Eight years ago, Al Bechthold was selling grapes from his Lodi vineyard for $250 a ton to people wanting something lively and aromatic for red blends.
He knew the vineyard had been planted by his wife's great-grandfather in 1885 with money he made from charging gold miners 25 times the ordinary cost for supplies. But nobody thought the grape variety, which he believed was Black Malvoisie, was anything special.
Boy, was everyone wrong.
Kay Bogart from UC Davis discovered through DNA testing that the 25-acre vineyard was entirely planted to Cinsault, meaning it might be the oldest Cinsault vineyard in the world.
Today the grapes sell for $2000 a ton, and they don't disappear anymore into Bonny Doon's Le Cigar Volant and other similar kitchen sink blends. In fact, when Kevin Phillips, who manages the vineyard, told Randall Grahm that he wasn't going to sell him any more grapes, Phillips says Grahm started crying until he relented.
Phillips hosted a tasting last week of wines made from Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault, and they are amazing: Lively and intense, with their uniqueness shining through wildly different styles of winemaking. If America had a vine classification system, Bechthold might be Lodi's Grand Cru.
But don't take my word for it: Take the word of two very different iconoclasts: Gideon Bienstock of Clos Saron, and Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project.
Bienstock, a hero of the natural wine movement, is known for making wines only from his estate vineyard in Yuba County. But he had three waves of frost in 2010 and lost a lot of arms from his vines, so he decided to try buying fruit.
"I bought some Syrah and realized I didn't know anything about purchasing fruit," Bienstock said. "I was horrified by the grapes. I knew Tegan Passalacqua (winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars) and Tegan knows everyone. So this is the first wine we made from purchased fruit."
Imagine that: A viticultural hermit left his vineyard for the first time for this Cinsault. It was worth it, too, as Clos Saron "Out of the Blue" 2010 ($25) is so lively, it's like an invigorating burst of Bing cherry every time you sip it. There are some floral and herbal notes on the nose, but this wine is like spring in a glass.
While Bienstock is all about the terroir, Schoener, a former professor of ancient Greek philosophy, is all about the process. He makes wines from hither and yon and says as many interesting things about them as anyone, though I sometimes think he prizes theory over deliciousness.
Schoener had been buying Bechthold grapes from what Phillips thinks is a weaker part of the vineyard. "We purchased the grapes to be a blending component of a blending red wine. It was only there for its aromatic qualities," Schoener said.
With the 2011 fruit, Schoener did the saignée process, bleeding the fresh juice off of the skins to make rosé. He kept the leftover red wine in a tank until last week, when he went back and tasted it to decide what to do with it. The very next day, he brought the tank sample to Phillips' coming-out party and announced he'll make a vineyard-designate Cinsault with it. I hope I get to try it in bottle, because the tank sample has that recognizable lively character of all the wines.
You can bludgeon the fruit with heavy oak, in the style of Phillips' winery Michael-David, and still it shines through: The Michael-David Bechthold Vineyard Lodi Cinsault 2010 ($24) was intense, lively and long-finishing, and the heavy oak profile that you smell but don't taste makes me wonder how delicious this wine will be in 5 or 10 years.
"We had been using the fruit in the Incognito red blend," said winemaker Adam Mettler. "We do bigger, more oaky wines, but we wanted to respect the vineyard and do something a little different." Oak sells: Michael-David made 1000 cases of this wine and might be able to sell all of it through its large wine club, and I can't help wondering if they'll say, "What the heck is this?" or "More, please." Maybe both.
I shouldn't poke fun at the Michael-David guys, because they are some of the nicest people in the wine business, and that's how Phillips -- the 6th generation of the family farmers who own Michael-David -- ended up managing the vineyard. His family owns the vineyard next to Bechthold, and Al was getting up in years, so Phillips, who farms his own vines organically, did little kindnesses for him like oiling his roads to keep down the dust, or lending the use of his picking crews. "Al just liked the way I farmed, so one day he said, 'Kevin, take it over'," Phillips said. "It pays to be a good neighbor."
The story of how the vineyard came to be is fascinating. Joseph Spenker, great-grandfather of Al's wife Wanda Bechthold, was one of four boys born on a farm in Germany. "He knew the ranch was too small to support four men and their families, so he took off for the United States," Bechthold said.
Spenker, then 20, walked alongside a wagon train to California, then traded his horse for a worthless gold claim. He realized his mistake and paid $1 for a ride to Stockton, leaving him with 27 cents. He worked for a farmer for $18.75 a month, plus room and board. As soon as he had enough money to rent a wagon and horses, he bought supplies on credit and hauled them back up to gold country, where he'd been hoodwinked, and sold them for 25 times their value in town. Within 10 years he owned 1500 acres of land.
He decided at the vineyard property to plant what he thought was Black Malvoisie because his neighbors were all planting Zinfandel, Carignane and Alicante Bouschet, and he wanted something different. It would take four generations for that to pay off -- for decades, the grapes were shipped east to home winemakers or sold in bulk to Gallo -- but finally it has.
Ironically, Spenker's great-great-grandson Greg Burns can't get much fruit now for his own Jessie's Grove Winery because Phillips has allocated most of it for precision farming on long-term contracts. But he poured a Jessie's Grove Lodi Cinsault 2006 ($32) -- a current release -- that showed how well these wines can age; the wine spent several years in barrels. It reminded me of the finest of Reserva Rioja, with its bright Bing cherry fruit, fine acidity and sophisticated finish. You could say that wine was 6 years in the making, or 127 years, and you'd be right either way.