The Original Grandpère Vineyard: Powerful Women, Grapes and Wines

Terri Harvey among the ancient, revered Zinfandel in her Original Grandpere Vineyard

This is Part 1 of my telling of Amador County’s heritage done for the organizers of the upcoming Amador Four Fires; a culinary and wine celebration taking place in Plymouth’s Amador County Fairgounds on May 2, 2015.  Amador County’s heritage is all about the fascinating history of its vineyards and wines, woven with stories of the colorful, hard-scrabble people who made it happen.  A few of the brighter threads:

Farmers, dreamers, risk takers... 

Scrawled on a chalkboard in the recently opened Prospect Cellars on Plymouth’s Main St., you can see an homage to the families, farmers, vets, county fairs, traditions, sunsets, rain, FFA, 4H pigs, dance partners, dreamers, risk takers, and all the other things that make Amador Amador.

And so naturally, in the small-town setting of Amador County, things that happened over 150 years ago are as fresh in people’s minds as last week’s events.  Prospect Cellars proprietor Jamie Colburn-Lubenko, the former Executive Director of Amador Vintners Association, calls herself a “Plymouth girl” through and through. 

Ms. Colburn-Lubenko can talk first-hand about Shenandoah Valley’s 10-acre Zinfandel planting known as the Original Grandpère Vineyard – the oldest and most revered of California’s Old Vine Zinfandels – because, to her, it’s family history.

“What everyone knows is that there is a grant deed in Amador County records that shows a vineyard planted there in 1869,” says Colburn-Lubenko, “and that the original vines are still there.  This makes it the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in the state.

Plymouth girl:  Prospect Cellars' Jamie Colburn-Lubenko

“What fewer people know,” she continues, “is that it was a woman named Mahala Teter Upton – my husband Ronn’s great-great-grandmother – who originally took care of that vineyard, with the help of her 8-year old son Rueben.  

“Mahala first came to Shenandoah Valley with her husband John Dale in 1863 with seven children in tow – all the way from Missouri in a slow, covered wagon.  How they accomplished that, when I could barely contain my kids for two hours in a car, I have no idea.  I suppose if anyone got out of hand they could say, ‘You can get out and walk.’

“Like most Amador County settlers, Mahala’s family came to mine but stayed to farm.  According to family lore, in 1870 John Dale just up and died, probably from a stroke, while changing a neighbor’s wagon wheel.  By then they had a fairly large homestead (600 acres, according to Sherry A. Monahan’s California Vines,Wines & Pioneers), and Mahala had just given birth to their tenth child.  But work had to go on.  Mahala went ahead and took care of her vineyard, which was good enough to survive to this day.” 

Woman under the influence of rickety old vines

In the aforementioned Original Grandpère Vineyard – that is, what remains of Mahala Teter Upton’s original Zinfandel vines in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley AVA – you will see curving tracks of a tractor wheels between the rows of spindly, gnarly limbed, head trained, spur pruned old plants; many with trunks split in two, their cores long rotted away, standing 8 by 8-feet across along the site’s sloping, northwards facing hill.

Terri Harvey

Here is where the plot thickens, although we need to get down to the roux of the matter to give it a decent accounting... 

For over 70 years Mahala Teter Upton’s original Zinfandel planting continued to serve her family and numerous descendants well.  Grapes were sold to locals and, after the start of Prohibition (1920), mostly to home winemakers in the Midwest or on the East Coast.  During the 1930s the vineyard was sold to the Steiner family, who held on to it until 1970, when Walt Steiner sold it to its longtime caretaker, John Downing.

By then the vineyard had dwindled from 16 to 10 acres.  In 1979 a talented Sierra Foothills raised but Germany-trained winemaker named Scott Harvey began to purchase Zinfandel from John and Virginia Downing.  At the time, the vineyard’s condition had also hit a low poiint.  Ready to retire, the Downings offered to sell to Mr. Harvey – by then married to a local farmer’s daughter, Terri Harvey – in 1982. 

The Harveys could not afford to buy the vineyard outright.  So they signed a 5-year lease to revive the planting – taking a saw to all the dead or gangly wood keeping the vineyard from producing top quality grapes – while fixing up the old, raggedy home on-property (built during the 1880s).  They were finally able to take full possession of the property in 1988.

The Harveys would work together as a husband-wife team until their divorce in 1996.  Scott was the winemaker; but from the very beginning, in 1982, most of the vineyard work fell to Terri Harvey, since she was the one with the farmer’s hands and disposition.  According to Ms. Harvey, “I had been working in Shenandoah Valley vineyards since I was 11 years old, getting wealthy at $1.65 an hour.”

