Fact Check: California’s Oldest Riesling

Where in California are the oldest Riesling vines still in production? When Riesling Rediscovered went to press in 2015, the answer was clear enough: the oldest such vines were in Block 3 of the Stony Hill Vineyard, in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains northwest of St. Helena, planted in 1948. In 2015, however, Block 3 gave just 0.83 tons of fruit per acre, and in 2016 only a trifle more – an even ton to the acre. Because such yield is not even close to profitable, and the vines seemed to be losing a long battle with red blotch virus, Stony Hill was obliged to consider replanting, and did so seriously.

Three years later, however, Block 3 is still in production. Bravo. Slightly improved yield in 2017 (1.2 tons per acre) deserves partial credit for the reprieve.   So does the burden associated with expensive re-plantings in other blocks, and the chance to include some new Riesling (0.67 acre) in the replant of Block 6. Plus, confesses Sarah McCrea, granddaughter of the Stony Hill founders, “we have such a soft spot in our hearts for those vines,” now 70-years old. Block 3 thus remains in 2018, as it was in 2015, the oldest stand of California Riesling that is still in production.

When the clock finally runs out for Block 3, presumably sometime “a few years” hence, next in line for the “oldest California Riesling” title is probably a chunk of the Wirz Vineyard, about three hours’ drive south of Stony Hill in the Cienega Valley AVA. But some fuzziness surrounds exactly when the oldest Riesling at Wirz was planted. Winemakers who now buy Riesling from this vineyard cite dates between 1952 and 1965. At the early end of this range, Wirz’s claim would probably be uncontested. By the 1960s, however, the earliest plantings of Riesling in Arroyo Seco would also need to be considered. Records at FPS show that Riesling cuttings taken from the Foundation vineyard at Davis were used to plant Increase Block 36 in Wente’s Arroyo Seco Vineyard “between 1963 and 1968.” The planting history of vineyards is often imperfectly recorded by the original actors, and can be genuinely difficult to reconstruct 50, 60 or 70 years after the fact.

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