Onesta releases wines from Lodi’s oldest historic vineyard

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Lodi’s oldest vines: 127-year old Cinsaut in Bechthold Vineyard

This past May there was much ado about a wine event taking place in Healdsburg called the Seven % Solution, highlighting wines made from grapes other than the 93% (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.) to which most of California’s vineyards are planted.

Although the emphasis of Seven % Solution was on the products of wineries sourcing from California’s North Coast, the grapes that were celebrated happened to be grapes that are also planted extensively in Lodi:  including Sémillon, Montepulciano, Chenin Blanc, Picpoul, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Mourvèdre, Vermentino, Counoise, Barbera, Cinsaut, Carignan, St. Laurent, Albarinõ, Tinta Cão, Tourigna Nacional, and Verdelho.

Onesta's Jillian Johnson

Onesta’s Jillian Johnson

Does your taste in wine run with the “seven” percenters?  If so, you might be interested to know that Jillian Johnson, owner/winemaker of tiny Onesta Wines, has just released her two wines made from the Cinsaut (also spelled Cinsault) grape; both sourced from the Bechthold Vineyard:  the Lodi AVA’s oldest continuously farmed single vineyard, originally planted in 1886 by Joseph Spenker.

Cinsaut is a grape that is grown all over its native Southern France, and is used almost exclusively (in blends with Grenache) to produce the most eponymous of French wines:  dry style rosé.  The 2012 Onesta Bechthold Vineyard Lodi Cinsault Rosé ($18) should be a seven-percenter’s dream:  a delicately pink wine bursting with strawberry guava-like fruit, with faint suggestions of drippy white peach; bone dry, yet soft, lush, creamy, almost voluptuously textured in the mouth, finishing smooth as a Stephen Curry stroke.

Although Cinsaut is a black skinned grape, its combination of typically large berries and fairly thin skin is the reason why it is never used to make red wine in France (if it goes into red wines at all, it is only as a small percentage in blends with sturdier grapes).

This is what makes wines like the 2011 Onesta Bechthold Vineyard Lodi Cinsault ($28) so unusual, even exotic – coming from vines so ancient that they can, and usually do, produce a stand-alone red Cinsaut unlike any in the world.  A Bechthold red typically comes across with the delicacy of a Pinot Noir, the wild berry character of Zinfandel, and the subtle spice reminiscent of Grenache.  Onesta’s 2011 Bechthold red hits on all cylinders:  teeming with strawberry and kitchen spiced rhubarb pie-like fruit, couched in a soft medium-full body, soft, long and viscous in the mouth – think Keira Knightley in a pixie skirt, bouncing on a bed of Bings.

The diminutive Ms. Johnson tells us, “2011 especially ended up with a little more peppery, cardamom-like spice than usual from this vineyard.  It was cooler, more challenging year in Lodi, just like most of Northern California.  Increased spice and terroir expression are repercussions of slightly less ripening, even for 127-year old vines like Bechthold’s, which are more oblivious to ups and downs of vintage variations.  There were October rains in 2011, but luckily Cinsaut is an early ripener — we had it picked picked and happily fermenting well before any of those problems.”

Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut

Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut

Bechthold Vineyard is Lodi’s ultimate “old vine” planting, despite the fact that one of the most unregulated, bandied about terms commonly used on wine labels is “old vine.”  Yes, this refers to wines made from vines that have been in the ground for a long time, but for how long?  Some say anything over 30 years is “old” – which is fair to say, since in the U.S. as well as in European wine regions most vineyards are torn out and replanted after 30, 35 years.  Because grape production of vines of that age is significantly reduced, it always makes sense to start all over.

In California there is a non-profit 501 C-3 group called HVS (Historic Vineyard Society), which has taken it upon itself to document older vineyards in the interest of preservation.  Their definition of “old vines” (for them, “historic” vines) is little more specific.  For HVS, an historic vineyard must consist of

  • Currently productive vines
  • Vines planted no later than 1960
  • At least one third of vines traceable to the original planting date

Why the last stipulation?  Many old vineyards – including numerous pre-sixties plantings in Lodi – are inter-planted in proportions of over a third or even half with younger vines, planted over the years to replace dead or dying plants.

Jillian Johnson among oldest Bechthold vines, where the water table is lowest

Jillian Johnson among smallest Bechthold vines, where the water table is lowest

The 25-acre Bechthold Vineyard is owned by Al and Wanda Woock Bechthold.  It was Wanda’s great grandfather who originally planted the vineyard on the west side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA, just north of what is now the Jessie’s Grove estate (also owned by Wanda, with her son Greg Burns).  After personally working Cinsaut vines for close to 35 years, Al Bechthold (now in his mid-eighties) retired in 2008; turning over the vineyard management to Phillips Farms (the agricultural arm of Michael David Winery).

Taking custodianship very seriously, Phillips Farms vineyard manager Kevin Phillips has since worked wonders with this heritage vineyard:  hoeing, watering, composting, cover cropping, and doing everything that needs to be done by hand, following strictly organic procedures.  Bechthold is more “alive” than ever.

Wanda Woock and Al  Bechthold

Wanda Woock and Al Bechthold

Phillips has also filled in dead spots with cuttings taken off the original vines; although the vineyard has obviously been extremely well loved during its entire 127 years:  over 95% of Bechthold still consists of the original plants, growing long and prospering.  Although someone still has to go through the trouble of officially registering Bechthold Vineyard with HVS, it is in no danger of being pulled any time soon.

Which is amazing, because just 10 years ago the opposite was true:  the vineyard came close to being plowed under because its fruit was virtually unwanted – selling for so little (less than $200/ton), according to Al Bechthold, “that some years it was hardly worth picking.”

Kevin Phillips

Kevin Phillips

Not that there was no demand for Cinsaut grapes.  In the early 2000s a well known California winemaker, Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, was running want-ads in industry magazines, desperately seeking Cinsaut grapes for his “Rhône” style wines.  The problem was that the cuttings originally planted by Spenker in 1886 were sold to him as “Black Malvoisie” – and no one in California wanted grapes called Malvoise.  It wasn’t until 2003, when Kay Bogart of U.C. Davis’ Department of Viticulture & Enology finally helped identify the planting as Cinsaut, that people like Grahm were suddenly on it like white on rice.

Today, about a dozen specialty wineries vie for Bechthold’s yearly harvest (including Lodi’s Michael David, Estate Crush, and Jessie’s Grove), and they are paying more than ten times more than what the grapes were selling for 10 years ago.  Jillian Johnson still claims a lion’s share in the northeast corner of the vineyard, where the water table is lowest and the vines are the smallest – thus producing the smallest, most intensely flavorful clusters – because she has been working with the grapes the longest (Johnson was the winemaker at Bonny Doon during the time it was first “discovered” as Cinsaut).

Johnson also takes a small section at the south end of the vineyard, closer to the water canal, where the vines are significantly larger.  These ancient giants produce bigger bunched grapes, more suitable for the production of rosé than for red wine.  Half of the 2012 Onesta Bechthold Rosé comes from this section, and the other half comes from the pink colored saignée or “bleed” of the grapes drawn off from her fermenting red wine vat of Bechthold Cinsaut.

In vino veritas — Latin for “in wine there is truth” — is a favorite old wine expression.  Johnson named her winery Onesta, taking the Italian word for honesty, one of the virtues of truth.  She also likes to quote Mark Twain, who once wrote, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

There are, in fact, few vineyards with as long a memory as Bechthold.  Hence, the seeming effortlessness of these Cinsauts.  If you want to know what real wines truly taste like, you really need look no further.  This is as onesta as it gets!

Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut

Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut

 

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