Old vines, new lies

Old or new?

Old or new?

People don’t sell wine, labels do—and few terms look so attractive when stamped on a bottle as “old vine.” But this marketing catch phrase is undefined and unregulated. And, according to rumors, old vines throughout the state are getting younger, younger, younger.

“It’s one of those meaningless terms,” said Rick Davis, owner of Calstar Cellars in Santa Rosa, who thinks no vine younger than 50 years should pose as “old.”

Mike Kuimelis, owner of Mantra Wines in Healdsburg, notes that “there’s a gentleman’s agreement that ‘old vine’ means at least 40 or 45 years old.”

And Robert Fanucci, who owns 120-year-old vines at his Charter Oak Winery in St. Helena, sets the bar at 100 years.

Yet some winemakers are reportedly toeing the line, labeling as “old vine” wines from vines just 30, 20 and even 15 years old. Stuart Spencer, winemaker at St. Amant Winery in Lodi, considers 50 years the minimum, but 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 become officially “old.”

Wine sommelier and educator Christopher Sawyer of Sonoma reveres the stubby-trunked vines of Lodi and Amador County almost as pagan idols—gnarled creatures that stand firmly like sturdy trees, which once produced wine for gold-rush miners, and which haven’t quit yet. “Those vines have outlived the people who planted them,” Sawyer said. “You have to give them respect.”

Soon winemakers might have to. On November 3 last year, 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 ambiguous marketing terms like “old clone,” “reserve,” “barrel select” and “old vine.” A public comment expires March 4.

Until then, at least one thing is certain: California’s grapevines are getting younger. Less clear is when they get old.