Will Contra Costa’s Centenarian Vines Survive?
photos by Marissa Leshnov
Once upon a time, these were the head-trained vines of Salvador Vineyard, home to carignane, zinfandel and mataro. They were planted in 1896 on a berm of deep sand, less than two miles from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. According to Tegan Passalacqua, winemaker at Turley and Sandlands, the vineyard was considered one of the finest in the area. Unfortunately, the vines were ripped out last year, replaced by a housing development now nearing completion. As sometimes happens with satellite images, the old photo has lagged: Like ghosts from the past, the vines remain, now overlain by a rendering of Kenwood Circle, the road that will access the new houses. Without any apparent regard for irony, the developer, Meritage Homes, is calling the property “The Vines.”
Maps are being redrawn in just this way all over eastern Contra Costa County, in towns like Oakley, Antioch, Knightsen and Brentwood. A historic wine region, it’s home to a patchwork of own-rooted vines—many 120 years old or older, planted to mixed black varieties. Contra Costa’s vineyards had spent much of their existence aging gracefully, overlooked and underappreciated. The region’s proximity to the inland coast and the composition of its soils, deep, phylloxera-resistant sand, produces grapes with generous flavors and rippling acid structures—fruit that, in the right hands, goes into the bottle almost effortlessly balanced. Over the past decade, the vineyards have drawn dozens of young winemakers in pursuit of well-priced old-vine fruit that wildly over delivers.
Just as the area gears up for a vinous mini-renaissance, however, exurban sprawl and the pressure of development is driving these vineyards to the brink of extinction. “Mostly, we’re just biding time before they’re developed,” says Kevin Romick, a former mayor and city council member in Oakley. “How long they’ve got, we really don’t know.”
This is not a region hospitable to pastoral afternoons in wine country. Indeed, “country” scenes are hard to find. Instead, the predominant imagery is of industrial and residential sprawl: Oil tanks and smokestacks fill the landscape north of Highway 4, where power stations and chemical plants belch steam and effluents alongside San Pablo Bay. Companies like Dow, Dupont and Chemex have built processing facilities along the rail lines that trace the shore. South of the freeway, tightly spaced houses with tiled faux-Spanish rooftops fill the rolling hills, as Mt. Diablo looms in the distance. What vineyards remain—some 600 acres—look besieged.
Vineyards have flourished in Contra Costa County for two centuries. Grape growing started with Mission-era settlements of Moraga and Martinez, and expanded notably in the 1850s through the efforts of John Strenzel, a Polish-born physician whose Alhambra Gardens included tokay, muscat and zinfandel (and served as inspiration for his son-in-law, the naturalist John Muir). The Christian Brothers established a winery in Martinez in 1879, later moving to Napa in 1932. In 1907 the California Wine Association built what was then the largest winery in the world at Winehaven, in Richmond; meant to consolidate fruit processing after the San Francisco Earthquake, it was quashed by Prohibition less than a dozen years later. (Its crenellated ruins can still be seen on the shore of the San Pablo Bay at Point Molate.)
Italian, Spanish and Portuguese immigrants settled the Delta in the latter part of the nineteenth century, attracted to the coastal setting because it looked much like home. Fred Del Barba’s grandparents emigrated from Lucca; Greg Castanho’s grandfather came to Oakley by way of Madeira; Frank Evangelho liked to tell people that his father settled in Antioch because the Delta reminded him of fishing villages in the Azores. The area is flanked on two sides by water—Suisun, San Pablo and San Francisco Bays to the west, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the east. Not surprisingly, wind is the central climatic drama, drawing westward in the morning as the fog recedes through the Carquinez Strait and Golden Gate, returning in the afternoon when the fog rushes in, chasing inland heat. The viticultural benefit is that wind leavens temperatures, mitigates the threat of frost, and, critically, in combination with heat, forces the vines to shut down in the hottest months of summer, preserving acid in the fruit.
