Aunt Debbie

September 17, 2018

Angwin, CA — Jon’s Aunt Debbie gets one step closer to fulfilling her winemaking dreams this vintage. Her family’s Six Blocks Vineyard produces it’s first legit crop this year and we are helping to make her Amador Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Verdot. So far so good. These are the kinds of days that make this job seem not like a job at all.

Early morning sampling of the Carneros Pinot and Oak Knoll Merlot vineyards. Then up to Spence to destem Six Blocks Cabernet Sauvignon. After a bit of cleanup, we had some delicious sandwiches at the “new” Howell Mountain Deli. Homemade potato chips!

Back down on the valley floor, we checked on the Zin rosé (still fermenting 59F and 16 Brix and tasting so delicious like strawberry guava). Chardonnay juice still waiting in barrel. The wild ferment has yet to begin. At least it’s not quantifiable evident to our noses, ears, and palates. There is indeed a sort of portentous essence to the juice right now. I don’t know what it means yet. But there just seems to be a lot about to happen.

Finally we meet back at the Tasting Room to organize our thoughts and put some logistical action behind all the vineyards we’ve been tasting through. Calendars are checked, vineyard crews organized, bets are hedged, and arguments are made for what ripeness actually means this year.

A Story of Sauvignon Blanc

Version 5

September 15, 2018

CALISTOGA — I opened one of our last bottles of 2015 SB the other night and poured it for my wife Kim. She asked, what’s this, something new? I had to agree. It tasted vibrant and alive. And then we enjoyed it with some pesto pasta. For that 2015 vintage, we had contracted with a grower to buy a couple tons of Oak Knoll SB. But the crop was unexpectedly short and another contracted buyer of the same block, threw their weight around and threatened legal action if they didn’t get their contracted allotment. So we were SOL. Which is fine I guess, except that we found this out roughly one week before expected pick date. So I scrambled to find a replacement. Miraculously, a small family vineyard in the same appellation, just a mile down the Napa River was looking to sell some of their SB. I say miraculously, because over the years as SB vineyards get tired and must be replaced, they consistently get replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon. Because that’s what makes business sense. And so every year there are fewer and fewer acres of Napa SB available. Which is unfortunate since Napa grows some of the most fabulous SB in California.

So we were stoked to get this vineyard. And the only reason this is really a story is because normally I would not have chosen to buy fruit from this vineyard. The soil was just a touch too rich and fertile. It held a excessive amount of water on a normal year. But this wasn’t a normal year. It was what turned out to be the last year of a five-year drought. Discounting my natural disinclination toward a vineyard like this, and because we were up against a tight deadline, I made an agreement with the retired couple who owned the property and prepared to make the wine. Now what generally happens in an overly fertile vineyard is that the fruit tends to not ripen beyond the greener, more vegetal flavors. With SB you can get bell peppers, jalepeno peppers, and general skunkiness. So I was hyper vigilant. It was kind of an ugly vineyard too, which means you have to try even harder to ignore what you see and focus only on what you taste. And luckily, what I tasted was delicious. We fermented the wine in 10 different containers—stainless steel barrels, and neutral french oak barrels, and even some stainless steel kegs—employing five different yeast strains with the aim of fleshing out the most balanced and layered aspects of the vineyard. And like magic, it seemed to work out.

That’s what is really so intellectually fascinating about opening that bottle of wine with pesto on a weeknight. It’s got all that back story for me. Sleepless nights went into the decision making of choosing that vineyard and holding out for the optimal pick date. And then one day you just open it and drink it and say to yourself, wow that was an amazing journey. Did we finish a whole bottle already?

Three Days

IMG_0251 (1)Above – Spent skins from the Zin Rosé pressing

September 11, 2018

CALISTOGA — Lots happening already as this harvest gains momentum. On Friday we pressed out the Zin Rosé. Juice tastes fantastic but the yield was a bit low. Only 145 gallons per ton. I was hoping for more like 160 gallons. That happens most of the time. It’s rare that we reach our wine volume forecasts. Just a bit too much optimism combined with bit too many variables. Anyway, by the time we finished pressing and cleaning up it was 8pm Friday night.

Saturday was anchored by the Calistoga Wine Growers annual tasting in Pioneer Park. Setup at 3:30, cleanup by around 7:30. An event so close to our house (three blocks) that I just can’t say no.  Any wine event that you can walk home from is usually a good one. It turned out to be a predictably warm Calistoga September day, meaning that even the big Cabernets see some ice bucket time, just to keep them in the cellar temperature realm. And although it’s really never what I feel like doing on a harvest weekend, it always ends up being a good gathering—nice people, pretty park, working alongside so many of our Calistoga vintner friends.  By the end of three hours of me telling our story, describing our wines, and meeting scores of new people, I’m spent. I think I went home and had a bowl of leftover chili for dinner and went to bed.

