Merging with the Energy
I’m babysitting our 28HL membrane press through the last squeezing of grapeskins for vintage 2002. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. The last day of crush (for which thanks-giving is always in order) comes, this year, 90 days after the first day of crush. Almost a quarter of one year, by far the longest timespan for crush in my memory.
The last grapes arrived on the 15th of November, Syrah from the Bassetti vineyard near Cambria, in San Luis Obispo County. The last previous grapes had arrived on Thursday the 17th of October, the Counoise from Rozet vineyard in Paso Robles. (The first grapes, Gamay from the Witters vineyard in the Sierra Foothills, had come the 29th of August!)
October was exceptionally cool, this year, much cooler than normal, apparently, and things took a lot longer to ripen up on vines carrying a full crop for the first time. The sugar level in the Syrah at Bassetti seemed to stay at around 18-19 degrees Brix (percentage by weight) for more than a month. At first that was a relief to me. I’d already made so many trips between Berkeley and San Luis Obispo county to check on the Paso Robles grapes, that any excuse to postpone another eight-hour day at the wheel (the kind of day that, despite passing in sight of several beautiful landscapes, deadens the soul and wears out the body) was an excuse that I was glad to have.
But after awhile the reports didn’t seem to make any sense. Yes, it was cool, but there had been days in the mid-70’s, and it had been dry. There should have been some movement. I started worrying about the condition of the fruit. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask Ellis if there were any leaves left on the vines. On Election Day (after voting, of course) I drove down to have a look for myself, and it finally did occur to me to wonder about the leaves. I travelled, that day, with David Darlington, author of a number of books, among which his “Zin” (formerly “Angel’s Visits,”) has long been one of my favorite “wine reads.” David has a strong analytical approach to things, and it’s fun to talk with him, because it forces me to look, from a different perspective, at the way I perceive things, rather than assuming that my intuitive, “merge-with-the-energy” strategy will cover all the bases that may need covering.
Merging with the energy, before giving thanks.
We talked, on the way to Bassetti, of the lateness of the season, the impending storm. David wanted to know what I proposed to do if the grapes weren’t ripe and the predicted rains came, bringing with them the risk of spoilage, molds, rot. He seemed to have a nose for uncovering imminent drama.
It’s true that there are certain harvest scenarios that winemakers would just as soon not have to confront (or even think about), and the one that gets me uncomfortable the quickest is probably bad weather just before the grapes are ready to pick. 1972 was the first year I really paid attention to the weather at harvest time (because it was my first year in the business), and that year, shortly after a warm summer and a rapid beginning to what looked like it might be quite a good harvest, a downpour of torrential rains began, and never really let up much until early 1973. (It ended up, for the most part, a dismal vintage in every major wine region on the planet.) Ever since I started the winery in 1985 I knew that that kind of year was a possibility, and I have dreaded having to cope with such a year. So to David’s questions I could only answer “I don’t know… We’ll have to see what happens”
On the dirt road that leads onto the Bassetti property, as we came to a spot where the vines became visible in the distance, it was as plain as it could be that the vines were almost entirely leafless. The few leaves that still clung to the vines had no green in them. There would be no further appreciable increase in sugar in these grapes. It took a while to sink in. It’s such a reflex/habit to just think — “oh, if it warms up a bit it’ll move things right along.” But we’d gotten into a situation, now, in which the rules had changed, and would not change back.
I took a berry sample. 18.9 degrees Brix. I dumped the skins and juice into a jar to take back to the winery to look at the pH and total acidity. I told Ellis Bassetti I was uncertain about what I wanted to do with respect to making a decision about whether or not to pick, (or when); “let me know when you figure it out,” he responded, “I’ll be right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
Within minutes of heading back out the dirt road, David’s question came again: “What are you going to do?” It was Tuesday night. Rain was due early Thursday — a big storm was predicted. There was no practical way to get the fruit picked on Wednesday — too many things to orchestrate beforehand, and I couldn’t even decide until I had a chance to look at the pH and acidity on Wednesday. This was not a happy situation.
I awoke Wednesday morning because a kind of solution had formed in my mind. If the pH and TA looked okay, and (a much bigger if)if it wasn’t raining Thursday morning, and they had a few hours to pick the grapes, I could make a wine from them that, by virtue of low alcohol and pH, and good acidity, could pull together and give shape to a California Syrah blend that would include some of the wines I’d harvested this season that were much higher in alcohol, and lower in acid. It could be used to bring balance to such a blend. And these Bassetti grapes are not a bit shy on flavor, even at low alcohol.