During Prohibition, Contra Costa was a prized grape source for home winemakers on the East Coast. Fruit was packed and shipped by rail to immigrants from the same communities in Philadelphia, New York, Montreal, and Chicago, a service that continued into the 1990s. Compared with the rest of California’s North Coast, Delta fruit always had an advantage: It was durable, it was the first to ripen and the first to ship.
In the mid-’80s, a handful of producers came nosing around in pursuit of Rhône varieties. They included Bonny Doon, Jade Mountain and Ridge, but two wineries, Rosenblum and Cline, would come to dominate the region. Kent Rosenblum’s tireless search for zinfandel sources led him here; he ended up contracting many new acres with many new varieties; most of the region’s modern plantings were done at his request. As for Fred and Matt Cline, their mother’s relatives, the Jacuzzis (yes, the whirlpool Jacuzzis) had roots in the Delta, and between them they still manage and purchase the lion’s share of fruit in the area. Both brands tended toward the high-octane style of the overwrought aughts—ripe, full-bodied, high-alcohol—a style for which the region became known, but one that never really played to its strengths, and may even have obscured them.
Turley Cellars was another early advocate. Its winemaker, Ehren Jordan, had previously made Contra Costa wines while working at Neyers Vineyards, and when Tegan Passalacqua came on to manage Turley’s grape growing in 2003 (and later succeeded Jordan as winemaker), he became fascinated with the region—not just for its old vineyards, but because its soils were a repository of windborne and alluvial activity. Passalacqua is something of a connoisseur of sand (his own brand, founded in 2009, is called Sandlands), and he was impressed with the soil depths the old vines’ roots could reach—thirty to forty feet in some cases.
He was intrigued by the morphology of the granitic Delhi sand, and convinced Brenna Quigley a freelance geologist working in viticulture, to walk the vines with him. She found its texture to be unusually jagged and fragmented, an odd mixture of airborne and alluvial grains, high in feldspar and mica content called “arkosic” sand. “It’s not smooth,” she says. “It looks like broken-down granite, shed from the mountains, blown to the Delta by wind or rapidly washed downstream. It’s preserved the initial integrity of what it was.”
South and west of the Delta lies Mt. Diablo, a 4,000-foot peak that rises from the coastal plain “like a hat on a table,” as John McPhee describes it in Assembling California. Its volcanic hillsides look extruded, writes McPhee, “squeezed up through the valley sediments as if through a pastry sleeve.” It serves as a backstop for sands carried from the Sierra, as well as casting a rain shadow against coastal squalls from the west.
Passalacqua eventually got to know old-timers like Joe Duarte, Rich Pato, Steve Gonsalves and Frank Evangelho. “Part of my job was to hang out with all the growers,” he says. “Oakley was always the first to bud and first to harvest, so it became an important part of the season.” Since Turley’s harvest dates were typically weeks earlier than any of the elders were used to, he asked them to adjust their viticulture program to manage a different schedule—and to upgrade their farming practices. “If they did, we paid them accordingly,” he says.
Frank Evangelho needed no such incentive. He had farmed the same 30 acres of vines for most of his 73 years. As long ago as the late ‘70s, Brother Timothy, the pioneering winemaker of the Christian Brothers, had urged Evangelho to pursue more rigorous agricultural practices: make more passes through the vineyard, drop fruit as needed, not let it get overripe.
Tending a vineyard that’s now wedged between an hourly-rate motel and a sandlot overrun by dirt bikes, Evangelho became the region’s most vocal advocate for vineyard preservation. Even as transmission towers loom over the vines like robot sentinels, he hoped they may ensure the vineyard’s survival: PG&E owns about two-thirds of the land occupied by vines.
In 2011, Evangelho reached out to Morgan Twain-Peterson of the Bedrock Wine Company with an offer of fruit. Twain-Peterson, son of Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson, was just beginning to establish himself as conservator of heritage vineyards—he and Tegan were among the founders of the Historic Vineyard Society that same year—but he had never been to the region. When first confronted with power plants, electrical lines and freight cars, he was stunned.
