Lonnie Wright stands by his century-old Zinfandel vines. Although the vine trunks are fairly small in diameter for the vine’s age, due to regrowth from numerous winter freezes, the bases of the trunks are thick and burly.
The century-old Zinfandel grapes are no longer head trained, and drip irrigation has been added to the modernized block, but the old-vine grapes still have their own distinct flavor when compared to younger Zinfandel grapes grown in the same vineyard.
The exact planting date of The Pines Vineyard in The Dalles, Oregon, is unknown, though it is believed that the vines were planted in the late 1800s or early 1900s, said Lonnie Wright, current owner.
Louis Comini, an Italian stonemason who worked on the Columbia River Cascade Locks project in the late 1800s, planted the original vines, bringing cuttings from his homeland in Genoa, Italy. A photograph taken in 1911 shows the vineyard to be well established.
Wright worked for Ste. Michelle Wine Estate’s Columbia Crest winery for several years before stumbling on what is thought to be one of the oldest vineyards in the Pacific Northwest. But he clarified that it’s not the oldest continuous vineyard because it has been in and out of production several times. He shared his experiences of bringing back the old vineyard with a group of Pacific Northwest winemakers and growers during a summer tour of the Columbia Gorge American Viticultural Area.
In 1982, Wright helped bring the abandoned, six-acre Zinfandel vineyard back into production, pruning the gnarly bushes to leave two or three shoots on each vine and pounding stakes at each bush to train the shoots upward. Restoring the vineyard, which included adding trellis wires, installing drip irrigation, and training the shoots to fill in the wire took three years. The first full crop was harvested in 1984.
He noted that growing Zinfandel grapes in the Columbia Gorge at that time was almost unthinkable. "Back in 1985, I was trying to sell the grapes for $700 a ton. Everyone told me that you can’t grow Zinfandel in The Dalles," he said. However, winemakers took notice of his old-vine Zinfandel grapes when his wine won a bronze medal at the Oregon State Fair. "It was total blasphemy entering –Zinfandel in what is Pinot Noir country. And then to win bronze," he said smiling.
Peter Rossback, winemaker and owner of Sineann wines in Newberg, Oregon, began making wine from the old Zinfandel block in 1986. In the meantime, Wright expanded the vineyard, planting Merlot and Syrah and more Zinfandel, using cuttings from the original vines. In 2001, he started to keep back some of the grapes to make his own wine under the label of The Pines 1852, with Rossback as the winemaker. Production for The Pines winery will increase to 5,500 cases next year.
There is a distinct difference between the grapes from the old Zinfandel vines and those from the newer planting, he said. "You can taste the difference between wines made from the two types of grapes. I don’t know if the difference is from the root depth of the old vines— depths that reach 30 to 40 feet—or a mineral layer or a difference in slope, but there is a distinct difference."
He admitted that bunch rot in Zinfandel can be a problem some years. In 2005, he dropped about a third of the crop on the vineyard floor due to bunch rot. At the start of veraison, it is important to stay on top of sprays for bunch rot, he added.
Vines are trained to a bilateral cordon system with vertical shoot positioning, instead of the wireless, head-trained system used for Zinfandel in California. "I prefer to have the canopy more stretched out on the wire," he said. "I don’t want any clusters to touch each other."