Close-up of ancient Original Grandpere Vineyard Zinfandel

While surveying her domain this past April 2015, Ms. Harvey told us, “This is not like most vineyards, where you can run a tractor between the vines in a nice, straight line.  The vines were never big, but the spurs will stick out into the rows.  In the old days the 8-ft. spacing probably wasn’t much of a problem, because you did most things by hand or with a horse.  It makes you sick when you accidentally break off an arm; or sometimes, when you hit one, the whole vine comes down.  There aren’t enough of them left as it is.”

Yet all things considered, at 146 years of age Ms. Harvey’s vineyard is in remarkable shape.  Just over 80% of the remaining vines are the original ones planted by Mahala Teter Upton and her son Rueben.  In most California vineyards over 100 years old, retention of 50% to 70% of the original vines is considered a good percentage. 

Over the years Ms. Harvey has been replanting “dead” spots with new vines, utilizing cuttings from the original vines to maintain a clonal purity.  The new plantings are grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock, since the infamous root louse that devastated well over 99% of the vineyards in California and around the world during the late nineteenth century still remains a threat to natural (i.e. “own-rooted”) vines.  All of the 1869 vines in the Original Grandpère Vineyard still grow on their own roots.

“We have phylloxera here, but it doesn’t get carried away because this vineyard happens to sit on the sandiest soil in Amador County,” says Ms. Harvey, in reference to the mixture of finely decomposed granite (i.e. sand) and loose clay loam on her slopes.  To hedge her bets, Harvey uses equipment exclusive to the vineyard, and rarely allows outsiders to tromp through, to minimize the possibility of pests, microscopic or otherwise, carried in from other vineyards. 

“But it’s mostly because we are in a sandier spot of the Foothills that these old vines have been able to survive,” she tells us, “whereas plants in surrounding vineyards have not.”  There are, incidentally, a few old stands of own-rooted Mission – an even sturdier type of Vitis vinifera – dating back from the 1850s and 1860s in Shenandoah Valley, although it was Zinfandel that the early miners-turned-farmers preferred.

Despite the other ever-present danger of “tractor blight,” the natural wild grasses that grow around Grandpère’s vines need constant mowing and discing because the ancient plants are low-yielding enough – in an average year, producing tiny, fist-sized clusters (clusters on young Zinfandel vines are easily three times that), barely adding up to 1 to 1.5-tons per acre – without having to compete with grasses for water and nutrients on this 1,300-ft. elevation hillside.

Chalkboard in Prospect Cellars

Yet it is also because these ancient vines have been dry land farmed all their lives (it is only the young, new plantings that ever see irrigation) that they have been able to survive nearly 150 years of cycles – periods of drought, excess rain, cold vintages, hot vintages.  Sandy soil forces deep rooting, and deep roots contribute to healthy, productive plants – a symbiosis you see in other regions (such as Lodi and Contra Costa) replete with sandy soils and ancient vines.

Says Kevin O’Neil, the cellarmaster of Vino Noceto, which produces an “OGP” Zinfandel each year from the vineyard:  “In the hottest, dryest years, when all the surrounding vineyards look like they’re shriveling up, Grandpère’s vines always looks fresh because their roots are so well established.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them have roots stretched all the way over to Deaver’s Pond across the road.”

Ms. Harvey tells us, “You’ve probably heard of vineyards where one person claims to know each and every vine, like people.  I actually do, mostly because I don’t trust anyone else to touch these vines.  I prune each plant myself – I think you have to have a feel for how each one wants to grow, be thinned, suckered or picked.  I used to tell everyone that working this vineyard myself keeps me out of the bars, which would be true if not for the fact that I don’t go to bars.”

In the late 1960s and 1970s, some of Amador County’s old vine Zinfandel growths began to attract a lot of attention when wineries like Sutter Home, Montevina and Carneros Creek began to wow California wine lovers with the typically perfumed, finely etched and spicy qualities of the fruit. 

Despite the ancient eminence of Mahala Teter Upton’s planting, the vineyard had absolutely no identity until the 1980s.  This would not happen until Scott Harvey began to fashion wines from it under his Santino Winery label; and then a little later, for a short time (1993-1995) with a partner (Robert Smerling) at Renwood Winery.  The latter relationship would end in a litigious fashion, almost as bitterly as the divorce between the two Harveys around the same time. 

It is Mr. Harvey, however, who gets credit for naming the vineyard “Grandpère” (there were also “Grandmère” Zinfandels, produced from younger neighboring vineyards).  Today, the confusing thing for both consumers and the wine trade is that there is also a Renwood Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandel, made from a vineyard planted by Mr. Harvey for Renwood during the early 1990s from cuttings taken from the original 1869 planting, grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. 

