A windswept vineyard in the southern portion of the Petaluma River valley; cooled daily by marine influence that invades inland, unhindered by topography; the energy of the vine is held in check by wind and no-till farming practices, producing a balanced canopy and loose, open clusters with tiny, thick-skinned berries; wines are naturally dense and firm, opening slowly, with blue and black fruits in the glass as vivid as the wine’s color.
From the top of the hill at Griffin’s Lair, you can see the full sweep of the Petaluma River estuary – from the port city of Petaluma down to San Pablo Bay – and, on a clear day, even to the skyline of the city clear across San Francisco Bay. Though the river looks placid now as it rolls by the forgotten hamlet of Lakeville (bisected twice daily by breakneck commuter traffic; previously served by a stagecoach route to Sonoma), the late 1800s would have shown a far different landscape: draft steamers travelling the river, ferrying wine and building materials from the busy docks at Petaluma, and passengers to the landing at Donahue, which was the southern terminus of the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad that served Santa Rosa.
William Bihler was the first to plant grapevines in the Lakeville area of the Petaluma Gap, with 100 acres planted in 1874 on the hillsides above the Petaluma River, one-half mile below Donahue (and less than a mile from Griffin’s Lair). Bihler sold his wine in bulk, except for a small amount of estate-bottled wine, which bore the label Mt. Vernon, in honor of the New York suburb where he once lived. He quickly achieved recognition for his vineyard. In the First Annual Report of the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners in 1881, Isaac De Turk – the commissioner for the Sonoma District and owner of two large wineries, one in Santa Rosa and one in Bennett Valley – singled out Bihler’s plantings exclusively, writing:
A very interesting and successful experiment of William Bihler in lower Petaluma Valley, below Donahue Landing, has conclusively proven that the vine flourishes on the level with tidewater as well as upon the red volcanic soil of the interior up-lands.
In 1891, U.S. Senator James G. Fair (made rich by his stake in the Comstock Lode) purchased all 9,140 acres of Bihler’s ranch, including the vineyards and winery, by which time the Bihler winery had storage space for 600,000 gallons of wine, all in redwood cooperage. That size would have made the winery possibly the largest in Sonoma County, and one of the largest in the state. In a short time the Lakeville region had grown rapidly; by 1891, there were nine growers with a total of 320 acres planted to grapevines. The Lakeville region of the Petaluma Gap was recognized early-on as among the best growing regions in the county – Some of the finest vineyards in Sonoma County are near Lakeville – for reasons we can imagine are no different than today.
The climate of Griffin’s Lair is defined by the daily onrush of cold winds that sweep through the Petaluma Valley, limiting vigor and slowing photosynthesis. There is on the Sonoma coast, between Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay, a gap in the coastal range: within this 18-mile stretch of coastline, no barrier higher than 600 feet exists, while ridgelines to the north and south rise to over 1000 feet. As the sun heats inland California over the course of the morning, a pressure differential develops between the cold, dense air sitting over water just off the coast, and the increasingly warm, less-dense air over land. By noon, the difference in air pressure is great enough to suck the cold air inland, through the Petaluma Gap and all 33 miles to San Pablo Bay by way of Petaluma Valley.
Griffin’s Lair bears the full brunt of this chilly diurnal cycle, perched on a northwest-facing hillside above the Petaluma River. This marine influence moderates the afternoon temperatures of the Petaluma Valley, delivering cool air when temperatures would otherwise be at their highest. The vines are regularly buffeted by winds strong enough to limit leaf stomatal conductance, which delays sugar ripening by shutting down photosynthesis, often for hours at a time each day. In other words, vines respond to windy conditions with a long nap, much like a certain Golden Retriever in our lives on gray, rainy days…
Griffin’s Lair sits at the foot of Sonoma Mountain, a formation cleaved by three active fault zones: the Tolay Fault, the Roche-Cardoza Fault, and the venerable Rodgers Creek Fault. The soils belong to the Haire series of gravelly loams, alluvially deposited into rocky fans and terraces, which drain freely. The gravel content of the soil ranges between 10% and 25%, based on soil pits; the composition of the gravels is a jumbled mix of rocks – Sonoma volcanics, Franciscan Complex schists, and Great Valley Sequence sandstones – carried from near and far by various faults.
