Thursday, August 29, 2013, is International Cabernet Day. We in California owe a lot to the Concannon family for preserving what is widely considered to be The King of All Reds. And it all stems from The Mother Vine at the Concannon Vineyard in Livermore.
We salute Jim Concannon, below, and his son, John, for keeping the “King” alive and well, sitting atop his throne.
Concannon: The King of Cabernet for 130 Years
A single vine of Cabernet from the Livermore Valley may have saved Napa’s bacon after phylloxera devastated California vineyards in the 1960’s. It’s not just a rumor: John Concannon, 4th generation vintner, has done his homework carefully and methodically, and has documented the paper trail that proves clearly that Clones 7, 8 & 11 of Cabernet Sauvignon, were sourced from cuttings of “The Mother Vine,” which he still believes to be thriving just yards from the beautiful old Victorian house where he grew up in Livermore, where we know that Cabernet thrives.
Concannon Vineyard has been recognized over 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.
This year, they celebrate a new milestone: 130 years of growing Cabernet in Livermore. In 1883, founder James Concannon first purchased 47 acres 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 1930’s and ‘40’s show alcohol levels of 12%. The first recorded one says “California Cabernet,” and another says “Livermore Cabernet,” with the descriptor beneath reading “A Medium Bodied Wine of Cabernet Grapes.”
Phylloxera’s first outbreak occurred in the early 1890’s, 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 second outbreak in the 1960s, and thus became the subject of intense interest on the part of UC Davis. 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.
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.”
I want to quote my friend Jo Diaz here, who did a lot of research on this topic earlier in the decade. According to her, “In a search for more information about the use of Concannon’s clones, Jim Concannon personally wrote the following to Dr. James Wolpert, former UC Davis’s Department Chair for Viticulture & Enology.
‘Dear Dr. Wolpert: Many years ago my late brother Joe worked very closely with the viticulture department at Davis. Unfortunately most records on the background of the Cabernet Sauvignon Clones 7 and 8 were not kept at the winery. Since these clones are so widely used and were developed with the help of my brother Joe, I would be interested in obtaining information on them.’
In response, Dr. Wolpert wrote back to Jim, ‘It is good to hear from someone with the last name of Concannon. That selection of Cabernet Sauvignon is not only one of the most widely planted, but one of the most highly regarded. It comprises most of our plantings at our department’s (UC Davis) Oakville vineyard, where it makes exceptional wines.’” [Used with the permission of Dr. James Wolpert and Jim Concannon, August 19, 2004]
Reading that makes me sit up at attention. It’s time this incredible achievement was better recognized. Not that Napa has let it go unheralded. I’ve heard that Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap, makes no bones about the fact that Concannon Cab clones were planted in his vineyards, and Chimney Rock has a bottling of Cab from the Clone 7 vineyard that James Laube praised for its cedar, currant and blackberry flavors and supple texture.
With more than 80% of Chardonnay planted in the West attributed to Clone 4, or the Wente clone, and 80% 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.
Help celebrate International Cabernet Day on Thursday August 29, by visiting Steven Kent for their Cab tastings from 12- 4:30, along with the special Mother Vine Cab Tastings at Concannon. Lucky Cab lovers will be attending the “Cab is King” dinner under the arbor at Concannon, 6-9, by reservation only.
Wherever you are, if you love Cab, please tip a glass to Jim and John Concannon today.