Lodi Wine Region Fights to Save Ancient Grape Vines

Old grape vines are literally living, breathing pieces of agricultural history, with the grace of a magnificent sculpture. In the Lodi Wine Region of California, home to the highest concentration of old vines in America, with many of them over 100 years of age, there is a fight going on to preserve these ancient beauties.

Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi Planted in 1886, Ancient Vines
Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi Planted in 1886.

A Heart-Breaking Choice

Unfortunately, due to the increasing costs of vineyard management, low yields, urban developments, and a diminishing financial return, hundreds of acres of old winegrape vines around the world are ripped out each year. For growers of beloved heritage vineyards, it is a heartbreaking choice to have to make. For once old vines are gone, so too are the remarkable wines they produce. Though these old vines often produce less quantity than younger vines, many experts believe that the wines they produce are of higher quality with more complexity and natural balance.

Soucie Vineyard in Lodi Planted in 1916. Photo Credit: Randy Caparoso. Ancient Vines
Soucie Vineyard in Lodi Planted in 1916. Photo Credit: Randy Caparoso

Save the Old Vines Preservation Campaign

Because of their love and commitment to old vines, Lodi winegrowers are calling for action with their recently launched Save the Old Vines preservation campaign. The campaign aims to raise general awareness and education surrounding historical, old vine plantings in Lodi and foster recognition of the quality of wine produced from old vines and the need for premiumization of old vine wines. You can help by making a donation HERE, and/or by purchasing wines from Lodi. You can also order a special selection of three wines produced from Lodi ancient vines HERE.

Rauser Vineyard Carignan (planted 1909) - Steve Felten, Joseph Smith
Rauser Vineyard in Lodi Planted 1909, with Steve Felten & Joseph Smith

About the Lodi American Viticultural Area (AVA)

A historic winegrowing region since the 1850s, the Lodi AVA is perfectly situated 40 miles south of Sacramento and 90 miles east of San Francisco, and is home to 85 boutique wineries specializing in small-lot, handmade wines that have garnered major awards at domestic and international wine competitions. Lodi’s Mediterranean climate and distinct soils allow its growers to cultivate 125 winegrape varieties, making Lodi the most diverse winegrowing region in the United States. Some of the signature grapes of the region include old vine Zinfandel, Cinsault, Carignan, and mixed Field Blends of different grapes.

What makes the Lodi Wine Region unique is its amazing number of ancient vineyards. Thanks to the ongoing care of Lodi’s farming families and unique sandy loam soil profile resistant to diseases like phylloxera, these vineyards have experienced longevity unseen in many other wine-growing regions throughout the world.

Stampede Vineyard in Lodi Planted in 1929. Ancient Vines
Stampede Vineyard in Lodi Planted in 1929

Lodi is also a leader in sustainable viticulture. Created by California farmers and accredited by world-renowned scientists, LODI RULES is America’s original sustainable winegrowing program. Held to a high standard of scientific rigor and excellence, the program emphasizes environmentally and socially responsible practices, while keeping economic feasibility in mind for long-term business success.

TruLux Vineyard in Lodi Planted in 1940's with Mike McCay
TruLux Vineyard in Lodi Planted in 1940’s with Mike McCay

A Place in Napa Where They Make Wine the Old-Fashioned Way: Charter Oak

I have lived for 20 years now in Napa/Sonoma wine country and still have not been able to visit the more than 1000 wineries that are located in this world famous wine region. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the nation, I have decided to venture out to the wineries that are open and try to support them as a local tourist. I am not the only one doing this, as many of the tasting rooms are now booked weeks in advance by locals. Due to the pandemic, you must make an appointment to visit, and the tasting rooms are following all of the safety protocols, including the requirement to wear a mask and sit 6 feet apart.

Charter Oak Winery. Photo Credit: Charter Oak Winery

So, this past Friday, I visited 3 wineries in Napa that were new to me, with my friend Charlie Johnson. Please keep in mind that over the years, I have probably visited more than 200 Napa/Sonoma wineries, but never before have I encountered an old fashioned commercial winery like Charter Oak Winery. Located in the town of St. Helena, it is in a small house tucked away down a side street. I was surprised to find that it is not only a small gem of a winery, but also the home of internationally acclaimed artist, Layla Fanucci, who began her art career in that very house 20 years ago when she retired as a local music teacher.

Layla with her paintings & Liz standing near Layla’s larger canvases

The Chateau Wineries of Napa Valley

It’s not that I don’t like visiting the very famous old wineries of Napa Valley, such as Beringer, Robert Mondavi, and Chateau Montelena; or some of the newer landmark wineries with their unique architecture, such as Opus One, Darioush, Sterling, and Castelo di Amorosa, as illustrated below. They are large and exciting to visit with well-crafted high-quality wines, and professional tours. At the same time, I still remember the Napa Valley before the turn of the century (2000), that was more relaxed. This is what I found at Charter Oak Winery – a warm welcome and a tasting in the kitchen at an old wooden table.

Some famous wineries of Napa Valley. Photo credits: wikipedia commons

Charter Creek Winery – Still Making Wine by Hand in Basket Press

Winemaker and owner, Rob Fanucci, inherited Charter Oak and the cute little white house and half acre of vineyards from his grandfather, Guido Raggihaiti, who came from Italy more than 100 years ago. As was the traditional of many Italian families, Guido planted some vines and made wine in his barn, sharing it with family and friends. Now, Rob, does the same, using the same winemaking equipment as his grandfather.

It is rare today to still see a winemaker using an old-fashioned wooden barrel press, because they are a lot of work and require much muscle power.  But not only does Rob honor this ancient technique, he also picks all grapes by hand, used natural yeast, and ferments in large open containers using his grandfather’s wooden paddle to punch down the grape cap three times a day. Once the wine completes fermentation, he performs the pain-staking labor of crushing it in the 100 year old press, and then transfers it by bucket to age in barrel, before bottling unfined and unfiltered one year later.

Rob Making Wine. Photo Credit: Charter Oak Winery

Wine and Art Meld in Layla Fanucci’s City Scape Paintings

When we arrived at Charter Oak, Rob’s wife, Layla Fanucci invited us into the house and led us to the kitchen where we sat at a small oak table for a tasting of four red wines. On the way, we passed her art studio where she creates large oil paintings of “city scapes,” in which she uses a unique technique of painting multiple cities on top of one another. She has been incredibly successful with this technique, and exhibits her paintings in galleries around the world. She also showed us several books that had been written about her and the amazing style of paintings.

Wines we tasted in Kitchen at Charter Oak Winery

As we tasted through the wines, Layla described each one by reading Rob’s poetic descriptions, and it really made the wines come to life. They were primarily red blends, made in the old Italian fashion of field blends, as well as several zinfandels.  All were delicious and would easily pair well with Italian food. Even better, many of the wine bottles were graced by labels depicting some of Layla’s paintings.

Rob and Layla had a video produced that describes the old-fashioned winemaking and her unique painting style. See below:

Magical Backyard with Event Grounds, Vineyard and Guest Houses

After the tasting, Layla encouraged us to wander through her studio and the back garden. We discovered many interesting displays in the garden, as well as an old barn decked out for private events, and several guest cottages for wine club members.  It felt a bit like a magical playground, and gave me a warm feeling to realize that there were still authentic wineries in Napa that make wine the old-fashioned way.