Photograph taken in April of 1979, just after pruning. Black Malvoisie vines are in the foreground, with Muscat further up the hill. At the time of the photo, the vines were already almost 100 years old
A lone Tokay vine, one of the few survivors from a vineyard at the old Minor homestead, originally planted in the 1880s
The dryfarmed Zinfandel vines that Osgood farms today
Dave Osgood prunes back one of the ancient vines
Ten miles west of Paso Robles, a stone’s throw from the old Adelaida School House, stands a lone vine, as tall as a man and nearly as thick. It’s one of a handful of survivors, maybe a half dozen in total. They stand, scattered, in a field now mostly given over to mustard, although it borders an old orchard of Paso’s other traditional cash crop, walnuts. These vines are living artifacts, remnants of what was one of the earliest vineyards planted in San Luis Obispo County.
Dave Osgood remembers the old vineyard, when it was in its prime.
“We got this property in ’77. We had these vines, already they were big. And this was beautiful. They were a forest! They were ten feet apart, they were upright, they’d been pruned, and they were beautiful. It was quite the thing to disc, because the vines were way taller than the tractor, and the arms stood out like that,” he says with a grin, extending his own arms to demonstrate how the plants were positioned. “It was a lot of fun!”
Dave is a compact, energetic man, rarely seen without his weathered old cowboy hat and full of stories about this little corner of California. He still works the ranch, where he dryfarms organic walnuts and Zinfandel vines, and his daughter keeps a herd of dairy goats, used for making goatmilk cheese. Dave seems such a natural part of the hills, it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t born here. But the fact is that he had drifted down here, to what was once the mining town of Adelaida, from Carmel Valley.
“Just hitchhiking, basically. Homeless! But, I liked this country. Liked it instantly. I liked the people and I liked the oaks. It’s not tame, like the flatlands east of town. And it rains enough so that you can grow most anything. It’s not easy! But, I like the west side.”
“I came into this country very late into ’71, maybe early ’72. The guy I worked for planted vineyards and orchards for people. So, I planted grapes, and made friends with the people who lived up here. I used to come up here on the weekends and help them work.”
At the time, the ranch was owned by Charlie Ashton, who had migrated down to San Luis Obispo County from San Francisco after the earthquake in 1906. Charlie’s wife, Lavinya Miner, had inherited the property from her parents, who had homesteaded it in 1876. Lavinya’s nephew, Glen Burbich, was well-liked and known in the community for his green thumb. At his grandparents’ homestead, he had planted walnuts, fruit trees and grapes, which Charlie Ashton maintained after Glen’s death.
“This place had good fruit, and [the Ashtons] used to sell fruit from here in San Luis Obispo out of the back of a station wagon, peaches and stuff.”
Charlie Ashton, as he got into his 90s, realized that he couldn’t keep up with the ranch anymore. With his grandsons uninterested in taking over the old homestead, Charlie turned to Dave, and offered to sell the property to him.
“Nobody wanted property out here, much. But I did. I thought this place was paradise!”
Along with the property came the fruit and nut trees, and the old vineyard, which had been established sometime in the 1880s. An assortment of varieties had been planted, typical of the time. There was the ubiquitous Mission grape, as well as Rose of Peru, Muscat, Black Malvasia, and Tokay.
The Mission vine is genetically identical to the grape Listan Prieto, and had been carried by the Padres from the Spanish Canary Islands, to be grown at their missions for use as sacramental wine (hence the name). The Mission was the staple grape at the time, and half of the vineyard was planted to it. The Tokay, often consumed as a table grape but also vinified, made up the next largest portion of the vineyard, followed by Muscat, a valuable grape at the time it was planted. A small section of the vineyard was given over to Black Malvasia, which was determined by genetic testing to be identical to the French Cinsault, as well as Rose of Peru, which is possibly a genetic crossing of Mission and Muscat.
By the time the Osgoods purchased the property, there was little demand for the varieties that had been planted in the old vineyard. Zinfandel from Paso Robles had gained a good reputation, and had become the premium wine grape. However, the grapes from the old vines still found a home. Many years, the Pesenti Winery would take the grapes.
“Pesenti made most of their money, at that time, by selling wine to the Basque restaurants in Fresno and Bakersfield. They literally sold bota bags of wine to the Basque shepherds!”
Even in years when Pesenti didn’t take the grapes, there were always takers. “This was a good place to be a young hippy in the ‘70s,” explains Dave. “You could make your own wine. Pretty much it was free!”
He goes on to list off a number of local growers and farmers who, in various years, had made wine from the vineyard, for home consumption. A few farmers had pooled resources, and there was a small crusher and press in the neighborhood, as well as a few vats for fermenting, that were co-opted for communal use. The locals were quite happy to turn any unsold grapes into homemade wine.
In 1990, the Osgoods sold a large piece of their property, including the old vineyard. The new owner didn’t much care for tending vines, so he ripped out the deer fence that protected the vineyard, hoping to make hunting on the property easier. While he was able to shoot quite a few deer, he didn’t kill enough to stop them from causing severe damages in the vineyard. Without proper pruning and cultivation, and with heavy pressure from marauding deer, the vineyard quickly began to decline.
“The Muscat went first, they just ate that like candy. But the deer didn’t like the Tokay. So the Tokay has hung in there, and they’re the only ones left. But when [the deer are] starving, they’ll eat the Tokay, too. They’ll eat the Tokay in late August, September. But they’ll eat the other ones in April!” To illustrate his point, and what type of critters roam the property, Dave displays a large elk antler he’d pulled from underneath his tractor the day before. It was big enough to have jammed up the tractor’s discs while he had been out cultivating his fields.
Today, it’s only a few of the Tokay vines, vigorous and versatile plants that were historically used either as table grapes or for winemaking, that still stand. They haven’t been pruned in a few years, but Dave brings a pair of shears out to the field and, after a few careful cuts, finds green wood. The vines are still alive.
Dave grins. “It’d be kinda fun to resurrect the old things!”