James and John Concannon uphold tradition at a winery founded by their Irish immigrant ancestor.
The Concannon family has spent more than 128 years growing grapes and making wine in California, 42 miles east of San Francisco, debunking the notion that the Irish know their whiskey but not their wine.
“I never knew my grandfather James, the founder of Concannon Vineyard,” said Jim Concannon, 80, on a recent afternoon, standing on the rocky soil where James first planted his vines in 1883. “He died in 1911, twenty years before I was born, but I can walk through the house that he built in 1883, where I grew up, and I can stroll through the vineyard picking up rocks, and I know what he left behind – not just a successful winery, but five generations of family.”
James Concannon, who was born on the Aran Island of Inis Meain on St. Patrick’s Day 1847, picked a remarkable spot to plant his vines. The Livermore Valley has been compared to some of the great wine regions of France. And, whether it was luck, or a good eye for land, James picked one of the best places to grow grapes in the entire valley. But according to his grandson, it was James’ wife, Ellen Rowe from Castlecomer, Kilkenny, who was behind the move to Livermore. “She must have been a great woman,” Jim said of his grandmother. “Grandfather traveled a lot and she was left behind to take care of the family. It was probably her idea to petition Archbishop Alemany for the rights to produce altar wine for the Church.
“James and Ellen were living in the Mission District of San Francisco at the time and they were friends with the the archbishop. So whether it was Grandmother’s idea or not, the archbishop eventually said to Grandfather, ‘I know you have this family and want to improve yourself, so why don’t you get some land and produce sacramental wine for the Catholic Church?’”
And so began another adventure for James who had left Inis Meain in 1865 at the age of 18. After stopping in New York and Boston, he made his way to Augusta, Maine to his uncle Peador. “He didn’t speak any English, but he soon picked it up,” Jim said. “He had a way with languages and went on to speak English and Spanish fluently, but the diaries he left behind were written in Irish.”
Once in Augusta, James found work as a bellboy in the Mansion House Hotel. He was smart and over the next seven years he worked his way up to manager. Augusta was the state capital at the time and his guests were mostly legislators and businessmen. He heard talk of how the West was expanding and decided to take his wife and child out to California, but first he dipped into his savings and took a trip back to Ireland.
“That year, Inis Meain had a surplus of potatoes, and James found a way to sell them to the mainland, making enough money to pay for his trip out west,” Jim reveals. James found a job with a bookseller in San Francisco, and went on to buy a rubber stamp franchise. Soon he was traveling as far north as the Canadian border and south into Mexico. Rubber stamps were a popular item and James made money, but Ellen wanted her husband home with their growing family – now five boys and five girls. “She thought that winemaking would put a stop to James’ traveling,” said Jim.
But James was not one to sit around while his vines matured. He brought over his brother Thomas to take over the rubber stamp business, and another brother, Martin, to help with the vineyard, and he took off for Mexico where he persuaded the Mexican president Porfirio Diaz to let him sell vine cuttings across the border. “From 1889 to 1904 he shipped millions of cuttings to Mexico and had remarkable impact on the wine industry there,” Jim said. A few years later, however, the Revolution of 1910 sent Diaz into exile and James lost the connection with Mexico. “I think most of the vines died from neglect,” Jim said.
Meanwhile, the cuttings James had brought back from France were producing a remarkable quality of wine in the Livermore Valley, and what had begun as a service to the church, soon became a powerhouse in the California wine industry.
But for all his success, James never forgot Ireland. He made five trips home, taking his daughter, May, on his last trip in 1911.
James had been warned by his doctors not to travel because of heart trouble, but he’d been invited to speak to the Gaelic League (he had met Douglas Hyde, champion of the Irish language revival movement, who went on to become the first president of Ireland through his brother Thomas) and he decided to go. He died shortly after his return.
But he is not forgotten.
Millions of bottles of wine have borne the Concannon label over the years. And a gallery wall of photographs and artifacts between the tasting room and the restaurant pays homage to James’ colorful life. When he died he left behind several diaries, written in Irish, which Jim and
his son John, the fourth-generation Concannon to work at the winery, had translated, and which Jim used as background for his book Concannon: The First 125 Years, which was released in 2006.
After James’ death, the winery passed into the hands of his son Joseph.
A fine horseman, Joseph had joined the First Cavalry and served under General John Pershing and Lieutenant George Patton. “He would have been happy to stay in the military, but his mother wanted him home to take over the winery after grandfather’s death,” said Jim. Joseph kept up his connections to the military. “He was known as Captain Joe and wore Khakis around the winery every day for 50 years,” said Jim. He stayed in touch with General Pershing and sent him a case of wine every Christmas. He also erected a flagpole that still stands in front of the winery. The tradition Joseph started of raising the flag every morning continues today.
The winery faced some tough times during Joseph’s tenure, mainly Prohibition and the Depression, but it was one of only five other wineries legally bonded to continue producing under their winery label. “We had been making altar wine for 35 years, and it was perfectly legal for us to continue to do so. We never missed a harvest,” said Jim. “And we were selling wine not just to the Catholic Church, but the Lutherans and Episcopalians as well.”
But there wasn’t much money around. Joseph’s siblings wanted to sell up, but his wife’s brother Carlo Ferrario, who had a local winery, loaned Joe the money to buy the others out. He and his wife, Nina, Jim’s mother, who like her brother had emigrated from Lonate Pozzolo in Italy, became the sole owners.
