Quite understandably, the question I’m most often asked at this time of year is “how’s the harvest?” As I’ve grown as a winemaker and as a person, I’ve really moved away from thinking about specific fine details of the wines at this stage- I’m just starting to know them. Aside from the process of managing fermentations, what I tend to focus on this time of year is the emotion of the harvest. By that, I mean how does Mother Nature treat us? What is her mood and how does she express it? And what do the wines say as a result?
Every year, Nature places her stamp on the vintage. Whether it’s a hot year (2002, 2003), a cold year (2011), a year with a huge crop (2012), a year with a small crop (2010), she always has her say. But challenges aren’t always the emotion; some years, the weather is simply ideal, and Nature stamps the whole vintage with a nurturing feel; it’s a very real thing to connect with, and the best part of the journey. In such years (like 2007, 2015, 2016) the connection I feel to the earth, through the emotion of the vintage, is beyond explanation.
We work pretty hard to prepare for crush. Since my return to cycling last November, I was in better shape for a harvest than I think I’ve ever been, and felt very prepared. Emotionally, the year was feeling much like 2015 and 2016, except the grapes weren’t going to be picked as early as those years, so we had a little extra time, which was nice. The labor pool was challenging; we weren’t sure if there would be enough picking crews, and I literally didn’t have interns confirmed until late August, but despite those uncertainties, we felt on track.
And that was the precise moment Mother Nature decided to remind us that she can change it all in a heartbeat; and dropped the mother of all heat waves on us. When I say “heat wave”, these were the highest temperatures ever recorded around here, and for multiple days. The string of 100+ degree days that were projected (and we were at 113 and above) seemed to stretch out forever in the forecasts.
It wasn’t just “hot” either, it was an incredibly heavy, oppressive heat, which I have little to compare to other than the desert, but even that feels different. No matter, sugars skyrocketed. It was so hot that grapes didn’t raisin, so much as they seemed to just lose moisture on a cellular level.
This led to the only place it could: total pandemonium. We usually start with a couple small picks from two small places, and then it’s a week or more before anything else comes in. It works out great, and always gives us a chance to get everyone dialed in. Not this year. We picked those two places, and four other vineyards, all on the first day, which itself was a solid two weeks earlier than I had expected. Other vineyards, that days earlier I thought were two or three weeks out, were ready for picking “tomorrow”. We had barely gotten the winery ready and we were just flat-out slammed; long days back to back to back, with no respite in sight.
Was there an emotion to the early part of harvest? Yeah- it was like Mother Nature was swinging a steel hammer, and connecting. It was a relentless pounding that reverberated through us like it feels in a steel mill when a huge machine relentlessly pounds metal to shape it. That was the emotion. Winemakers would see each other and there’d be no small talk, just a painful shake of the head and move on.
And then, when it just had to end, it did. The heat broke, and after a bit of rain (leading to speculation on my part as to whether a volcano would erupt before the locusts would arrive), the weather changed to a more moderate pattern, things slowed to a most civilized pace, and it was just absolutely glorious in the vineyard and in the winery. It ended up being a very compressed, but very wonderful harvest.
It’s funny; in a way it’s somewhat difficult to remember how hard it was just a few weeks ago, because even with that start, it was an amazing experience. The onslaught of heat made everyone come together and the interns turned out to be two of the best we’ve ever had. Wayne, who you know from our Tasting Room, jumped in to help, and my son worked a few days before leaving for college. Growers and winemakers took care of each other as they could; we were all getting pounded, and we all pulled together. And, as I tasted the fermenting wines, I was struck by their personalities, even the earliest picks.
Over the years, I have come to fully embrace the fact that as a winemaker I only do one significant thing, and that’s to call the picking date. As I drove back one morning from a vineyard check, I realized that I hadn’t called a single pick so far - Nature had called them all. At first, that kind of irked me, it’s my one job. Then I realized Nature had reminded me in a big way that I only get to do my job if she lets me; and that sometimes when she does it for me, fabulous wines can ensue, which was a different version of her annual reminder to stay within myself and to remember I don’t know it all, if I know anything at all.
As it turns out, I’m a bit captivated by the 2017s; if there’s a common theme, it’s that for wines so young, they all seem to share a real sense of purpose. Wherever they go, it won’t be me steering them- they already know it for themselves. I keep asking myself how those personalities came from that experience, but perhaps, akin to having been forged in heat, they are just more resilient, or something like that. Perhaps I will be as well; I experienced a harvest like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I hope to be a better winemaker as a result.
So how is the 2017 harvest coming along? In all honesty, it’s been absolutely brutal, and it’s been absolutely incredible. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
We’re bottling our wines from the 2016 vintage in a couple weeks, so it’s really a pretty intense time for us; there a ton of logistical details that all have to come perfectly together, not to mention the fine finishing details of all the wines themselves. It’s akin sending the children off into the world, and you can do nothing further for them- it’s frankly emotional on a lot of levels. We fret over small details, and the actual bottling days can range from a grueling ordeal to getting a real beat-down! But that’s part of the price nature demands if you want to make Pinot, and when it’s over, we look at each other and laugh as we know we managed to [somehow!] do it again.
Over the past few months we’ve made our blending and barrel selection decisions, and we are extremely happy with them. It looks like we’ll bottle eleven Pinots from 2016. This includes a new Pinot blended from two vineyards on Sonoma Mountain, one at the top along the sandy eastern slope, and one near the base of the west slope that seems planted in shale. Sonoma Mountain is a special place, and dramatically different from other places we get Pinot, and the wine is dramatically different. We’re also bottling a small Pinot blend that celebrates some of our higher elevation vineyards along the coast. These two new wines represent geographic bookends for our vineyard sources- ranging from Sonoma Mountain to the mountain sites in the True Sonoma Coast.