Sunday we racked the Zin rosé juice clean from the settling tank and put it into two stainless steel barrels and one keg. The barrels got the QA23 yeast and the keg got Perlage. We are liking the QA23 for its full tropical Hawaiian punch elements. And the Perlage brings a creamier mouthfeel along with the added bonus that it’s a durable fermenter, so that just in case the other ferment get’s sluggish at the end, the addition of the Perlage portion could save the day. On a side note, we do plan to pick the rest of the King Zin on Thursday for the red Zin. Super fun to make two totally different wines from a single vineyard.

Monday morning started early at the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay vineyards in Oak Knoll. Then on to the King Zin, Sonoma old vine Zin, and Sonoma Syrah for a rosé cuvée. The Sonoma vineyards are ripening especially slowly this year with unseasonably cool weather for the past month that’s forecast to stay cool through the next couple weeks. Both vineyards are roughly two weeks away from picking time. That’s when we got a message from Suzanne Pavitt of Phifer Pavitt Winery that they had, on somewhat of a whim the previous night at an event, tasted through a ten-year vertical of every Napa Cabernet I had ever made for them. From 2005 through 2015. The message was that they had left enough in each bottle for us to taste through the entire decade. A rare opportunity indeed.

So we grabbed a quick lunch at Gotts where we ran into Jerry Seps, founder, owner, winemaker, and vineyard manager for Storybook Mountain. It turns out that after all these years Jerry was still my best winery boss. Mainly because there is no pretense with Jerry. Just the hard work of trying to run a 40-acre family winery with great wines and decent enough cash flow to keep the whole thing going for another harvest. He was the winemaker and I was the associate winemaker at Storybook from 2000 to 2004. We got to mess around with wild yeast fermentations together. During harvest I did all the cellar and wine work and Jerry managed everything to do with the vineyards. It was a beautiful, warm and crystal clear day in the valley. Jon and I had called in our orders ahead so that our Crispy Teriyaki Chicken Sandwich, California Burger, garlic fries, and sweet potato fries would be ready to eat as soon as we arrived. Which is what happened. We asked Jerry what he was up to, and he said, “Waiting for my grapes to get ripe.” True enough. Might as well have a burger while you’re waiting.

It was a first for me, to taste through this ten-year vertical of wines that I had made, and from a single vineyard. There they were. Ten years of weather and scheduling and pumpovers and topping and tasting and blending, contract negotiations, sleepless nights, missing bungs, barrel trials, and winemaker dinners, all lined up in vintage order across a marble counter top. Mostly what I noticed is how amazingly solid Arthur Spencer’s vineyard is. Temple vineyard, over in Pope Valley. So good. Year after year. And it also had me thinking that over the ten vintages, we had made these wines at 5 different winemaking facilities. 2005 was at the old Robert Pecota Winery, then KJ bought them so for 2006 we moved production to Caldwell, deep in their massive caves down in Coombsville. 2007 was at Laird in Oak Knoll. 2008 through 2010, we made the wines at Raymond and right about the time that Boisset bought them we finally opened the Phifer Pavitt winery for our first year of full winemaking at our own facility in Calistoga. It may sound obvious, but what seems to make the biggest difference is not equipment or technology or knowhow. It’s the weather of the vintage. Particularly the weather during the last three months before harvest. That’s what put’s the finishing touches on the character of a vintage.

 

 

King Rosé

September 7, 2018

MANKAS CORNER — Roger and his crew are picking one ton of his estate zin for us at dawn this morning. The fruit grows in the Suisun Valley appellation, which has been referred to as a mini Napa Valley, just one mountain range over to the east of Napa. We’ve been buying fruit from Roger’s Suisun Valley vineyards off and on again since our first year in 2002. Roger King is the mad genius of this grape growing in the region. It’s conceivable that there may be better farmers here. But not with Roger’s creative insights and his visceral connection to the land and the forces of man and nature. Plus he cusses like a sailer, and seems to know all the pertinent gossip and natural history around here. So that a morning spent walking the vine rows can quickly bring you to speed on local knowledge.

The three man crew is making short work of this one ton pick. Roger will drive it the one hour north to Calistoga where we plan to press it later this afternoon. The next time we are down here it will be to pick the Zinfandel for red wine. Hopefully another week to ten days from now.

What’s To Come

Version 2What’s to come–late nights, head lamps, and wet socks. Jon Jones owning the long day cleanup rally.

