Harvest 2016 is underway and we are knee deep in grapes right now. Actually, our female intern "Matilda" is knee deep as she gently walks on the grapes to break the skins; an ancient technique that helps coax a lot of flavor and color out of the grapes without breaking the seeds. The year was shaping up to be another very early year (the super late harvest of 2011 seems like forever ago), and we crushed our first fruit on August 22. It looked like it was going to really get going, but then it suddenly cooled down and everything stalled.
Now "stalled" might sound bad, but it's actually great. It allows flavors to keep developing, while sugars stay in check. It is the kind of thing that makes everyone happy. Well, everyone except the interns who have to just keep cleaning things endlessly to stay busy. All the while, like every other winemaker, I watched the weather forecasts, worrying that if we got a little heat, everything would come in at once.
I may not be psychic, but I sure called it right. We had two days of heat September 6 and 7, and we have been absolutely buried in grapes. As I write this, the winery is packed full of fermenters packed with fruit, and I have tank capacity for about 5 more tons with about 12 scheduled to be picked this week. Meanwhile, I'm pushing back our picks for our Italian grapes. We simply can't take more fruit. I could buy more fermenters, but I have no place to put them, and when I need to fill barrels, I have to move stuff outside just to be able to do so.
But this is the joy of harvest; it's a series of humbling reminders that nature has her ways, and as winemakers we are at her mercy. Really, a compressed harvest is just fine. It's a harder physically, but the fatigue is what makes you alive. If you haven't been by in awhile, you really should. The place smells great, it's got great energy and we are having a lot of fun.
At age 58, I'm still cleaning presses and doing punchdowns at 3 am. My body aches, I've had one night of full sleep in the last three weeks and I'm running on fumes. But the grapes have been fantastic, the flavors are great and there is calm within the chaos. I wouldn't miss this for anything. If you're in the neighborhood, you should stop by, it's a fabulous time of year to be in a winery.
Martinelli "Three Sisters"
Getting fruit from a great vineyard is no easy thing. The farmers who own such places tend to be patient, which is the cornerstone of farming, and they make decisions about who they sell fruit to the same way. I first discussed buying Pinot from Lee Martinelli, Jr., and his wife Pam about 12 years ago. "Discussed" may be an overstatement. It was late at night at a party where everyone had jumped into the pool fully clothed and big bottles of wine were just floating around. Bacchus, in his day, never had it so good.
Thoughts were exchanged, and Lee was receptive to discussing some of his Russian River sites, but I had my heart set on a particular vineyard he and Pam own out in the trust Sonoma Coast: "Three Sisters". It sits at about 1,200 feet elevation, atop the second ridge in from the Pacific, around 14 miles northwest of Cazadero. The county road, such as it is, ends at Lee's property. It is a place where a tiny handful of absolutely iconic sites are located; vineyards like Marcassin, Hirsch, Blue Slide Ridge and "Three Sisters".
I still recall Lee having a fairly bemused smile at my temerity. The vineyard was split between the Martinelli family's own winery, and a very highly regarded consulting winemaker who used it in her own brand. But I had always loved the wines from that neighborhood, and in my heart it was a place I truly wanted to make wine from. I've never been one to not go after what I wanted. Our discussions didn't get far that night, but over the years our paths crossed. I coached his daughter in T-Ball, his niece was a harvest intern for us in 2009, and we'd see each other at wine events. And each time I saw him, I'd jokingly (half) say "just two tons, that's all I need", and we'd share a laugh.
Finally, this year, Lee sent me a note and said he had some fruit available and asked if I was interested. Of course I was, so we met out there and walked the vineyard. As much as I loved the neighborhood, I absolutely fell in love with the vineyard. We quickly reached an agreement and our first fruit from there came in the other day.
There are two separate vineyards, located perhaps a ½ mile apart. Both have chardonnay and Pinot, both are farmed meticulously, and both have their own voice. One block is called "Lambing Barn" after the sheep operation that Lee's great-grandfather ran there decades ago. The other is called "Buck Meadow" so named because it was a place a hunter could always find a buck if you were so inclined. The Meadow is planted to Pommard clone, and the Lambing Barn is planted to clone 777.
Every place we work with has a distinct voice, and Three Sisters is no exception. It is wild, surrounded by steep mountains, deep canyons and incredible views. In fact, just past the vineyard there is a point where you can see the pacific ocean. I picked the Lambing Barn September 8, and it is just starting to ferment. We are picking Buck Meadow later this week. I'm thrilled to have the fruit as it is really delicious but I'm a little sad I won't have an excuse to take a few hours to drive out there for awhile. We haven't chosen a name for the wine, and we have a long ways to go before it is in bottle. But we are honored to add this to the roster of iconic sites we are blessed to work with, and look forward to the journey we are just starting with these grapes.
We have been releasing our 2014 wines, and have been very gratified by the response. It was a really fine vintage and the early excitement about the quality seems borne out by the wines in bottle. We've already sold out of some of them, but we've just released our 2014 "Judgment Tree" from the Rochioli "Sweetwater" Vineyard. Anyone familiar with Pinot knows how special the Rochioli Vineyards are and what exceptional farmers they are as well. They make my job easy, all I have to do is not screw it up!
The 2014 is a very rich, extracted Pinot with a lushness that is counterbalanced by fine tannins. It's really complete all the way through the palate. Where the 2013 was a little tighter and more tannic on release (it has really evolved as we expected and it is stunning), the 2014 just seems to be saying "it's go time". Tom Rochioli, who is an accomplished winemaker and wine grower, really liked it quite a bit, which is about all the validation I need. We only made 70 cases, and we are almost sold out, so if you are interested, you should check out the website.