- John Holdredge
A Very Special Wine- A Very Limited Offer.
2015 Holdredge Russian River Valley Pinot Noir “American Dreamer”
If you’ve been a customer for a while you may recall that in May 2005, I wrote about the best day of my life working in a winery. It was the first day my son Will, then 6, worked a full day with me in the winery, racking barrels. He’d had lots of small jobs starting at age 4; but this was the first full day he ever worked. He was so small, he could hardly turn a barrel to clean it. But he struggled through and we worked, and talked, and it was just the best day ever. Until now.
When we started, Saralee Kunde (the winegrower, not the baking company) sold us our first Pinot grapes from her eponymous “Saralee’s Vineyard”. It was the wine that took us from our plan of a Zinfandel and Syrah winery, to making nothing but Pinot. We’ve used those grapes every year since, and the plain fact is that Saralee had a huge impact on our lives; in fact, we wouldn’t be sending this note were it not for her.
She was also a big part of Will’s life too; I taught him to fish in the ponds in the vineyard starting when he was three, and we fished together there many times. He knew her workers, went to events at her home, and just loved that place. Saralee passed from cancer in 2014, and it was a great loss for our community and a loss for our family.
In 2015, as Will and I were racking our wines to prepare for bottling, he mentioned he’d done all “the parts” of winemaking, but he’d never made a wine from start to finish. He had a senior project coming up in school the following year, and decided he would make a wine in 2015, and auction some and donate some of the proceeds from selling some big bottles at auction to an educational barn being built at our local fairgrounds in Saralee’s honor (for ag education for kids).
The harvest was short in 2015, but we pulled some strings, and somehow managed to get some fruit from “Catie’s Corner” a vineyard Saralee used to own. Our friend Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan freed up a little “Swan Clone” from his rows, which in addition to being a generous move in a small year, was really cool because Rod and Saralee and I had some running jokes about certain Pinot from her vineyard that we “fought” over, and it was great to have Rod part of this story too.
Will did all the winemaking, getting to the winery before school, after school and after homework (he once missed 2 punch-downs because he had to study for and I made him punch-down every fermenter in the winery as payback). There were a couple technical decisions we talked through, but in the end he had to decide what he wanted to do. Personally, I think he made the right decisions all the way through, and I know he made this wine himself. Will came up with the name because Saralee was a dreamer who believed in America and in helping kids chase their dreams, and the barn project will help kids pursue dreams of careers in agriculture.
This wine is absolutely distinctive from all the wines I made- the kid made a great picking decision in an amazing vintage. The wine has fully ripe flavors, but tremendous focus from natural acidity. Will also extracted an amazing amount of tannins from his punch down regimen (oh, to be young and strong again!). As a result, the wine really has backbone and poise. We drank a bottle over a four night stretch; it is still incredibly young and tightly wound, but each day it became progressively more generous. Young wines with this structure can age a very long time; I fully expect this wine to be the longest-lived wine from our winery for this vintage, and given that structure, I think it may be one that shows well for 15 or more years..
Will sold two large format bottles (3 liter bottles) at auction for a combined $3,300.00! We have very little of this wine in 750ml bottles, so we have to limit this offer to first come/first served. It’ll make a great story to drink someday, and you’ll have a little “Holdredge History” in your cellar until then.
$42 (wine club price: $35.70). Only 30 cases produced
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John & Carri Holdredge
We've always said the critics we care about most are our customers, it's what you think of what's in the glass that matters to us most. But it's also nice to get a little critical recognition every now and again, and Virgine Boone of "The Wine Enthusiast" really liked some of our wines:
2015 Holdredge Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 92 POINTS
I get a fair number of customers telling us that they usually like one or two wines at most places, but that at our place they like them all, and I guess Ms. Boone felt the same way. We appreciate the validation of our customer's good taste!
Harvest 2016 Wrap Up
"Well...that escalated quickly" - Ron Burgundy. I'm writing this as I'm waiting for the last three fermentations to finish (Schioppettino, Montepulciano and Nero d'Avola), and frankly, more than a little worn out. The interns have been sent home, so Will and I are finishing this on our own. It means I'll likely clean the press the last time, which is fitting because I cleaned it first this year. The place has a quiet energy- so far from the cacophony of crush, and I get to really focus on the few wines still fermenting.
We picked our first grapes August 20, and we made a lot of wine. In addition to the Martinelli "Three Sisters" vineyard, we also added a Pinot from an amazing vineyard situated on the lower slopes of Sonoma Mountain. Wine is the story of stones- and this one is a really interesting story.
Even though it's been a long harvest, there was a lag on the front end, and then it seemed like we were bringing in fruit every day. Which we pretty much were, but it was all excellent fruit this year. We also had a lot of laughs- which is important as well. I worked as hard this year as I ever have, partly because we made a lot of wine. But perhaps best of all, I had noticed one day that the thing I value most in harvest- a moment when one captures the entire emotion and expression of harvest, hadn't really happened this year. I even mentioned it to Carri one day- I wasn't sure if it was just the insane work load or what.
And then, one afternoon, while tending to the last few fermentations alone, I suddenly had a moment where I felt it- although it was totally unexpected and caught me by surprise. It's hard to describe- it's a connection to place and time, and the power of nature. It's feeling like you are part of the whole thing- that it's flowing through you, and though it can happen in the most humble of places, the serenity one feels as a result is beyond words. A very nice closing to a wonderful harvest.
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