WWC21 – Compagni Portis Vineyard, California

WWC21 Miller M - Compagni Portis Vineyard.jpeg

'Mary K. Miller is a freelance science and environment writer with a passion for wine first sparked when she took an undergraduate class in wine chemistry at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s. Over the years she’s been lucky enough to interview Robert Mondavi, Paul Draper, Mike Dashe, and Randall Grahm in between work on climate, ocean and environmental science communication. Retiring from a 30-year career at the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco she is looking forward to moving up to Glen Ellen with her partner Chuck Griggs and planting grapes on their five-acre property not far from the Bedrock Vineyard.' See our WWC21 guide for more old-vine competition entries. 

Why in the world would any winemaker or farmer choose to make wine or grow grapes from ancient vines? After all, these gnarled survivors produce a fraction of the yields that younger vineyards produce, the old vines often need rehabilitation or special care delivered individually by hand, and the vineyards themselves might be planted with obscure varieties and field blends that don’t trip off the tongue of your average consumer used to their familiar Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. 

Well, if you’re Morgan Twain-Peterson, founder and winemaker of Bedrock Heritage in Sonoma, it’s because you fell hard for ancient vines and you can’t imagine your wine life without them. In fact, the mission and driving force of Bedrock is to preserve and rehabilitate old vineyards from California, both to celebrate their heritage and to produce distinctive, delicious wine from them. It doesn’t hurt that his father and founder of Ravenswood Winery, Joel Peterson, was famous for making elegant, mouth-filling Zinfandel from single-vineyard ancient vines, but son Morgan takes it to another level. Going way beyond specializing in one varietal, Morgan manages or works closely with farmers on dozens of ancient or old-vine vineyards all over the state with a dizzying array of red and white varieties that certainly includes ancient Zinfandel (the most common varietal made from old vines) but also another 40 or more grape varieties, many in blended blocks that might also have mysterious or unidentified vines. Morgan makes wine from vineyards that include the last surviving Mondeuse vines in Napa, the oldest Riesling vines in the country, and a lively, aromatic old-vine Gewürztraminer from a steep mountain above Sonoma with stunning views of distant San Francisco.

Morgan is best known for his Bedrock Heritage, made from the 150-acre Bedrock Vineyard near the town of Glen Ellen in the Sonoma Valley AVA. It has a storied history: the original 350-acre vineyard was founded in 1854 by two famous generals, William Tecumseh Sherman and “Fightin’ Joe” Hooker (the former a celebrated Civil War general who spent several eventful years in California before joining the Union effort and leading forces on the famous 300 mile “march to the sea” that also freed between 17,000 and 25,000 enslaved Black people in Georgia). After the first epidemic of phylloxera in the 1880s, the original vineyard was replanted in 1888 by Senator George Hearst, father of publisher William Randolph Hearst. It changed hands several more times before being acquired by the Peterson family in 2005 and renamed Bedrock Vineyard. Bedrock maintains over 35 acres of ancient, pre-1890 vines, predominately Zinfandel with smaller blocks of Mourvèdre, Carignane, and other mixed-black grapes such as Petite Sirah, Barbera and Aliante Bouschet that were popular in field blends of that era. The ancient vineyard also as many as 30 virtually unknown cultivars such as Teroldego, Aubun, Trousseau and Grand Noir de la Calmette. Taking over the vineyard and learning to care for these under-appreciated elders of the vineyard, much less making critically-acclaimed wines from them, has become what Morgan describes on his website as “ground-zero” for learning to farm and preserve old vines, lessons that have been adapted for many other vineyard restorations around the state. 

WWC21 Miller M - Compagni Portis old vine

He’s rescued more than a few of these grand and not-so-grand old vineyards from benign neglect or a quick death by bulldozer. One story has Morgan and his partner Chris Cotrell in Lodi (Amador County AVA), visiting the Kirschenmann Vineyard--itself an ancient vineyard of Zinfandel grapes planted in 1915 and farmed by Tegan Passalacqua, the winemaker behind Turley Wines and his own label, Sandlands. Morgan and Chris spied a considerably less well-kept vineyard across the road with a “for sale” sign on it. Unable to resist poking around, they were intercepted by the agitated owner who said he had an offer from a buyer who planned to rip out the old Zinfandel and plant walnut trees in their place. Team Bedrock decided on the spot to prevent that particular sacrilege and bought their first vineyard within the week. Morgan named it Kathushas’ Vineyard in honor of his step-mother and the German-Ukrainian heritage of the early Lodi settlers. Buying the vineyard was the first step in a rehabilitation of the “straggly” vineyard that took several years to bring back into heathy production. They replaced the furrow irrigation with subsurface pipes, pruned dead wood and excess cane, and spread 100 tons of compost and dolomitic lime to counteract the toxic effects and decline of soil pH from years of cheap nitrogen fertilizer. Cover crops completed the work, improving soil fertility and structure, providing ecological diversity, and competing with the recovering vines to keep them from growing too fast and furious (excess growth and cluster production is the enemy of juice quality). 

I recently drove up a Sonoma backroad to visit another of the vineyards overseen by Bedrock, the Compagni Portis Vineyard (Sonoma Valley AVA). Planted in 1954 it’s one of the most unique vineyards in the state, a rare mixed-white field blend. The location was part of the original Buena Vista Winery, founded in 1857 by Agoston Haraszthy who imported cuttings from many of Europe’s most storied wine regions to help create the California wine industry that we know today. The vineyards and winery would change hands many times before the twin catastrophes of a phylloxera epidemic and prohibition wiped out California wine production and much of vineyards planted before the 1880s (one reason there aren’t more ancient vineyards in the state). After recovering from those disasters and World War II, Buena Vista was bought at auction from United Press news executive Frank Bartholomew and became the first bonded winery in California soon thereafter. 

WWC21 Miller M - Compagni Portis old vine close-up

Fast forward to the 21st century, the vineyard now belongs to Natalie Compagni and Stephen Portis. Morgan took over management of the vineyard from biodynamic pioneer Phil Coturri and continues Phil’s practice of organically dry-farming the six acres. The vineyard is a field blend of aromatic Germanic varieties including Gewürztraminer, Trousseau Gris, Riesling, a very rare red-skin variety called Roter Veltliner, and some others that remain unidentified. At harvest, Morgan describes the grape bins as looking like a bowl of Skittles, with bright-red Roter, copper-rose colored Gewürzt, swamp green Trousseau, and true green Riesling. Even though field blends like this have fallen out of fashion, Morgan says they make sense as the different varieties balance each other out. The low-acid, highly fragrant Gewürztraminer is leavened by slower-ripening, bracing Riesling and Trousseau to create a medium-bodied, heavily perfumed and refreshing wine.

On a warm summer day walking through this vineyard older than I am, I couldn’t help but admire the rugged vitality of the vines. Each row represents survival of the strongest, with some spaces between for those that haven’t made it, and the vines have beautiful gnarled trunks that remind me of my late grandmother’s hands. You can almost feel the wisdom and life force, not to mention the loving ministrations of the farmer, that it takes for these elders to dig deep into the soil and continue producing grapes. But oh, is it worth it, because what comes forth in this wine is rare and as Morgan describes it, “totally unconventional.” Maybe these vines don’t have the regimented stature of the tall, heavily-laden youngsters in the vineyard across the road, and most years this vineyard only produces a ton of per acre, but the leaves and clusters of the old vines were healthy and beautiful, maybe more so because each one is quite literally precious. As Morgan says, old vines like these deserve our respect, not only for the history they represent but also because the wines they produce are utterly unique, interesting, and most of all delicious. 

The photos are provided by Mary Miller.