One of the oldest sayings in the wine world is that great wine is made in the vineyard. This doesn’t mean you don’t need wineries or winemakers. It just means that a talented winemaker, or a first-rate production company, has a built-in advantage when the grapes they choose are sourced from great vineyards.
Farmers have their own goals. Their job is to cultivate grapevines with a balance of leaf canopy and fruit that produces healthy grapes with an ideal degree of ripeness and flavor. To achieve that, they look for their own built-in advantage: an ideal vineyard site with a combination of soil, climate and overall topography that gives them the highest percentage chance of producing healthy vines and optimal fruit.
Many winegrowers still ascribe these natural factors to the blessings of Mother Nature. When you plant a vineyard in a place naturally conducive to grapevines, you are respecting Nature. She certainly has the last say when it comes to weather patterns, which have had much impact on the quality of grapes and resulting wines as site conditions. The French use the term terroir, or “sense of place,” to describe the role of vineyards in the quality of wines. But all of this still comes down to human decisions—making the right choice on where to plant, and making the right decisions on how to farm.
More than ever, many wine lovers look for the term “Old Vine” on wine labels. Although this is a marketing term which is still unregulated in wine regions around the world, the use of the description makes a strong implication that the grapes going into a bottling come from vineyards consisting of older vines. In California, for instance, it is vineyards with vines over 50 years old that are generally considered “old vine.”
There is a 501(c)(3) organization called Historic Vineyard Society that endeavors to recognize and preserve California vineyards consisting of large proportions (at least one-third) of vines over 50 years old. As of 2023, there are over 200 California vineyards certified by Historic Vineyard Society, although there are undoubtedly more than three times that number that are still unrecognized (application for HVS certification is voluntary).
The cachet of old vines is that these are plants that have grown old enough—many HVS vineyards were first planted as long ago as the 1850s and early 1900s (hence, their “historic” significance)—to have developed deep rooting systems, and trunks, arms or spurs that are strong enough to draw a maximum amount of sap and nutrients from the ground. Therefore, it is no coincidence that vineyards that have thrived for over 50 years in one place also happen to sit on the best possible sites for grapevines. It takes an ideal environment to cultivate plants healthy enough to survive and produce optimal quality fruit for long periods of time.
Not surprisingly, the oldest vine plantings in both Old World and New World countries consist of grape varieties that are the most ideally suited to their respective environments. In Germany, it is Riesling; in France, grapes such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon blanc. In California Zinfandel was recognized as the most suitable cultivar for the state’s Mediterranean climate as early as the 1850s. Therefore, most old vine vineyards in California are planted to Zinfandel, although there are other grapes of Mediterranean origin (such as Carignan, Cinsaut and Mourvèdre) found in California’s historic vineyards.
Randy Caparoso is one of those wine professionals who see an outsized beauty in old vines. After a multi-award winning, 3-decade career as a sommelier and restaurateur, in 2010 Mr. Caparoso put down roots in a cottage in the middle of 50-year-old vines in Lodi, California. The Lodi appellation, says Caparoso, “reminded me of the old vine regions of South-West France.” There are more old vine plantings in Lodi than any other wine region in California.
Caparoso began working with the over 750 growers belonging to the Lodi Winegrape Commission. He has recently published a 450-page book entitled Lodi! The Definitive Guide and History of America’s Largest Winegrowing Region (KitchenCinco Press).
Lodi may not be “Napa,” but Caparoso is bullish on the significance of this region, where most old vines even grow on their own natural rootstocks, rather than grafted on roots resistant to the phylloxera louse that ravaged most of the world’s vineyards (including that of most of California) in the late 1800s. When you live in Lodi, you become naturally fluent in the language, and values, of “old vines.”
In the Summer 2022 issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine, Patrick Comiskey wrote, on Caparoso’s Lodi! book:
“This is a chronicle of people and communities that have preserved old vines and an old agricultural way of life. Caparoso conveys a deep appreciation for the families and their wineries that are the lifeblood of the region.
“In addition, Caparoso is a terrific photographer, roaming the vines at dusk and dawn for dramatic shots of vineyards, harvests, bush vines and people. You come away with a deep appreciation of a region you might have never thought twice about.”
In this day and age, the benefits in terms of sustainability, biodiversity, and preservation of the history of vineyards have become more important than ever to wine lovers. Fine wine has always been more than an alcoholic beverage. It can be something that stimulates the senses of beauty, conscience and aesthetics. It’s something to talk about. You, too, can learn to grasp that language more fluently by speaking with Randy Caparoso, who now dedicates his life to one enduring wine culture—that of old vine wines.