WHEN JOEL PETERSON INVITED ME out to eastern Contra Costa County back in January to visit the vineyard he makes wine from for his artisan label, Once & Future, I did what I usually do when headed someplace for the first time and mapped it on my computer.
Finding the approximate location Joel had given me for the addressless vineyard—a Bible Fellowship church—I switched Google screens from “map” to “satellite” to search for some patch of green terrain nearby lined with rows of vegetation I could identify as vines. What I found instead, in an open rectangle of land just over a road from the church, were beige columns dotted with evenly spaced black shapes, alternating with mossy-looking strips of green. From above, the small, dark shapes looked like trees. “That’s a weird place for an orchard,” I thought to myself.
Staring at the satellite image on my laptop screen, I noticed a few more of these beige-green plots interspersed among the neighborhood’s residential and mixed industrial blocks, some larger than Joel’s site and some smaller.
In the back of my mind, I knew Joel’s wine came from a head-trained vineyard, the grower’s term for free-standing, un-trellised vines that tend to indicate a very old planting. Around the wide world of viticulture, a site like Once & Future’s, planted with original, intact vines, is a true rarity. But at that absentminded moment trying to parse the grainy images on the screen, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees—or, as it were, the vineyard for the vines.
• • • • •
I pulled off of Oakley Road and onto the sandy-gravelly berm that borders the vineyard. Joel’s car was already there when I arrived a little after 10:00 a.m. The founder of Ravenswood Winery waited in it, a more comfortable spot than outside, where it was in the mid-40s and windy, with latent droplets from the previous night’s storm still slicing through the air. I gave him a wave as he climbed out, and a gust of wind nearly flung my car door open when I did the same.
We exchanged friendly hellos behind our covid masks. One of the first things I told Joel, explaining my curiosity about the vineyard after enjoying the mataro he’d made from its grapes, was that I felt like the guy you see sometimes by the side of the road: a painter who’s pulled over to set up an easel and capture a vista or a landscape on his canvas. Only, here in Oakley in early 2021, there wasn’t much outside the immediate eight acres of vines to look at, let alone paint, as opposed to what I pictured being the case 75 or 100 years ago: a gently rolling landscape of sandy farmland, carpeted with orchards and vineyards and studded with oak trees (hence the name). There was, of course, plenty to talk about.
My car door may have survived the wind, but the weather played havoc with my digital recorder. This hack reporter had forgotten to bring along his fuzzy-ended microphone to filter out the sound elements, and the January morning was downright elemental. The first quarter-hour of my conversation with Joel croaked through my headphones like I’d recorded a pre-hurricane in South Florida. Live and learn, as they say.
If I had planned to paint a landscape that morning instead of writing about one, realism would’ve required me to depict rows of electrical lines stretched high over the vineyard, connected to a tall transmission tower smack dab amidst the gnarled vines and, beyond, the central feature of this agro-suburban landscape: an enormous PG&E power plant two miles due north. The facility sits on a bank of the San Joaquin River, its smokestack looming closer than Mount Diablo, which dominates the view to the southeast. The nearly 4000-foot peak casts a rain shadow over Oakley that draws rain clouds to its summit and away from the vineyards, contributing to a grapegrowing-friendly environment. Meanwhile, the plant’s proximity to Oakley Road Vineyard works as an immediate reminder of how nature in this part of Contra Costa County has given way to industry.
As we descended the gentle slope from our parked cars down into the vineyard, Joel told me that it’s actually been a long time since this fringe of the Delta was a wild place. The area’s ubiquitous sand, deposited by the San Joaquin across Oakley over the millennia, runs dozens of feet deep and was recognized by 19th century farmers for its ability to grow both quality grapes and excellent tree fruit. Apricots—or “sandcots,” as he explained they were once nicknamed—were said to be a local specialty.
“In fact, the people who grew them were known as ‘sandlappers,’ because they always had sand in their laps.” The wind had died down a bit, and my recorder picked up our voices and the soft crunch of our shoes on the rain-compacted soil. “So, it was an agricultural area. You can still see remnants of these vineyards, but the orchards are, you know, pretty much gone. Like Santa Clara County, it was heavily agricultural. It’s moving in the direction of being kind of urbanized.”
