WWC21 – AJ Duckhorn Vineyard, California

WWC21 Wicks E - AJ Duckhorn Vineyard planted 1890

'Hello, please find attached my article about the AJ Duckhorn vineyard, located in Russian River Valley, California, USA. It was planted in 1890 and is currently made in a wine called "Abundance" by Old World Winery. My name is Ezra Wicks and I own a small import and distribution company called Kily Import in Washington State, USA. I worked in restaurants from a very young age, before falling in love with wine and following the rabbithole to the vineyards of Europe and beyond. I live in Seattle with my lovely wife Alice and my business partners, as well my books, records and my bottles of wine. Kily Import represents Old World Winery in Washington State.' See our WWC21 guide for more old-vine competition entries. 

Impassioned importers and distributors of wine undoubtedly find visceral inspiration when bouncing from wine list to wine list in the venerated haunts of Paris or New York. And anyone wine obsessed can relate to the initial excitement and curiosity that washes over you as you first sit down at a table, and with aperitif in hand, venture into the tome of terroir before you. Often its best to do some research beforehand so as not to take up too much valuable time at the table reading (or for that matter, to avoid irritating your dining companion). Although sometimes you dont have that option, and youre thrust into an odyssey, page after page, scouring each line for something atypical, well-aged and affordable, or entirely singular and unprecedented.

It was late winter; early March 2020. Having just arrived back in Seattle from various wine fairs in France and Spain, my business partner Eli and I hopped on a flight to New York City to do a little R&D. All the cities that I visited over the previous month had a similar feeling to New York that week; the air was new on the cusp of spring, the persistent grey skies were subsiding, and there was a general disquieted aura in the streets as the uncertainty and anxiety of the impending pandemic loomed. After a few astonishing meals around Manhattan at Racines, Estela and Frenchette, we opted for a more casual evening of wine and conversation at The Ten Bells in the Lower East Side. The bar is compact and warmly lit but electric, not at all conveying the social hesitance that was creeping into our psyche.

Eli and I ordered a couple of glasses from the chalkboard adjacent to the bar top and settled into our corner table while I poured over the wine list. I leaned in close and squinted through the dog-eared pages, leading my eyes with my finger until it landed on a grape variety previously unknown to me - Abouriou. I rewound my reading to the name of the producer and cuvée - Old World Winery, Abundance." Any inspired and inquisitive wine nerd on the hunt for a unicorn would surely not be able to ignore such a provocative line:

ABUNDANCE - Abouriou, Zinfandel, Mondeuse, Muscadelle, Trousseau…           Darek Trowbridge Old World Winery          2013

Our server approached a few minutes later and I ordered the wine, which prompted a soft smile with an almost congratulatory tone. Abundancearrived shortly after, quickly becoming the center of attention as Eli and I were guided through its evolution, accompanied by various Latin-American influenced tapas that seemed to accentuate its distinct and eclectic personality further. For Eli, the wine was interesting and tasty, but I was personally taken aback at the incredibly expressive and unique identity in my glass. I reached out to Darek Trowbridge, the owner and winegrower, in an email first thing the following morning to find out more about this special cuvée, and in hopes of developing a partnership in Washington State.

WWC21 Wicks E - Darek Trowbridge outside his winery
Darek Trowbridge outside his winery

Old World Winery is located in the town of Fulton, California, in the heart of the Russian River Valley. It is a modest winery just off of River Road, comprised of a few barrel rooms, a tasting room, a small vineyard and Dareks home. Darek makes quite a few wines, some a bit more experimental than others, but all of them delicious and honest. All the fruit he uses is from vineyards he farms around Sonoma County.

WWC21 Wicks E - Old World Winery
Old World Winery

Darek Trowbridge is foremost a farmer. He stands tall, slender, and positions himself with caring eyes - they convey how present he is with you in conversation, which is incredible given all that he has on his plate. No distractions. His character rings true to the motto on the Trowbridge family coat of arms - Sit Pons Firmus,” Latin for “Strong Firm Reliable." You cant help but like the guy, and respect his work.

WWC21 Wicks E - Darek Trowbridge with his old vines
Darek Trowbridge with his old vines

He is also a Martinelli. His great-grandfather Giuseppe Martinelli moved from Segromigno, Italy, in the 1870s with his wife Luisa and settled in Sonoma County. Not long after arriving in California, they purchased some land just northwest of Forestville along Green Valley Creek, which is an offshoot of the Russian River. The area must have been an inspirational deja vu for Giuseppe and Luisa; the similarities of the Russian River Valley with the Province of Lucca in northern Tuscany are not subtle. Both regions are about the same proximity to the sea, with lush vegetation and arable land that rolls in waves towards the west. The average degree days and rainfall are similar as well, and you can imagine an Italian vigneron feeling that he had hit the jackpot when looking for a place to grow wine.

Today, some of the vineyards planted by Giuseppe Martinelli in the 1880s and 1890s are still alive and well. On Martinelli Road, which shadows the winding path of Green Valley Creek south from the Russian River, there are a few notable old plots next to the familys Patriarchal home.

