Jim Concannon has been in the wine industry his entire life. Literally. His family had been producing wine for 50 years when he was born.

He is the grandson of the founder of Concannon Vineyard, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. It is the oldest continuing producer in Livermore Valley, where winegrapes were first planted by Spanish missionaries in the mid-1700s and which was the largest wine-producing region in California until Prohibition.

Concannon, 75, has many stories to tell, and he put them together in a coffee-table book co-authored by Tim Patterson. The book is beautifully illustrated with photos by noted wine country photographer Andy Katz.

In the book, Concannon lists numerous “firsts” attributed to his winery — the most notable being that Concannon was the first winery to ever varietally label petite sirah, generally used as a blending grape in what most vintners commonly (and mistakenly) called Burgundy.

“I had Denny Caldwell to thank for that,” Concannon said. Caldwell was a wine merchant in Pasadena and when he came to Sacramento to judge wines at the State Fair, he stayed with Concannon’s brother Joe. While walking through the winery, he tasted some petite sirah and suggested that they bottle it as a varietal, promising that if they did, he would buy a few hundred cases. Even today that is a big order from one customer.

“It sold out in no time. It just went on from there,” Concannon said.

Today, Concannon Vineyard makes three different petite sirahs — 50,000 cases of the Limited Release, 1,500 cases of Reserve, sold only in the tasting room, and about 300 cases of Heritage, “whenever it’s good enough,” he said.

The company-trademarked phrase “America’s First Petite Sirah” appears on every bottle of the varietal leaving the Concannon warehouse.

The winery has 200 acres, 140 of them devoted to petite sirah. Other varietals include chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, viognier and pinot gris. The winery has been making sauvignon blanc for 125 years, and the sauvignon blanc grapes are grown from cuttings taken from the famed Chateau d’Yquem, Concannon said. In addition to its Livermore property, grapes are sourced from the central coast area.

Another first claimed by Concannon is the hiring in 1950 of the U.S. wine industry’s first female winemaker — Katherine Vajda, who stayed there for 10 years.

He’s also happy to talk about Clones 7 and 8, also known as the Concannon clones, the backbone of many of California’s top cabernet sauvignons. Concannon estimates 80-90 percent of all cabs planted in the U.S. during the 1970s and ‘80s came from those.

In 1959, Austin Goheen and Harold Olmo at UC Davis took some vines, treated them with heat to eliminate any viruses the vines may contain, and propagated them, According to the book, all the Concannon samples came from a single vine — row 34, vine 2. “So the next time you pop the cork on one of those $100-a-bottle ultra-premium cabernets from a prime North Coast label, remember there’s almost bound to be a piece of row 34, vine 2 in your glass,” Concannon said in the book.

Making wine for the Church

The winery was founded by Jim’s grandfather James, born on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland and emigrated to the U.S. in 1865. Concannon’s grandfather moved to San Francisco and later to Livermore, where an archbishop convinced him to plant winegrapes and make wine for the church.

During Prohibition, Concannon Vineyard made sacramental wines, one of a few wineries receiving approval from the local bishop to make wine. At one time sacramental wines were 20 percent of the winery’s business, but Concannon said production ended about five years ago.

During Prohibition, a section of the law allowed home winemakers to make up to 200 gallons of wine, so Concannon was among the growers who shipped tons of grapes to many new vintners in the East every year.

“A lot of people took out their winegrapes and planted table grapes (during Prohibition),” Concannon said. “But after Prohibition ended they pulled the table grapes and re-planted winegrapes, and we had the jump on them.”

Proud of his Irish heritage, Concannon conducts Concannon’s Irish Winemakers Dinner every St. Patrick’s Day. In 1989 the Concannon family held what he called the Concannon Millennium, and about 250 members of the clan came from all over the world to gather in Ireland for the celebration,

James Concannon had a connection with the Mexican government and persuaded the president to allow him to ship about a million vine cuttings to help develop the Mexican wine industry. He supervised planting of many of those cuttings, but revolution broke out not long afterwards  and the venture ended. But he had, as Jim Concannon said, “the distinction of being the first U.S. citizen to plant grapes in both Californias — Baja and Alta.”

After James Concannon died in 1911, Jim’s father, Joseph, took over the reins of the winery. He guided it through the Depression and World War II, aided by his brothers, Robert and Tom.

Jim and Joe grew up working in the winery. “My first job was taking water to the grape pickers,” he recalled. “I worked in (cleaned) every tank in the winery, and I had every tank memorized by its capacity.” Until 1978 wine bottles were hand-filled with equipment that handled 400 gallons per day, and he proudly proclaimed, “I was the fastest filler.”

Eight-year-old winemaker

The first wine he ever made was when he was 8 years old. He took some juice and some yeast to the tank house on top of the roof of the family’s house, and put it in bottles. The corks popped, the “wine” leaked through the roof, and his father said, “If you’re going to make wine, let me show you how to do it.”

 Concannon worked for his Uncle Tom as a chemist, and a short time later started making the wine. His last crush as winemaker was in 1977. He hired Bob Broman, who now operates his own winery in Napa Valley.

Buyers are neighbors

After Joe died the family sold the winery in 1980 to a group headed by Agustin Huneeus, who later founded Franciscan Estate in Napa Valley and now operates Quintessa Winery. A few sales and corporate moves later, and Concannon Vineyards was back on the market in 1990.

The buyer turned out to be neighbors across the street from Concannon — members of the Wente family. “They knew the property … they knew the family and the traditions,” Concannon wrote in his book. “They saved the winery, preserved a bit of history … and strengthened the Livermore Valley as a winegrowing area.”

Indeed, the Wentes knew the Concannons well. The second generation of both families, totaling 18 children, walked to school together — “We were half of the school,” Concannon said.

In 2002, the Wentes sold Concannon to the Wine Group, a San Francisco-based company that is the third largest wine company in the U.S. Concannon spoke highly of the company’s management. They are building a new facility that will house the headquarters, a bottling facility and barrel room, and will turn the old one into a Concannon wine museum.

One constant remains from the earlier days — Jim Concannon. Although the family hasn’t owned the winery for 25 years, he has stayed on as a goodwill ambassador, and still spends considerable time on the road, calling on distributors and retailers. “I love working with people,” he said. “I’m kinda like the Will Rogers of the wine business.”

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