Geologically, Griffin’s Lair sits over the Petaluma Formation, which consists of mudstones and sandstones deposited as alluvial sediment between four and eight million years ago into an estuary at the western edge of the North American continent. Fossils found therein include both saltwater and freshwater species, as well as terrestrial vertebrates, suggesting that the vineyard would have once been home to a freshwater river delta flowing into saltwater tidal flats, and the sea. The size, shape, and orientation of the grain found within the mudstones and sandstones indicate that the sediment would have been deposited in a west-flowing, slow-moving fluvial environment, near sea level – imagine the estuaries of the San Pablo Bay, but rotated instead to front the Pacific Ocean directly.
Curiously (or not, depending on your feelings about geological minutia…), one of the rocks found within the Petaluma Formation – a Briones sandstone clast riddled with quartz veins – originates, not locally, but from the Diablo Mountains south of San Jose. Considering this, it’s likely that the marine basin that captured the sediments of the Petaluma Formation lay farther south than it is today. After deposition, the basin was fragmented by plate tectonics and carried north, in some fashion, along the Hayward-Rodgers Creek Fault. Add this migratory sandstone to the list of wildly out-of-place rocks in California, thanks to the transform motion of the San Andreas fault zone – granite from the Sierra Nevada carried to Big Sur and Point Reyes, and lo, a sandstone that crossed San Pablo Bay.
Joan and Jim Griffin
Joan and Jim were, in 2015, the first growers we partnered with, and in many ways, they’ve helped to frame our understanding of sensitive farming practices, establishing a mold for the qualities in growers we beg for fruit.
Like us, Joan and Jim are high school sweethearts that grew up outside the Golden State. They met in high school in Maryland, and moved to the Bay Area in 1973. Jim – a sailor, and inventor with multiple patents (Google it, it’s crazy!) – founded his own company, Industrial Devices, while Joan went to work in Novato as an editor of books on military history (you can imagine our nervous silence when she read our writing for the first time). They saw the Bay Area grow rapidly, and by the mid-1990s were ready to move from their home in San Rafael to someplace quieter, with room for their beloved horses and border collies.
When in 1995 they moved to a little hillside on the east bank of the Petaluma River, across the street from a fourth-generation dairy farm, there was only one vineyard in the area, planted in 1990 by the Sangiacomo family for Domaine Chandon’s sparkling program. Joan was, and is, an avid gardener, and together they’d developed a love for wine. With trademark tenacity, Joan enrolled in viticulture classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, fully intending to plant her own vines. Initially they thought of planting for sparkling only. But, wooed by a bottled of syrah from Al Rago’s Que Syrah vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, they decided to plant syrah on the windward side of their hill, and pinot noir on the leeward side. Their back deck now looks out over their lovingly-tended Syrah vines.
“How we learned to be winegrowers is a good story,” Joan says. “After buying our property in 1995 we began to research the possibility of growing grapes— not for sparkling wine as the few vineyards in Lakeville did, but for premium pinot noir. We were surprised to discover that winemakers and growers in both Napa and Sonoma were approachable, friendly and more than willing to share their experiences. We soaked up knowledge like sponges: Conversations with Byron Kosuge at Saintsbury and with other winemakers, hours following Lee Hudson through his Carneros vineyard asking pesky questions, classes at Santa Rosa Jr. College with Rich Thomas. The JC was not a piece of cake: the classes were demanding and so was the hands-on work. We pruned vines in January in pouring rain. Coffee break? No sir, we had a "wine break"! Two semesters (spring and fall "Vineyard Management") introduced us to grape growers in Sonoma County; as we tramped through their vineyards these generous people talked frankly about their successes and failures and offered help. To this day we use all this information, and our "classmates" have become dear and steadfast friends. We do sell grapes to wineries in the "other" county (think auto parts), but our hearts are in Sonoma.”
