A Traditionalist’s Loss is the Modernist’s Gain – Sausal Family Closes Shop

Before I became a man of the vine, I was a graduate student in the Rutgers history program.  One of the projects that we worked on was imagining and designing a museum project.  One of the ideas we considered over pints of Guiness at McGovern’s Tavern in Newark was the idea of preserving a Revolutionary War site in Central New Jersey.  Along with preserving the site, we would build an exhibit illustrating how the site has evolved over the years with the final piece of the exhibit capturing the battle and the grounds before the battle.  After a moment of clarity, we decided that we only had a few weeks to tackle the project and went with another idea.  However, it was on a run along the Raritan River this week when I thought of my graduate school story for the first time in a decade.  Why?  Because another historic California winery and vineyard area is ready to become part of another monotonous big brand blend.

The Sausal Ranch, purchased in 1956 by Leo and Rose Demostene, is home to some of the oldest vines in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County.  Though many of the Zinfandel vines planted in 1877 have been rooted up and replanted with newer stock, a large swath of Sausal Winery’s wines are produced from old vines.  Along with old vines, the folks at Sausal have been producing Zinfandel-based wines the old fashioned way – with a restrained style of fruit, bright acidity and without the excess alcohol and overly ripe sweet jamminess that has consumers have become used to with California Zinfandel.

Though this less exuberant style of Zinfandel has made a comeback, it is unfortunate that in a few years, the wines of Sausal will be no more.  As reported earlier this year, Silver Oak Cellars has purchased the Sausal Ranch property.  Unfortunately, Silver Oak is not buying the property with eyes on producing a Sausal Ranch Zinfandel cuvee.  Instead, they are looking to uproot just about everything and replant the vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon.  As Silver Oak CEO David Duncan told the Wine Spectator, “We think this is an equally or possibly even a better site to grow Cabernet long term, so we were excited about the site and the opportunity.”  What this means for consumers is that there will not be a shortage in Enologix-inspired extracted and syrupy Cabernet production for the Silver Oak label.  What the vineyard can’t give them in the short term, high technology will certainly manufacture what the winemakers at Silver Oak need from Sausal Ranch.

Admittedly, I never had a bottle from Sausal until last weekend.  Driving home from a friend’s house, I decided to drop into a reliable shop in northwestern New Jersey and picked up a bottle of the 2008 Private Reserve.  After thoroughly enjoying the bottle with my wife, I spent a little time reading about the winery, the vineyard and the history of the Ranch.  Though not an overly historic vineyard or a winery that has received critical acclaim over the decades, Sausal represents a time and place in California that is quickly disappearing as larger brands are looking to maintain or expand their fruit sources in the name of flooding the market with more mediocre, but critically acclaimed Frankenwines.  Though not profound, the ’08 Private Reserve was a delicious example of traditionally produced Zinfandel as it was restrained and it allowed both the fruit and the vineyard to exhibit their qualities in the bottle.  I am quite interested in older vintages from Sausal, but chances are that ship has sailed.

And Silver Oak will most certainly fetch more for a bottle of its Sausal Ranch-based Alexander Valley cuvee than the folks as Sausal ever did for their Zinfandel. That’s too bad – there was more character, nuance and history in their ’08 Private Reserve than Silver Oak could possibly manufacture in their Cabernet.  Luckily for those looking for these qualities in their wine, many producers are still following in the footsteps in Sausal – hopefully they are able hold on to their sense of place long enough for all of us to enjoy it.