It was organized by wine collector and connoisseur Jim Waltz (a civil engineer by training). Concannon was the first United States winery to bottle Petite Sirah as a varietal, when it had been viewed as a blending wine. Grapes from the 1961 harvest were released in 1964. Back in the days when the Concannon family owned the vineyards, the annual Thanksgiving Weekend tradition was a vertical tasting of six or seven years of Petite Sirah, several vintages still aging in the huge redwood tanks. Modern techniques changed that tradition with most red wines hitting the market within three years.
Last month, Waltz out-did himself by throwing his second “once in a lifetime” event, this time a vertical tasting of 40 vintages of Concannon Petite Sirah. That’s no typo—40 years from the most recent vintage back to 1967. Working with couple of different cork screws, Waltz managed to get them all opened and topped each with a ½-ounce pour to ensure they went around with the 40-50 invited guests. He’s got a climate-controlled storage unit in Livermore that reportedly has 500 to 600 bottles.
Waltz, who started as an engineer at Lawrence Livemore National Lab working with my father, recalls how Jim Concannon was a mentor and a friendly face when he left the lab to hang up his own shingle. He shared that Jim always greeted him with a big smile when they saw each other at the weekly Livermore Rotary meetings. Jim’s wine hobby has a serious side to it—he judges wine contests. The 40 vintages lined up that Saturday evening were a mild challenge compared ranking 100 Cabernet Sauvignons. That’s serious tasting/judging.
One of his joys is introducing dedicated white wine drinkers to quality red wine—he typically uses Petite Sirah and they become red wine converts.
The Concannon tasting was accompanied by superb lamb kabobs and beef barbecued by grill master John Christman, helped by co-organizer Randy Zumwalt. The event took place in Greg Pelican’s new barn at his home east of Livermore.
A delight for me was sharing the evening with my friends, Jim and Helen Concannon. As Helen commented, we’ve been through a quite bit together in the 40 years we have known each other. Jim, 91, and Helen, 88, have the mobility challenges that often go with aging, but were delighted to engage in conversation.
Their son John, who served as Concannon’s CEO for a number of years before retiring, offered some remarks as well as passing out prints of the historic Cabernet Sauvignon vine. He honored the long-time family friend and retiring Wente employee (49 years over four generations) Julio Covarrubias as well as organizers.
John related how their centennial vintage of 1983 Petite Sirah and their Irish heritage had come to the attention of President Reagan and a staff member called to ask if the president could take a bottle to Ireland as the official gift. Jim set aside a nine-liter bottle (a Salmanazar for those asking) and the Secret Service showed up three weeks later to pick it up. All went well until the officers asked for a second bottle—Jim balked for a minute, until, as John told it, an agent pulled back his jacket exposing a machine gun. They took back two Salmanazar.
The event centered on Petite Sirah, but it’s notable that the Livemore Valley’s two historic wineries, Wente and Concannon, played key roles in the two most popular varietals. Wente’s chardonnay clone is planted in about 75% of the chardonnay vineyards in California and Wente was the first to bottle chardonnay as a varietal, while Concannon’s cabernet sauvignon clones (7 ,8, 11) are growing in about 80% of the variety in the state.