Lets face it, we as a human race are fascinated by things that are old. Whether it is an old car, a old house, ruins of an ancient civilization, or even something of nature like a petrified redwood forest, we humans find it super interesting. For some it is nostalgia, for others it is wonder, and for a few maybe it is just plain cool. Owing to this fascination, our society has even adopted the use of buzz words such as, vintage, antique, classic, distressed, and ancient into its vocabulary. Music that is 25 years old is now becoming classic (recently hearing Pearl Jam on a classic rock station made me shudder a bit), cars that are 50 years old or older are suddenly antique....... But what the heck is Old Vine Zinfandel? Maybe it's like the "classic car" of wine?
Well, now that I think about it old vine zinfandel could definitely be considered the "classic car" of wine! First off, there are not many old growth vines left in the world and they are getting scarcer every year. Many classic cars have not survived through the years and some are quite rare. Second, the wine from old vines is quite a bit different than younger plantings that have not had the time to mature, much like a '63 Corvette Stingray is quite different than a Tesla Model S. Third, both are deeply steeped in human history.
So lets delve into my first point.... In order to be considered "old vine" the general rule of thumb is that the grapevines have to be at least 40 years old. As the vines get older they succomb to disease, have lower yields, and there is greater difficulty in farming them. As the health and vigor of the vineyard declines, the vines are often removed and replanted with different, more popular or productive varieties (such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon). A five year old Zinfandel vineyard in Lodi might produce 6-7 tons per acre (the way the wine industry measures yield), while a 52 year old vineyard may only produce 1.5-2 tons per acre. For a 20 acre vineyard we're talking close to 10,000 cases of wine compared to around only 2,000 cases from an old growth vineyard of the same size! From a business perspective this is often not sustainable due to the low supply of grapes that often don't meet the demand of the wineries production, and thus the vineyard is uprooted and replaced.
So then why do you see "Old Vine" everywhere??? The simple answer is marketing. The more complex answer is "we used to make wine from old vines, but the vineyard is no more and we can't change our marketing strategy so hopefully nobody will notice."
There are no rules, no true regulations or entities that are going to check whether the "Old Vine Zinfandel" you are drinking is really made from old vines at all, what percentage that is,