September 6, 2018

CALISTOGA — We are nowhere near the point in harvest when this photo makes sense. But it is always in our minds. This morning though? Nothing to say yet really. 6am wakeup call. First cup of coffee brewing. Plan today is to endure another 7 plus tons of painfully slow Sauvignon Blanc pressing. Brix results yesterday on the fresh pressed juice indicated that we had properly characterized the state of the vineyard and in the end got the ripeness we were looking for. Which is always a relief and an important verification of our sampling techniques. It’s nice to be able to have faith in the notion that the relatively small number of grapes you tasted and sampled in the vineyard can accurately represent the vineyard as a whole. It also helps when the fruit just tastes really good and you find yourself eating a lot of grapes during the course of the day.

 

Sauvignon Blanc

Version 2September 5, 2018

CALISTOGA — Day one of the Sauvignon Blanc harvest begins. We bring in 20 tons for Phifer Pavitt over the course of the next three days. It takes that long, not to pick the fruit, but rather it takes that long to press the juice to tank in our tiny and gentle bladder press.

The day goes something like this: forklift the boxes of fruit off the truck, weigh the fruit, load the truck with empty boxes, dump the grapes into the press (three macro bins per press load while two of us sweep the grapes by hand to evenly fill out the cylindrical vessel, digging into the mounds of fruit with our bare arms deep in the cold sweet mass up to our elbows in it.), then start the automatic press program which runs for upwards of two hours, and then we wait to do it all over again. In between we wash down the cement crush pad, maybe tend to some long overdue drain cleaning or paperwork. Soon it’s time to send someone to Palisades deli to get shrimp burritos (extra crispy). Finishing time will be well after dark.

Gary Warburton is the winemaker of record for this particular SB. I am truly the consultant on the project. So we also chat the entire time about style and technique to make sure we always veer towards the flavors and qualities of the wine that we have worked together on for the last seven years. He’s a great collaborator. And as an added bonus, today he bought the shrimp burritos for us all.

Jon Jones and I will tag team over the course of the next three days, covering for each other so we can each attend to our other harvest chores. He needs to drive to Amador tomorrow to check the Petite Sirah. And on Friday I’ll need to oversee the Zin Rosé pick in Suisun, after which I plan to check a bunch of other vineyards down there. Likely the Pinot and Merlot and another SB vineyard in Oak Knoll for Olabisi. And if I have time, I’ll pick up a hundred pounds of dry ice from Complete Welder’s Supply in South Napa.

First real day of harvest and I’m already tired. Or maybe I’m just out of harvest shape. Should be up to speed by the end of the week!

 

 

Harvest

September 4, 2018

CALISTOGA — Before sunrise, after loading my pickup with two half-ton picking bins at one of our client wineries in Calistoga, I drove the 7 miles down to St Helena to pick up our Tasting Room Manager Joy Mesick for a bit of a team field trip. We would then drive up to the top of Howell Mountain to pick up Associate Winemaker Jon Jones. Once assembled, we headed down the other side of the mountain into Pope Valley. There we tasted through a Sauvignon Blanc vineyard. Walking up and down the rows together, eating fruit, commenting aloud to each other. “Mmmm.” “I’m getting fruit cocktail.” “Yes. Pear” “No green” “Good acid.” “Let’s do it.” “What are you guessing for Brix? 24?” “23.5” and on and on until we had gathered a small ziplock snack baggy of green and yellow grapes (or berries as we sometimes say.)

Next stop Suisun Valley, where we tasted through Roger King’s 25-year-old Zinfandel vineyard. Perched on the tiniest of knolls where the clay soil cracks open in startlingly wide fissures big enough to get a hand into, though I don’t know why you’d do that since it seems as if any type of thing might be lurking down there. We were tasting for several things–which part of the vineyard we’d use for rosé and which section we’d use for the traditional red Zinfandel, and then when to schedule the picking dates for each of those sections. Conceptually, it might be a somewhat complex endeavor, and yet when you start tasting through the fruit, walking, looking, tasting, thinking, talking, and tasting, the reality of the vineyard starts to present itself, like a map, a guidebook.

From there we headed a couple miles east to the warehouse district of Fairfield, to pick up some new barrels that had just arrived for the coming harvest. Two Meyrieux barrels. One destined for Cabernet Sauvignon and one for Syrah or for Zinfandel. I still haven’t decided yet.

To complete the loop, we took Jamison Canyon to 29 and up to Oak Knoll. Tasting through the Chardonnay vineyard. No change in the Chardonnay from last week. So we’re in a holding pattern there, unless that heatwave materializes at the end of the week. Then we’ll have to reassess and likely pull the trigger sooner rather than later.

And then finally to Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, arguably the target destination of the morning. We slipped in ahead of the crowds, grabbed some delectable pastries (pain au raisin, cinnamon roll, and blackberry muffin) and coffee and all was right with the world.