“Far-roving pioneer vintners from Europe carried with them the desire to create vinous echoes of their homelands.”
—Robert Lawrence Balzer, The Joys of Wine, 1975
ALMOST SINCE I STARTED drinking wine, I’ve thought of the mourvèdre grape in superlative terms.
Across borders in Spain and France and time zones in Australia and California, this thrilling, complex variety makes some of the wines—on its own and in combination with syrah and grenache—that I most enjoy putting in a glass.
Before that even happens, there’s the splendid fact of its name. Or, rather, all three of them.
The vine, which is best known in France and internationally as mourvèdre, started out as mataro in Spain before getting rendered into French. Then, somewhere along the line it became monastrell—a possibly neutral name created by, and for, the Spanish. Oz Clarke notes this in his Encyclopedia of Grapes.
According to the English wine writer, the name split the difference between Valencia and Catalonia, two Spanish regions closely identified with the vine—and whose respective towns of Murviedro and Mataró give a pretty strong toponymic clue to its dual identities. “Perhaps,” Clarke writes, “local pride meant that both areas claimed the grape so fiercely that Monastrell was chosen so as not to offend anyone.”
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.
OVER THE YEARS, I’VE WALKED, trudged, and even climbed through my share of vineyards, but I can’t recall bringing as much of one home on the bottoms of my shoes as I did in late January, when I met up with Joel Peterson in Oakley.
In an unassuming place near the edge of the Delta, it’s all about the sand.
The morning after an atmospheric river flowed across the Bay Area, I headed out to eastern Contra Costa County and followed Highway 4 along an actual river—the San Joaquin—to get to my destination, an eight-acre vineyard near the Oakley-Antioch border. This unlikely viticultural spot on the suburban map doesn’t have a formal name, but Joel has designated it Oakley Road Vineyard for the wine he produces from its old-vine mataro grapes.
While his relatively new Sonoma-based label, Once & Future, isn’t nearly a household wine brand in the tradition of Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, or Mondavi, the wine company he founded in the mid-70’s certainly is. Joel launched Ravenswood in 1976 with the intention, in his own words, of creating “a small, personal project, where I was going to make just fine, single vineyard-designated wines and nothing else” from sites around Northern California.