We just launched a new feature: My Charts. See your charts >

Evangelho Vineyard

From Bedrock mailer:

It’s not uncommon to say that century-old grapevines have weathered a lot in their lifetimes. But Frank Evangelho’s 120-year-old vines have seen and survived more than most.
Evangelho’s vineyard is in Contra Costa County, south of the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta and east of Mount Diablo – the black sheep, you might say, of the Bay Area wine family. This might lead you to presume that its challenges are geographic (the area has an overstated reputation for heat), but Evangelho’s location is actually an advantage in that regard. Situated right on the San Joaquin River, its temperatures are ameliorated by afternoon breezes from the Carquinez Strait, and the fact that the vineyard is literally on a beach has allowed it to avert the phylloxera scourge, as that much-feared louse can’t survive in sand.
No, Evangelho’s trials have more to do with “civilization.” Since Frank took over the property 50 years ago (inheriting it from his father Manuel, who had been farming it since the Thirties), the vineyard has withstood one human onslaught after another. Indeed, it’s a miracle that these venerable vines survive at all, much less in the amazing health that they continue to exude.
Like many Antioch and Oakley grapegrowers, Manuel Evangelho came to California from Portugal – specifically the Azores Islands, which have a winegrowing tradition of their own. His first local job was tending a vineyard at a monastery in Los Gatos, after which he moved to Antioch to work in a paper mill – then the only industry in this area other than agriculture, which consisted mainly of orchards (notably “sandcots”: apricots grown in sand). He also worked in a vineyard that, at the time, was already 40 years old, having been planted in 1890 with a combination of zinfandel, carignane, and mourvedre (the latter known as mataro among early California growers).
In 1952 the vineyard was sold to PG&E, which built a power plant next door. The company preserved the vines, but built a series of electrical towers and power lines amid them. Manuel, however, capitalized on this development, buying 11 of the vine-bearing acres and leasing another 26 from PG&E – an arrangement that continues to the present day.
Frank, the youngest of four children, was born in 1946. All of his siblings were girls, so he was “the spoiled baby boy” – which may or may not be connected to the fact that he got lost in the vineyard at age four. “My father found me crying under a vine,” he remembers. “The funny thing is, one of my own daughters did the same thing when she was four.”
After recovering from that trauma, Frank grew up working in the vineyard. When he graduated from Antioch High School, however, he went to Cal Poly to study engineering. It lasted for only a year.
“I wanted to farm,” he explains. “Being out in nature is a whole different thing from being in an office.”
Having made that decision, he took courses at U.C. Davis to augment his own experience. He started overseeing the vineyard in 1963, when the main problem it faced was lack of demand – pre-California-wine-renaissance, many regions were still in post-Prohibition rehab, sustained mainly by home winemakers in other parts of North America. Antioch and Oakley – directly served by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, which follows the banks of the San Joaquin – had a couple of local shippers, so Evangelho decided to join their ranks.
“It was a cutthroat business,” he recalls. “I called a broker in Toronto out of the phone book who put me in touch with the Italian embassy in British Columbia; a company with an import business agreed to take 19 or 20 tons, but the next year they wanted it for 50 cents a box cheaper, even though they were higher quality.
“I said I’d let it rot first,” Evangelho recounts. “I found another place out of the B.C. phone book, then went up and made friends with the people there. We signed a contract, but the next year they weren’t putting in their order. Finally I learned that one of my competitors found out who was buying my grapes and charged them less.”
What about the contract? “Crossing borders in Canada, what are you gonna do?”
It could have been worse. Another of his competitors was reputed to have Mafia connections, and when Evangelho got into the business, the guy asked Frank he’d “gotten the flowers yet” (implying an imminent funeral). “I told my mother not to stand in front of her window,” Frank says. “Later the guy went to prison for driving the car for a murder in San Jose.”
