Sometimes in life you just have to pay tribute to a maverick and give credit where credit is due. This is one of those times. Wine is so amazing as it always involves the people behind the grapes, the culture in which they live, the terroir in which the vines grow and central to it all, the wine itself. Spanning four generations this story showcases one amazing family dynasty that has indelibly left their mark on the California and American wine industry.
In 1865, an enthusiastic,, opportunity seeking 18 year old boy named James Concannon with one golden guinea in his pocket left his homeland of Ireland and landed in New York. He spoke only his native Gaelic however, soon became fluent in both English and Spanish. His first job was as a Singer Sewing machine salesman. He then hired on as a bellhop and progressed to hotel management. Inevitably his entrepreneurial spirit took him west where he sold books and rubber stamps in a territory that extended from the Canadian border into Mexico.
Eventually James married and settled in the San Francisco Mission District where he became well acquainted with the cities first archbishop. As fate would have it, the church had been performing land surveys for over a century and found that Livermore, an area 45 miles southeast of San Francisco, had the perfect soil for growing Bordeaux grapes varietals. In 1883, with a commitment from the diocese to purchase sacramental wine, Concannon bought a 47-acre vineyard and the rest is history. He promptly traveled to Bordeaux where he purchased Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon cuttings (from Château d’Yquem) as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and other red Bordeaux varieties (from Château Lafite and Château Margaux). He produced his first wine in 1886. Concannon Vineyards stunned the world when their Sauterne-style wine became the first American entry to win the International Gold Medal Award, including the Grand Prix, at the 1889 International Paris Exposition.
Over the next decade phylloxera, the grape louse that had devastated much of Europe’s grapevines also ravished Concannon Vineyard. The redoubtable man in his pioneering spirit made two more arduous steamship voyages to Bordeaux. Château Margaux was blessed with virus-resistant vines and Concannon brought home scores of vines, planting them in 1893.
James Concannon and his wife Ellen had ten children. Over the years since 1883, the helm has passed in succession to their son Captain Joe, grandson Jim and great grandson John. Key points from each of their legacies are outlined as follows.
- In an ardent stance, a determined former cavalry officer Captain Joe Concannon, second generation vintner, drove off federal officers and saved the vineyard from being plowed under during Prohibition in the 1920’s. Captain Joe is also noted as one of California’s first proprietors to release Cabernet Sauvignon as a single varietal wine
- Jim Concannon, James’s grandson and third generation vintner is credited with releasing America’s first standalone Petite Sirah varietal from the1961 vintage. The Concannon Cabernet vines from the 1893 Château Margaux planting remained virus free and in 1965 Jim collaborated with U.C. Davis in the development of the renowned Concannon Cabernet Clones. Dr. Harold Olmo and Curt Alley secured a single, perfect vine from the Concannon vineyard for experimentation, heat treatment and eventual propagation in the University’s Oakville vineyard. Its progeny were released in the 1970’s as Cabernet Sauvignon Clones 7, 8 and 11. There were roughly 2,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the state at that time; today there are 88,000 acres and it is estimated that an astounding 80% originate from the Concannon Clones. To this day Jim greets visitors at the winery helping to provide them with a world-class experience
- And the lineage goes on. In 2008 James’s great-grandson John took the helm as Managing Director with the same enduring commitment and passion of his forefathers. John is focusing on environmental stewardship; Concannon became a Certified Sustainable Winery in 2009. John saw through a 10 year revitalization project which included restoration of the original winery that now houses the tasting room and popular Underdog Wine Bar. To keep up with the times a new, state-of-the-art 42,000 square foot solar powered winery was built just 100 yards from the original winery. John is proud that his role involves preservation of their historic landmark and, in this vein, he donated Prohibition-dated bottles of wine that are now showcased in the National Museum of American History Smithsonian collection
The house where James made his first batch of wine in 1866, the same house that watched Captain Joe, Jim and John grow up, is still standing today. Remarkably, the historic 123-year-old “Mother Vine Vineyard” propagated from James’s 1893 Château Margaux vines is still producing lovely Cabernet Sauvignon from upwards of 70-year-old vines. Concannon Vineyard has a lot to be proud of and not least in line is the fact that they are America’s oldest continually-operated family-owned winery.
Concannon Vineyards Website www.concannonvineyard.com
Somm Journal, June / July 2015 Issue, Page 5-7, First Press by Fred Swan, CS
Somm Journal, October / November 2015 Issue, Page 42 – 45, A Founding Family of California Cabernet by Jonathan Cristaldi