There was a day when farmers and winemakers alike adored the black grape alicante bouschet.
That was long ago, during Prohibition.
For growers, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, alicante bouschet was a prodigious producer, giving them up to 10 or so tons per acre, helping assure an encouraging return on investment.
For winemakers, the thick-skinned alicante bouschet easily withstood the rigors of being shipped to cellars in the Midwest and along the East Coast.
Chances were high that those would be home rather than commercial cellars. During Prohibition, residents could continue to make wine for their own consumption.
In the 1930s, alicante bouschet accounted for a third of California's grape production, according to the wine-trade website Appellation America. Today, little more than 1,000 of the state's 476,000 acres in wine grapes are planted to alicante bouschet.
With the end of Prohibition, the grape's allure faded as commercial winemaking expanded, wineries were built adjacent to vineyards, and more sensitive and esteemed French wine grape varieties shouldered aside the sturdy but aesthetically unheralded alicante bouschet.
It has never quite disappeared from California's vineyards, however. Alicante bouschet is one of those unusual black grapes whose juice runs red, not clear, so it's maintained somewhat of a standing for the pigmentation it can contribute to varietals lacking desired color. Alicante bouschet also is valued for its firm tannins, which can be called upon to shore up the backbone of wines needing more structure.
Nobody predicts that alicante bouschet will be the next big thing in wine circles, but a few growers and vintners are discovering that the grape, when grown in a receptive setting and handled affectionately, can yield a surprisingly inviting varietal.
At the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition on the grounds of the Citrus Fair in Cloverdale early this year, our panel evaluated 97 wines grouped in a class of varietals and blends that shared two things in common. For one, they were made with grapes commonly associated with France's Rhône Valley, such as mourvèdre and carignan, but not syrah, judged separately in its own classes. Secondly, each was priced at more than $20.
Of the 10 gold medals we awarded, just one went to an alicante bouschet (two had been entered). It was the Harmony Wynelands Winery 2009 Lodi Alicante Bouschet. I voted gold largely on the strength of the wine's beckoning perfume, jamminess and balance. It's a deeply colored wine, with a huskiness to match in the juiciness of its fruit and in the mass of its build, but its tannins had been so nicely massaged they didn't taste at all barbed. Suggestions of chocolate and smoke added to the wine's intrigue.
Harmony Wynelands Winery is a small Lodi estate created by Bob and Linda Hartzell. Bob Hartzell is a former president of the California Wine Grape Growers Association.
Harmony Wynelands sets itself apart from other wineries in two respects. For one, the barn that houses the winery's tasting room also houses a massive pipe organ that dates from 1921, when it first was fired up at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Hartzell, from his office aerie above the tasting counter, is apt to saunter down most any time to crank up the organ, which also is used to accompany periodic showings of silent movies.
Secondly, Harmony Wynelands is keen on seeking out what Hartzell and his winemakers stepson Shaun MacKay and consultant Chad Joseph consider exceptional pairings of grape and site. Thus, Harmony Wynelands is rare among Lodi wineries in that its lineup includes a riesling, the fruit for which Hartzell gets in Monterey County.
That focus on grape variety and site also accounts for the alicante bouschet. When Hartzell became captivated by alicante bouschet's prospects as a stand-alone varietal, he didn't have to look beyond Lodi to find suitable grapes. Alicante bouschet had been a staple of the region for decades, and at least one old stand of the variety was still producing. That would be on the Mohr-Fry Ranch, where the head-trained alicante bouschet vines date from 1921. Hartzell's team has been working with the Mohr-Fry fruit for a decade now.
One of the knocks on alicante bouschet has been that, despite the initial depth of the color in its wines, it tends to fade fast. Joseph says he's been able to stabilize the pigmentation of alicante bouschet with a variety of cellar techniques, including keeping the juice at a moderate temperature during fermentation. The same methods, he's convinced, also help tame the variety's notoriously harsh tannins, thus turning out a wine that while saturated with color and broad in build is easy to drink, especially when the wine is paired with food.
"So many old-timers around here say that the color of alicante bouschet drops out, but that hasn't been our experience," said Bob Hartzell.
Joseph and MacKay also use the variety in a proprietary blend called "GMA," for grenache, mourvèdre and alicante bouschet. Grenache and mourvèdre commonly are blended with syrah for a popular category of Rhône Valley-inspired wines called "GSM," but Joseph has found that the Lodi alicante bouschet is a better fit than the local syrah for bringing needed color and structure to the mix.
The current release of the GMA, from the 2008 harvest, was made with 33 percent grenache, 33 percent mourvèdre and 34 percent alicante bouschet, yielding a wine as plush, varied and comforting as a Victorian parlor. (Two years ago, the 2007 version of the wine was named Best Red Rhône Blend at the California State Fair commercial wine competition.)
Harmony Wynelands Winery
2009 Lodi Alicante Bouschet
By the numbers: 14.2 percent alcohol, 150 cases, $30
Context: Chad Joseph recommends that the wine be poured with a hefty pork loin or a cut of lamb, though it also has the agility to go with chicken.
Availability: The wine is available only at the winery, 9291 East Harney Lane, Lodi, open 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 12:30-5 p.m. Sundays.