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Sands of

VINE CLINE CELLARS WORKS TO PRESERVE ITS ANCIENT CONTRA COSTA COUNTY

TREASURES Within the urban setting of Oakley, CA, 100-year-old vines still grow in Cline Cellars’ Big Break Vineyard.

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" THE INCONSISTENCY IS WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THESE OLD VINES, YOU HAVE A MIX OF VINES HERE, AND EACH HAS ITS OWN PERSONALITY AND THEY'RE ON THEIR OWN ROOTS"

Armed with his clipboard, Cline Cellars Winemaker Charlie Tsegeletos walks through Big Break Vineyard.

story by Jonathan Cristaldi / photos by Ted Thomas

"Zinfandel

is the best tax relief ” read the amusing caption on the sign outside California’s Cline Cellars in the days leading up to April 15. Anyone who regularly traverses Hwy. 121 north through Carneros on the way to Napa knows that the sign at Cline offers a bright spot in the morning or evening commute, but it also marks an unofficial line in the sand—behind it, your troubles; ahead of it, some of the best wine country in America. Due east of the winery, about 50 miles away in the Contra Costa County city of Oakley, very special old vines are growing in the ancient Delhi sandbanks of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. Fred and Nancy Cline have taken a preservationist stand in these sands, saving vines from the fate of county bulldozers. Thanks to their efforts, lovers of old-vine Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, and Carignane have many

reasons to celebrate—mostly in the form of Cline’s under-$25 bottles of delicious “Ancient Vines” red wines, a price that’s unheard of for expressions made from 100-year-old vines. The winery’s ageworthy Single Vineyard Series, which ranges from $60 to $70, are worth every penny too. On a relatively cool, sun-soaked day this spring, I joined Cline Cellars Winemaker Charlie Tsegeletos on a trip to see these ancient vines. Tsegeletos, who’s been with the winery since 2002, has an affable, infectious personality—little wonder given his half-Greek, half-Italian heritage. We piled into his grey Audi and drove an hour and a half east to Oakley to visit the Big Break Vineyard, which Fred Cline purchased in 1995. The site borders the Big Break regional shoreline, just off the San Joaquin River. Situated about 1,000 feet from the water’s edge, the site is home to some of California’s oldest vines,

originally planted by Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese immigrants brought here by the Gold Rush. A levee breach in 1928 nearly submerged the vines, hence the name Big Break. Urban expansion has taken a heavy toll, with many vineyards torn up to make room for apartment complexes and shopping centers. But the Clines have been working tirelessly to stop the destruction. Fred, who founded his eponymous winery here in 1982, began building his legacy on old-vine Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, and Carignane. Ever since moving operations to Sonoma in 1989, he and his wife Nancy have wrestled with county legislators to preserve vines in the area. Cline Vineyard Manager Alan Lucchesi is a third-generation farmer who told me he feels a deep connection to the vines. “Some are like kids to me,” he said. “But homebuilders put on the pressure. Who { SOMMjournal.com }  105


The soil profile of Cline Cellars’ Big Break Vineyard consists mostly of dry Delhi sands.

can say ‘no’ to an offer of $500,000 an acre?” But for the Clines, it’s not about money—it’s about preserving these old vines and bottling the fruits of their tangled, concentrated labor. As we traversed the vineyard, Tsegeletos grabbed leaves from the towering eucalyptus trees—which form a natural border on the edge of the site—and we crunched them in our hands, releasing oils that filled the air with minty aromas. These same scents that define the aromatic and flavor profiles of the wines produced from these particular vines (known as the Small Berry Block), including Cline’s Small Berry Mourvèdre. Stooping to one knee, Lucchesi began pulling up handfuls of dry Delhi sands. About a foot down, the sands turned moist and almost black. “We dry-farm everything and never have to irrigate,” he said; by disking the soil, the moisture below rises to the surface. “The inconsistency is what I love about these old vines,” Tsegeletos said. “You

Cline’s Vineyard Manager, third-generation farmer Alan Lucchesi, releases oils from the surrounding eucalyptus trees of the Big Break Vineyard.

