In Santa Clara Valley, 111-Year-Old Vines Lie Just Beyond the Outlet Malls

Besson's Grenache / Photo by Alex Krause

When wine grapes were planted in 1910 on what’s known today as Besson Vineyard, vineyards sprawled throughout the Santa Clara Valley, from the redwood slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the grassy foothills of East San Jose. But suburban development steadily swallowed this landscape, and only the most stubborn vines remained.

These gnarled Grenache vines, located just west of the outlet malls of Gilroy, were purchased in 1949 by the Bessons, a family of shoemakers originally from Savoie, France who owned a Zinfandel vineyard up the road, which still exists, too.

For decades, the roughly 10 acres of grapes were bottled in Randall “Bonny Doon” Grahm’s Clos de Gilroy Grenache and were part of his Cigare Volant Rhône blend.

“That vineyard would probably not be in the ground without Randall,” says winemaker Tegan Passalacqua, who started to buy Besson grapes for his Sandlands brand in 2018. He became an old-vine fanatic in 2003, when he started to work at Turley Cellars, which controls numerous such vineyards across California.

“It’s hard not to fall in love with them,” says Passalacqua, who cofounded the nonprofit Historic Vineyard Society in 2010 to register and educate the public about vineyards older than 50 years.

Besson's Grenach
Besson’s Grenache / Photo by Alex Krause

“We lamented that we were losing this oral tradition about how these vineyards were formed,” he says. “We’re trying to get people to tell stories.”

Besson’s modern chapter began in 2012, when Bonny Doon alumni Alex Krause and John Locke of Birichino Wines took over the vineyard lease.

“For me, this is the Goldilocks zone: warm enough to ripen completely, but still having, especially late in the season through the Hecker Pass gap, that maritime influence and cool nights that hang onto that freshness we really cherish,” says Krause, who also sells grapes to Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace, and Ian Brand of I. Brand & Family.

Though the climate is ideal for Grenache, most people believe that the age is what matters most at Besson.

“Vines are like people,” says Krause. “In their youth, they don’t quite know what to do with their energy and don’t apportion resources evenly. Older vines seem to have that balance established. They react to the environment that they’re grown up with, and can handle drought better than young vines can. You end up with a more nuanced expression as long as you don’t bastardize it and overpower it with your winemaking ego.”

Though most of the Grenache grapes go into Birichino’s single-vineyard bottling, depending on the vintage, Locke and his team will also use the grapes in other expressions, like a pétillant-naturel, vin gris and sulfur-free bottling called Mr. Natural.

They’re most fascinated by the 10% of the Grenache harvest that Birichino puts through the appassimento method, which dries the grapes before they’re pressed.

“They go through this magical transformation,” says Locke. “I don’t think we know what’s going on physiologically.”

Birichino also produces old-vine Zinfandel from the other Besson property up the road, and finds similarities to the Grenache.

“There is this alpine amaro perfume that you find in fruit from that particular section of the Santa Clara Valley,” says Locke, who points out that decomposed granite and clay soils dominate both vineyards. “It comes out with more age, too.”

Old Vines Cultivate Pride and Profits at New World Wineries

Osborne first tried the Clos de Gilroy in 2002, and she built A Tribute to Grace as a Grenache brand. She met the Birichino team during her previous career as a wine broker. Osborne was able to buy some Besson fruit in 2013 when her Santa Barbara Highlands grapes struggled to ripen.

“There’s a presence to any wine that comes from something that’s been alive that long,” says Osborne, who sees “old-man, wise-wizard energy” in the vineyard. “You can never replicate it, and you also can’t ignore it. It’s very honest and it’s very much what it is.”

She muses that these vines have gone through two World Wars, two pandemics and so many other global swings.

“It’s just incredibly humbling to hold berries that come from a vine that was planted over 100 years ago,” says Osborne, who claims that she heard recent vineyard work revealed roots that went down 60 feet. “That just blows me away.”

That the vineyard still exists may be the most magical thing of all.

“We’re so fortunate that they haven’t sold out that land,” says Krause of the Bessons. The fifth generation of the family lives in the middle of the vineyard and makes a tiny bit of its own wine. “That corridor of [Highway] 101 has largely become a bedroom community of Silicon Valley, but they want to hold onto that tradition.”

Published on May 24, 2021
Topics: California