Last week I traveled east of the San Francisco Bay Area to Amador County in the Sierra Foothills to see and taste wines from some of the oldest vines in California. In keeping with the Old Vine theme, this past weekend I traveled to Healdsburg, just 90 minutes north of San Francisco.
My first stop was at Sausal Vineyards and Winery, the home of the oldest vines in the Alexander Valley. It is owned by the Demostene family whose historical roots go back to Genoa Italy. The founder of the winery and grandfather of the current generation of Demostenes, Manuel Demostene, began working in the Alexander Valley in 1901.
Then another man, Abele Ferrari, moved to the valley who then purchased the Healdsburg Machine Shop, He then began manufacturing winemaking equipment and invented the Healdsburg Crusher. Unfortunately, due to the prohibition this business failed. But in 1923, after a steady decline in property values, he seized the opportunity to purchase Soda Rock Ranch and Winery in the Alexander Valley. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Abele Ferrari completely rebuilt the old stone winery using recycled materials.
These two families came together in 1936 when Manuel’s son Leo married Rose, the daughter of Abele, who then established their new home at Soda Rock Winery (which is just down the road) where Leo took over duties as winemaker.
Then in 1956, Leo and Rose Demostene purchased the 125-acre Sausal Ranch, which was planted to prunes, apples, and Zinfandel. Some of the Zinfandel was planted in 1877 or perhaps even earlier. Then Leo and his his four children - Dave, Ed, Peachie and Cindy - planted another 60 acres of Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon vines over the next decade. During this time the entire family continued to help their grandfather at Soda Rock Winery aware that the knowledge gained there would be of real benefit someday. After Leo Demostene passed in 1973 the old prune dehydrator was converted into a winemaking facility at Sausal Ranch.
In addition the original property and 60 added acres, today Brothers Dave and Ed also own 25 acres vineyards nearby planted to more Zinfandel, Cabernet, Carignane, and some Petite Sirah planted in the 1890’s. All of these vines are planted to a variety of soil types which are reflected in their wines. The Sausal Ranch shows three distinct soil types because of influence from the foothills, the bordering Sausal Creek, and the near by Russian River. Soils toward the back of the property (behind the lake) are classified Suther-Laughlin Loams. These soils have shallower topsoils that contain more clay. Fertility of these soils is low which helps stress the vine, forcing it to produce concentrated and intense fruit. Soils in the middle of the property (from the family home back to the lake) are primarily Positas Gravelly Loam. These soils characteristically have a surface layer of sandy loam to clay loam that is gravelly in places. The topsoil in this area is deeper than the back of the property, but fertility is still low to moderate. Soils in the front of the property (in front of the winery) are Manzanita Gravelly Silt Loam, and show more influence from the creek and river that have meandered throughout the Alexander Valley. The topsoil in this area is loam to silty clay loam, and many of the soils are gravelly. These soils are deeper again than on other areas of the property, and are relatively fertile.
I think this is the first winery that I have ever visited that doesn’t produce any white wines. While visiting I tasted the following wines:
My first wine was the 2009 Family Zinfandel. The grapes for this wine come from the 55 year-old vines that are immediately visible on the entrance driveway. This wine is very bright and fruity on the nose displaying raspberries and cherries. On the palate the wine is almost Sangiovese-like as it is quite tart with a surprising amount of acidity and would undoubtedly pair well with tomato-based pasta sauces. This wine sells for $19 a bottle.
The second pour was the 2008 Private Reserve Zinfandel, which comes from 95 year-old vines that are adjacent to the lake. The wine is earthier than the first, with dried fruits and more black pepper on the nose. This wine sells for $24 and although I have quite a collection of Zins in my cellar, I added this one to my collection.
My third sample was the 2009 Century Zinfandel. The grapes are from 135 year old vines that are planted northwest of the lake. On the nose it is similar to the previous wine in its fruit profile but it has more coffee, cream and vanilla on the nose and on the palate it has a long cherry finish. This wine sells for $40 a bottle.
The fourth pour was the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is very green on the nose, with bell peppers, a touch of red currants and a hint of anise on the nose followed by a medium+ length finish on the palate. Personally I don’t care for Cabs with such a vegetal profile so for $35 a bottle I’d say “pass.”
My final wine was the 2008 Purrfect Petite Syrah. The wine is dedicated to the winery’s cat who craves attention form the tasting room guests. This wine is bright ruby red that stains the glass as it tears. The nose of the wine is somewhat muted and takes quite a bit of coaxing, but as I swirled the glass I eventually picked up blackberries and a touch of white pepper. On the palate the wine is quite simple, has a hollow mid-palate, is very smooth with medium+ tannins. This wine sells for $15 a bottle.
To visit or for more information:
7370 Hwy. 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448
The Tasting Room is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. everyday.