Above – John Concannon, standing with “The Mother Vine,” discusses the historical significance this vine has had on the California wine industry’s success with Cabernet Sauvignon.
By Laura Ness
Did you know that a single vine of Cabernet from the Livermore Valley may have saved Napa’s butt after phylloxera devastated California vineyards in the 1960s? It’s not just a rumor: John Concannon, fourth generation vintner, has done his homework carefully and methodically, and has documented the paper trail that proves clearly that Clones 7, 8 and 11 of Cabernet Sauvignon, were sourced from cuttings of “The Mother Vine,” which is thriving just yards from the beautiful old Victorian house where he grew up.
Concannon Vineyard has been recognized through the years for its many pioneering contributions to California winemaking and viticulture. Pretty much everyone associates Concannon with Petite Sirah, and no surprise, since Jim was first to varietally bottle and label it as such in 1961. Across the country, people who have heard of Concannon most always say, “Great Petite Sirah!” Or, if they’ve been hip to the latest, they will rave about “Crimson & Clover,” the Zin and Petite blend John created in honor of his father’s 80th birthday, and the 50th anniversary of Petite being bottled as a varietal by the Concannons.
In 2013, they celebrated a new milestone: 130 years of growing Cabernet in Livermore. In 1883, founder James Concannon first purchased 47 acres here in Livermore, planting Cabernet Sauvignon vines imported directly from Bordeaux, bottling the first wine in 1886. In 1930, second generation Captain Joe Concannon was the first to bottle a single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon under the Concannon label. It’s neat to see the old wine labels that John has painstakingly gathered. Most of the labels in the 1930s and ‘40s show alcohol levels of 12 percent. The first recorded one says “California Cabernet,” and another says “Livermore Cabernet,” with the descriptor beneath reading, “A Medium Bodied Wine of Cabernet Grapes.”
The longevity of the Concannon family’s involvement with Cabernet almost takes a back seat to its importance in helping the wine industry to move forward after the deadly phylloxera outbreak of 1960 that devastated California’s vineyards for a second time in less than a century. Phylloxera’s first outbreak occurred in the early 1890s, wiping out the Concannon vineyards as well as many others in California. Founder James Concannon imported what he hoped were phylloxera-resistant Cabernet rootstocks directly from Bordeaux between 1893 and 1903 to replant his precious vineyards. These very vines survived the 1960s outbreak, and thus became the subject of intense interest on the part of UC Davis, in particular, Dr. Harold Olmo and Curt Alley from the Department of Enology and Viticulture, who began working with Jim and Joe Concannon to find a disease-resistant rootstock for replanting.
From this research came the famous Concannon Cabernet Sauvignon Clones 7, 8, and 11. These clones were developed from cuttings taken from a single Cabernet Sauvignon vine in the Concannon vineyard in 1965, now called “The Mother Vine,” which were used to create a block of vines for analysis by UC Davis. The cuttings then underwent heat treatment for various lengths of time at the UC Davis lab, after which they were registered and propagated for vineyard owners to purchase. In 1970, the first clone, Clone 7, was registered, appearing officially on the California Grapevine Registration & Certification program as “Concannon Cabernet Clone 7.”
Shortly thereafter, in 1971, Concannon Cabernet Clone 8 was also officially registered, followed by Clone 11 in 1974. These clones formed the backbone of Cabernet in California.
Many Napa wineries are not shy about their acknowledgement of the Concannon’s role in replanting not only Napa, but also going on to provide Cab for pretty much all the vineyards in California and Oregon. To the point, The UC Davis Foundation Plant Services describes the Concannon Clones as, “the most popular and widely planted Cabernet Sauvignon clones in California and its premium wine growing regions.”
It’s poignant that both Wente and Concannon are celebrating huge anniversaries of accomplishments, of creating major industries, of survival, of longevity and of belonging to the elite handful of wineries that have managed to survive both the frontal assaults on freedom and the refusal of Mother Nature to grant anyone privileged status, regardless of accomplishment or record.
According to John, “It’s fitting that two of the oldest wine families in the US are responsible for both the ‘Queen’ and ‘King’ of grape varietals here in California. Wente is celebrating 130 years of Chardonnay and Concannon is celebrating 130 years of Cabernet.”
With more than 80 percent of Chardonnay planted in the West attributed to Clone 4, or the Wente clone, and 80 percent of Cab vineyards containing Concannon Cabernet clones, Livermore certainly has a lot to be grateful for, along with a lot of progeny to mentor. You can safely say that Livermore is both the Motherlode and Fatherlode of the entire wine industry as we know it today. Chardonnay still outsells all other white wines and blends on the market, and Cabernet holds that distinction for reds.
Two Cabs sampled recently at Concannon are the 2010 Conservancy Cabernet, which is solidly good stuff, and can be found for $12 to $15 in many outlets, while the 2010 Reserve “Mother Vine” Cabernet is a treasure, with its gorgeous nose of cherry pie and leather, and beautiful dark cherry, cedar and anise flavors. It’s aged for 20 months on French oak and retails for $35. Only 400 cases were made, so snap some up for your cellar and toast the Throne of the King.
For more information visit www.concannonvineyard.com or visit their Livermore Valley tasting room located at 4590 Tesla Road in Livermore.