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“No. Very bad.”
“This is very bad.”
“Next one bad.”
Jesus systematically worked his way down the vineyard row, pronouncing judgment on each plant. Together, he and I embarked on our most aggressive winter pruning project yet. We were cutting back dead canes to dead cordon arms to dead trunks, looking for signs of life. We kept cutting back until we saw sticky, wet sap pooling at the wood’s cut surface, a sure sign the vine’s xylem is intact. And then we cut back even more, past any visible trunk cankers.
I already knew we had some dead vines. In fact, since purchasing Torrey Hill Vineyard in 2012, we’ve put our heart and soul into vineyard rehab. Of 500 odd vines, we have already pulled and replanted over 150. Some are finally ready for grafting. Others succumbed to the scourge of California drought and need to be replanted yet again. And the job isn’t complete. Even today we still face scattered dead vines. In November, we sent out lab work to pinpoint the exact microbe responsible for our declining yields. Results pointed to Botryosphaeria species, a more aggressive form of truck canker disease. It’s a fungal pathogen that infects and affects the trunk. Trunk cankers manifest years after the initial infection. Early signs include stunted shoots and fewer grape clusters. But eventually shoots fail to sprout at all, and the vine withers and dies. The good news is that we can salvage some of our oldest vines by cutting back infected wood below the fungal lesion. Hopefully those vines will grow healthy shoots in 2015, which we can lay down as a new cordon arm in 2016. Fingers crossed, these vines will be productive again within a 2-year cycle. But as the day wore on, I was more of a hindrance than help. It broke my heart to pull the trigger and cut back each and every affected vine. I feared we’d have nothing left for the 2015 harvest cycle.
“Hey, how come you never say good?” I pestered him, only half joking.
“OK,” he replied, pointing to the healthiest vine in the row.
We kept at it for hours. Carefully assessing every individual vine, one at time, from cane to cordon to trunk. We kept some vines with limited production, but only because I was making him crazy. We could pull and replant those ones in 2016, as the newly grafted vines were becoming productive. Others were cut back low to the ground, the saw wound sealed with antifungal paint.
All of this is part of a grand vision for Torrey Hill Vineyard. We’re hoping to add around 1400 vines this year, bringing our old school ‘60’s planting schema into the 21st century. We are switching to 4 x 3.5 spacing, inter-planting both our existing rows and between existing vines. And we have secured certified Martini clone budwood from a wonderful Sonoma County farmer. Although we need to replant and update our vines, we intend to maintain the integrity of our clonal selection. Martini clone is not trendy, but it’s historically rich and aromatically special.
All of this is just to say, please be patient while we work with our viticulture team from Atlas and focus on quality yields. Our current and forthcoming home ranch crops will be small. But the wine will be delightful. Get it while you can, even if your allocation is small. We’re envisioning near-triple production down the road. Stick with me. It’s getting better every year!
Dark brown/black wood canker infecting a shoot position
Wood canker in a cordon arm
I once bragged that my favorite malo-lactic bacteria strain surpassed magical fairy dust. Sprinkle it into your wine barrels, and pouf, secondary fermentation concludes before you can blink. I also once bragged to a fellow mom that my son would never play shoot ‘em up gun games. Then he ran past us both screaming “Bang! Bang!” and brandishing a mock gun he’d fashioned from a thick blade of playground grass. You’d think I’d have finally learned to stop bragging.
It’s been three harvests since my misinformed, bacterial affirmation. (“My bacteria is better than fairy dust. My bacteria is better than fairy dust”). And even though I chant “Ohm, malolactic finish now” for daily mediation practice and post chains of gram-positive cocci on my Oprah Vision Board, I’ve got three pokey barrels. How can I admit to Oprah that my positive affirmations failed to advance ML? Twice. It’s just one lot from one vineyard, 3 measly barrels, but it’s still a bugaboo.
I’ve been really patient. I waited 3 hours before sending my latest plan of attack to William at the winery. My email was time stamped 2:48 am. Of course, the offending barrels were at the very bottom of the very back of the barrel rows in a packed barrel room. To excavate them into the foyer would take at least a full morning of forklift gamesmanship. I waited 20 minutes before making sulky faces at the forklift driver (conjuring inevitable bad Bruliam karma for harvest 2015). Winemakers are not superstitious. But if you don’t stir the barrel lees in a counter clockwise direction, the aeration won’t work. And then the bacteria get upset, affronting me personally with mean-spirited catcalls and pathetic blips of carbon dioxide. Don’t read this in the barrel room. They communicate with telepathy.
