Out of Place -- Nearly Out of Time
It's easy to take Matt Cline's extravagant black fruit reds simply for what they are -- America's slap-down answer to the bargains of the southern Rhone But, even those who make the trip down to Oakley just to see these improbable ancient-vine plantings often fail to understand the history behind them -- and the troubling future ahead.
In front of us, the gnarly old bush plants are strewn over a blanket of white beach sand, as Cline's prized vineyard patches press right up against the water, chilled by Bay breezes. But unlike Napa, Sonoma, or the Sta Rita Hills, this isn't a vineyard setting at all. Well over 100 years since this 8-acre parcel was planted, it's set smack dab in the middle of another middle-class, Bay Area neighborhood, completely out of place -- and nearly out of time.
On one corner, there's an Exxon station. Across the way, a convenience store. Behind us stands Mac's Old House, advertising its all-you-can-eat rib-eye dinner. Looking way off in the distance, towards the water, eerie windmills spin like pinwheels, bleached white against the turquoise sky.
The questions we came to ask? For how much longer will the small berry Mataro, Carignane, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel dodge the roar of John Deere tractors? How will they escape the irrefutable arithmetic that argues for ripping out Cline's plants, replacing them with pre-fab apartment houses?
And what will become of the rich history? Twenty years from now, will anyone recall the stories of patience and perseverance, of Valeriano Jacuzzi, and other immigrant families with names like Lucchesi, Spinelli and Evangelho? Of the two-day horse and buggy rides to Sonoma on cold December mornings, collecting bundles of 6-inch budwood -- before turning around and hauling it all the way down to the East Bay, carving vines into Delhi Sand?
"How long will they survive? It's hard to say," Matt told us, as he scooped horseradish onto thick slices of Mac's ribeye. "I've had a thirty year run, and I'm grateful for it, but it seems like every few years, another vineyard disappears." Matt dipped into the mashed potatoes and ladled on more gravy. "The first time I saw them roll in, it took my breath away. In a few hours, the tractors erased a hundred years of history. Now I've come to accept it for what it is -- even after a harvest like 2010!"
In 2010, Matt crafted the vintage lineup of his winemaking career. If the Spinelli Vineyard Mataro was Cline's most floral release, and the 2010 Live Oak Zinfandel (drawn off all that remains of that 110-year-old vine planting!) the plushest, it would be this extravagant, black fruit Petite Sirah that's the boldest and flashiest.
Petite Sirah, in hot summers, particularly when grown on richer soils, tends to be dark and chunky, more of a blending variety than one that can stand on its own. But in a 2010 growing season that proved to be the coldest on record, Cline's small berry, thick-skinned Petite Sirah matured slowly, incrementally. The fruit that made its way to Matt's fermentor in early September showed no signs of blistering or desiccation. Cline barely needed to pay attention on the sorting table.
Jet black/purple to the edge with piercing aromas of blueberry and blackberry compote, the 2010 Three Petite Sirah is tinged with cedar and laced with fresh violets. The attack is massive, a crushed black fruit confection of blackberry and blueberry, fabulously juicy and compact, but still finely delineated and focused.