  • Jackass Hill,planted at an incredibly steep 60-65 degree slope to Zinfandel and Muscat of Alexandria, faces east on the western side of the valley. This vineyard is managed by the Martinelli Winery.
  • Sherry Martinelli Vineyard” is at the base of “Jackass Hill”, and was planted in 1930. It is thought to be the last remaining plot of Abouriou that exists in the Americas (aside from a few vines across the street).
  • The “AJ Duckhorn Vineyard” is the source of Old World Winery’s “Abundance.” It is located east of the Sherry Martinelli Vineyard,across Martinelli Road, and was planted in 1890 to Muscadelle, Palomino (aka Golden Chasselas), Zinfandel, Abouriou, Mondeuse Noire and Trousseau Gris. Darek is the steward of these vines and the only person to make wine from these two plots.
WWC21 Wicks E - AJ Duckhorn Vineyard 1890 1
AJ Duckhorn Vineyard

The AJ Duckhornvineyard sits on less than an acre of loam-covered shale and rocky substrate, east facing with a slight decline towards the creek below. The story goes that Giuseppe took one of everything available from the local seed bank, and planted the different grape varieties randomly about eight feet apart, head-trained as they grew.

In the 20th century, the vineyards were managed by the Martinelli Winery; they sold some of the Abouriou fruit to E&J Gallo and used the Zinfandel for their own wines. The other varieties were left mostly discarded and were not utilized for wine until Darek took over the vines in 2008. There is little doubt that the prime location of these vineyards, at the northern tip of the Green Valley AVA (a sub-region of Russian River Valley AVA), deserves some credit for the provenance and resilience of these vines, as well as their caretakers. The cool macro-climate of the area seems to be perfect for the varieties planted, and this secret garden in the hills has thus escaped devastation from drought, pests, and fires over the past 100 plus years.

Darek takes a holistic approach to viticulture, harnessing what he calls the regenerative nature of nature.All of the vineyards he cares for are dry-farmed and are managed organically and biodynamically. The AJ Duckhorn1890 block had been tilled for so long that the top soils had almost completely eroded, so starting in 2008, Darek employed a custom type of regenerative mulch that he produces himself to increase the fertility of each vine by bringing microbiology, organic matter, tilth, and drought tolerance to the soil.He reapplies his custom mulch every 3 to 4 years to sustain the "microbe hotels" that have developed around the vines, maintaining the equilibrium in the soil. What Darek does in his vineyards is getting attention, and other local wineries have asked him to help them achieve the same type of success he is experiencing.

WWC21 Wicks E - AJ Duckhorn Vineyard old vines
Rich biodiversity

The ecological symbiosis of the 1890 block is best experienced through scents and sounds - the vineyard is alive with the sound of bees, birds and the rustling of trees, while the vibrant aromas of Queen Annes lace, California laurel, wild fennel, radish and mustard magnify the freshness of the air. There are also a few olives trees scattered throughout.

For the most part, the vines are own-rooted, and the few that are grafted are generally indistinguishable due to their age. They are now trained in a bow-canepruning system, which is best described by Darek himself:

The canes come from horizontal positions on the trunk and are raised vertically to utilize all of the real estate on the stake. So the vine grows up vertically instead of out horizontally. It limits the amount of permanent structure on a vine, it invites a hybrid between cane pruning and head training which lends to less incidence of Eutypa dieback, a disease of old vines. The whole idea is to cut off infected wood of old vines and regenerate through fresh canes each year. And it looks beautiful to me.

WWC21 Wicks E - AJ Duckhorn Vineyard 1890 bush vine
One of the bush vines planted in 1890, 'bow-cane' training system

When Darek began farming the AJ Duckhornvineyard in 2008, he walked on the block and had a vision of what the wine would be, and it became what he imagined. The first vintage of Abundancewas made in 2011:

I call it abundance because of the many varietals, white and red, so it's not limited, it gives an abundance of flavors which makes it harder to discern what varietal is in it. And why would you? Who cares about the varietal. The diversity and abundance of flavors deliver a character all its own. The artwork reflects that by being an abundance of different plants all together in one image.

Abundanceis a field blend. The Muscadelle, Palomino, Zinfandel, Abouriou, Mondeuse Noire and Trousseau Gris are harvested on the same day, generally at the end August. 100% whole clusters are stomped by foot, macerated together for a week, and spontaneously fermented by their ambient yeasts. After two years sur lie in old barrels (without racking), the wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered with less than 30ppm of SO2 added.

Abundanceis a remarkable glimpse of a terroir shepherded into bottle by an exceptionally talented artist. It is a deeply rooted piece of American history. In the glass, its color is medium ruby with a slightly darker pomegranate hue. Aromas of dried blueberry, juniper, wild cherries, black pepper, and nectarine draw you into contemplation. The flora of the vineyard brings the herbal intensity to a crescendo after about an hour. The love and attention put into this wine is evident from how it evolves once open - holding itself together while generously changing its personality over multiple days before declining. It can go through a schizophrenic moment or two, but overall its gorgeous.

WWC21 Wicks E - Old World Winery, Abundance bottle shot
Old World Winery, Abundance

Obviously, given the size of the vineyard and the labor it takes to produce, not much of this wine is made. Regardless of the quantities produced and independent of anyone's personal preference for the wine, it stands true that the AJ Duckhorn1890 block, as well as the farmer and artist who nurture it into wine, deserve a nod of appreciation and a place amongst the most notable vineyards in the world.

The photos are provided by Ezra Wicks.