Organolepticians Number 83
“I’m not sure just how I’m supposed to play this scene, but I ain’t afraid to learn…”
(Wildfire, copyright 2004)
You might think that by the time our 25th harvest rolled around we’d have everything figured out pretty well, maybe even have it all down to a science. And it’s true, I’d be pretty quick to say that, for example, I know more about Grenache than I did back in 1985. I know that it tends to be one of the very trickiest grapes to ripen evenly, and that sort of characteristic in a grape variety calls for a smart, attentive, experienced approach to farming it. When Unti Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley offered to sell me some Syrah and Grenache for the 2009 harvest, I knew they’d been farming top-notch wine grapes for quite a few years, and their grapes were prized by winemakers all around northern California, so I was excited to have the chance to work with them.
I knew, too, that a co-fermented wine from Syrah and Grenache made for a more seamless wine than one blended from lots fermented separately. Even though Grenache can be expected, in general, to ripen a week or more after Syrah, I knew that with differences in exposure, soil moisture, crop load, and a handful of other variables, it would be possible to get Syrah and Grenache, grown in fairly close proximity, to pick simultaneously at nice levels of ripeness.
And I’d managed, after 24 harvests, to acquire a concrete tank, in which I planned not only to ferment this wine, but in which it would also age until it was ready to bottle. I would have my first chance to make wine in the way I’d been wishing to make it for some 20 years, and surely the results would match my loftiest expectations!
But, see; this is all just talk. Nothing’s really true until it happens. Prognostication is a lot like mild indigestion; this, too, shall pass. Despite a history of Unti Grenache never ripening before the very end of September, I got a somewhat breathless phone call the first week of that month, last year, to alert me that the sugar was already above 24 degrees. Whatever I’d figured out in the first 24 harvests didn’t matter too much, in that moment; what was I going to do now? That’s what was going to matter.
I remember a story I heard about Pablo Casals; I think I heard this over thirty years ago. The great cellist was addressing a group of young aspiring players, and talking about his musical path. Among other things he talked about the fact that, at over 70 years of age, he practiced for several hours every day. One of the young musicians expressed astonishment: “How can it be?” he asked, incredulous; “you’re Pablo Casals, the greatest cello player in the world. Why should you practice?” Casals smiled at him, and said, politely, “I think I’m getting better.”
The Grenache/Syrah co-ferment went just fine, but I sweated bullets, just like I always do. New vineyard. First time ever using concrete. Working in a new facility with equipment I’d never used before. Winemaking as Improv, as Performance Art. Keeps me on my toes.
The yield I got from the Syrah and Grenache gave me just enough wine, after pressing, to fill the tank, and a few gallons left over. Since concrete breathes, much like wood, I’d need some extra gallons in reserve, for topping, to make sure I could keep La Cuve Béton filled to the brim.
The Unti folks were kind enough to let me have a small amount of Mourvedre, which became those extra gallons. I picked most of it myself on a very cool, wet Sunday morning in early October, and crushed the grapes with my bare feet, the same way I’d crushed all the grapes back in 1985. Some folks never learn.
In May I racked the blend out of the concrete tank (the name of which, if you didn’t catch it, is Roxanne Gravel), and into stainless prior to bottling, in early June. And the wine? Rocks and Gravel, start to finish. I think it might be the best yet.
We also made a lot of Gamay in 2009, from both Witters Vineyard, our first planting, and also from Barsotti, the granite-based site that produced our Porphyry Gamay in ’07 and ’08. The Gamay at both sites ripened beautifully at sugar levels in the low 21s, giving alcohol levels just over 12%, with lovely depth of flavor, juicy and fine.
In an effort to convince myself I might not be completely hopeless in the marketing end of things, I decided, after tasting a trial blend, to bottle only one Gamay red from ’09, combining Witters and Barsotti in the ’09 Bone-Jolly. The result is shockingly good, I think.
2009 Rocks And Gravel (50% Syrah, 42% Grenache, 8% Mourvedre Grapes grown according to bio-dynamic principles at Unti Vineyards, Healdsburg, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County) 200 cases produced Suggested retail: $24.00
2009 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir El Dorado County (66% Witters Vineyard 34% Barsotti Vineyard 15-20% whole-cluster-fermented)
950 cases produced Suggested retail: $17.50
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