Mentioning the part of the Bay Area that was transformed into Silicon Valley, Joel echoed Thomas Pinney, the retired academic whose book, A History of Wine in America, I referenced in part one. Even before the arrival of the tech industry, there was, he writes, a “loss of traditional vineyard regions under the tide of highways, shopping malls, and subdivisions” in the South Bay. He notes that “[c]omparable dislocations occurred in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, vulnerable as these were to the expansion of the East Bay region.”
Still, looking at the first half of the 20th century, Professor Pinney points out that Contra Costa “was known for a number of small wineries producing good sound provincial wines.”
“Back in those days, when they used to ship the grapes, they were just sold as field blends. That’s the way they got packed into the boxes,” Tom Del Barba would tell me on the phone a few weeks after my visit with Joel. A career grapegrower, he has leased Oakley Road Vineyard for thirty years. Its eight acres of mataro, carignane, and zinfandel are part of the hundred or so he farms in and around the town where he was born and raised. His 85 year-old father, Fred Del Barba, had the same career—or, rather, has, since he still works in the vineyards.
In 2010, Tom started to sell Oakley Road mataro grapes to Tegan Passalacqua, the winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars in St. Helena, for the side project he calls Sandlands. Just a couple of years earlier, Joel’s son, Morgan Twain-Peterson, launched his brand, Bedrock Wine Co., which focuses on old-vine, heritage sites around northern California. One of these was the historic Evangelho Vineyard in Antioch, just over the city line from Oakley. Between the two younger winemakers, who are friends, their enthusiasm for this section of Contra Costa County soon became infectious.
“I didn’t think much about this area, didn’t get out here much, but Morgan started working out here with Frank Evangelho, and then Tegan began working out here,” Joel recalled. “Morgan called me up one day and said, ‘Well, Tegan has got this little mataro vineyard and would love to share it with somebody, and I can’t really take it.’ I’d decided I was going to start Once & Future, and he asked me if I’d be interested. And I said, ‘Sure, let me go look at it.’ I took one look at this vineyard and I went, ‘Yes, indeed! I will take that!’”
“I was thinking if Tegan was going to be taking part of Tom’s fruit, and I took part of it, we could make it all work.”
• • • • •
Joel and I made our way past the rows of twisted, thick-trunked vines whose grapes go specifically to Once & Future. He mentioned that Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon was the Del Barbas’ previous mataro client. “Tom and his family have been farming out here for a very long time,” he said. “And god knows who else,” he added with a chuckle, opening a little window onto the 120 year-old site’s distant past.
Before Morgan, Tegan, and Joel began producing wine from Oakley-Antioch, this part of Contra Costa County had been “discovered” by the likes of Randall, Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards, and Fred and Matt Cline. And decades before these accomplished vintners first got their feet stuck in the Oakley sand, the area was, indeed, known for “provincial” wines: humble, rustic field blends of the three aforementioned varieties, along with petite sirah, palomino, alicante bouschet, and others that were the raw material for home winemakers across the U.S. before, during, and after Prohibition. They might even have included my Italian-born grandfather, Sal Palumbo, who used to tell me about making wine with his father from California grapes that came by rail car to New Jersey in the late 1920s. “My father said other families bought, or were given, Grandpa’s wine because it was so good,” my mom, Barbara, told me recently, when I asked her for a family history reminder. “Selling it, of course, was completely illegal!”
Legal or otherwise, it’s fun to imagine that the vines I was standing near saw some of their fruit shipped east nearly a century earlier for that purpose.
Crossing the length of the property, we stopped near a chain-link fence, and the 2020s reality caught up with me. On the other side stood a cluttered, residential compound that appeared to have seen better days. A pink ice cream truck, faded and semi-abandoned, took up a corner of it near an old oak tree.
