Mix 'Em & Pick 'Em 

Vintners once created wine blends by planting in the right proportions. And while science has interceded, many old blends live on.

Last of a three-part series on East Bay winemaking

When Dwight Meadows bought Diablo Vista Vineyards in Oakley in the 1970s, he didn't quite know what was growing on the ninety-year-old vines. It took a biologist to identify the different varietals. "It's got zinfandel, Carignane, Mourvèdre, a few vines of muscat, rose of Peru, mixed together," he says. Instead of tearing them all out, he stuck with the vines he had. Now Oakley's ancient vines are famous, and Diablo Vista sells its grapes to Rosenblum Cellars and Thomas Coyne Winery.

Jumbled-up vineyards are common to Contra Costa County, which has some of the oldest vines left in California. They're remnants of an earlier way of making wine. It's called field-blending, and a few winemakers interested in showing off the individual character of the old vineyards are taking advantage of it.

From the late 19th century through the 1920s, according to Peter Hirschfeld of Alameda's Rosenblum Cellars, many vineyards sold their grapes to cooperatives -- Richmond was home to Winehaven, the largest cooperative in the nation -- and so the growers field-blended their harvests, which allowed them to pick and press all the grapes at once. During Prohibition, Contra Costa County vineyards would ship grapes across the United States to home winemakers, field-blending the grapes first to produce the best-tasting mixes. "The people who were using the grapes of these vineyards had an idea of certain things that would combine well with each other," says Thomas Coyne, whose eponymous winery is located in Livermore. "For example, if you had a zinfandel that was very light in color, you might want to plant some Carignane or Petit Syrah. By having these different things in the vineyard, the growers essentially knew what they wanted in the finished wine."

Rosenblum Cellars has become famous for its single-estate zinfandels, and Hirschfeld claims that many of the vintages from old vines are field-blended. "When you find an old vineyard that has wonderful stuff, you use it," he says. For example, Rosenblum's award-winning Clara's Vineyard zinfandel -- from grapes grown on Dwight Meadows' land -- has 88 percent zinfandel and 12 percent Carignane. Its Monte Rosso zinfandel, from Sonoma-grown grapes, has 89 percent zin, 8 percent Petit Syrah, and 3 percent UVOs: "unidentified vinous objects."

Rosenblum takes a more scientific approach to field-blending than its forebears. Each varietal is harvested and pressed separately so that it is picked at its peak of ripeness. Then the grapes are pressed and the juice is mixed together later so that the winemakers can control the blend. While they may not follow the original vineyard's recipe to a T, the winemakers like using the ingredients at hand: "There's a reason [the grapes] were put here," Hirschfeld says. "We try to be true to the area as well as true to the wine type. We try to capture the character of the vineyard."


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