact that makes it unique.”

Beckstoffer is right. No one can really say exactly why one parcel of land produces wines of extraordinary quality while another—perhaps an adjacent parcel—does not. That’s part of the mystique of terroir, a French word that refers to the distinctive climatic and geologic conditions that affect a vineyard or region, the vines planted there, and the resulting wines.

Temperature, rainfall, soil type, altitude, and slope all affect terroir and the way grapes will ripen on the vine. Cooler regions, such as the coastal properties in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley or the Central Coast’s Santa Lucia Highlands, will favor certain varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Warmer regions farther inland, like Napa Valley, are more conducive to growing heat-loving, later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. Some grapes, such as Sauvignon Blanc, may thrive in both Napa Valley and the Russian River Valley. However, they typically acquire different stylistic traits as a result of the different terroir of both regions.

The key to what makes a particular vineyard legendary lies in the details, regardless of whether or not we can definitively analyze each one of them. Does the soil have good drainage, which most winemakers consider a prerequisite for quality? Or does it have a high clay content, which implies lesser quality? Easy analysis is difficult because exceptions to the rules abound. For example, Sauvignon Blanc does well in heavier clay soils. (And Bordeaux’s Petrus, arguably the most famous Merlot in the world, is grown in very heavy clay soil.) Other details come into play as well, such as directional exposure to the sun, vine density, trellising systems, varietal and clonal selection, and, of course, winemaking techniques.

Indeed, the human element can be critical. Two winemakers can take grapes from the same vineyard and, using varying techniques, may produce wines that are quite different. Fermentation in stainless steel yields a result dissimilar to fermentation in barrels. New barrels, with more oak influence, give a different character to a wine than older barrels. French oak tastes unlike American oak. And the list goes on, indicating that a “true” expression of terroir ultimately lies in the hands of those individuals who translate the raw materials of grape growing to a finished wine.

Yet those raw materials remain at the heart of all great wines. “It’s not possible to make great wine from mediocre grapes,” Beckstoffer insists. “We try to harness the special qualities of Tokalon with the latest in viticultural techniques.”

A different viticultural perspective prevails at the 60-acre Hayne Vineyard, also in Napa Valley and planted in 1874 by William Alston Hayne. “Our philosophy is basically to leave things alone and work the vineyard in a manner similar to when it was first planted,” says Pam Simpson, whose husband, Andy, is William’s great-great-grandson.

Not that the vineyard has remained exactly the same throughout the intervening years. By 1900, it had been ravaged by the phylloxera vine louse. Hayne’s daughter, Sarah Esther Chase Bourn, replanted the vineyard with phylloxera-resistant rootstock in 1903. Twenty acres of those 103-year-old Zinfandel vines are still alive today. They produce extraordinarily concentrated wines for the renowned Turley Cellars as well as for S.E. Chase winery, owned by the Simpsons.

“This is hallowed ground,” Pam says. “There’s not a day that goes by when we don’t think about the six generations of our family that have farmed this vineyard. Their spirit is here, and we are dedicated to honoring it in every way we can.”

The vineyard appears much as it did a century ago, with its gnarly, old head-pruned vines struggling to grow without irrigation. “Our vineyard is located on what was once a creek bed,” Pam explains, describing the terroir that she feels distinguishes Hayne. “The alluvial soil has a lot of rock and sand in it, which allows the roots to go very deep. These vines are well established. There’s really nothing like dry-farmed old vines for quality.”

In addition to Zinfandel, Hayne also contains 20 acres of 50-year-old Petite Sirah vines, also dry-farmed and head-pruned in the manner common to an earlier era.

The theme that connects Tokalon and Hayne seems obvious. Someone—a long time ago—identified each site as being particularly suitable for grape growing, and that hunch paid off. Other Napa Valley vineyards with similar historical pedigrees include Larkmead, Rubicon (once known as Inglenook), and the Dr. Crane Vineyard (now also owned by Andy Beckstoffer). Each of these vineyards, currently farmed with great care and attention to detail, continues to produce wines of superlative quality—a testament to the vision of the early wine pioneers.

HOWEVER, a place in the early history of California wine is not required for a spot in today’s pantheon of legendary vineyards. Modern-day wine growers have discovered sites with less history but equal potential for quality. Thus are new legends born.

Hyde Vineyards, planted by Larry Hyde in 1979 at the southern end of Napa’s Carneros district, is among these relative newcomers. More than 20 well-known wineries buy grapes from Hyde. Fifteen of them designate Hyde Vineyards on their bottles; these include equally legendary wineries such as Kistler, Patz & Hall, Paul Hobbs, Ramey, and Robert Mondavi. Hyde also makes its own wine under the Hyde de Villaine (HdV) label. (Villaine refers to Larry’s brother-in-law, Aubert de Villaine, one of the owners of Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy.)

Despite the vineyard’s reputation, when you ask Larry Hyde what makes his vineyard so special, he’s not exactly sure. “If you look around at my neighbors, who have similar soils and temperatures, it’s not so clear. We have a southeastern exposure that may make some difference. But a lot of folks have been dealt the same hand of God. I don’t really know what to say.”

