John Concannon is the Fourth Generation Vintner at Concannon Vineyard, now celebrating over 130 years as America’s oldest, ongoing winery under the same family label and stewardship. Founded in 1883, Concannon is home of the Concannon Cabernet Clones 7, 8 and 11 which resulted from the highly successful, collaborative work in 1965 between Jim Concannon and UC Davis in preparing for heat treatment cuttings from a single vine propagated from Cabernet Sauvignon that John’s great-grandfather imported from Château Margaux in 1893.The Concannon Clones played a key role in helping California Cabernet achieve international recognition, and currently, an estimated 80% of California Cabernet Sauvignon is planted to the Concannon Clones. The winery is also home of “America’s First Petite Sirah” among other significant contributions, which John has been intensively researching over the past several years. A tireless advocate of environmental stewardship and historic preservation within the vineyard and the Livermore Valley, some of John’s most energetic endeavors have been focused upon revitalizing the landmark winery while preserving its history and the estate’s historic sense of place.
The impact of the Concannon Cabernet Clones 7, 8 on California Cabernet Sauvignon has been substantial. How did they come about?
With the 50th Anniversary of the Concannon Clones in 2015, I’ve actually been researching this for the past two years and was recently honored to speak about their history at the 2014 International Cabernet Symposium held in Napa. Briefly, what I found is that in the 1960s, my father, Jim, and other growers were extremely concerned about phylloxera and other infestations that were threatening widespread devastation in California. For this reason, he had been an active proponent of UC Davis’ clean stock program. During this time of worry, Dad began noticing something. Throughout Livermore and other regions he visited, there were many diseased-looking vines from fan leaf and other viruses. But in the rows that belonged to the Cabernet vines propagated from ones my great-grandfather had imported from Château Margaux’s remarkable harvest in 1893, the vines were noticeably different and exceptionally virus resistant and healthy. He contacted Dr. Harold Olmo of UC Davis, and along with Curt Alley, they carefully prepared an increase block at our vineyard for the healthiest amongst these vines for observation. Then, in 1965 after a lot of hard work and deliberation, Curt Alley harvested cuttings from a single vine which were then taken to UC Davis for heat treatment and observation. They consistently showed outstanding virus resistance and produced high yields of the best quality fruit, so in 1970 and ’71, the Concannon Cabernet Clones 7 and 8 appeared on the list of registered vines.
What is the significance of the Concannon Clones 7, 8 on California winemaking?
From the beginning, the results were fantastic as was the timing. These clones became an essential asset to the enormous expansion of Cabernet plantings and re-plantings from the 1970s to the present. Today, they are by far the most widely planted Cabernet clones in California. As far as their significance to CA winemaking, I think it’s always best to share the thoughts we’ve heard from experts in the field like Dr. Olmo and other authorities in clonal research. Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Dr. Deborah Golino who is Director of UC Davis Foundation Plant Services. She shared with me that currently, “nothing comes close to the Concannon Clones from the standpoint of percentage plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon” and that they “played an invaluable, distinctive role in helping California and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon achieve international recognition.” They are still considered “three of the most highly regarded by UC Davis and the CA wine industry,” and she stated that, “I believe it is entirely fair to say that through the collaborative efforts of UC Davis and Concannon Vineyard to safeguard the Concannon Clones, we have made a highly significant contribution that helped build the extraordinary success of the California Cabernet Sauvignon winemaking industry.”There are so many “what ifs” and near misses in history; however, in this case I truly appreciate what Dr. James Wolpert of UC Davis said to Dad in an email: “I’m just happy that we had the good fortune to get it right with this Cabernet clone. I don’t think that we’d be here today in California had the Cabernet turned out to be average (or worse).” In this case, clearly all the right people came together at the right times, even generations apart… and fortunately, they all got it right.
Why the commitment to Petite Sirah as a standalone varietal bottling?
That’s an interesting question in that throughout history in France and CA, it had been used only as a blending grape. My family had been growing it as early as 1890, so they had a lot of experience with it. My father, Jim, then recognized this bold variety’s great potential, and in 1964, was first to release Petite Sirah as a varietal wine. It was a risk for sure, but fortunately, it was an immediate success.
When your great-grandfather, James Concannon, founded the winery, what led him to choose the Livermore Valley for your vineyard?
