Vigneron: noun. Person who cultivates grapes for winemaking. It’s a French term that gets to the heart of my chosen profession. IMO you must have a base knowledge in all facets of farming grapes in order to make good wine. In my experience it takes a lifetime.
Because of the way I came up in this business I learned how not to off myself on a tractor before I stepped foot into a barrel chais. Two semesters of night school entry-level Spanish are key to working land anywhere in California. The “school” of winemaking I attended espoused a gospel of do your homework in the vineyard and the rest is gravy.
You’ve all read/heard my anecdotes about Catie’s Corner, Pleasant Hill, Bella Vigna, Walala and Phoenix Ranch. Willing to bet few of you knew me when I was working with Hirsch, Savoy and Guidici. All three spots challenged me and molded me in ways that shaped my winemaking immeasurably.
Hirsch is way (way!) the fuck out there. True Sonoma Coast OG. Until you come through the eastern edge of the property and over the first rise where the old Mt Eden clone is planted…confirmed by Jasmine or her Pop, David Hirsch on site…you’re basically lost and a bit over your skis. Close to 1000 acres, 70 under vine. Hop skip & a jump from the Pacific with dozens of microclimates scattered about the property. Ditto the soils. David takes a wildly meticulous approach to cultivating each vine. Get this…he has to sign off on your finished wine from his place before you can put Hirsch Vineyard on your label. No foolin!! I loved that shit because he owns and farms the greatest Pinot Noir vineyard in the history of our beloved state, coupled with a handful of like-minded vignerons, couple of which happen to be my heroes.
I’ll address Savoy and Guidici at another time. Main thing I need to point out is that my winemaking is 75% driven by what happens in the vineyards. What I do with the fruit once it hits the barn is influenced by my 7 years of daily interactions working with and for Ehren Jordan, and to a much smaller degree with Jacques Seysses, and Christophe Morin (RIP). All three had/have old world European ideals when it comes to the cellar.
I like the idea of a clean pick, further manicured on the “magic” sorting table and into open top stainless containers for primary fermentation. Once primary is mostly complete and the free run juice has been separated from the skins, stems, & seeds I’ll press it off ever so gently and see what comes out. These days if I like what I am tasting I’ll go ahead and marry it with the free run before barreling down. I love, love, love French oak on 99.9% of all the wines I make. My preferred vessel of choice is the 225L barrel.
The cellar is a refuge to realize your finest hour or as is the case sometimes, “WTF am I gonna tell Michelle happened here?!” Personally I like a long cold belt of Anisette at Angele prior to having that conversation. So many things to expound upon but attention spans being what they are I’ll sign off for now...
"Here's the thing about the vineyard, it's where the magic happens..."
Special places. I find solitude in them. Wonderful opportunity to leave the phone in the pickup.
Setting: Tippy top of Howell Mountain.
Scene: Planting 47 acres of Zinfandel, Rousanne and Petite Syrah.
Folks in the mix: Me and the lovely men and women from Michoacán.
Chronology: As follows…
3:30 am - Arrive in pitch dark. Thinking on big rattlesnake I saw yesterday at dusk. Begin watering the myriad trays of green growing plants, thousands of them. Place 4 trays in rickety wooden, one-axel trailer hitched to 4-wheeler. I’ll repeat this process all day long.
3:45 am - Distribute the trays in the vine rows where left off yesterday. Trying to get way ahead of folks doing the planting so I can focus on cleaning up behind them, watering the blocks we’ve planted along with today’s unplanted positions. Watering ahead of the shovel makes the dirt easier to penetrate & speeds up the process.
5:00 am - Clanks of the chain link on the gate entry and faint Mariachi music below signal arrival of the gang. Several van loads and a few cars. Smells of asada and carnitas waft out of vehicles with little sound other than boots on dirt and gravel. The orange band on the horizon to the east is the morning sun.
5:30 am - Planting “music” begins with shovels hitting the dirt and rock. Plastic containers crumple while plants are being coaxed out and into the soil. Slowly the banter between friends & workers picks up. Morning progresses into day.
**Super Cool Note: this is the time where everything is under control and my morning treat of nature at its finest ensues. I haul ass on the 4-wheeler away from the vineyard up to a small rocky knoll, 3400 ft ASL, that looks due south down the Valley. Being July the blanket of fog looks like a sea of cotton stretched all the way to San Pablo Bay. Pinheads of colored balloons magically pop through and above the white blanket of fog at Yountville, sun fully up and over the Stag’s Leap district. Insane the simple pleasures of a vineyard.
3:30 pm - The planting day is done. Its close to triple digits on the thermometer. My cleanup of the entire area begins along with prep for the next morning.
5:30pm or so - My final reward/gigantic boost of stoke arrives. Larry’s pool on property is mid 60s temp in dead of summer due to some shade of older blue oaks. (Pre-insurance diving board;). After fully disrobing with no one around, the exhilaration of airborne launch before I hit the water with 180-degree views of the Valley below is FUCKING MONEY!!