“Because there are regular purchasers of these grapes—Tegan and myself, and actually Morgan takes some of the carignane—the vineyard gets better care than it used to,” said Joel. “So, our goal has always been to see if we can get these vineyards to a standard and pay enough for the grapes and have enough of them for the wine to make a difference.”
In the Oakley Road neighborhood, simply respecting the vineyards, let alone caring for them, appears strictly to be the concern of growers and winemakers. At the bottom of the slope where we’d entered, random pieces of trash and refuse lay scattered: water bottles, tires, a mattress, an air conditioning grill, and, oddly, a single golf ball. But the most conspicuous thing I saw was a beat-up washing machine, which someone had actually made the effort to drag into the vineyard. Whoever the culprit, they were thoughtful enough not to dump it directly on one of the mataro vines, an antique plant that has probably been around longer than most household appliances. They came pretty close, however.
(And whoever drove their Top Flite ball from who-knows-where into the vineyard managed to stick it in the wet, sandy soil near the base of another vine—a really tough lie.)
When I asked him about this litter-buggery, Joel just shook his head. “It’s a unique set of garbage that shows up here every year,” he half-laughed, adding that he’d seen everything from baby equipment to surfboards tossed down the berm. “Tom comes in here to remove it again at the beginning of the season.”
“These are beautiful plants,” he observed, looking over the vine rows. “There are some gorgeous ‘sculptures’ in this vineyard. And when you come out during the spring when it’s all budding out, the soil has dried out a bit, and the wind begins to move the soil around, you’ll see that the earth has shifted around their roots. You can see the roots at the base of them.”
Then, in a Steinbeck-worthy pivot from lovely and spare to gritty and resigned, he summed it up for me. “So anyway, this is Oakley. You know, there are lots of guns out here. Guns and freedom. And there are churches and motels that you can rent by the hour. And so it’s kind of an older California, and they haven’t got much respect for vineyards or where they put their trash. You’ll see it get dumped everywhere. There’s also a big drug culture out here, as well, which has its issues.”
He joked that grapegrowing is its own form of a drug culture. But throughout the decades, whether they knew what they were drinking—grape varieties-wise—or not, I think wine lovers became addicted to the intense flavors of Contra Costa red wine made from old vines. To add some perspective, when John Kennedy was president and my grandfather was the same age I am now, Oakley Road Vineyard was already full of them.
• • • • •
“I’m a latecomer to Oakley,” Joel confessed as he recounted his days scouring vineyards in Lodi, along with Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, for Ravenswood’s Vintners Blend label, the grocery store staple that helped introduce his Sonoma winery to a generation of wine drinkers. “I spent a huge amount of time going to different places and looking for grapes for that zinfandel.”
He led the way back across the vineyard and through different blocks—“through” being the way of describing a walk in a head-trained vineyard free of wires and stakes, as opposed to “along” or “around,” which are how you’d navigate a more typical, trellised vineyard. You tour around Oakville, but you stroll through Oakley.
We moved from the mataro rows to carignane, then to zinfandel. To my untrained eye, the vines all looked the same at first glance, but Joel pointed out the differences in cane appearance (mataro’s canes mostly grow straight up like a reedy candelabra; zinfandel’s have a reddish hue) and size (carignane, tree-like and massive, is the alpha of the field blend).
“These field blends, they’re all planted the same,” Tom Del Barba told me on our call. I’d asked him if he thought there was anything special about this site compared to the other vineyards he owns or manages. “I mean, I’m not a winemaker, but just from farming, they all look similar. They’re all equal in my opinion.”
This may be true, but after my visit with Joel and subsequent conversations and poking around, it didn’t take long to figure out that the clock ticks differently from site to site. As I mentioned in part one, Joel calls his otherwise unnamed source of grapes “Oakley Road Vineyard.” The sign posted near its entrance, however, reads a more definitive “For Sale.” He explained that the semi-anonymous owner’s price hovers in “the early millions.” For the moment, it appears to be a figure inflated enough to forestall interest from developers. But that could change at any time.
