Napa native Tegan Passalacqua is as unlike the stereotypical owner of a Napa Valley winery as you could imagine. His vines are not neat green rows tended by an expensive vineyard management company, but forgotten, ancient stumps. They grow in appellations as unglamorous as Lodi, in the flat delta land south of Sacramento in the San Joaquin Valley, as well as those areas of Contra Costa County, east of the Bay Area, that have so far managed to escape the predation of property developers. He’s also a repository of northern California viticultural history and geography and a sort of unpaid grape broker. Some people know where the bodies are buried. He knows where the deepest vine roots are.
During my recent visit to the US, Passalacqua took me on a day trip to his personal centre of operations in his vast pick-up truck. Physically he is larger than life, but he works at a minute scale. Most of the 19 wines he makes for his own Sandlands label are made in tiny quantities, perhaps just 100 cases, from small plots of intriguing vines so old and long-untended that they are no longer very productive.
As we headed east out of Napa city he warned me about the transformation of Contra Costa since I’d last visited in the 1980s. Back then, it was a characterful sandy wasteland dominated by pylons between patches of vines farmed by the descendants of Portuguese immigrants. It’s still windy, as evidenced by the forest of turbines on the horizon, but is now soulless San Francisco commuter country. What used to be a two-lane highway is now a freeway with a constant, noisy stream of commuters doing their best to get somewhere with more somewhereness than these housing tracts. There is no town centre.
Perhaps because of the proximity to San Francisco and its homelessness crisis, we saw several lost souls walking we knew not where, some barefoot. Passalacqua was careful to lock up his truck when showing me round the few remaining vineyards. This is truly a very strange place, whose ancient vine roots will doubtless soon be prey to bulldozers. “In 20 years the whole area will forget it had an agricultural past,” he predicted. There’s a new Contra Costa Logistics Center here, its first tenant a vast Amazon warehouse.
As well as producing his own wine, Passalacqua has for 20 years been director of winemaking at Turley Cellars, another specialist in old-vine wine founded by Larry Turley in 1993. But there are fewer and fewer vines to choose from: Turley’s second-oldest grape source, a six-acre plot of Zinfandel planted in Contra Costa in 1896 that was personally pruned by its 90-year-old owner until recently, is now covered with 57 (identical) homes. The development has been named The Vines. “I tried to buy that vineyard,” Passalacqua said wistfully.
We passed another development, christened The Ranchettes at Neroly, which Passalacqua recalled was previously a Cinsault vineyard with “beautiful” fruit. Old vines are easy prey for developers because (unless tended extremely carefully) their yields are relatively low and they are hardly ever the most popular international varieties such as Cabernet and Chardonnay. But the wines they produce can be spectacular, even if unfashionable — especially if the vines predate the advent of the phylloxera pest which threatened to wipe out the world’s grapevines at the end of the 19th century. “I’d still love to buy land in Napa Valley but no employed winemaker could afford to now,” said Passalacqua.
Instead, he’s bought a small ranch house on the outskirts of Lodi. He stays there a few days a week and directs operations for Sandlands as well as overseeing the Kirschenmann vineyard a mile away which he acquired in 2012. Fifteen of its 20 acres of vines, mainly Zinfandel, were pre-phylloxera vines planted in 1915. The first vintage for his Sandlands label was 2009 but he sold all the wine off in bulk because he didn’t think it was quite good enough. “I regret that now,” he admits.
Passalacqua revels in the contrast between increasingly bleak Contra Costa and the much quieter town of Lodi, which was hugely important as a source of fresh grapes shipped east by rail to home winemakers during Prohibition but never really had a small winery culture.
Today Lodi’s vineyards mainly supply bulk wine for blending to the behemoth Gallo and wineries with smarter addresses. (Napa regulations allow the addition of up to 15 per cent of non-Napa Valley fruit.) Even today there are few quality-oriented producers in Lodi, despite the careful delineation of the appellation in 2006 into seven sub-appellations, each with their own terroir.
Those who celebrate Lodi for more than its relatively low grape prices are few and far between, despite its rich trove of ancient vines. At the Bechthold vineyard, whose Cinsault vines were planted in 1886, the hawks overhead seemed the most interested third party. Both Sandlands and Turley Cellars make wine from these vines. Neither bottle costs much more than $30.
“Lodi’s problem is that having California on the label is more valuable than having Lodi,” says Passalacqua. This despite the fact that a rigorous set of Lodi Rules, California’s first such sustainable protocol, was drawn up in 2005 for vine-growing there and is followed by a good third of farmers, cutting overall pesticide use by 30 per cent. Days may be hot but the heat of the Central Valley pulls in air cooled by its passage over the Sacramento delta, while chill air blows down from the Sierras at night, all of which helps to keep fruit flavours fresh.
In 2005, while on sabbatical from Turley Cellars, Passalacqua worked with the Graillot family in the Rhône valley (who now import his Sandlands wines) and in 2011 with Eben Sadie of Sadie Family in South Africa, who has successfully managed to persuade people to pay high prices for his wines made from old vines and obscure varieties. Passalacqua quoted Sadie on what Lodi has to offer the wine world. Apparently, having studied the soil map of northern California, Sadie described Lodi as “one big sand squirt, like Ch Rayas”, a reference to the fabled Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer. Praise indeed.
For the moment consumers seem prepared to pay much more for the produce of young vines with a familiar grape name on the label than for liquid evidence of California’s grape growing heritage, although this seems to be slowly changing as younger wine drinkers seek novelty and authenticity. California wines from grapes as obscure as Trousseau, Carignane and Malvasia have developed a certain cult following. Passalacqua makes a Trousseau which he describes as “hipster catnip”.
“Lodi grows more than 130 different grape varieties,” pointed out Passalacqua, adding hopefully, “That may help its survival in the long run.”
Favourites from the California boondocks
Delicato, Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel 2019 Lodi 14.5%
From $9.99 in US, £16.50 Vino Fandango
Cline Cellars, Ancient Vines Mourvèdre 2017 Contra Costa 14.5%
$19 in US
Ferdinand Garnacha Blanca 2018 Lodi 13%
$25 in US, £23.99 Thorne Wines
Post & Vine Carignane 2019 Contra Costa 14.5%
Sandlands, Mataro (Mourvèdre) 2021 Contra Costa County 12.8%
From $30 in US
St Amant, Native Marian’s Zinfandel 2021 Lodi 14.3%
Sandlands, Red Table Wine 2021 Lodi 13.3%
$34.95 K&L, $38 Discovery Wines, $39.99 Leon Wines
Turley Cellars, Kirschenmann Vineyard Zinfandel 2019 Lodi 15%
From $42 in US, £48.60 Four Walls Wine, £53 Tanners
Tasting notes, scores and suggested drink dates on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. Some international stockists on Wine-searcher.com
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first