Over the past 30-40 years, the old grape vines planted in the sand dunes of northeastern Contra Costa County have become the stuff of legends. By the late 1870's, phylloxera had already decimated most of the vineyards in Napa and Sonoma Counties. Grape growers were unfamiliar with the aphid that caused the damage, and had little or no idea how to combat it. The vines planted in the sandy soils surrounding the town of Oakley continued to thrive, however, while vineyards planted on more conventional soils of loam and clay were all dying of the scourge. Botanists soon discovered that the winged form of phylloxera - a vital stage during the insect's life cycle - could not travel below ground in sandy soil. Ironically, one of the grapevine's worst enemies essentially eradicated itself when introduced to sandy soil.
Even now, vines in Oakley are regularly planted on their own roots. While 75 years of real estate development has dramatically reduced the agriculture base of the area, the few hundred acres of old vines that remain are an important connection to our viticultural past.
The Del Barba family has been farming in the area for four generations, and 46 year-old Tom Del Barba now oversees the family's 125 acres of vines. Their holdings include a 24-acre block of 50 year-old, vegetatively propagated Zinfandel vines. It's a vineyard developed directly from 'selection massale' cuttings that yield a low crop of small, evenly ripened clusters. We hand-harvested 12 tons of fruit from these old, head-pruned vines in 2010, and did our traditional native yeast fermentation, with a 60-day skin contact maceration. The wine was then aged for one year in used French oak barrels. It was neither fined nor filtered. The finished wine has the distinct aroma of ripe blackberry, with hints of mineral, herbs and wildflowers. It's hard not to love the charming forwardness of the 2010 vintage, but newly bottled Zinfandel that is light and fruity has a special place in my heart. I can't help but drink a bottle of this wine and think of the Zinfandel bottlings I enjoyed when Barbara and I first arrived in San Francisco in the early 1970's.