Griffin’s Lair was planted in 2000 to a mix of four Syrah clones – Syrah Noir (sourced from Al Rago’s Que Syrah vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, planted in 1993, a bottle of which was the inspiration for their Syrah planting), 470, 877, and Alban – on 3309C rootstock. Planting Syrah at that time, in that climate, was brave; it was a decision revealed to be visionary.
Joan took another big leap in 2006 when she went to work as her own vineyard manager, having gained the confidence to call all the shots herself. In the same year, they transitioned the farming to (non-certified) organic, with a focus on fostering vibrant communities of organisms in the vineyard, both above-ground and below. For the soils, they use no- or low-till farming practices with the addition of compost and compost teas, to build a bio-diverse soil food web, unseen and underappreciated. Above-ground, they use native cover crops and flowering insectary rows to create habitat for / house beneficial insects. Joan has found that, in transitioning from wettable sulfur as a fungicide spray to stylet oil, the vineyard population of leafhoppers (a grape pest) actually declined – sulfur, though an approved organic product, is hard on beneficials. Meanwhile, Jim was applying his engineering know-how to all the dirty, mechanical aspects of owning a vineyard – tractors, trailers, sprayers, and the like.
I believe the quality of the organic fruit is better. I have no quantifiable way of proving that, but if you have healthy soil, the vines are going to be healthy. You can see the difference – the cover crop is lusher, the soil has more earthworms, and the vineyard corridors are teeming with beneficial insects. The Roundup-treated soil is like a moonscape – just bare dirt. We still fertigate, but now we use a wide range of organic products like liquid fish and molasses. As opposed to synthetic chemicals that have no smell at all, it’s a vile, stinky mix. We’ve gotten used to it now, but the first time we did it was hilarious. It was actually on Halloween – double bubble, toil and trouble! I thought it should have eye of newt.
Beyond Joan and Jim’s energy and passion, they are truly wonderful people to know and an enormous pleasure to work with. We’re very lucky to have them.
Situated in a narrow valley in the mountains between Boonville and Ukiah, Cole Ranch is a monopole: a single-vineyard AVA. The Riesling vines were planted there in 1973 on St. George rootstock, head-trained and dry-farmed.
The soils warm up late in the spring, the valley tends to stay shaded by the sharp mountain ridges above, and temperatures plummet at night as cool air flows downhill into the vineyard. The temperature the morning of our 2016 pick was below freezing before sunrise; it’s an unpleasant prospect when the alarm rings at 3 AM.
Check back for more info to come!
The vines at Shake Ridge are planted in the once gold-rich soils that birthed the modern state of California, and are cared for by one of the finest farmers in California with the help of her whole family. Ann Kraemer continues a long tradition of pioneering, scientifically-minded viticulturalists in Amador County. The wines are exotically perfumed with firm tannin and light color, fitting for wines from the foothills (that’s spelled “piedmont” in Italian…)
The first vines planted in Amador County went into the ground at the same time as gold was coming out, with a mechanical ingenuity made necessary by the mountainous terrain of the Sierra Foothills and an energy reflective of the insatiable demand for wine during the Gold Rush.
Amador County’s earliest known grape grower is Benjamin Burt, an emigrant from Springfield, MA, who by 1851 was supplying miners with fresh fruits from his orchards and garden. Burt’s Garden was planted alongside Rancheria Creek, three miles northeast of Amador City, just a few miles from today’s Shake Ridge Ranch. Burt was renowned for the bounty of his vineyard and orchards, with 1600 vines along with peach, pear, apple, apricot, cherry, plum, and almond trees dotting the hillsides. He grew an incredible 17 apple varieties alone, and had 7000 tree saplings ready for sale in his nursery. In 1881, county historian J.D. Mason described Burt’s Garden in the same striking terms we use today when we describe Shake Ridge Ranch. Mason wrote, “With its green patches of cultivated land, it was like a gem set in the brown hills.”
