Celebrating the foothills’ oldest vineyard

My home winemaking ventures started in 1980 when a good friend and winemaker, Tim Spencer, offered grapes from his Amador vineyard. That year, he was dealing with a lot of unsold fruit due to an uneven ripening in the vineyard. Along with friends, we jumped at the chance to try our hand at making our first Zinfandel. Not knowing the nature of the vineyard, we ended up picking underripe fruit and produced a high-acid red that was an unpalatable mess.

With the Amador County wine boom underway and my growing relationship with the area wineries, the following year we decided to try again. I reached out to one of the local winemakers, who suggested I contact nearby grape grower John Downing, who primarily sold his fruit to home winemakers. It had been a warm fall and grapes fully ripened under the warm conditions. I remember loading up our truck with a half ton of dark clusters of Zinfandel grapes picked that morning from an unconventional-looking vineyard behind John’s simple home in the center of Amador’s Shenandoah Valley.

We went on to produce a spicy, rich, dark, high-octane Zin that garnered a silver medal at the State Fair and put the prior year’s disastrous experience behind us. Alas, that was the only year we were able to experience the uniqueness of that vineyard. The following two years were greatly affected by wet weather and with Zinfandel’s thin skins, this resulted in no fruit each year.

In 1984, we got some grapes from John Downing, but it was from a younger part of his vineyard and yielded a lighter-style red. John retired that fall and sold the vineyard to Scott Harvey, founder of nearby Santino winery, who along with his wife knew they had struck a new kind of gold.

What we did not realize for many years is that our fruit came from California’s oldest Zinfandel vineyard. Thought to have been planted by the Upton family in 1869, Zinfandel cuttings came from the East Coast, where they were grown with limited success as table grapes. With its origin in Croatia and traveling by way of Italy, it became a wine grape of choice for many new Italian foothill settlers.

With its isolated location, it later escaped the devastation of a plant louse called phylloxera, which wiped out most of the vineyards in California and Europe in the 1880s. Then it dodged Prohibition when home winemakers and shippers took advantage of a flaw in the restrictive law. The Downings kept the vineyard alive by selling to home winemakers and a few commercial wineries from outside the area.

If you would like to learn more about the vineyard and current winemakers using its precious fruit, this weekend is the second annual Original Grandpère Vineyard 1869 Weekend. The series of events is hosted by Andis Wines, Scott Harvey Wines and Vino Noceto, celebrating the continuing vivacity of the Original Grandpère Vineyard (OGP), also known as Vineyard 1869. Over the course of four days, guests to Amador County will have a chance to taste, sip and explore the Zinfandel vineyard heralded as the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in America. While it is still in production today, only a handful of wineries are privileged to receive fruit from the vineyard.

Saturday is your chance to walk among the ancient vines with winemaker and past proprietor Scott Harvey. The tour meets at the vineyard at 11 a.m., weather permitting. The tour is $10 per person and reservations are required, because space is limited to the first 20 people. Contact Scott Harvey Wines for tour tickets at 209-245-3670 or 209-267-0122.

Over the holiday weekend from Saturday through Monday, each winery will be offering rare vertical tastings of their OGP/Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel. Tasting passes can be purchased at any winery for $10 in advance or $15 the day of the event, and will grant you access to all three wineries.

The vineyard yields have diminished over the years and our chances to taste a bit of history might be slipping away. The term “Old Vine Zinfandel” on labels has gotten stretched over the years here, but OGP can say it was the original and remains the jewel of Amador County.

Bender is the wine and beverage instructor at Columbia College in the culinary arts program along with managing the wine department at O’Brien’s Market in Modesto.