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Lifestyle

Uncorked: Finding ancient vines in the sands of Oakley

The ancient vines in Oakley are more than 100 years old.
The ancient vines in Oakley are more than 100 years old.

A visit to Oakley Vineyard has Charlie Tsegeletos prepared for a workout.

For thousands of years, deposits from the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta have essentially turned the soil into sand dunes. The Cline Family Cellars winemaker doesn’t walk through the vineyards, he trudges through them.

But, the payoff is ancient vines that predate prohibition and were never threatened by phylloxera because they were safeguarded by the sand. They’ve grown into a non-uniformed knotty tangle and are self-limiting because of their age and soil conditions.

The wines they make, like the Cline Family Cellars Ancient Vines Zinfandel 2016 ($14.99), have a character unlike any of their American counterparts.

Winemaker spotlight

There’s beauty in the imperfections of Oakley, located in Contra Costa County.

It’s a humble area that doesn’t have the panache of other wine grape-growing regions in California. But, it makes inspired wines from vineyards that are more than 100 years old. Planted by immigrants before the turn of the last century and preserved by Cline’s owner Fred Cline and others who have flocked to the sandy soils and sprawling vineyards that are frozen in time.

“What amazes me about Oakley is it is just a whole different world,” Tsegeletos said. “It only gets about 10 inches of rain per year. The rivers have deposited what looks like 30 inches of soil there over the years. It started in the early 1900s and it’s immune from phylloxera because it can’t walk through the sand. So the vines are still on their original rootstock. The fruit has developed an amazing concentration. It’s a wine that we don’t have to do a lot to. We don’t do any wine fining. We farm the vineyard like they would have 100 years ago.”

The Cline Zin has amazingly plump, ripe fruit flavors. It’s juicy and full-bodied. There’s strawberry pie, cherry cola, raspberry and blackberry flavors. It’s a tasty, intriguing collection of flavors rarely found in wine.

All the farming has to be done by hand. The old vines couldn’t handle any machinery and while the bottle reads Zinfandel, the vineyard has plenty of surprises hiding in its rows.

“Each vineyard has its own personality,” Tsegeletos said. “There’s time where I walk through and notice there’s a little Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Carignane that is mixed into the vineyard. In a new vineyard everything is consistent. There are wires laid out and it’s the same vines. At Oakley, some vines are knotted up and only two feet off the ground, others have managed to get to 4 feet tall.”

Because Cline and other wineries have supported vineyards like Oakley, the temptation to modernize has been avoided.

“Some people think we should pull up the vineyards, put some wire out there for vines to grow on and increase the yields to turn a better profit,” Tsegeletos said. “But these are unique wines that really over deliver. The extra work you have to do to harvest them is worth it.”

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at news@daily-chronicle.com.​

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