A suitable corrective arrived in the 1970s, when Brother Timothy of Christian Brothers came calling. “He went through each block and tested the ages of samples and clones,” Evangelho says. “He found they were consistent, and bought the grapes for 200 dollars a ton. Because of sugar bonuses, though, we got closer to 450.”
This refers to the fact that, before intensive canopy management was introduced, wineries paid extra for ripe grapes. In eastern Contra Costa County, where harvest typically begins in August, that was money in the bank. As Evangelho explains, the solar reflection from Antioch’s sandy soil helps grapes ripen. (“It’s like the volcanic soil in the Azores,” he says.) Nevertheless, his riparian location is several degrees cooler than vineyards planted two miles inland.
“Only one year did we harvest the whole field in August,” he says. “Usually we start at the end of the month and finish at the end of September. Zinfandel is usually first; carignane [which he pronounces “care-ig-nan”] is last, except for last year, when it was one of the first.
“Each [variety] has their own issues,” Evangelho elaborates. “Carignane is susceptible to mildew, but its skin is tight so it doesn’t break. Zinfandel’s skin is softer, so it can burst and can get bunchrot if it swells too much. You really have to know what you’re doing to ripen zinfandel – it can have 18 to 26 [degrees Brix, a measure of sugar] on the same vine, but you can balance it out more with what you do during the year. Mourvedre’s foliage is more open, so it can get sunburn, but carignane and zinfandel have bigger [leaves], so in the last few years we’ve been doing more thinning and leaf-pulling. In the past, we just let the old vines decide what they wanted to do.”
In some ways that’s a good idea. “Old vines on their own roots are strong,” Evangelho believes. “I had ours tested for virus, and they were clean and healthy. Some are really big – their taproot goes down 40 feet or more. The health comes from their location – nothing prevents breezes from coming through here, and the vineyard has always been cared for. It’s been in my family for 78 years and farmed continually since it began.”
The property still produces between 2.5 and 4.5 tons of fruit per acre – an amazing figure for a dry-farmed, century-old vineyard. “I could get even more tonnage out of it if I wanted to pump them up. We used to irrigate in drought years, when we had access to a canal line in the Sixties and Seventies. When we sold the grapes for white zinfandel, they only had to be 18 or 19 sugar, and we got nine tons an acre.”
The turning point for Evangelho (and Oakley/Antioch in general) came in the late Eighties, after the white-zin boom subsided and Fred and Matt Cline appeared. Junior members of the Jacuzzi family – the notorious hot-tub purveyors who owned property nearby – the brothers began buying Contra Costa grapes for their eponymous Sonoma winery, which focused on “California heritage” varieties. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon followed, searching statewide for mourvedre and finding it only here.
Gratified to be working with quality wineries, Evangelho encouraged skeptical winemakers to start with two or four tons. Soon enough, the old vines were commanding premium prices, though the recent market trend toward superripeness brought him a new kind of headache.
“A lot of times, wineries aren’t ready for Labor Day when the fruit is ready,” Frank reveals. “I don’t like waiting for 30 sugar – 24 or 25 is good, but as soon as you get over 26, the grapes dehydrate and lose weight. At 30, their concentration and character changes. It’s like an old man holding up a bunch of weight for four days – they’re just trying to survive, and it’s gonna hurt them. There’s no reason to do that to them. It’s a waste.”
Another evolving factor, which has affected Evangelho more than once, is the sale of wineries he sells grapes to. “It’s a shame when the corporate guys come in,” he comments. “They’re used to handling large parcels and marketing a commercial product that goes nationwide. With small boutiques, you don’t have accountants penciling out work or asking for more crop that I don’t have. I’ve been doing this for 50 years and I like working in a good relationship, so when somebody’s dictating, I’ll go someplace else. I want to make wine that’s good for the vine all the way around, and smaller guys are able to focus on quality. They can pay better, too.”
Evangelho’s current client list includes Bedrock, Hess, Neyers, Precedent, Renwood, Toucan, Turley, and Three (Matt Cline’s latest venture). “It’s a little hectic trying to pick for so many wineries,” he acknowledges. “I always have to make sure the crew is in the right area.” It’s not bad, however, for his eccentric portfolio to be in demand. Evangelho carignane wins critical kudos, and “a number of wineries want mourvedre now – if I had more, I could sell all of it.”