Another prominent Amador County vineyard was that planted by Horace Kilham in 1855. Kilham owned the Kilham Ditches, an elaborate ditch and flume system, fifteen miles in length, that diverted the waters of the South and Middle Forks of the Jackson Creek and delivered it to miners. The same water being used to wash soil from gold also irrigated Kilham’s extensive fruit ranch surrounding his Tunnel Hill House. Kilham sold his orchards and vineyard in 1860 to Dr. Samuel Page, who that year gave a detailed account of his plantings to the State Agricultural Society. He chronicled, “Two thousand five hundred grape vines, one to five years old; thirty two foreign varieties, including the natives of the Atlantic States Isabella, Catawba, and Clinton… Five year old vines bore abundantly this year, and consist of about four unknown varieties, the labels being lost, one I recognize as the Frontignan Muscat, rich and spicy.” Residing in Page’s collection as well were the varieties Black Hamburg, Black St. Peter’s, Black Prince, Charbonneau, Frontignan Grizzly, White Muscat of Alexandria, White Sweetwater, Gros Noir de Gueslin, and White Syrian.
The agricultural census of 1860 lists just five Amador County vintners, with a total of 144 gallons of wine among them. The county’s first commercial vintner was likely Benidet Murphy of Sutter Creek, who declared 60 gallons of wine on hand. Samuel Page, with his impressively large vineyard, reported only two gallons of homemade wine to the census taker. But, vine plantings and wine production exploded in the 1860s, driven continually by gold fever and a sudden lack of wine in Europe, which was still reeling from oidium. In February of 1861 the San Francisco Bulletin carried a front-page article entitled Vineyards on the Foothills praising the Mother Lode’s vineyards and encouraging more planting:
The fact that the foothills of the state are admirably adapted to the culture of grapes particularly for wine-making purposes, cannot be too often repeated… The experience of scientific culturalists has demonstrated that while the loamy bottom lands produce the largest and most luscious grapes for consumption as fruit, the red gravel lands of the hills and high plains produce grapes which yield the best flavored and most lasting wines… If the majority of our miners, who are destined to year of toil, ending in poverty, at last would plant about their cabins a few acres of vines, they would find more profit therein ultimately than in the diggings which cause them so much anxiety.
By 1868, Amador County was producing 250,000 gallons of wine per year. Regrettably, vineyard fortunes in California changed quickly in the decades leading up to Prohibition, oscillating wildly between over- and under-supply in a cycle characteristic of agriculture markets without price supports or planting restrictions. A severe depression in the price of wine between 1874 and 1878 crippled Amador County, where miners were already fleeing the area for new mineral discoveries elsewhere. Adding insult to injury, most of the land within the county was classified by the federal government as “mineral” and thereby not available for ownership. Farmers were free to clear the soil, but capital improvements were impractical without a path to ownership. By the time that Congress passed legislation opening mineral lands to ownership, much of the money invested in the wine industry was flowing to Napa and Sonoma counties, regions that benefited from a closer proximity to San Francisco. The Amador Wine Association, incorporated in 1871, lasted just a few months. Winemaking survived in the small home cellars of the many Italian families that populated the county.