“I think we’re making wine on borrowed time right now,” Tegan worried to me over the phone recently. We were already acquainted, so I tracked him down to hear his thoughts on Oakley Road and how it fits into his Sandlands wine brand.
“I mean, I think if it has more than five years left, I’ll be excited. You know, it’s the wine that I started my label with, and it really influenced the naming of it. So, it’s just like the Salvador Vineyard down the street.”
He referred to one of Turley Cellars’ longtime sources of old-vine zinfandel. The treasured Oakley site, Tegan lamented, was recently ripped out and converted to homes, and he mentioned other vineyards that had likewise met that fate. Clearly, the Contra Costa County viticulture that Thomas Pinney wrote about as “vulnerable to the expansion of the East Bay region” in the mid-20th century is still very much so today.
Despite this depressing scenario, the respected winemaker—who, like Joel did before him, drives countless miles each year visiting vineyards across northern California—was particularly enthusiastic about the grapes grown in this sandy little strip of suburbia near the Delta.
“You know, you’ve got really good acidity, and you’ve got really good density,” Tegan said, describing the textural character of some of the better wines coming out of Oakley and Antioch vineyards. “The wines aren’t light, but they’re not heavy, either. They’re not, you know, flabby. It’s just kind of that perfect Goldilocks area of Contra Costa.”
• • • • •
After an hour or so, Joel and I ended my visit the way all tutorials in a vineyard should: with a glass of wine. It was still morning (not that that’s ever stopped me), but when the guy who has had a big hand in modern zinfandel appreciation offers you a glass of red, you don’t say no.
Though the rain had let up, the sun wasn’t showing any signs of appearing. The chilly air was still well below anyone’s idea of cellar temperature as Joel pulled a bottle of just-released 2019 mataro from the back seat of his car and popped the cork.
“It’s interesting,” he observed, swirling his glass with fingers that, like mine, had started to turn a pale shade of blue, “at these temperatures and with this wind, one of the things that comes through on the palate, in particular, is the French oak. I’m using about thirty percent new French Ermitage barrels, which I like for the Oakley wines, because they tend to be softer and have really fine tannins. The barrels tend not to be aggressive in that way—they support the center of the mataro, and you still have that bright juiciness in the fruit.”
Curious about what precedes his work in the cellar, I asked him if my perceptions of forwardness and drinkability in his mataro (the elemental conditions notwithstanding) were influenced by the soil that held the vines.
“I think it’s a fair question, because if you look at other mataro vineyards, the tannins tend to be harder and more structural. But these sandy soils”—he motioned back out over the vineyard—”tend to accentuate the red fruit characters. That’s partly from the climate, as well, but more than that, they create these really fine tannins in the finish, so that it’s like this really fine, velvety sandpaper that goes on the ends of these wines, as opposed to a more drying tannin. I mean, there’s tannin there, but it’s so well-integrated into the wine that you hardly notice it.”
I had to agree. I’d started out last fall with the 2018, a few bottles of which I picked up at his vineyard office in Sonoma Valley. Then I found the ’17 at Oxbow Market here in Napa and have steadily been depleting that fine little shop of its mataro inventory, while the tourists and locals reach for Napa Valley wines on the shelves. I’d say the ’19 Joel brought along that morning—and kindly sent me home with—was consistent with the other two vintages. I find it quite amazing that well over a hundred have come before it.
In the email he sent me back at the end of last year as I initiated this little writing project, Joel introduced the idea that his Once & Future mataro was special from a number of standpoints. “It tastes good, but that is the least of it,” he wrote. He emphasized instead that Oakley’s history and its unusual, sandy soil—sand dunes, essentially—were what interested and enchanted him.
“It’s a special place,” he shared at one point during our walk in the vineyard. “You know, I work with a number of old vineyards. I work with pre-1900 vineyards in Sonoma, as well, but they’re different. They’re special too, in their own way. But you just look around here. You see all the Oakley craziness around you. And then you look at this place that’s been producing fruit that’s good enough to keep the vineyard going—that has seen it all and grown through it all and somehow survived.”