He pauses for a moment to reflect, then adds, “Maybe it’s the [clonal] selections we use.” Unlike many of his neighbors, who have planted the latest clones of Chardonnay developed in France, Hyde has insisted on planting old Chardonnay clones that have been grown since the late 1800s in California. His 150-acre vineyard is planted to some 60 acres of Chardonnay, plus varying amounts of Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

“So much depends on winemaking,” Hyde continues. “For example, we use more stainless steel and older oak in our Chardonnay than, say, David Ramey. It’s no surprise that our wine styles from the same vineyard are quite different.”

Prior to Hyde’s purchase, the vineyard had been planted since the 1950s to a blend of mixed red grape varieties, many of which are no longer cultivated in the region. “Perhaps I should have kept them,” Hyde muses. “But I pulled them out and planted Chardonnay. By now, those old vines would be 60 years old. It really takes a lifetime to figure anything out. That says something for those vineyards that have been farmed by the same family for generations. We have a few here, like Hayne and Martinelli [in the Russian River Valley], but not like in France.”

The Pisoni family has deep agricultural roots in the Santa Lucia Highlands of California’s Central Coast. But only two generations have farmed grapes. Gary Pisoni’s grandfather originally purchased his family’s mountain acreage, perched around 1,400 feet, to run cattle. In 1982 Gary, whose tastes had evolved beyond row crops and steaks to include fine wine, planted the first four acres of what is now a 45-acre vineyard, mostly dedicated to Pinot Noir. He also made the first wines, but has now delegated much of the daily vineyard and winemaking duties to his two sons, Mark and Jeff.

“Mountain vineyards are hard to farm,” says Mark, 28, who manages the vineyard. “There are a lot of pests like pigs (wild boar), gophers, and deer. Water is a real challenge. We had to dig six wells to find water up here.”

The Pisoni vines are beautifully trained and tended to, neatly trellised, and lined up to efficiently catch the sun’s rays. Pisoni Pinot Noir is highly sought-after, whether it comes in a bottle with the Pisoni label or one from one of Pisoni’s grape customers such as Peter Michael, Siduri, Testarossa, Arcadian, or Patz & Hall. In a little more than two decades, Pisoni has become one of California’s true “cult” vineyards, attracting customers that covet the wines with almost mystical zeal.

“Our soils are decomposed granite and well-drained,” Mark says, trying valiantly to explain exactly what makes Pisoni the legend it has become. Finally, though, he gives up, and says with a sigh, “I just don’t know.”

Most aficionados would point to Gary Pisoni’s now-famous viticultural exploit in 1982 as the beginning of

photos by steven nilsson - cluster of grapes
Photo by Steven Nilsson

the true Pisoni legend. During a visit to Burgundy, Gary decided it might be interesting to bring back Pinot Noir budwood from a famous vineyard (which he still refuses to identify) to propagate for his own vineyard. He stuffed these cuttings—actually just the tiny buds—into his underwear and smuggled them home.
Ultimately, he turned his hot cargo into what may be the hottest Pinot Noir vineyard in California.

Every legendary vineyard has a compelling story that combines the hand of God (a.k.a. terroir) and the hand of man. What makes one vineyard shine above the others depends upon the way in which this partnership unfolds. California’s wine history is shorter than that of Europe, but those vineyards with the right stuff readily demonstrate their mettle in the bottle. With each successful vintage, the legendary vineyards become more firmly rooted in the culture of California wine.


Legends in a Bottle

Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc Reserve To Kalon Vineyard 2003

A complex white wine, packed with melon, honeysuckle, fig, and grapefruit flavors. Well structured, with firm acidity, the wine serves up a classic blend of lemon and freshly mowed hay on the long, bright finish. It’s all framed in subtly elegant, toasty oak notes.

Provenance Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Beckstoffer’s Tokalon Vineyard 2003

Smooth-textured tannins underpin this plush Cabernet, which is layered with cassis, blackberry, anise, chocolate, and herb flavors. Toasty oak adds a spice component redolent of cinnamon and vanilla, stretching out long and lush at the end.

HdV Chardonnay Carneros (Hyde Vineyard) 2003
An amazingly sleek, light-textured wine with an intense mineral core redolent of quartz and slate. Citrus flavors such as lemon and grapefruit surround the core and brighten the palate with well-balanced acidity. Clean and fresh to the end.

Ramey Chardonnay Napa Valley Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2004
Full, round, and rich on the palate, this wine is packed with ripe melon, fig, apple, and pear flavors. Pretty citrus notes keep it all in balance, with a framework that evokes vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves.

Pisoni Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2003
A richly textured wine, beautifully framed in velvety tannins and blessed with layers of black cherry, plum, coffee, and spice flavors. Smooth and sexy on the palate, it finishes long and lush.

S.E. Chase Zinfandel Hayne Vineyard 2003
An elegant Zin, yet it still fills the mouth with a fine array of black cherry, blackberry, blueberry, and spice flavors. Fine, smooth tannins give structure to the full, lush flavors and texture. Smoky, toasty anise notes add more charm to this wine that speaks strongly of Napa Valley history.