Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
When wines from California began to attract attention and gain a following in large east-coast markets 35 years ago, Concannon Vineyard was deemed worthy of respect. Tucked in the Livermore Valley, to the east of San Francisco Bay, alongside of Wente Brothers, it offered an alternative source to the better known Napa and Sonoma wineries - far fewer in those days. In the 198Os Concannon sank below the radar, virtually disappearing from view and memory.
Jim Concannon, grandson of the founder, visited Boston recently, affording a long overdue exposure to what was doing at the winery and a tasting of several wines. Jim, formerly wine chemist and winemaker, is consultant and ambassador for Concannon Vineyard, now a part of the mammoth The Wine Group. A historical review will help gain perspective.
The founding James Concannon, an enterprising 18-year-old, emigrated from Ireland in 1865, landing in New England, where he worked his way from bellhop to hotel manager and attended night school. After ten years, he traveled to California selling newly invented rubber stamps, a popular precursor to typewriters, and to Mexico, where he set up a street-cleaning company in Porfirio Diaz's capital. In San Francisco, after selling the cleaning company, he realized that the production of altar wines offered a promising opportunity, so bought land in Livermore, imported vines from France, and took classes at the University of California. With the establishment of Concannon Vineyard in 1883, James became America's first Irish vintner, joining immigrants from further east. In addition to producing wine, he sold vine cuttings to Mexico.
James was succeeded by his son, Joseph, who kept the business viable through Prohibition by producing altar wine. He, in turn, was succeeded by his sons, Joe Jr., now deceased, and the Jim who just visited Boston. The business was serially sold, starting in the '8Os, to Agustin Huneeus, to Deinhard, to Wente, and, ultimately, it became part of The Wine Group. The frequent changes of ownership helped neither the stability of the business nor the quality and reputation of its wines, but, as we'll soon see, the ship appears to have been righted.
Along the way, Concannon planted petite sirah in 1911, the year of James's death. Concannon produced the first varietal bottling of Petite Sirah in 1961, released in 1964, and continues to make this gem. Concannon also helped to introduce a Sauternes-like wine in 1934 and to develop particular clones of cabernet sauvignon. Concannon employed Katherine Vajda, California's first female winemaker, in 195O.
Current production is about 175,OOO cases annually. Adam Richardson is the winemaker. Vineyard sources have expanded from the Livermore Valley, particularly to the Central Coast. The wines tasted and most of Concannon's production are designated Selected Vineyards. Also produced are small quantities of wines designated Heritage and Limited Release. As the tasting notes will attest, the quality of the wines no longer deserves obscurity. They are all very tasty, and still retain Concannon's signature engaging soft style. The packaging is most elegant, and the prices appear to be stuck in a time warp of another age - ie, they are exceedingly good buys. Concannon has been resurrected.
SAUVIGNON BLANC 2OO3 Contains 1O to 15 percent Semillon, which fills out the Sauvignon. This is the first wine grandfather/founder James made (cuttings from Bordeaux). It is soft in texture, long in finish, balanced and elegant.
CHARDONNAY 2OO2 Not overly oaked; in fact, well made, but not intense, and somewhat bland.
MERLOT 2OO1 Of moderate weight. Good color. Very tasty bright red-berry fruit. Balanced and long.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir were not available for tasting.
EDITOR'S NOTE See Bill Nesto's tasting notes for the Syrah and Petite Sirah.