Amador County’s most influential vineyard is the Sierra Foothill Station, an agricultural experiment station established in the 1880s near Jackson, on land granted to the University of California. The vineyard was one of seven planted across the state under the direction of Eugene W. Hilgard, the first Professor of Agriculture at Berkeley. Hilgard was a consummate scientist – the father of modern soil science and a pioneering viticulturist – and a skilled politician as well; his experiment station research efforts were supported by members of the California legislature. He laid out his vision for the project, and the results of hundreds of experimental fermentations (complete with full chemistry panels and colorimetric measurements for most musts and wines!), in a publication entitled Report of the Viticultural Work During the Seasons 1887-1889, with Date Regarding the Vintage of 1890. He wrote:
It has been alleged that "wine making is an art, and has nothing to do with science." It would be sad for this important industry if this were in any sense true, and if at the end of the nineteenth century it had still failed to participate in the advance of all other industries — from the making of indigo and madder color from coal to that of butter and cheese and even the feeding of hogs — to the benefit and dignity of a scientific basis. The allegation is simply untrue. It is true that good wines have been made for a long time in certain regions or localities, upon no other basis than long continued experience; but it has cost centuries of time and floods of bad wine before that point was reached, and even now the vast majority of the wines made in the old wine districts of Europe is, according to the unanimous testimony of both merchants and scientific experts, very far from being the best that could be made from the materials given. Unless California wine makers are willing to go through the same protracted performance that has been required to enable Europe to protect its choice vintages, they should avail themselves of the principles that have been deduced from the experience of centuries in the Old World, as formulated by the exact observations of experts. It is idle to pretend, at this late hour, that blind imitation is to be preferred to the intelligent application of principles that hold good under all circumstances, and that we have only to plant the same vines and follow the same modes of operating practiced in the Old World, in order to produce similar vintages, when the climatic conditions under which we operate are radically different, as are also our soils.
The Foothill Station was abandoned in 1903, due to the cost of operating the vineyard in such a remote location. The station was re-discovered in 1963 by Dr. Austin Goheen, a plant pathologist from UC Davis, on a hunch that own-rooted vines would have lower incidence rates of diseases like leafroll virus. He theorized that the use of phylloxera-resistant rootstock may have contributed to the spread of grapevine viruses. He identified 132 grape cultivars still growing, miraculously, at the station. Of the 110 vines tested, only 20 had leafroll virus, and none had fanleaf or other viruses, which was a dramatic improvement over the 80-100% infection rate they were finding in commercial vineyards. There were many unusual varieties planted at the Foothill Station, like Freisa, Cinsault, Mondeuse, Tinto Cao, and Trousseau, along with the litany of past and present work-horse varieties – Burger, Folle Blanche, Mission, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. Many of these clones are now propagated as “Jackson clones” by the grape program at Foundation Plant Services. The most famous Jackson Clone is Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was the pride of Beaulieu’s clonal vinification experiments in the 1980s, and is popular today among growers looking for California heritage selections who can rationalize its miserly yields and floral aromatic profile. Though the Sierra Foothill Station was tended for only 15 years, its progeny are Professor Hilgard’s remarkable legacy.
The Sierra Foothills begin to warm in the morning when the sun crests the mountain peaks and as warm air rises out of the Central Valley. The daytime temperatures are moderated by upslope breezes, and once the sun sets temperatures fall dramatically, by as much as 50F as colder temperatures cascade down from the Sierra. Walking the ridges and swales of Shake Ridge at night can be a dizzying experience, as the temperature can change by 20F or more in the span of a few dozen feet. For good reason the cold, low spots between ridges are left unplanted, which explains in part the number and outline of the many vineyard blocks at Shake Ridge.
It’s wonderfully poetic that California, home to successive generations of migrants with golden dreams, is itself an emigrant landmass, formed elsewhere and carried from afar. California as we know it is, on a geological timescale, relatively recent. Until the late Jurassic, the Pacific Ocean would have met the North American continent very near to Sutter Creek at the base of the Sierra Foothills. The land here came about because tectonic forces drove islands against the edge of the North American continent, because the heavier Farallon plate sank beneath the continental plate, and because the heat from this subduction created plutons and volcanoes that spewed vast amounts of lava and ash across the landscape. This pattern repeated itself for hundreds of millions of years with successive waves of island arcs, creating the faults that we know today as the Calaveras-Shoo Fly Fault, the Melones Fault, and the Bear Mountain Fault, which collectively compose the Foothills fault system. The forces of heat and compression resulting from the subduction of the Farallon plate transformed the rocks caught in the middle – shale to slate and schist; limestone to marble; serpentine, quartz, gold, and other gemstones from the depths of the Earth. The fantastically diverse soils that characterize the Western Metamorphic Belt of the Sierra Foothills are evidence of vast island arcs stuck to the continental margin – accreted exotic terranes, in the (unusually poetic) parlance of the geologist.
