One of the reasons I enjoy wine is that you can often find history in the glass. Every bottle represents the story of the winemaker, the history of the vines, expressions of the terroir and flavors of the grape. I recently had the opportunity to meet with fourth generation winemaker John Concannon whose winery is one of the oldest wineries in the United States, with a rich pioneering history.
Multi generations of winemakers are quite common in France, Spain or Italy, but for California, finding four generations of winemakers with a continuous family history is quite rare. Over a few glasses of wine, I was immediately enamored by John’s stories and found myself drawn into the rich history of the Concannon family and their wines.
Four Generations of Concannon’s
John Concannon’s great-grandfather James Concannon was an Irish immigrant. History now reveals that he was one of the founding fathers of the California wine industry. Over dinner John shared his great grandfather’s struggles of coming to the US in the early 1800’s, being Irish he faced many hardships. He found it difficult to find a job on the east coast and so he made his way to California. This is where the story of Concannon Vineyard begins, in the Livermore Valley.
James was then succeeded by his son Captain Joe Concannon who was a military man. Joe got them through prohibition. Later John’s dad Jim Concannon, third generation, took over and is most known for creating the Concannon clones. Today John’s role as part of the fourth generation, is to help plan for the future, as well as preserve their history and keep the winery going another 135 years.
History of Concannon Vineyards
Concannon Vineyard has been making wines since 1883. Trailblazer James Concannon realized that the terroir of Livermore was strikingly similar to Bordeaux. James wanted to have the best vines for his vineyards, so he set out to Château d’Yquem and bought back plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. From Château Margaux and Château Lafite, he bought back cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Sirah. With these cutting he was one of the first to make Bordeaux style wines in California.
Today Concannon is the one of the oldest, continuously running wineries in the United States. They are celebrating 135 years of winemaking history. Very few American wineries have survived that long. John Concannon shared stories about how his family was asked to rip out their vineyards during Prohibition. With a lot of negotiations, Concannon Vineyards was one of only five wineries that was allowed to make wine during Prohibition. They produced sacramental wines for the church for many years prior, so they were granted permission.
Story of the Concannon Clones
In 1965 Jim Concannon and UC Davis collaborated to select vines and cuttings from the most highly regarded original vines from First Growth, Chateau Margaux that James Concannon had bought over in 1893. In the late 60’s, many vines in California were struggling, but these Margaux Mother Vines on Concannon Vineyards were thriving. These vines were high quality, giving high yields and were virus resistant. Three cuttings from this single Mother Concannon vine, became the plants for Concannon Cabernet Clones 7, 8 and 11.
It is estimated that today 80% of California’s Cabernet Sauvignon are planted to Concannon clones. Concannon Clones 7 & 8 have been widely regarded by industry experts for setting high standards for California Cabernet Sauvignon. To say that the Concannon’s have made an extraordinary contribution to California Cabernet Sauvignon is an understatement.
Over our main course, John shared with us that his clones were responsible for winning the now famous Judgement of Paris in 1976. Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars had won the Judgement of Paris with their Cask 23. What many did not know till recently was that Stags Leap Cask 23 was made with the Concannon Clone.
Over dinner, we had the pleasure of tasting and discussing four wines with John. The first was a 2016 Chardonnay from Monterey County, which had nice tropical fruits with hints of vanilla and spice. Next up was the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, which was rich in aromas, textures and flavors with notes of cherries, plum and cocoa.
The excitement was building for the two power players at the table, Concannon Clone 7 and Concannon Clone 8. I had ordered the Gorgonzola Crusted Beef Filet, as I knew it would be the perfect pairing for these big Cabernets. The Clone 7 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from Chalk Hill was a big, powerful, intense wine. One that made you stand up and say WOW. It was history in a glass. All that John had shared with us throughout the evening culminated into this incredible Cabernet.
The Concannon Clone 8 2016 was a rare treat as the wine is not yet released. It was a big burly Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Nice concentration of fruit, with notes of dark cherries and blackberries. Clone 8 had great texture with a nice long finish. Clone 8 was capturing the history of the Concannon’s 135 year journey in my glass. Precisely the reason I enjoy wine so much.
Whether you are drinking a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Livermore or Santa Barbara, chances are you are drinking a Concannon Clone.