James had poured over geological surveys, and the Livermore Valley was of highest interest because Charles Wetmore, who was Chief Executive Viticultural Officer of the California Viticultural Commission at that time, had reported that our terroir and very gravelly soil was strikingly similar to the Médoc in Bordeaux.CA wine was terrible at the time and most believed it was doomed to failure, but, Wetmore, James and UC Berkeley’s new viticulture department were convinced that CA could become as great a winemaking region as Bordeaux. And, like Wetmore, James viewed Livermore as a kind of grand laboratory in which they could prove that the wine industry would flourish in CA. So, James travelled to Bordeaux with Charles’ brother, Clarence “CJ” Wetmore, to study winemaking and vineyard management. To begin with the finest vines the world had to offer, they imported their Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Château d’Yquem and their Cabernet and other red varieties from Châteaux Lafite and Margaux. Then, the Livermore Valley stunned the world by becoming the first American wine region to win an international gold medal. This happened when Charles Wetmore won Grand Prix for his Sauterne at the 1889 Paris International Exposition. Now, the Livermore Valley is recognized for its pivotal role in CA for introducing and initially planting the most diverse grape varietal mix from France, Germany, Italy and Spain in the state. Also, the early wine pioneers and leaders in this region truly believed in the improved cultural, social fabric and overall health of a nation that viticulture and wine enjoyment would bring as a normal, integral part of social gatherings around the pleasures of the table… just as James had daily enjoyed in Bordeaux… and as Thomas Jefferson had encouraged a century before. By introducing successful winegrowing practices that produced exceptional wines, they gave CA the confidence it needed to pursue winemaking with enthusiasm and begin introducing wine to American tables. They literally ended up changing American culture forever.
You’ve said that Concannon Vineyard has been ongoing and continuously operating since 1883. How did your winery navigate through Prohibition?
That’s a great question as it was just such a horrible time in winemaking and American history. After serving in the U.S. Calvary under Gen John Pershing and Lt. George Patton, my grandfather, Captain Joe, became a leader in the anti-Prohibition movement. But, when he saw that Prohibition was imminent, he went directly to the Archbishop to fight the closing of Concannon and save our Bordeaux vines. He appealed to the fact that starting in 1883, Concannon had been one of the first to craft Bordeaux-style wines, sacramental and consumer, in CA. The Archbishop agreed and the government chose Concannon to be one of only a select few wineries allowed to stay open making sacramental wine throughout Prohibition. Our wines continued being bottled under our family label, and some of those bottles have just been welcomed into the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian collection. Once Prohibition was repealed, my grandfather found himself in the same position as his father in wanting to help start a successful CA wine industry, so he became one of the founding members of The Wine Institute.
And, I have to mention here, that as a remarkable part of our Concannon Cabernet Clones story, this is how our 1893 Château Margaux Cabernet vines and the vines propagated from them ended up being saved from destruction and their promise kept alive for today.
If forced to recommend a single Concannon bottle, one white and one red, for someone to try who is unfamiliar with your wines, which bottles would you suggest?
Because of the Concannon Clones, I’d have to suggest our Mother Vine Reserve Cabernet that’s sourced from our historic Mother Vine Vineyard. But, our Captain Joe’s Petite Sirah would be a very close second! For the white, I’d suggest our Reserve Sauvignon Blanc because of the Bordeaux roots it has within our winemaking history. It’s also always been my mother’s favorite wine for greeting guests … and a tradition I’ve continued within my own home.
When it comes to winemaking, what's one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
As a family, we’ve always been driven by respect for the land. I’m especially proud that Concannon was one of the first to become Certified Sustainable in CA. Our winery is dedicated to environmental stewardship which is reflected throughout our recently completed, ten-year revitalization project including a state-of-the-art, solar powered, small lot winery and the restoration of the original, historic winery. We’re always pursuing sustainable practices, and I’m really delighted that now there is even more life in our soil which is resulting in wines with even more outstanding fruit intensity, complexity, balance, and structure.
But having grown up in the vineyard along with loving the land, I realize now that I didn’t truly grasp when younger how incredible the idea of terroir is and how much it encompasses. Now, I often tell people that if you really want to understand a wine, then the best thing is actually experiencing the terroir and vineyard where it comes from, where the wine is born. It’s an ideal way to enjoy and savor wine with friends and family around the pleasures of the table—while actually tasting and experiencing that sense of place within the wine. Also, I believe that wineries offer a wonderful place to gather as they are a celebration of nature, beauty, culture, art, science, history, health, and most of all, the special mystique and power of wine for bringing people together for pleasurable conversation and the exchange of ideas. This is a marvelous aspect of discovering the magic that exists in a glass of wine and enhancing a lifelong adventure of discovering, loving and enjoying what wine is all about.
Rising wine alcohol levels are a hot topic these days in wine circles. What are your thoughts on the subject?
For me, the most important aspect about the wine is balance. We always want our wines to be food-friendly by complimenting the food while never overpowering it, so that philosophy also informs our decisions about alcohol levels.
What are your thoughts on the 100 point scoring systems?
I think it’s a good endeavor to find some kind of scoring system that helps consumers decide if they want to try a particular wine. The current system has certainly increased consumer interest in trying new wines and has raised awareness. Since wine, like art, can be quite subjective, I believe there is high value found in wine writers’ notes and other sources that convey in greater detail the distinctive qualities of each wine.
Lastly, where can your wines be purchased?
Our wines are available in all 50 states, at our Livermore estate, through our Wine Clubs and online at www.concannonvineyard.com.
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