I decided to add yeast hulls, to mop up any offending fatty acids and/or negative juju. Then I’d rack and re-inoculate a third time, with a new, more powerful strain. I purchased the 50hL packet. That way I’d still have enough left overs to re-do it 10 more times. A small safety buffer is reassuring. Half way through the yeast hull addition, I smelled something, kind of buttery, like newly completed ML. Sure enough one of the barrels was already done. Must’ve been the methodical stirring, in sync with my Gregorian chanting, or maybe the special tune I hum when I walk three step right then three steps left while sanitizing the mixing baton. I felt bad I hadn’t waited until 5:30 am to send that email. Just to be triple certain, I sent another sample to the lab before adding the new bacteria. It turns out I was pretty close to being done! The PhD lab gurus assured me that with patience, the barrels surely would finish on their own. So I drove home to get some more gear from my garage.
When I returned to the winery, William had kindly moved the two incomplete ML barrels into the morning sunshine, to warm them up naturally. This would be perfect, organically speeding up fermentation kinetics with thermal heat. I’d just add some electric fish tank heaters and my continuous-feed temperature probe to monitor the things second-to-second. When I do finish ML fermentation, I can attribute it to carefully calculated intervention. And patience.
I’d hit delete before I could fully process the message. I’d haphazardly scanned the headlines before my eyes processed the words, “If Zinfandel was treated more like Pinot Noir…” Huh? I backtracked to my “trash” folder, frantically trying to recapture the lost e mail blast. I’d been spouting that same rhetoric for at least 2 years. In fact, during my recent Rockpile seminar, I’d told a group of nation-wide sommeliers exactly that.
“Since I make predominantly pinot noir, I’ve come to treat my zin a lot like pinot. I use an extended cold soak; I am practicing some battonage after fermentation, and aging my zin in 100% French oak. I am aiming to craft an elegant, pretty, food friendly zin with restraint but one that also showcases the beautiful Rockpile terroir.”
I’d thought I’d been brave, cutting-edge, and unique in my approach. Sure, harvesting Rockpile zin at 22.5 brix is controversial (read: “ballsy,” “stupid,” “insane,” and “stupid”). Still, I knew it’d soak up to 24+, putting my final alcohol right around 14.2/14.4%. I’d taken a calculated risk. And it had paid off. My 2012 Rockpile zin is indeed my most feminine, elegant, and nuanced to date. It’s a pretty wine with fetching aromatics, oceans away from the homogenized, hot, jammy plonk that makes hipster sommeliers recoil. But now Lodi winemakers are onto my gig.
In “Lodi Winemakers Strip Back Their Zinfandel,” W. Blake Gray describes a small coterie of Lodi vintners who are picking at lower brix and fermenting with native yeast. Randy Caparaso explains, “You have to pick at lower sugars so the wines will ferment. It changes your thinking, drastically, about viticulture. It becomes more of a Pinot thinking. Zinfandel is kind of like Pinot.” And indeed it is. My thin-skinned, disorderly ripening, persnickety, and perpetually stressed out Rockpile block is more neurotic than any pinot I’ve sourced. Dry-farmed, low yielding, and viticulturally brittle, this fruit can pivot from not-quite-ready to way over-ripe in days. Zin is not easy.
My approach is divisive. The 2012 zin inspires passion from all sides. I recently heard a SoCal wine retailer wax poetic about its “minerality and subtle spice and rather feminine structure and elegance.” At the Rockpile seminar, a NorCal wine buyer confidentially copped, “I hate zin, but I like yours.” In the other camp, my Texas distributor quipped, “You don’t put pretty and zinfandel in the same sentence.” He wants a zin to tear you up and throw you down and make you beg for mercy. He pantomimed a choke-hold with his fists. That’s all well and good. There is a place for all of us.
As for me, I’m proud to source Rockpile fruit and stand alongside such stellar zin-bassadors as Carol Shelton and Clay Mauritson. We’re the luckiest ones. We start with remarkable fruit; our outcomes are fated to deliciousness. Like I told the Sonoma Summit sommeliers,
“What’s most special about today is that we winemakers are allowed share so many faces and facets of Rockpile with you. This terroir can be fierce, masculine, aromatic, elegant, boldly tannic, or brambly-dark fruit forward. The permutations and fantastic outcomes are limitless.”
With harvest 2014 winding down, Kerith decided to have a little fun at the winery by challenging another winemaker to a grape shoveling contest.
Check out the short video below to see if her muscle could match her mouth in the Harvest Smackdown.
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What do you do with a B.A. in English? One option is to make wine!
Check out our second harvest video of 2014, pressing the Torrey Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir.
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And remember, today is our final day for the Fall Release. If you haven’t already placed your allocation orders, click here to login and purchase.