When young vines grow old

Can you trust the label on that ‘old vine’ wine?

Photo By stephan ridgway

People don’t sell wine; labels do—and few terms look so attractive when stamped on a bottle as “old vine.” The catchphrase’s popularity crescendoed last decade and has become a marketing tool as powerful as “free range,” “grass fed” and “organic.” The problem is that the term is undefined and unregulated—and, according to rumors, old vines throughout the state are getting younger, and younger, and younger.

“It’s one of those meaningless terms,” said the owner of Calstar Cellars in Santa Rosa, Rick Davis, who thinks no vine younger than 50 years should pose as “old.” Mike Kuimelis, owner of Mantra Wines in Healdsburg, notes that “a gentleman’s agreement says ‘old vine’ means at least 40 or 45 years old.” Stuart Spencer, winemaker at St. Amant Winery in Lodi, mostly agrees but notes that “getting the wine industry to agree on anything is almost impossible.” And Robert Fanucci, proprietor of Charter Oak Winery in St. Helena, home to vines planted in the 19th century, sets the bar sky high at 100 years minimum for true “old vines.”

But other winemakers are a bit more flexible. Vines 30 years old, 20 years old, and even 15 years old have all been used in the making of “old vine” Zinfandels, according to several winemakers and marketers in Lodi and Sonoma County, all of whom declined to identify the perpetrators of such questionable labeling. Spencer tells of a colleague winemaker who took branch cuttings of another grower’s centenarian vines, grafted them to his own recently planted rootstock, and made a case that his vines had officially become “old.”

But Spencer concedes that calling 30 years the breaking point is not so unreasonable, with a scientific basis in applied viticulture. “Because 30 years is when the vines start to lose productivity,” he said. In producing less fruit, aging grapevines also produce better fruit, by all accounts.

The public has caught on to this fact, and the desire among winemakers to print “old vine” on the bottle to boost sales has surely followed. Spencer even believes that “old vine” no longer implies great age to many wine shoppers, but high quality.

“To consumers, ‘old vine’ is more and more denoting a style of wine than the age of the vine,” Spencer said, speaking specifically of Zinfandel. He said many buyers expect “old vine” Zins to be intensely flavored, concentrated and vigorous. “[The term] adds perceived value to a wine,” Spencer said.

At Creekside Cellars wine shop in Chico, co-owner Brenda McLaughlin acknowledges the superior flavors of old-vine wines.

“With old vines you get a bigger wine, more intense and with more depth,” she said. “It’ll be darker and inkier in your glass.”

She vouches particularly for old-vine Zins from St. Amant, Laurel Glen, Lolonis, Lava Cap, and Carol Shelton—most of which make their old-vine wines from vines 50 years of age and older, but McLaughlin feels vines as young as 25 can rightly bear the “old” label.

As the “old vine” debate grows louder, even the feds seem to be clearing their throats in prelude to voicing an opinion. On Nov. 3, 2010, the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau posted an online notice asking for public feedback on whether federal law should govern the use of the catchphrase “old vine,” as well as other attractive yet ambiguous winemaking terms like “old clone,” “reserve,” “barrel select,” and “bottle aged.” A public comment expires March 4 (www.ttb.gov/wine).

Meanwhile, at least one thing is certain: California’s grapevines aren’t getting any younger. Less clear is when they get old.