Shake Ridge Ranch lies just uphill of the Melones Fault, almost directly in the center of the richest portion of the California Mother Lode. Gold in the Sierra Foothills was first found in streambed placer deposits but the focus of mining quickly shifted to the source of the gold, a thick vein of quartz within the Melones Fault. The Argonaut mine outside Sutter Creek was the first lode mine, opened in 1850, and was followed quickly by dozens more. Together, the three largest mines of the area – the Kennedy, Eureka, and Argonaut – produced over four and a half million ounces of gold. When the Kennedy mine closed in 1942, due to the war, it was the deepest mine in North America; its 150 miles of underground tunnels went to a vertical depth of 5,912 feet. The rich geological history of the Sierra Foothills is evident at every roadcut revealing schist, Mariposa slate, greenstone, and marble, and in the vineyard rows at Shake Ridge where chunks of quartz litter the ground.
Ann Kraemer and The Kraemer Bunch
The Kraemer family has ancient roots in California: Jose Antonio Yorba, a distant forebear, came to California in 1769 as a member of the Portola Expedition, 23 years old and a Royal Catalan Volunteer soldier. Their expedition traveled from Baja California into the new territory of Alta California, all the way to San Francisco Bay via what would come to be known as the El Camino Real. The Portola Expedition was the first recorded European land entry and exploration of California. After the expedition, Yorba settled on a piece of land along the Santa Ana River in Southern California; he received a grant known as the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana for 62,516 acres. The river was originally named the Dulcisimo Nombre de Jesus de los Temblores (River of the Sweetest Name of Jesus of the Earthquakes) by Father Juan Crespi, a highly literal moniker after the large earthquake that struck the expeditionary party on July 28, 1769. (Pre-Richter Scale, the explorers measured and recorded the numerous aftershocks based on the number of Hail Marys they could utter during each tremor.) The earthquake seems not to have bothered Jose Antonio Yorba, who returned to claim the land after he retired from the Royal Catalan Volunteer army. Yorba’s sons would claim their own ranchos, adding to the family’s land; at one time, the Yorba family land comprised a significant portion of today’s Orange County.
Ann and her seven brothers and sisters grew up on a citrus orchard on the family’s Rancho Canon de Santa Ana, and the family’s spirit of cooperation and preservation traveled north with them when they purchased land from the Oneto family on Shake Ridge Road outside Sutter Creek in the Sierra Foothills.
Shake Ridge Ranch was first planted in 2003, under the careful eye of Ann Kraemer. Ann worked for many years as a vineyard manager and consulting viticulturalist for Domaine Chandon, Swanson, Cain, Calera, Hobbs, and Shaefer, in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Her father, Dan, loved to tell a story that illustrates Ann’s attention to detail. During soil preparation, someone remarked on the round object in the back pocket of Ann’s jeans and asked, “Do you chew?” Ann was confused, until she remembered the compass in her pocket that she’d been using to lay out vineyard row orientation in each of her blocks depending on soil type, variety, and exposition.
Ann Kraemer continues a long tradition of scientific empiricism in Amador County. In a short time she and her family have created one of the premier vineyards of the Sierra Foothills, built on Ann’s experience as a consulting viticulturalist and her family’s dedication to agriculture and hard work. I don’t know of any other vineyard where the same folks get up at 3AM for the night pick, offer to make lattes for anybody trucking fruit from the vineyard in the morning, catch up on paperwork before lunch, go out to pull bird nets off for the following night’s pick in the afternoon, and then host dinner and make sure that everyone has a bunk before bedding down themselves. It’s an inspiring place to make wine from, in every aspect, and we’re very fortunate to work with fruit from Shake Ridge.