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have a mix of vines here, and each has its own personality and they’re on their own roots—everything about Oakley limits vine growth. Alan doesn’t have to put out a lot of canes to shade the fruit, because constant breezes slow ripening even though it’s warm. In 2018, between March and August, the area saw 44 days in the 80s, another 44 in the 90s, and four days that hit over 100 degrees. By contrast, Carneros saw just 32 days in the 80s, seven days in the 90s, and zero hitting 100.” As we trekked to a nearby site called Romiti, Tsegeletos mentioned some bigname vintners who used to buy Cline Cellars’ fruit. “Fred used to sell grapes to Sean Thackrey, Bonnie Doon, Edmunds St. John, Joseph Phelps, and Rosenblum, and he also shipped in grapes in wooden boxes to home winemakers on the East Coast and Canada,” he said. “Now we use 100% of our fruit.” The 7-acre, L-shaped site Romiti is fully surrounded by a mobile-home park and highways. “These vines were planted in 1900 by Frank Romitti,” Tsegeletos noted. “They’re a key component of our Live Oak Zinfandel.” Lucchesi farms the site and the Clines buy directly from Romiti. Another property, The City Vineyard, which the Clines lease, is a pillar of preservationist success. In 2005, some 2,000 old vines were going to be bulldozed, but Lucchesi helped uproot every vine before moving them to their current location: a strip of land book-ended by railroad tracks and homes. Our Contra Costa outing ended in nearby Antioch for lunch at a local-favorite American restaurant called Mac’s Old House. Over Calamari steaks and minestrone soup, we tasted a rare lineup of older Big Break Vineyard Zinfandels. The 2000 Big Break Vineyard Zinfandel showed notes of sweet ripe red fruit, tobacco spice, and chocolate mint, while the 2005 was loaded with plum spices and beautiful, minty hints of balsamic-reduced strawberry. The 2011 was bright and juicy with svelte tannins, and the current release, 2016, was fresh with dense layers of dark berry, strawberry, mint, and chocolate. These are beauties that have aged superbly well.

TASTING NOTES Ancient Vines Series Cline 2016 Ancient Vines Carignane Contra Costa County, California ($23) Medium ruby. Earthy, dusty, and tinged with cherry-vanilla. Good density gives way to meaty, savory, saddle-leather notes. Cline 2017 Ancient Vines Mourvèdre Contra Costa County, California ($22) Deep ruby. Aromas of chocolate-covered cherries and just-roasted coffee beans. Deeply concentrated dark berries with grippy chocolatey tannins and good acidity; subtle herbaceous notes with good mid-palate density. Cline 2017 Ancient Vines Zinfandel Contra Costa County, California ($20) Medium ruby with aromas of strawberry and sumptuous earth. Soft and plush on the palate with muddled strawberries, cocoa nibs, and a touch of dried herbs preceding an espresso-bean finish. Single Vineyard Series Cline Family Cellars 2015 Big Break Vineyard Grenache, Contra Costa County, California ($60) Deep ruby. Flashy aromas of red berries and mint chocolate meet tart fruits, grippy tannins, and a juicy mouthfeel marked by hints of candied cherry and vanilla. Drink now to 2023. Cline Family Cellars 2016 Lucchesi Vineyard Petite Sirah, Contra Costa County, California ($60) Deep inky purple. Aromas and flavors of black cherry and blueberry compote with new cedar, vanilla, and sweet spices. Deeply concentrated and powerful. Enjoy now to 2025. Cline Family Cellars 2015 Big Break Vineyard Small Berry Mourvèdre, Contra Costa County, California ($70) Deep ruby core. Powerful aromas and flavors of red cherry mingle with pretty red florals and eucalyptus. Robust tannins need time to soften but drink beautifully now. Will cellar well through 2025.

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