Ban des Vendanges 2002: Gamay Shelter!
We almost made it to September this year, before picking any grapes. The onset of harvest, for me, is always best when I feel prepared: when all the barrels are empty, the previous vintage’s wines tucked safely into bottles, the bins for hauling grapes are clean, I’ve got a truck to use for some of the smaller loads, and so on. Sometimes being prepared just means having enough time to become prepared. But, for the last three seasons we’ve been bringing in grapes from newer plantings, and these younger vines carry a smaller amount of fruit, so the time of ripening is moved forward, to coincide with what tends to be the warmest part of harvest, late in August.
These newer plantings have, so far, proved to be every bit as exciting as I’d hoped they would be when I first encountered the sites, and began the conversation with the farmers who would plant and grow the grapes on those sites. So the extra pressure of earlier harvest has been well worth it.
The newest star among these young plantings came into being after a conversation I had with Ron Mansfield in December of 1999, during a drive between Berkeley and San Luis Obispo County. Ron wanted to visit some of the more interesting California plantings of Rhône varieties, so we’d chosen to visit both Rozet and Bassetti Vineyards, from among our sources, and Tablas Creek and Alban Vineyards, as well. It was an eye-opening series of visits; Ron indicated he’d seldom seen such focussed winegrowing in California.
Ron operates a company in Placerville, called GoldBud Farms, that, when it began, was primarily a tree-fruit oriented business. Ron manages orchards all over the El Dorado County foothills area, and works with cherries, nectarines, peaches, plums, pluots, pears, and apples. As the markets for some fruits slipped a bit, he began becoming more and more involved in managing vineyards: planning, planting, farming and harvesting. Ron has a lot of strong suits; I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a grower who was so on top of so many of the different facets of his work. One especially impressive strength is his very focussed tasting ability, which surely has an awful lot to do with how good his fruit is (all of it — I’ve never tasted better cherries, nectarines, and Fuji apples.) I began working with grapes farmed by Ron back in 1988. They’ve often been exceptionally good, and in recent vintages (especially 2000) the Syrah we’ve gotten, from the Wylie and Fenaughty Vineyards he manages, has become perhaps our finest bottling.
Back in 1999, in the course of conversing during those long hours on the road between Berkeley and San Luis Obispo Ron mentioned a property, the owner of which was interested in planting grapes. His site had been planted to Bartlett pears, and because the site was at 3300′ elevation, on a north slope, the fruit had been exceptionally aromatic and flavorful. 3300′ on a north slope is a fairly cool site. Ron wondered if I had any ideas of what might do well there. I think the variety he mentioned first was Pinot Gris.
I thought Pinot Gris was probably a pretty good choice. (I’ll find out tomorrow!) Ron has started a bunch of these conversations with me over the years; I think he likes to see me licking my chops. I always get excited by a process in which I’m invited to imagine possibilities. “But you know,” I said, thinking that perhaps I was talking to the one person who might be willing to entertain the audacious (not to say crazy) idea that was at work in my mind, “I think the grape that might be really interesting there, from the sound of the place, is Gamay.”
“Isn’t that what Ken Johnson had in that spot next to Fenaughty? That could never get ripe?” I don’t know if Ron really asked that question, or if I just anticipated it, and pre-emptively said: “Ken Johnson had what they call Napa Gamay on his site,” (where he subsequently planted Pinot Gris, at my request) I said, “but, of course, that’s not really Gamay. Real Gamay ripens at the beginning of the season. The grape that’s called Napa Gamay is really a late-season grape known in France as Valdiguié. The wine it makes is nowhere near as good as real Gamay. Gamay, grown in Beaujolais by the best growers, makes delicious wine that is completely irresistible. And it’s usually great to drink when it’s still quite young. I think if somebody planted just enough to make a few hundred cases, it might work just great.” (That’s the condensed version of the conversation.)
Ron was pretty interested, largely on the basis of my enthusiasm, I’d guess. We talked about it for awhile, and our enthusiasm grew. When we got back to Berkeley that evening (20th of December, as I recall) Cornelia had dinner waiting for us, (bless her), and I pulled a bottle of Château Thivin from Côte de Brouilly out of my cellar, to drink with our roast chicken. That really pushed the enthusiasm along, I think, and within what seemed like just a few days time Ron reported that he’d presented my idea to Bob Witters, whose parcel would be the site of this project, and he agreed to give it a go.
I met Bob Witters about three weeks ago, for the first time (though I’d seen his property early in the Spring of 2000, before it was planted, and I was very happy to find it much as I’d imagined; it’s a beautiful spot. ) When Ron and I arrived and began to walk through the vineyard, tasting grapes, Bob was on his tractor, mowing. He was kicking up an impressive cloud of dust. When he shut off the motor, and stepped out to greet us, it was difficult to know just what his face really looked like, for the layer of fine volcanic clay-loam dust covering it. It occurred to me that if I ran into him in the supermarket later that afternoon, I’d never recognize him. But his grapes tasted good. The Gamay wasn’t quite through veraison (color change) yet, but the darkest grapes had good flavor. The Pinot Gris still tasted a bit green.
As I said, things happen fast in these new vineyards. Ron called me early on Friday the 23rd of August, with a report that the sugar in the Gamay was at 22%. On Tuesday the 27th it was 23%. Based on that, and the warm weather, we decided it would be smart to pick Thursday morning. So, Ron and the grapes arrived at the winery at about quarter to nine Thursday evening, and the Gamay, to the best of my knowledge the only real Gamay in California, was quickly destemmed into a couple of small fermenters. It looked wonderful, tasted really good. The smell, as it ferments, now, is lovely. I’ve noticed a tantalizing aroma of strawberries, a whiff of pepper. Pretty stuff.
Tomorrow Bob Witters’ Pinot Gris comes in. Then, Wednesday, it’s going to be Viognier and Marsanne from Rozet Vineyard in Paso Robles. Thursday it looks like Syrah from early blocks at Wylie and Fenaughty. I hear the weather’s going to take a turn toward cooler about then. Maybe I’ll get a chance to get ready.
give me room to breathe, give me muscle to pull,
give me wings to fly, when that highway’s full…
Give me blood red wine; lord the soul gets thirsty, out on that crooked road….
(Rocks and Gravel, copyright © 2002)