We also just released the first of our 2014 wines from our "Oscuro" brand which is devoted to lesser known (and sometime obscure) noble Italian Red grapes. The first 2014 is our "Montepulciano", a grape grown widely throughout central/south Italy- everywhere it seems except in the commune of Montepulciano (where they make "Vino Nobile de Montepulciano" which is the Sangiovese grape grown in the commune of Montepulciano. ~sigh~). My Italian ancestors took some very interesting approaches to things sometimes.
But no matter, the wine is true to the grape. Dark purple, with huge notes of black fruit, big silky tannins and a vibrancy in the palate you wouldn't expect from such a dark wine. It is a blockbuster and pairs equally well with grilled meats, mushroom dishes and all kinds of antipasti and cured meats. It's a really fun wine that will keep your guests guessing as to what grape it is and really perfect for autumn fare.
We have a few other 2014s available, all are drinking very well right now. Check it out. And we have a special on shipping for club members (it costs nothing to join the club, there is a discount on all purchases, and it is a pretty cool deal especially if you aren't able to be out here and drop by to buy wine). We appreciate all the support we have from our customers, and we know you'll enjoy these wines.
With this release, we unleash one more 2014 Pinot. This shipment also marks the release of a wine from our other brand –OSCURO which is devoted to wines made from grapes of noble Italian lineage. Did we save the best for last? You be the judge. We loved this vintage and we love these wines, we hope you do too.
This was our third year to get fruit from the Rochioli “Sweetwater” Vineyard on Westside Road, southwest of Healdsburg (about ¼ mile south of the Bucher Vineyard). Anyone who knows me knows how special I feel this place is; and how fortunate I feel to be one of the very few winemakers to get to work with fruit from this vineyard, which is almost entirely Rochioli “West Block” clone.
The 2014 bears a strong resemblance to ‘12 and ‘13, except in two ways. First, the flavor profile of the fruit is darker and deeper. This came about because I was striving for more tannin ripeness (the “west Block” clone tends towards a bigger tannic profile), so I let the fruit remain a touch longer than I had in prior years. As a result, it already shows more refined tannin development in the bottle, and is more generous at this stage than our prior wines. My feeling is it is going evolve for another 5-8 years in a big way- it has the fruit and the structure to do so. But this has been in bottle a year already and it is a wine we are really enjoying.
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I don’t think I’ll ever be able to adequately describe the emotion of this vineyard, which sits at the convergence of the redwoods and the Pacific Ocean, but the place is undeniably distinct. So is this wine. 2014 again gave us a little late season warmth- just enough to stave off the heaviest fog and ensure we got some incredible flavor development. From tasting in the vineyard, to fresh juice, to barrel and finally to bottle, we really liked this wine a lot.
And yet, it still completely blindsided us- we weren’t prepared for the transformation it has shown in the year it has rested post bottling. It has evolved into such a complex wine, with layers of goodness, far beyond what I ever hoped for (and I had very high hopes). It stands out from all our other Pinots- not qualitatively, but in terms of its voice. Which is as it should be- I expect the Russian River Pinots to speak of the overall appellation as well as the specific vineyards, but this is from a very different place and speaks of it. While always a very popular wine for us, this one is a real stand out already. I rarely urge people to “buy more”, but were it me, I’d get after this one. It’s easily got 6-9 years of development ahead of it, but I’d hate to have to wait that long to enjoy it.
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When we began making Pinot (long before “Sideways” made it fashionable to do so), our Russian River Valley Pinot was our largest production wine; about 300 cases, which a huge winery would lose to evaporation in a year. While we make more than we used to, it still is under 1000 cases, almost all of which is sold to restaurants in Las Vegas, California, and New York. It’s always represented our take on what the vintage meant for the appellation as a whole, as opposed to one single place.
In 2014, nature was exceedingly generous, and this wine reflects that generosity. It maintains a nice balance between red and black fruit, has great weight, but carries enough acid that the wine is surprisingly nimble, and decidedly food friendly. How food friendly? We’ve had it with food ranging from Ahi poke with tempura avocados, to steak with foie butter and mushrooms, and a lot of stuff in between. And, the fact that it’s in darn near every resort property in Las Vegas (or seems that way), means a lot of other people are having it with dinner too. We’ve sold out of it, but have a very small amount for our club to enjoy. You could wait to drink it, but I don’t think you’ll regret enjoying it immediately.
The Oscuro brand is my homage to my Italian heritage, and Montepulciano is a grape grown throughout southern Italy (except in the area of Montepulciano, where they grow the Sangiovese grape. Italians, go figure). Montepulciano tends to be more of a mass produced wine there, but more producers are treating it with the care and devotion of a noble grape. It is akin to the difference between growing grapes for jug wine and growing for artisan wines.
These grapes are grown at about 900 foot elevation on rocky volcanic soils above the Dry Creek Valley. We strive for authenticity, and this bears the trademark black color and blackberry flavor profile of the grape. It also carries a low alcohol, and stunning tannins. This grape has a long and noble pedigree in Italy. We believe this grape deserves to be treated with deference to those noble origins, and we feel this wine does so. The tannins will carry this wine for a long time, but it can be enjoyed now, and for the next 7-9 years.
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John & Carri Holdredge