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Time in a bottle

Two California vineyards that honor the past

By Michael Cervin

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” philosopher George Santayana said. But what if you don’t know history? What if you accidentally stumble across something astonishing? Such is the case for two wineries on the Central Coast.

Saucelito Canyon sits far inland from Arroyo Grande. A three-mile dirt road leads to the remote winery, but only after you've got the feeling that you're lost. Here, in 1880, an Englishman named Henry Ditmas planted zinfandel vines. The vineyard abundantly produced fruit in the remote canyon for years, even throughout prohibition. In fact, due to its isolation, the Feds could never find the winery to shut it down, though they tried. But by the 1940s, the property was eventually abandoned. Enter Bill and Nancy Greenough who purchased Saucelito Canyon from Henry Ditmas’ granddaughter in 1974.

“Saucelito Canyon is a fluke geographically, ideally suited for growing zinfandel,” Bill said. As they set out to rip up the weeds that covered the ground, they immediately discovered three acres of weathered, head-trained vines. Though the vines themselves had died off, the original rootstock still was able to support new vines grafted onto it. The Greenoughs added to the zinfandel that had originally been planted by Ditmas himself.

“This history is integral to our terroir. It's just as influential as our natural environment,” Bill added. In addition to zinfandel, they produce tempranillo, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon. But their signature wine is the Dos Ranchos Zinfandel, an exquisitely dense and peppery zin balanced with a tight tannic structure and deep blackberry fruit.

Gypsy Canyon’s story is similar. Deborah Hall and her family moved from Los Angeles to find quiet and solitude in Gypsy Canyon, nestled in the Santa Rita Hills near Lompoc. Deborah had dreams of farming a small patch of land, something simple and satisfying. Her quest for simplicity abruptly ended as she cleared weeds from her property one day. She discovered several acres of old gargled vines. DNA research at University of California, Davis, concluded that the vines were from the mission period of California, and that they were probably cuttings from nearby Mission La Purisima dating back to the late 1880s. She was urged by a vineyard consultant to “rip them out,” but she couldn’t.  “They were absolutely beautiful vines,” she recalled. So what do you do with historic mission grapes? You do what the friars did; you make Angelica. A blend of mission wine and brandy, Angelica is a sweet, viscous wine. Hall found an 1891 recipe for Angelica and strictly follows it. Her Angelica is full of almond and butterscotch aromas along with hints of chocolate and cedar. She also produces pinot noir.

Deborah never had plans to become a winemaker but felt the irresistible pull of honoring the land and, for that same reason, she pursues organic farming practices. Deborah calls her historic vineyard, Dona Marcelina, in honor of the first known woman wine grower in Santa Barbara.

These vineyards show that repeating history can be a timely idea. For more information, visit www.saucelitocanyon.com or www.gypsycanyon.com.

08-01-2006

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