The vines at Evangelho are own-rooted, planted in the 1890s just a mile upstream from the confluence of California’s two great rivers – the Sacramento and the San Joaquin – in a granitic sand eroded from the Sierra Nevada. The vines are buffeted by the winds that blow through the Carquinez Strait and across the Delta. This daily wind stress alters the vines’ respiratory rates: to avoid excessive transpirational water loss, the vines close their stomata when the wines pick up around noon, halting photosynthesis. This produces grapes with wonderfully low pHs and fresh, vibrant flavors.
The modern history of Contra Costa County begins with Dr. John Marsh, who was coincidentally the first owner and farmer of the land Evangelho Vineyard now sits on. In 1838, Marsh settled on the Los Meganos Rancho in eastern Contra Costa County, in present-day Brentwood. He had purchased the ranch in 1837 from José Noriega, who had himself been granted the land in 1836 by the Mexican governor of California. Noriega named his land for its sandy soil; meganos means “sand dunes” in Spanish. John Marsh was the first American to settle in Contra Costa County, and he occupies an important position in the history of California – he became one of its wealthiest ranchers and was one of the most influential men in the establishment of California statehood.
Marsh graduated from Phillips Andover and Harvard and was the first doctor to practice modern medicine in California. His medical fees, often paid in cattle, created one of the largest cattle herds in California – tens of thousands of head large – and made him a wealthy ranchero. He was described by contemporaries as a savvy businessman, a capable farmer, and an enigmatic sort of poet-frontiersman. It is said that he cared for surviving members of the Donner Party after their rescue.
Marsh was eager to see California settled by Americans, and not the British, French, or Russians, who were all eyeing California hungrily. Thus, he began a letter-writing campaign to the East Coast extolling the virtues of California.
Contra Costa County will some day be called the “Hub” of California; and rightly so, for its strategic location at the crossing of the trade routes from the fertile valleys of the interior of the State, and from the great Northwest, where the captains of commerce meet and barter with the rest of the world, will in the near future, much more than in the past, compel the recognition of its peculiar and paramount advantages.
These letters launched the first wagon trains to California, a few years before the Gold Rush would send hordes flocking to California’s shores. In 1841, when the first American emigrant party, the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, came to California from Missouri, Marsh invited them to be his guests, and thus the California Trail terminated in Brentwood. An 1846 letter written to an old acquaintance, Michigan Senator Lewis Cass, reached an especially wide audience. On receipt of Marsh’s letter, Cass turned it over to the press, and it was copied and recopied in newspapers all over the country. Reaching the attention of President Polk, it is said to have influenced him in his prosecution of the war with Mexico and to have strengthened his decision to secure California for the United States.
The vines at Evangelho Vineyard – now over 120 years old – were planted by Manuel Viera in the 1890s on land purchased from John Marsh’s Los Meganos Rancho. Manuel Viera was born on the island of Pico, in the Portuguese Azores, on April 10, 1854. He emigrated to the United States at the age of fourteen and lived initially with his uncle in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he worked in a boardinghouse and attended night school to learn the English language. Two years later, he and his brother, John, moved to California and found work on a ranch in Oakley, in Contra Costa County. Viera soon went into business for himself by renting 800 acres of the Marsh tract and began raising sheep and cultivating wheat. Viera’s flocks increased until he had over 2,000 head of sheep, and he employed 40 men threshing and baling hay. An history of Contra Costa County and its citizens describes the early landscape of Viera’s vineyard:
[Manuel Viera] worked hard himself and kept investing in land. His first purchase was 480 acres, which he developed into a comfortable home place, and later added 368 acres of the Marsh tract, where he now lives. This ranch was covered with large live-oak trees, and these he had to clear off to set out his vineyard… He was always progressive and has kept abreast of the times, using more modern agricultural implements to facilitate his ranch work.
This is the first record of vines planted on what we now know as Evangelho Vineyard, and those vines are happily still productive, alive and well. It must be something in the water at Evangelho, because the vineyard has been farmed carefully and progressively for over 120 years now. Even in 1926, the Viera Ranch was recognized as “among the most highly improved and productive places in the county.”
