2003 Puccioni “Old Vine” Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma

On our recent trip to Mendoza, Argentina, we visited and tasted wines at a number of wineries that the locals referred to as “renovated.” I’ve forgotten the specific term in Spanish, but they were referring to the increasingly common practice of new owners re-opening long shuttered wineries in the area. New owners (occasionally descendents of the original founders) were reviving old vineyards, remodeling or rebuilding old winery facilities, and generally building on the shoulders of a huge, vibrant wine industry that dried up around the same time that Prohibition was putting the final nail in the coffin of a similarly huge wine industry that flourished before the turn of the century in California.

While a lot of similar activity happened in Napa during the late 1970’s it’s not entirely common to hear of such activities now, when most prime vineyard land has been purchased, planted, resold, and replanted many times over in the last few decades.

But then there was the Puccioni family. In Rip Van Winkle-ish fashion, the descendants of a family from a small town in Italy have recently returned to producing wine after a nearly 90 year hiatus.

The original Puccioni family winery was bonded in 1919, just before Prohibition came into being, and somehow (I’m not sure why) was able to operate throughout prohibition with a license from the government. At the time of the winery’s creation, the Puccioni family had already been farming Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley for fifteen years. Under the direction and sharp eye of scion Angelo Puccioni and his son Louie, the northern Italian family established a foothold in Sonoma county five years after walking off a boat from Rome in 1889. There they cleared a little corner of a small valley in the hills and set about growing vines and the other things an Italian immigrant family needed to survive.

The family winery made its last wine in 1935 and the vines were left untended and abandoned until three generations later the Puccioni family decided to return to a previous life as winemakers. Now run by Glenn Proctor, the great-grandson of Angelo, the Puccioni winery and its original Zinfandel vines (now more than 100 years old) are again making wine. Proctor grew up on the family farm, learning to drive a plow that was, at first, hitched to his grandfather’s mule. Mules were the “farm machinery of choice” for the family up until the late 1960s, when Prince, the last of the family mules, left the field for the last time, decades after their neighbors had switched to speedier, gas powered alternatives.

Both out of affection for these sturdy and dependable members of the farm, and because of their symbolism for stubborn persistence in the form of adversity, the Puccioni Vineyards wine label features a bucking mule.

From the family’s small parcel of originally head-trained, dry-farmed old vines, which are situated on west facing slopes in the hills above Healdsburg, Proctor and his wife Laurie are now making a single Zinfandel wine in tiny quantities. Their first commercial vintage, this 2003 bottling barely hit 96 cases in quantity. They expect to make 200 cases in the 2004 vintage.

The wine is made from a not surprisingly low yield of grapes from the old vines, which now require a small bit of irrigation even to produce the little bit of fruit they can manage, and also from some of the other vines on the property that are around 50 to 60 years old. After hand harvesting, the grapes are crushed and cold soaked for three days before entering fermentation in open-top fermentation tanks, where they undergo hand punchdowns (mixing of the grapes and skins that float to the top with the liquid below) three times per day. The wine is pressed into old French oak barrels (75%) and new American oak barrels (25%) to age for 18 months before bottling.

Interestingly, this wine is comprised of 9% Alicante Bouchet, along with the Zinfandel. The Alicante came from 100 year-old vines at Pagani Ranch in the Sonoma Valley. A less common California varietal, Alicante was at one time the most widely planted varietal in France by acreage, as it was (and in some areas, still is) a common blending grape for the bulk of France’s table and small village wines.

The wine is made by Proctor, who has a bachelors and masters in viticulture from U.C. Davis, and who has spent several decades working in the wine industry at places like Glen Ellen Winery, Sterling Vineyards, BV, and Benziger.

Tasting Notes:
A medium garnet color in the glass, this wine has a candied nose of blueberries, and blackberries with a slight piney note to them. In the mouth it is medium bodied with a nice mouthfeel and excellent acidity. This acid, coupled with a nice, light tannic structure keeps the blackberry flavors from becoming too jammy (it probably helps that someone didn’t let the grapes dry out too much on the vines) so that the overall wine has a lighter, less common style for Sonoma Zinfandels. The finish is moderate in length and pleasant.

Food Pairing:
This is a great wine for grilling — I’d love to drink it (just slightly chilled) with grilled sausages on a hot day.

Overall Score: 9

How Much?: $26

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.