When Robert Mondavi and Joseph Phelps both call you after purchasing a vineyard to inquire on your plan for the vines, you know you have something precious. Though it wasn't prized Cabernet clones as you might be guessing, quite the opposite actually - they were 80 -100 year old head-trained Zinfandel vines. That might sound like more valuable fruit but given the significant drop in yield that happens as vines age past their peak (25 years or so), coupled with the lower price point of the varietal, it would be any new owner's inclination to retire the entire vineyard and replant with Cabernet.
That was what Rich and Carolyn Czapleski had in mind once becoming the new owners of this historic property in 1983. Though the Valley is a small place and legacy families take pride in preserving the soul of Napa, especially with regards to vineyards that survived prohibition and phylloxera and were not turned into fruit or nut orchards. So, when Robert Mondavi says, "You can't pull those vines out - it’s history of Napa Valley", you have to give pause and reflect. While this realization was a mixed blessing at first blush, it soon became a point of pride to have such a unique treasure and be the steward to some of the last old vines standing in Napa.
Though preserving such legacy vineyards has become increasingly difficult with many succumbing to disease and other stressors from 5 years of drought. In fact, the 45,000 acres of vineyards in Napa will largely undergo some degree of replanting by 2020. Thankfully phone calls with Mondavi went both ways, so when small winemakers encountered trouble in the vineyards, legacy families were often happy to offer up their extensive resources and knowledge to help battle disease and pests. It's admirable to note winemakers see themselves as a community more than competition.
That said, Canard fruit is something to be coveted considering its longevity, tenacity and scarcity - these legacy vines usually yield less then 2 or 3 tons per acre versus the 6-8 tons of a typical young vineyard. And like most Napa wine, the struggle produces character, as these vines are dry farmed with roots reaching as deep as 30 feet down, which is simply incredible considering the average irrigated root system only goes down about 2 feet. Needless to say, all of these factors lead to very concentrated and complex fruit which can't be duplicated, especially en masse.
Speaking of volume, Adam Fox (Canard Vineyard’s Managing Director) shares the same concerns of his peers about the trend of consolidation in the Valley and acquisition by big producers. Not only will the fruit itself become less accessible to winemakers but also distribution and retail as well. As it is, Napa only represents 4% of all California wine but with encroaching corporate concerns, small family producers will be pushed out. And what's at stake is not bottles and labels but the integrity of wine itself. Hands touching and caring for vines versus machines, crafting wine in the field instead of a laboratory, all leads to ensuring "frankenwine" doesn't become the norm. Thankfully there are still families behind most labels and that name on the bottle represents deep pride and often translates into some of the highest quality.
The same holds true for Canard which is French for 'duck' and was Rich Czapleski's nickname in college. As for the two duck heads that comprise the logo, this artfully represents the "yin-yang" of he and his wife Carolyn since it typically takes two to make things work in wine (and life). Beyond the label, the vineyard has a history even farther back than the old vines themselves. “Captain” Reason P. Tucker, who helped lead rescue efforts for the Donner Party, was granted the land by the Mexican General Vallejo and built what is now the Canard estate in 1851. After trying his hand at gold mining, Tucker turned to farming and helped to settle Napa Valley by planting wheat. Rich and Carolyn are the fourth owners of this bucolic estate.
Beautiful hand-carved cellar door depicting the fruit lifecycle (Photo: Mike Casey, The 29 Napa)
While there is no tasting room at Canard, fear not, you can buy their artfully crafted Rosé, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Proprietary Blends directly online here. Their wines do sell out quickly but having just released new vintages, you may still be able to get some. Hope you enjoyed this little bit of Napa history.
-Mike Casey // The 29 Napa