When Prohibition finally ended in 1931, Joseph had plenty of wine in stock and soon he was shipping it all over the country. A newspaper clipping from that time shows a truckload of wines arriving in Seattle and a crowd gathered with a “Welcome Concannon Wines” placard.
If Joseph’s first love was the military, Jim’s first love is wine. On a tour of the winery he points out the house that his grandfather built, the house he grew up in. “I made my first wine in the attic when I was ten years old,” he said, laughing. “It overflowed and leaked into my parents’ bedroom.”
Instead of being mad, Joseph took him down to the winery and his Uncle Tom, his father’s brother, showed him how it was done. By this time Joseph had brought in Tom, a chemist, to handle the winemaking, and another brother, Robert, to handle sales.
There is still that feeling of family at Concannon. Everyone from farm hands to bottling supervisors are on a first name basis. As we make our tour of the winery, Jim and his son John, the 4th-generation Concannon to work at the winery, stop to chat with workers and visitors alike. A young couple who are sharing a picnic table out front seem surprised to meet an actual Concannon.
Jim & Joe
By the time of their father’s death in 1965, Jim and his brother Joe were running the winery. Joe took care of the sales and Jim had taken over as winemaker. In 1960 he married Helen, a nurse, and the following year his son John was born. He made a very special wine to celebrate the birth.
The Petite Sirah, known for its small berries and concentrated flavor, was used as a mix in producing other wine. Acting on the advice of a friend, Jim decided to see how it would fare on its own. The result was a unique wine with a distinctive taste that went on to win high honors. Fifty years after its birth it’s become Concannon’s flagship wine.
When President Reagan visited Ireland in 1984, his gift to Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald was a 1979 Concannon Petite Sirah, delivered with the message: “From the young Irishman that left his homeland. He is now returning his gift.”
As well as producing California’s first Petite Sirah, something else that Jim and Joe did would forever impact the future of California’s Cabernet Sauvignon.
Here John picks up the story. “Back in 1966, Dad and Uncle Joe worked with scientists at U.C. Davis to make root stock that was resistant to the viruses that afflicted many vineyards. They took cuttings from a single vine from here (he points out the row), known as the Concannon Mother Vine, and mainly through heat treatment, made it resistant to fungus and other viruses.”
Davis eventually released clones, 7, 8 and 11. Most winemakers agree that these clones played a pivotal role in the expansion of Cabernet Sauvignon plantings in California. When disease wiped out Napa Valley vineyards in the 1980s, it’s estimated that 80 percent of all replanting of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes came from the Concannon Clone. “To this day if you want to plant a vineyard that’s resistant to root rot, you order the Concannon Clone 7, 8 or 11,” said John. “So the next time you are enjoying a $100 bottle of Napa Valley wine, just remember that there’s a little bit of Concannon in there,” he adds with a grin.
Each generation of the Concannon family has had a unique impact on the winery that bears its name. For John, the newest Concannon at the helm, it is all about reclaiming, repurposing and conservation.
He began working in the winery when he was 10 years old, and after 25 years away, and a successful career in the medical field, he is happy to be back at Concannon, where his job includes public relations and sales.
His knowledge of the winemaking process is vast, and he’s in his element when talking about marrying the latest technology to tradition.
“We still do many things the traditional way,” he emphasizes as we watch the cabernet grapes, harvested the night before, being sorted by hand. Four different pairs of eyes and hands quickly toss away leaves or grapes that aren’t up to par.
Yet, alongside this tradition are state of the art condensers, and chemistry labs, and high tech bottling facilities. Sustainability is the principle at work here. John points out how the energy collected from solar paneling on the roof cools the gigantic oak barrels of reds, while the exhaust from the same refrigeration system keeps the chardonnays warm.
The barrel room is a sight to behold, especially as on this day it’s set up for a wedding of one of the workers. Olive branches adorn an altar that is set up in front of an old wine press that was modified from an apple cider press that James Concannon used to harvest his first grapes.
There are reminders of the founder everywhere you turn. If you lift your head up from the vines your eye will catch Mount Diablo rising into an empty sky in the distance. The vista is pretty much unchanged from when James first put down roots here. And it will stay that way.
The Concannons joined local winemakers in placing their land into a conservation thrust that preserves it for future generations. It’s a project that’s close to John Concannon’s heart.
“Three million acres a year, 342 acres of farm land an hour are lost to urban sprawl,” he said, explaining the I behind the move. “So we took all of our land, and you know we are 42 miles east of one of the greatest cities in the world, so land is not exactly cheap, and we gave away our land rights so it would be preserved forever.
“All of the juice from our conservatory wines comes from vineyards in the trust, including the ‘Crimson and Clover’ wine we produced to celebrate Dad’s 80th birthday this year. (We drank the last bottle at lunch!)
“So all the land stretching back to the mountains, the vista we now see it will remain unchanged for a long, long time. We like to say, ‘saving the land one sip at a time.’”
I think James Concannon, late of Inis Meain, would approve that move.
Concannon is now part of the Wine Group, which purchased it in 2002. David B. Kent, CEO of The Wine Group, wrote in the Afterword to Jim’s book, “Although the ship has changed ownership, we have always been blessed to have a Concannon at the helm. We hope this continues through the fourth and fifth generations, and beyond.” Amen.