Back in the day when Evangelho shipped grapes to Canada, all of them were called zinfandel. “After I became a Christian in 1977, I couldn’t do that any more,” he says. “So I went to the state and asked if I could call them mixed blacks. They said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but we did fine. Years later, they red-tagged a bunch of shippers [for misidentifying the grapes].”
The whole picture is counterintuitive: the old vines holding their own in the sand, continuing to confer superlative wines year in and year out, in the face of not only shifting markets but encroaching power plants, industrial warehouses, and housing developments. In 2006 the city of Antioch even put a pipeline through the middle of Evangelho’s vineyard, claiming the property by eminent domain.
“They took out some mourvedre and carignane vines in July, right before harvest. At first they offered to pay me $1.50 per vine, which is what it would cost to buy one today. But these were a hundred years old! There were some good, big vines – I lost probably 15 tons a year, but they compared the property value to undeveloped land between Pittsburg and Concord, which what was a tenth of what it’s worth. Mine was producing good money.”
Ironically, the pipeline – built to service a commercial development next door on “Vineyard Drive” – has been idle ever since. “It’s been here six years now and nobody’s hooked up to it. I was going to replant some of it, but now the city owns it and plans to make it a public street. They have the right to come back and take more vines out to build a road with sidewalks.
"In Napa you wouldn’t have this attitude,” Evangelho insists. “But a lot of people are coming into Antioch and Oakley now. When I was growing up, there were 14,000 people here. Now there are over 100,000. A lot of vineyards have been taken out for housing, but the area expanded way too fast and got overbuilt. It was hit hard by the recession – there have been a tremendous amount of foreclosures, and it brought different people who dump freezers and trash in the middle of the vineyard. We never used to have people purposely breaking vines, but I had some go-karts racing in the vineyard and tearing things up. Finally I had to dig a ditch around the vineyard to close it off. These weren’t kids, either. They were in their twenties, but they didn’t care – they were arrogant as could be. One of them backed his truck up at me, and after I chased another one on a motorcycle, his father came here with a pipe in his hand and said, ‘You’re trying to kill my son!’ But I have some counseling skills so I was able to talk the guy down.”
This derives from the fact that Evangelho is also a licensed marriage and family therapist. “In church, for whatever reason, people would come to [me] and ask for advice and counsel,” he explains. “So I went back to school and got my bachelors and masters degrees in three years from the Azusa Pacific University extension. I worked for Christian Family Services, but I had to cut back in ’95 after I had a heart attack.”
This coronary event lasted for two hours. “I was in intensive care for ten days – the doctor said it was a miracle I was alive. I lost half the function of my heart, so now I have a pacemaker and defibrillator. I can’t do things in the vineyard any more, but I know the vines, so I trained Manuel Caranza, who takes real pride in it. It’s still a family operation – Manuel’s daughters were out here when they were little, and one of them lives here now in a trailer, trying to defend it [from trespassers].”
The upshot, Frank says, is that “you learn to appreciate the value of things. That’s what so sad about the situation with the city – they’ve lost connection with the earth and the local heritage. Old vines are pulled out and tossed away because live in a tossaway society. Some of these young guys don’t respect the old things that brought this community into being. They have no clue about what it means to be a part of it – to treat things with respect and care.
“A person who works out a lot might have good muscles,” Evangelho says, “but not the character or understanding of people who have gone through stress. Some stress is good, and something this old, which has gone through droughts and development and everything else, has an understanding that’s much deeper.”

Last edited on 8/9/2013 by PSUSteve

This is the only version of this article. View version history

Edit this Article

© 2003-23 CellarTracker! LLC.

Report a Problem