In Search of a 150-Year-Old Grapevine

OldVine01We all know that you can’t stop progress, but sometimes I think we need to have a clearer consensus about what progress is… and what it isn’t… when decisions are being made.

In Southern California, “progress” destroyed some of the oldest grapevines in the state in order to make way for giant warehouses where big-rigs can pull in, load up, and transport wares to retail outlets.

Commerce almost always trumps history in such instances, but some local vineyard owners held out longer than you might expect. In most instances, the tipping point came when those venerable vines could no longer produce enough fruit to make a commercially viable amount of wine.

Once a vine reaches a certain advanced age, its production generally will decrease gradually with each passing vintage. If a vineyard is producing only a few barrels of wine per annum, and a giant corporation comes in with a lucrative offer for the land, you can’t blame the vineyard owner for caving in at some point.

Now, Las Vegas isn’t exactly considered “wine country,” even though you can get your hands on pretty much any bottle you could name from anywhere in the world if you knew which restaurant to visit. Yet what happened there last summer was quite remarkable in a city known for imploding things to make room for other things.

It involves a grapevine — estimated to be 150 years old — in the sights of the Nevada Department of Transportation. The vine had been thriving next to a Vegas business called Meyers Electrical Maintenance, and the Nevada DOT needed that land to make way for Project Neon, which includes a widening of the I-15 freeway to help alleviate traffic where it meets U.S. Highway 95.

The vine had not always been there. It actually had arrived in old downtown Las Vegas with Mormon settlers from Utah, and was planted adjacent to a hardware store. When that store closed in the mid-1950s, the vine was given to the Meyers family.

It may seem surprising that the vine had been transported by Mormon settlers, but prior to the presentation of that religion’s scriptural Word of Wisdom, the consumption of alcohol was allowed. North of St. George, in Toquerville, Utah, there was a 500-acre vineyard that produced around 1,700 tons of grapes annually. It was from that vineyard that the vine originated.

So, here we have a vine planted in the 1860s that had been transplanted twice — first in the move from Utah to Las Vegas, and then from Johnny Ray’s Hardware Store to Meyers Electrical Maintenance. Could it survive yet a third move at its age and in its delicate condition?

Arrangements were made to have the plant moved from its doomed location to the nearby Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park. The fort was built by the first permanent non-native settlers in the Las Vegas Valley in 1855.

“It’s really amazing when you think about all the history associated with this,” said Beth Hewitt, the park’s supervisor, in a Las Vegas Review-Journal story that appeared a few weeks after the vine was moved. “We’re thrilled to provide a new home for this fascinating, well-traveled piece of living history.”

There are a few California vineyards that are more than a century old, but for a wine geek like I, getting to see a grapevine 50 percent older than that was akin to an art lover visiting the Louvre. So, this past Saturday, the Mrs. and I decided to brave the desert heat and visit the fort.

It turned out to be quite an adventure.

(Continued tomorrow…)

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Posted in Editor's Journal, Our Wine Travel Log
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