“I was like, ‘What the fuck is this place?’” he says. “But it was by far the best wine we made that year.” He and Evangelho became close, and as Frank’s health deteriorated, Twain-Peterson stepped in to farm the site. When Evangelho died in 2017, his widow, Joan, offered Twain-Peterson the land and walked him through the complex leasing arrangements with PG&E.
Almost from the start, Twain-Peterson has offered fruit to like-minded winemakers, many of whom have followed in his footsteps as enthusiasts of heritage varieties and vineyards in out of the way places: Hardy Wallace (Dirty & Rowdy), Nathan Kandler (Precedent), Rory Williams (Calder Wine Company), Cody Rasmussen (Desire Lines), Mike Dashe (Dashe Cellars), as well as Passalacqua, Matt Cline, and Bedrock’s vineyard manager, Jake Neustadt, who makes a tiny bottling of solera-style fortified wine from the handful of palomino vines on the property.
The range of styles reflected in the wines from Evangelho Vineyard is impressive. To Hardy Wallace, this is a testament to the distinctiveness of its terroir. “It’s the mark of a great vineyard,” he says, “if you can come in on the early side or on late side and still make compelling, site-driven wines. We get such great acids at Evangelho—the fruit can hang out forever. You don’t see the steep drop that you see in the Foothills or in Monterey County; those spots can be a lot less forgiving.”
For Bedrock, Twain-Peterson makes two robust wines from the property. (Fruit also goes into his California appellation rosé, Ode to Lulu.) Evangelho Heritage is a field blend, while the homage to Frank Evangelho he calls “Areio e Vento e Amor” is mostly mourvedre. Both are rich, sunny and satisfying, with the latter wine singing the sort of red-fruited high notes that coastal mourvedre routinely hits.
Twain-Peterson’s success, along with Passalacqua’s cultivation of vineyard sources—Salvador, Pato, Mori and others—has drawn interest from other growers in the region in and around Oakley. The most prominent of these are the Del Barbas—Fred, aged 85, and his son Tom. They’ve been in the area for three generations and own or manage five vineyards, including three of their own—some 100 acres in all.
Early in my reporting, I left Tom Del Barba a voicemail. Within a few minutes I heard back from someone named Julian Erggelet, to whom Tom had forwarded my message. For the last three years, Erggelet has been a passionate booster of the Contra Costa vineyard scene, and the unofficial proxy for the Del Barbas and a small group of other growers.
Like a lot of young movers and shakers, Erggelet moves and shakes with extreme verbosity. On that first phone call, he spoke without seeming to take a breath for twenty minutes, and when I met him at Del Barba’s home vineyard (“Fred’s”) five days later, he picked up at the same rate where he’d left off. Here is the gist of what he told me in great bursts of conversation.
Erggelet moved to California with his brother Sebastian from Germany in 2014, and they settled in Napa, founding Erggelet Brothers Winery in 2016. (Sebastian still works a day job as associate winemaker at Grgich Hills.) Then Julian met Alli Cecchini, whom he married, and whose family had a farm in Brentwood, east of Oakley. Together they carved out a portion of the family property to found the Urban Edge Farm, converting 34 acres to organic orchards and row crops, adding animals and vines; most of the vegetables (120 different varieties) go to the meals program at Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard project.
Erggelet’s winemaking pursuits led him to Tom Del Barba, who is as laconic as Julian is voluble. They make a good team; in the years since, Erggelet has served as one of the main conduits linking established growers like Del Barba to what has amounted to a new new guard—winemakers with strong natural leanings, like Martha Stoumen, Claire Hill, Deux Punx, Inconnu, Enfield and Halcyon. He and Sebastian also make Contra Costa zin, carignane and mataro, as well as old-vine malvasia.
