The Unknown Vineyards of Contra Costa County

Story by Derrick Schneider
Photos by Melissa Schneider

Viognier grapes at Tom Powers’s vineyard

Imagine an upstart winemaker fleeing Contra Costa County’s prestigious but high-priced vineyards for the dirt-cheap farmland in the unknown Napa Valley. In the early twentieth century, Martinez and Oakley, not Rutherford and St. Helena, were darlings of the wine world. The Christian Brothers winery was in Martinez, the world’s largest wine cellar was Winehaven in Richmond, and 6,000 acres were under vine.

Farm conditions were ideal for wine grapes. Sandy soil drained the light rainfall quickly, and vines stressed themselves in their quest for water, which in turn led to character-rich fruit. Hot days ripened the grapes, but each night the Sacramento River Delta took a deep breath of cold air off San Francisco Bay, pushing the temperature down 30 degrees and allowing the fruit to maintain that acidity that sizzles across a taster’s tongue. A maze of microclimates, formed by the folds of hills and the dips of valleys in the county’s center, fostered a number of grape varieties.

The environmental factors that shape Contra Costa fruit haven’t changed. But the area’s reputation has slid into a gully of anonymity. While Napa Valley and its hilly edges contain 14 designated American Viticultural Areas, Contra Costa makes do with the usual political boundaries given to counties. “Most of the wineries went away during Prohibition,” says Tom Powers, a white-haired and mustachioed grape grower, home winemaker, and president of the Contra Costa Grape and Olive Growers Association. “And after Prohibition, land was too expensive. The industrial era had arrived.” In 2005, only 1,900 acres of grapes (table and wine) were harvested in all of Contra Costa County.

Some of those acres are the same ones that flourished in the heyday of Martinez and Oakley, sold to new owners or passed down to children, leaving Contra Costa County with a treasure trove of old vines alongside younger plants. Viano Vineyards near Martinez has a block of 118 year-old Zinfandel vines that Conrad Viano kept when he bought the property in 1920. The Planchon vineyard near Antioch has vines that Stan Planchon’s grandfather planted in 1902. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, which had contracts with a number of local growers but recently sold the brands that used those grapes, considers the county’s old-vine Carignane to be one of its most valuable assets, saying, “It’s absolutely brilliant, one of the most undervalued and underappreciated varieties.” The gnarled trunks of old vines may look like vineyard trolls, but the low yields of small grapes concentrate flavor and create complex, intense wines that their younger counterparts can never quite rival. Not every grape variety can survive for 50 years or more, but the Italian and Portugese immigrants in the area planted hardy varieties such as Zinfandel, Mourvedre, and Carignane, and they have weathered disease and pests. They’ve also survived without irrigation, which intensifies the flavor: Modern drip lines and pumps add water and dilute the flavor of the fruit.

But even these sought-after ancient plants suffer from Contra Costa’s unremarkable name. “They’re really a value for old vine grapes,” says Charlie Tsegeletos, wine maker for Cline Cellars, which started in Oakley before moving to the Carneros district. Cline is proud of its Contra Costa fruit. The Ancient Vines Mourvedre and Carignane bear the “Contra Costa County” label, and 30{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} of the large winery’s grapes come from growers around Oakley and other towns in the county.

But other wineries don’t push the appellation. Rosenblum Cellars has purchased grapes from Contra Costa since the mid-1980s but now labels them with the San Francisco Bay AVA. San Francisco is a name that national consumers recognize, but who outside of this area could point to Contra Costa County on a map?

Anonymity is only one problem that the region’s grape growers face. Urban development pushes out farmers in favor of gigantic houses. “They come out here with checks all filled out,” says David Viano, winemaker for Viano Vineyards, of the developers eager to build tract homes and strip malls on farmland. So far the Vianos haven’t bitten. “We like our lifestyle the way it is,” says Viano, a tall man who wears his silver-black hair under a baseball cap and speaks in a booming voice. Other grape growers have taken the easy path, tired of struggling to make ends meet with undervalued Contra Costa fruit.

The county offers little in the way of support. While Alameda County stepped in to control urban sprawl around Livermore (see Edible East Bay, Fall 2005), Contra Costa County’s government leaves farmers to fend for themselves in more localized efforts. “Brentwood feels that if they put too many fines on the developer, the developer will stay away,” says Tom Bloomfield, who converted some of his alfalfa business to vines in the mid-’90s and now sits on the Board of Directors of the Brentwood Area Land Trust (BALT, see Edible East Bay, Summer 2006). The farming town’s McMansion tycoons contribute $5,500 to BALT for every acre of land they develop. BALT then uses that money to buy land for permanent agricultural use. But every new suburban development reduces the supply of land, and increased demand for that land boosts prices. Right now, says Bloomfield, BALT spends $15,000-$20,000 to preserve an acre of land for agriculture.

Tom Powers in the vineyard

Further north, Powers, who spent 16 years as a county Supervisor, helped develop a pact between the eight cities that border Briones Hill. They pledged to preserve the agricultural core, which keeps pressure off farmers for the time being, but who knows how that pact will survive in the future as housing pressure builds.

The constant building pits farmers against the crowds of new neighbors and the developers who built their homes. “We’re seeing a tremendous amount of traffic going through our farms,” says Bloomfield, “and our business—spraying chemicals, causing dust—affects more people.” Viano shrugs off the tract homes that now border a portion of his property, but he wryly notes that the developers fetched a higher price for the houses that boast vineyard views—of his family’s vineyards.