Vino Noceto winemaker Rusty Folena

Although Mr. Harvey was the one who put Grandpère on the map, his former partner at Renwood was the one with the foresight – some say duplicitous, others say smart – to trademark the name, and be able to exert said rights following Mr. Harvey’s split with Renwood Winery.

“We were stupid,” says Terri Harvey.  “We should have trademarked the name years before, and then Scott and I were going through our own problems.  I wanted to buy Scott out and keep the vineyard – at the very least, to keep the girls (the Harveys have three daughters, now grown and happily successful) in their own home. 

“Eventually everyone came to a compromise,” she tells us.  “I kept the property.  Smerling kept the rights to the Grandpère name, but allowed us to sell our grapes as Original Grandpère.  And Scott – he was fed up with everything; the suits, counter-suits, some pretty wild accusations.”  Mr. Harvey would move to Napa Valley, where he would help to launch Folie à Deux Winery into national prominence.

Just to get it all straight:  Zinfandels from Mahala Teter Upton’s own-rooted 1869 planting are currently bottled as Original Grandpère Vineyard.  Today, these wines are produced by just four wineries – Andis Wines (located nearby on Shenandoah Rd.), MacchiaWines (based in Lodi), Vino Noceto (as OGV Zinfandel), and Scott Harvey Wines (who calls it Vineyard 1869). 

Since Terri Harvey refuses to sell grapes to Renwood Winery, the Renwood Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandel is made from those younger grafted vines that went into the ground in the 1990s with the use of cuttings from the original vineyard.

Because, as she puts it, “You cannot make a living from an old 1-ton-an-acre vineyard,” Terri Harvey and her business partner, grape grower Pat Rohan, now manage some 29 other vineyards (totaling about 550 acres) in Amador County. 

Most recently, Scott Harvey has successfully developed two other brands, Scott Harvey Wines and Jana Wines, in partnership with his second spouse Jana Littman, working out of Napa Valley.  But after a 20-year absence from the Foothills, Mr. Harvey has recently christened new tasting rooms in both Sutter Creek and Plymouth (with signs on Shenandoah Rd. saying, “Scott Harvey is back!”).

That’s the history – what about the wine?  From the beginning, Zinfandels from the Original Grandpère Vineyard have never been known for sheer size, power or strength; but rather, for a lanky, sometimes even lean, sinewy length of flavors, mixing bright, floral fruit with mildly earthy, loamy, occasionally crushed or green leafy notes.  You don’t buy an Original Grandpère to be bowled over – you buy it to be buoyed or enlightened.

The 2011 Vino Noceto OGP (The Original Grandpère Vineyard) Zinfandel shows exactly that, but with a beautifully fresh intensity of flowery perfume – wrapped around a bright core of raspberry/blackberry fruit – and long silky, balanced, zesty qualities shoring up its modestly weighted (14.1% alcohol), medium-full body.  This wine is a limber lover, not a lumbering fighter. 

Vino Noceto winemaker Rusty Folena, who first began working with the vineyard as Scott Harvey’s assistant at Santino in 1983, describes the Original Grandpère Vineyard Zinfandels as “classic Amador... never over-the-top.”  Through year after year of vintage variation, according to Folena, the vineyard “always has a mind of its own... clusters are tiny – they can fit in the palm of your hand – and the small size gives the wines their distinct consistency of fruit and acid balance.”

Folena adds, “We pick for ripe flavor, and so sugars can vary year to year, from 24° to 27° Brix.  Complexity can come in different ways.  We destem and break berries without mashing them, and we do a submerged cap fermentation to get a slow, low, gentle extraction, no punch-downs or pump-overs” – a gentle approach that further enhances the Original Grandpère’s characteristic delicacy. 

“The fact that the vineyard faces mostly north has probably always contributed to its subtle character, different than anything else in Shenandoah Valley,” says Folena.  “Sometimes we’ll get a good second crop (less ripe fruit from late flowering clusters), which we’ll pick for more acidity.

“And like other vineyards in the area, Grandpère does get a little bit of red leaf (leafroll virus is typical of Zinfandel clonal material planted in Amador County), which can give different degrees of ripeness in a single vine” – the latter issue, something Ms. Harvey has been able to offset somewhat with usage of KDL® (a foliar macronutrient) and other measures to extend photosynthesis and more efficient fruit maturation longer into the season.

According to Ms. Harvey, living with rickety old vines like Original Grandpère Vineyard is like “making peace with Murphy’s Law... you expect things to go wrong at any time, but every year it’s probably the age of the vines that ultimately pulls you through.  You cannot be broken when you’re already almost dead!”

Close-up of 146-year old Original Grandpere Zinfandel in sandy clay loam soil


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Randy Caparoso:
"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.