Tracing the Roots of California’s Heritage Wines

Wine is the consumable derivative of our cultural history. If you really think about it, wine without history is just booze. The two are so entwined that if you ask basic questions about wine (e.g. why wine is it aged in oak? Where did Cabernet Sauvignon came from?) you’ll inevitably get a small history lesson for an answer. In the end, you’ll be smarter for it… and maybe even a bit tipsy.

“Wine without history is just booze.”

I’d like to share a story about an unlikely hero (a plant pathologist) who saved California’s heritage vines from being wiped out.

A while back we published an article about Petit Verdot. Then, I received a bizarre email titled “RANDOM THOUGHTS/PETIT VERDOT.” A man by the name of Fred Peterson, who planted Petit Verdot in his vineyard on Bradford Mountain (Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma) in 1983, had a fascinating story about the origin of his vines. In fact, as the story unfolded I began to realize that many of Napa and Sonoma’s greatest wines could pay tribute to a lost experimental vineyard in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Dr. Austin Goheen – UC Davis records


Digging for gold grapes

Our story goes back to Dr. Austin Goheen who was hired to work on grape virus diseases at UC Davis in California from 1956 to 1986. Goheen’s work involved meticulously cleaning and documenting hundreds of mother vines imported from Europe and from vineyards around California. The work he did at UC Davis became the core vine material sold to nurseries and used for winemaking around the US. In fact, Dr. Goheen’s work directly influenced a lot of what we drink today.

In his searches he heard of a mysterious abandoned vineyard

In order to find the best vines for propagation, Dr. Goheen went on a hunt collecting cuttings from old vineyards. His hope was to find specimens with higher disease resistance. In his searches, he heard of a mysterious abandoned vineyard in the woods of Amador County. It supposedly contained a great number of wine varieties all planted before 1900. After asking around in Amador County, he learned that the vineyard actually existed and it was an experimental research station created by none other than University of California.

“I even found numerous vines still growing in spite of the fact that deer had browsed them for almost 60 years.” –Dr. Austin Goheen. Photo: abandoned vineyards along Camino de Santiago By Bill Bereza

The research station started in the 1880’s under the guidance of a Professor Hilgard, who was one of the first scientific viticulturists of California. The Foothill Experiment Station at Jackson (old mining country) was planted in 1889 with many different fruit trees and vines. The goal was to help transition miners into farming. Unfortunately, the costs ended up being too high and the Foothill Experiment Station was deserted in 1903.

Squatter’s rights and arson

The Jackson station buildings were neglected for several years until an Italian stone mason family called the Fantozzi’s moved in and claimed the title with squatter’s rights. Shortly thereafter, a legal battle ensued against the Fantozzis. The University and the original landowners had an agreement that if the University stopped using the land it would revert back to the original owners, but neither party had anticipated adverse possession. They fought to get back the land and lost. Someone in the group must have gotten vindictive and they raided the property and burned down all the buildings. After the fire, the Fantozzis held onto the property, but abandoned it. The vineyards remained untouched for 60 years.

“The vineyards remained untouched for 60 years.”

The old general store just outside of Jackson, CA. It was made by an Italian stone mason in 1857. by Jimmy Emerson

This is when Dr. Goheen came across the story of the Foothill Experiment Station at Jackson and asked for permission to inspect the property. Naturally, Fantozzi II was not enthusiastic about someone from the University of California looking into his land! He eventually gave way since Goheen’s objective were purely scientific. With university records and the help of a passionate assistant (by the name of Carl Luhn), Goheen was able to identify 132 different cultivars, many of which they were able to obtain cuttings and propagate.

The map of the original Jackson vineyard from UC Davis archives . Notice the words “Sauternes” for Sauvignon Blanc and “Bourgogne” for Pinot Noir

What happened to these cuttings?

There are 13 acres of Clone 2 Petit Verdot at Jordan Winery in Sonoma

At the time, the cuttings produced vines that appeared to have higher disease resistance than what was being used in commercial farming. Thus, the clones obtained at the Jackson station vineyard ended up in the hands of viticulturists around the state. For example:

Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 6: One of the most important Jackson station vineyard clones which surfaced into importance in the 1980’s when Beaulieu Vineyards ran several clone trials of Cabernet and saw it as a clear winner. Clone 6 produces Cabernet grapes with thick, healthy skins which, in turn, produces red wines that are deep and dark in color and rich with intensity and minerality. Clone 6 can be found growing all over Napa in some of the area’s best vineyards.

Sauvignon Blanc Clone 29: In the late 1960’s, Robert Mondavi introduced a Sauvignon Blanc wine that was inspired by the oaked white wines of Pouilly Fumé. He called the wine Fumé Blanc. The Jackson station clone was used for Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc. In the map and records of Jackson station, the vines were simply referred to as “Sauternes” after the sweet wines of Bordeaux.

Petit Verdot Clones 2: A heritage clone originally planted in Professor Hilgard’s vineyards around Berkeley, CA after being imported from France in the 1870’s. The vines produce a large crop and wines with very deep color. This is likely the same plant material that was used to plant Fred Peterson’s in 1983 and subsequently the Petit Verdot at Ridge Vineyards as well (since Fred was the vineyard manager there from 1985–1990).


Last word: drink more history

Next time you drink a bottle of wine, dig into its history. You might be surprised what you find.

Special thanks to Fred Peterson for reaching out
Dr. Austin Goheen’s direct account of the story in the UC Davis Archives
The origin of the Grape Program at Foundation Plant Materials Service (FPS) at UC Davis UC Davis Archives
A neat article from 2000 in LA Times about Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon that you’ll probably find interesting. LA Times
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About Madeline Puckette

I'm a certified sommelier and creator of the NYT Bestseller, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. Find me out there in the wine world @WineFolly