Powers, who has farming in his blood, may have found the bridge that will connect estate owners and farmers. He started Diablo Vineyards to sell vineyard landscaping to wealthy homeowners. They enjoy the vineyard view, but the company maintains the plants and harvests the grapes, which it sells to home winemakers. These vineyard vistas are subject to the whims of each home’s current and future owners, but Diablo Vineyards has planted throughout Contra Costa County, and the combination of estate and farmland can only help relations between the new neighbors who might not have seen the value of agriculture until they had their “own” vineyard.

Powers has since sold the company, but as the president of the Contra Costa Grape and Olive Growers Association, he continues to bolster the county’s view of its farmers. The new organization promotes Contra Costa grapes and tries to bring prestige back to the region. They have a hard fight ahead of them, but their initial goal is modest: more Contra Costa wines in local restaurants. The group will promote the wines together, in a partnership with the USDA and BALT, and educate wine drinkers about the factors that make these grapes so good.

Powers also works with the county to improve the permit process. Few of the local politicians know what they should require of upstart wineries. New wineries have sprung up here and there over the last few years, but Powers wants to make the county inviting to more wine makers.

On the other hand, one of the diamonds in the Contra Costa portfolio has been making wine near Martinez since 1946. Viano Vineyards has old vines, of course, but the family has continued to plant newer vines the same way the original farmers did. No irrigation lines run up the slight hill through the vineyard—even around the young vines—and the Viano brothers will soon try their first experiment with trellising, an established practice in most vineyards. “When you’ve got farm equipment for one kind of setup,” says David with a shrug, “it makes sense to keep using it.” Few other American wineries plant vines in this traditional style, and it’s tempting to believe that the unorthodox approach gives the Viano wines their flavorful character, especially next to Contra Costa wines from big companies, in which the high alcohol deadens the fruit aromas, weighs down the palate, and reduces any “Contra Costa-ness” that might emerge.

While the family-run Viano winery sells interesting wines at the tasting room and in local restaurants, Contra Costa’s brand may only thrive with a high-end wine, which is what Tim Jochner hopes to make from his young Shadowbrook winery. The tanned and talkative financial executive became obsessed with making wine after Diablo Vineyards planted vines around his house. You’ll find all of his vineyards tucked among the palatial homes in a gated cul-de-sac in Walnut Creek. He now owns Diablo Vineyards, and that company does the work on his vines. He modeled portions of his no-expense-spared winery, which looks like any other house on the residential street, after Mondavi’s Opus One winery in Napa and proudly displays a photo of Robert Mondavi visiting the winery. But at the same time, Jochner sets himself apart from the famous region. “Napa has sold us a line that you need wide temperature swings to get good grapes. They say Walnut Creek is too hot for grapes, but this area used to be covered in vineyards.” He asserts that he can make high-end, boutique wine from his neighborhood vines, and his attention to detail bodes well (his wines were not yet available for tasting).

But Jochner’s ambitions underscore Contra Costa’s problem: His confidence wavers in the face of Contra Costa’s lackluster reputation. He’s considering applying for a more specific AVA, in part because the county’s name is a hard sell.

For now, the county’s low grape prices are our gain. Even the high-end Viano wines cost less than $20, as do Contra Costa bottles from Rosenblum and Cline. But those low prices cut both ways, giving us value but making it harder for the county’s wine makers to be taken seriously. Contra Costa grape growers nervously eye the houses on the horizon and wonder how long the region’s reputation can hold them at bay.

Contra Costa Wines of Note

Cabernet grapes in Tom Powers’s vineyard

The following wines are some of the gems I found from Contra Costa grapes. None of the wines were tasted blind. (I tasted Viano Vineyards wines with the wine maker, and Rosenblum Cellars and Cline Cellars provided samples for the article.)

2004 Rosenblum
“Appellation Series” Mourvedre, San Francisco Bay ($18)

This high-octane wine features deep blackberry aromas. The alcohol gives the wine a viscous mouthfeel and syrupy fruit flavors. Hints of soy sauce tease the memory over the medium-long finish, but the quick burst of acidity and lightweight tannins leave you wanting more. Serve with bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with a pomegranate sauce. rosenblumcellars.com

2004 Cline Cellars
Big Break Zinfandel ($28)
This weighty Zinfandel isn’t shy about its fruity side. Blackberry jam and plum aromas transform into a bright combination of cherry and blueberry flavors. A low acidity, medium finish, and modest tannins make this a surprisingly soft wine. Serve alongside bacon-cheese burgers. clinecellars.com

2002 Viano Vineyards
Sangiovese Riserva ($17)
This lively wine has a charming aroma of nutmeg and plum, with subtle floral components. It has the vibrant acidity typical of the grape, fruit flavors, and a medium-long finish. Serve with pasta dressed in a Bolognese sauce. vianovineyards.com

2004 Viano Vineyards
Sand Rock Hill Zinfandel ($13)
This old-vine Zinfandel from the most ancient plants on the Viano property shows off its pedigree. Light spice and fruit aromas sing soprano to the bass of the wine’s earth and leather character. A long finish lets you linger over the hearty wine. Serve with grilled magret with a blackberry sauce. vianovineyards.com