In 1952, the Viera family sold the vineyard and surrounding land to Pacific Gas & Electrical, which built a power plant next door. PG&E’s power lines now crown the vineyard knolls, like fighting machines from The War of the Worlds – “a monstrous tripod, higher than many houses… a walking engine of glittering metal” – and the power plant’s smokestacks form an industrial skyline on the vineyard’s northern border. Amazingly, the close proximity of the power plant likely helped to keep Evangelho’s wondrously old vines in the ground, while other old vineyards were uprooted to make way for housing tract development and suburbanization.
The care of the vines passed from the Viera family to Manuel Evangelho, who purchased 11 acres of the vineyard from PG&E and secured a long-term lease on the remaining 29 acres. Manuel Evangelho was born, like Manuel Viera, in the Azores Islands; he started work as a farmhand at Evangelho Vineyard in the 1930s. Manuel’s youngest son, Frank, was born in 1946 and grew up amidst the towering old vines. Frank got lost in the vineyard at the age of four, too young yet to see over the vines; his father found him, in the sand, crying under a vine.
Frank Evangelho inherited care of the vineyard from his father, until he sold the vineyard in 2017 to Bedrock Wine Company, helmed by dear friends Morgan Twain-Peterson and Chris Cottrell. The vines are in good hands – the best, in fact – and for more stories about the wild past of Frank Evangelho and his vineyard, check out the write-ups over at Bedrock Wine Co. and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Evangelho Vineyard is located in Antioch, just a mile upstream from the mighty confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and only a few hundred yards south of the water’s edge. The vines are planted, effectively, in coastal dunes comprised of weathered granitic sand blown and washed out of the Sierra Nevada over millennia. The soil type is termed Delhi sand, which consists of “very deep, somewhat excessively drained soils,” lacking stratification and having almost no clay and loam - soil type “Os” (Oakley Sand) in purple on the soil map below. The sandy knolls in Antioch and Oakley are a striking sight:
THE SANDY LANDS: There is a strange region lying between Oakley and Brentwood. The soil is sandy and was originally covered with chaparral and scrub oak. Useless land, said many men who tried to farm it and made a failure. About 1887, however, James O’Hara came to the region. He bought some of this land and was laughed at. But he had ideas. He planted fruit trees on this sandy land and in doing so transformed the region. Nowhere else does the fruit ripen so early or prove so sure a crop.
Sandy soils are easy for vine roots to penetrate and fortunately very hostile to the root louse phylloxera, so the vines thrive on their own roots. Own-rooted vineyards are extraordinarily rare; the practice is a relic from the time before phylloxera. Additionally, Evangelho is dry-farmed, meaning that the vineyard is not irrigated. A vine’s only source of water is that which it can find itself, deep below the soil surface. Vine roots at Evangelho have been found as far as forty feet underground. The exceedingly sandy soils seem to determine the wines’ tannic profile – wines from the sandy lands of Contra Costa County have suave and fine-grained tannins, and the same is true from vineyards elsewhere in the world planted in sand.
The growing season at Evangelho Vineyard begins early. Budbreak is reliably two weeks ahead of our other vineyards, thanks to moderate spring temperatures and dry, sandy soils that warm quickly, thereby initiating root pressure and sap flow.
The warmth of the summer sun is tempered by the onrush of coastal winds that hit the vineyard a little before lunchtime each day. Far across the Delta from Evangelho, the Central Valley begins heating up in the morning as soon as the sun crests the ridgeline of the Sierra Nevada. This regional warming results in a low-pressure area that pulls cold marine air from the coast far inland, through the Petaluma Gap and the Golden Gate, across San Pablo Bay, and through the Carquinez Strait straight to Evangelho. This daily wind stress alters the vines’ respiratory rates: to avoid excessive transpirational water loss, the vines close their stomata when the wines pick up around noon, halting photosynthesis. This produces grapes with low pHs (3.3-3.5) and fresh, vibrant flavors.