Standing in Fred’s Vineyard with Tom Del Barba, surrounded by vines that once provided fruit for Randall Grahm’s Cigare Volant and Old Telegram, it’s easy to feel a kind of legacy. But you also feel suburbia lurking, just beyond the cyclone fences that line the property. Neighborhood sounds, smells and sights—barbecues, jungle gyms, coronas of trampoline netting, the rev of motorcycles, the whine of car radios—all encroach on whatever beauty the old vines retain. Such coexistence is routine in Oakley; in some places, vineyards serve as informal buffers or easements between industrial and residential areas. Despite a century-old existence, the vines look isolated and out of place.
In 2018, the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s yellow line completed its terminus at Antioch, connecting even more of the region to Oakland, San Francisco and the South Bay—and driving land prices well beyond a vineyard’s value. Right now, you can go on Zillow and purchase a 27-acre parcel of old, vertically trellised vines in Brentwood; the price tag is just north of $10.5 million. It’s hard to imagine ever earning back that investment in a lifetime of grape harvests.
I Taste California
In a recent tasting of two dozen of Contra Costa County wines, the selections ranged from zinfandels to carignanes, mourvedres and blends from mixed-black vineyards.
“I taste California,” said Nathaniel Muñoz of LA’s Mozza. The zinfandels reflected that sentiment: Most were harvested at modest ripeness and conveyed in a tight but seamless weave. The same could be said for the carignanes, which, compared with many old-vine carignanes from Mendocino, were tenser, more vibrant, with less cushion and more energy.
Then there’s the mourvedre. In France and in Spain, they say that mourvedre loves a view, and given the Delta’s close proximity to the coast, it’s hard to imagine a better place in the country for the variety than right here, the vines old and the fruit load balanced, enjoying ample sunshine and mitigating wind.
The mourvedres were bright and propulsive, bristling with wild strawberry flavors and a briary, mildly animal savor, all delivered with an edgy animation. The riper bottlings had an appealing seamlessness, but many of the others were woolly and robust, natural, comfortable, as if they’d shed any unnecessary adornment like an unwanted garment, and were free to be entirely themselves.
As a former mayor and city council member, Kevin Romick has struggled with these pressures for most of his political life, trying to do what he can to save the region’s viticultural heritage in the face of its hunger for growth. Recently he oversaw a project to move alicante Bouschet vines from a site destined to house a power plant; the vines were transplanted two miles inland (at great expense, with mixed results); the power plant was never built.
Other sites await similarly grim fates. Dupont still owns a large vineyard, currently leased by Fred Cline, that’s been for sale for years beside the company’s old plant. Romick assumed it would be developed but the waning of the big box era may have given the vines a reprieve, however temporary. “Who knows?” says Romick, “It might just end up being a giant marijuana farm.”
For Julian Erggelet, who’s trying to carve out a niche in this vanishing wine culture, all of it feels ominous. He has put down a vineyard on his in-laws’ property, planted to mid-body white varieties, for which he thinks the region is ideally suited. But he also has his eyes on another property that, he assures me, isn’t going anywhere. He took me there in a COVID caravan, passing through housing subdivisions, fence lines and gates, across several low bridges and down a few miles of dirt road, farther and farther away from civilization, to what may be the last protected vineyard in the county.
It resides within a coastal preserve known as the Dutch Slough—a spit of sand near Big Break, just south of where the San Joaquin drains into Suisun Bay. The preserve combines the properties of three families—the Gilberts, Burroughs and Emersons—and was once slated for housing. The families reversed course and sold their lands to the California Department of Water Resources, which has devoted its 1,200 acres to wildlife preservation, habitat restoration, and miles of walking trails. And within that preserve is an old vineyard—once 70 acres, now just 14, nearly all of it carignane, planted in the 1880s, currently leased to Matt Cline. Erggelet wants to be around when the lease runs out.
The setting feels almost pristine. There’s birdsong, and big sky; the sand seems to extend for miles, framed by cottonwood trees where the land meets water. A few abandoned outbuildings of an old dairy remain; the only visible electrical wires are on the horizon, miles away.
“No one can ever build here,” says Erggelet. “These vines will stay here as long as they’re alive.”
Click here to return to the Regional Tasting Report on US syrah & Rhône varieties.
Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.
This story appears in the print issue of June 2021.
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