I was unable to reach Ellis before mid-afternoon, but the plan was put into place, after negotiating a price adjustment for the low sugar level. Sad to say, Ma Nature decided not to cooperate with our scheme. In Cambria it started raining at 2AM. Over the next two days more than four inches of rain fell at Bassetti vineyard.
Then it got windy. Then, sunny and warm. Ellis sounded upbeat when I talked to him Monday. I went down Wednesday to look again, worried mainly about the possibility of mold, but also wanting to see what the rain might have done to the overall integrity of the fruit.
There was no mold. The grapes seemed in remarkably good shape, considering what they’d been through. I took a bucket of bunches back to Berkeley (say that real fast 15 times!) to crush, and then analyze after an overnight soak. Thursday morning, the 14th, they looked ok enough that I felt I’d have something I could work with if we went ahead and picked them.
So, Friday evening at 6, Ellis arrived at the winery, with the grapes. And, now, 12 days later the wine is in the press. And I believe it will perform its assigned role handsomely, and I have to think that’s a far better fate for these noble grapes than leaving them unpicked on the vine. I also believe that this vineyard may be capable, in a year when a couple more things go right, of producing the best single wine in our winery.
This ain’t rocket science. But it is thought-provoking.
In 2001, a portion of the Bassetti vineyard Syrah also went into our California Syrah, and contributed to a wine that I’m really excited about:
2001 California Syrah (The Counter-Offerus?)
Edmunds St. John crushed its first grapes in 1985; they were Syrah grapes grown in the broad, rolling hills east of Paso Robles. There wasn’t much Syrah around, then, and most people didn’t seem to have heard of it. There may have been a dozen people making wine from it in California at that time. Now there are well over 200 wineries producing Syrah here. I feel comfortable claiming at least a bit of the responsibility for the increase in both recognition and popularity of Syrah over the past 18 years; we’re still working hard to get winedrinkers acquainted with Syrah, because I don’t think we’ve even discovered, as of yet, just how good Syrah wines from California can be.
Our “California” bottling of Syrah is a blend from barrels of Syrah that were not selected for single vineyard bottlings. We’ve produced such a blend in ’93, ’94, ’95, ’96, 2000 and 2001. The 2001 is the best yet. One of my real wine heroes in the Northern Rhône, in France, bottles a popular wine from St. Joseph, called “Offerus,” produced from Syrah grapes grown in a number of different vineyards in the St. Joseph appellation. I like to think of our new California Syrah as the “Counter-Offerus.”
Roughly 1/3 of the wine is from the Durell vineyard in the Carneros region in Sonoma Valley. Another 18% or so comes from Parmelee-Hill vineyard, also in Sonoma Valley. Perhaps 20% more is from Rozet Vineyard in Paso Robles. Approximately 12% each come from the Wylie vineyard near Georgetown, at 2800′ elevation in El Dorado County, and the Bassetti vineyard, a little south and east from Cambria in western San Luis Obispo County. The balance is from Higher Ground vineyard in the south part of El Dorado County at 3300′ elevation.
The two El Dorado vineyards add spicy and floral (violets) elements to the aromatic profile of this wine. The Sonoma Valley properties, as always, give Syrah wines with a pronounced smoky, meaty character. The minerally, earthy aspects, and the peppery notes in the blend probably originate with the San Luis Obispo County fruit. The trick is getting all the partners here to dance together, and for me, that’s the fun part of winemaking — creating a blend in which harmony and balance trump any single components’ claims on a tasters’ attention.
This wine has been bottled only a couple of months, and it’s already pretty easy going down. Come March, if it’s not all gone, it should be stunning. Especially for the price. It will age beautifully for upwards of 10 years, perhaps more. The tasting notes for this wine go something like this:
It’s a gorgeous, dark purple-red. The nose offers violets, iodine, smoke, a whiff of cracked pepper, blueberries and lavender. It’s medium-full-bodied, and the tannins are exceptionally supple, so in the mouth the wine is pretty and plump, the flavors juicy and vibrant, right through the lengthy, mouth-watering finish. Ought to be out-of this-world with barbecued ribs.
Roughly 1500 cases produced. $18.00 per bottle/ $194.40 per case. (plus tax)
Happy holidays to all!