I think our Rosé is tasting especially fantastic this year. I’ll admit that for me it’s partly attributable to my gratitude that the winery didn’t vaporize in the Thomas Fire (and for a bit of closure I’ll point out, since some of you who contributed to our Help of Ojai benefit may not have heard—our combined efforts raised over $22,000 that went directly to relief efforts for Ojai residents!)—but apart from that, the Rosé truly is darn delicious this year!
We’ve been making Rosé for decades, producing a crisp, dry and wonderfully frivolous wine that pairs with just about anything from Thai food to tacos. I’ve always loved making Rosé and drinking it, but for years it was a frustratingly difficult sell. The stuff had become toxic in the U.S. because in the 1970’s big California producers made odd, sweet and unpleasant wines named Rosé and in doing so turned off two generations of wine drinkers to the real thing.
So imagine my surprise, after so many years of touting the virtues of real Rosé, that it has now become an overnight sensation! In the last few years we have actually sold out of it before the first day of summer. I like to think that keeping true to my values and producing an honest wine that I personally enjoy has been the key to the crazy and enduring popularity of our Rosé.
It starts with expensive, high-quality grapes which we source specifically for this wine. This year’s blend is 51% Syrah from Roll Ranch in Ojai, 21% Carignan from Camp 4 in Santa Ynez, 19% Grenache from John Sebastiano in Santa Rita Hills, and 9% Riesling from Kick On Ranch near Los Alamos. Even though it’s a bit more work, I’m a traditionalist and prefer the richness that barrel fermentation and aging confers to wines, so after whole cluster pressing, all our Rosé goes to barrel. After 5 months in neutral French oak the wine was bottled and it’s already drinking well. The aroma is full of pear, freshly baked bread and spicy red berries, and the palate is refreshing and altogether too easy to drink.
In a way, the release of Rosé feels like a winemaker’s New Year. Having a wine from last year out for drinking makes the previous vintage feel more remote, and this generally comes around bud break in the vineyard, so Rosé gets drunk while one looks forward to coming vintage. And I feel optimistic: rain finally came with some persistence in March, and even modest late-season rain can be better for the vines than a Fall soaking followed by a dry Winter. The hills are greening up, and trail-junkies know that at the base of the black and ghostly chaparral forms are shoots of fresh green growth. Let’s all celebrate renewal and do it with a glass of Rosé!
When I first planted a vineyard nearly 30 years ago, I did so with my mind fixated on the northern Rhone Valley. During my days of study at UC Davis, I’d often make treks down to the little Berkeley wine shop Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, and I fell in love with their selection of wines from the northern Rhone, wines made of the grape varietal Syrah. So naturally, that’s what I planted in 1981 on property my grandfather had bought in 1933 in the Ojai Valley. It thrived, and though I was completely inexperienced as a winemaker, I produced a few wines of interest.
Maintaining a 5 and-a-half acre vineyard was a lot of work, especially when we found a little blue-green sharpshooter insect that was infecting our vines with a bacteriumlike organism that causes Pierce’s Disease— a deadly, water-conductive-tissue clogging malady. We kept up the work but refused to use insecticides to control the disease, and that eventually lead to the vineyard’s demise after the 1995 vintage. We had already begun purchasing grapes from upper Ojai and northern Santa Barbara County (as we have continued to do), so we carried on. And as Helen likes to say, unburdened by the vineyard and its troubles I have paid more attention to the winemaking and done a better job—I think she is right.
I had basically given up on the idea of planting another vineyard in Ojai, but then I caught wind of some research by Andy Walker, a professor at UC Davis, who was beginning work on a non-gmo cure for Pierce’s Disease, using natural plant breeding, advanced greenhouse techniques, and genetic mapping to speed up the process. He cross bred traditional European grape varietals (Vitis Vinifera) with a native species (Vitis Arizonica) that was known to be resistant. After many crosses and many years he now has a handful of new vines that are promising. And although not officially released, I was able to obtain experimental plants of fi ve new varietals, two white and three red, which we planted on our property this summer.
Helen thinks I have lost my mind taking on the task of raising a vineyard that won’t produce its first crop until I turn 65. I have to admit it is daunting to think back to the dying days of the old vineyard, but hope springs eternal! Who knows what we will be able to do with these five new varietals? I’m excited to work with them, and although I still have so much more to learn, I think there’s a better chance I can come up with something good than when I started this venture 30 odd years ago.
Harvest Thoughts 2016
I have been so thrilled with our 2016 harvest! Though it has been reported that July was the hottest month on Earth in recorded history, our local weather has actually been relatively mild and foggy this summer, and that’s a welcome shift from recent years. 2016 has all the hallmarks of a great vintage, and as the grapes have fermented we are seeing wines of great intensity and excellent balance.
In northern Santa Barbara County, where we harvest most of our grapes, the last four years were unusual in that there was virtually no foggy weather during the grape growing season. The east-west valleys there usually capture the ocean breezes and keep things cool, but in recent years big masses of warm air over the region kept the fog mostly offshore.
Though we are happy with the results from those warm vintages, it was challenging to capture the fruit at the precise moment for quality. Even in the best circumstances, in my view, one has a week to decide when to harvest to achieve the finest balance. In hot years that window can (and often does) shrink to a day. It’s quite difficult to peg that day and then organize all the logistics required to harvest and process the fruit.
I won’t say it’s impossible because that’s what we’ve been doing for the last four years, but this year is such a pleasure by comparison. Thanks to the return of the fog and coastal breezes, the fruit has matured slowly on the vine week by week, and during that time the fruit has accumulated even more flavor intensity. In each of the 10 vineyards we work with I’ve been able to make numerous visits during ripening and leisurely decide when that perfect moment for harvest should occur.
In Europe growers are often desperate to achieve a modicum of ripeness, here we never have that problem. For me it’s all about avoiding the downside of too much ripeness: tiresome sweet flavored wines without tension or earthy nuance.
What a pleasure it’s been this harvest to have the luxury of time to contemplate when we might catch the best from each vineyard. I’m so happy to have the fog back!
Hope springs eternal and we eternally hope for rain around here. Unless we have a March miracle it seems as though it will be another early and dry harvest. The vines are tired of salty irrigation water and are likely to grow without much vigor while producing a meager crop—which sounds like 2015 all over again. And while the growers are rightfully nervous about keeping their vines healthy during this prolonged drought, we winemakers are happy to play with fruit from these unusual conditions.
Wine grapes are that uncommon crop that, when pampered with ideal weather and rich soils and lots of water, produce wines that are mediocre at best. Vineyards that experience moderate stresses during the growing season produce the most interesting wines, and that’s why I’ve had a particular fascination with sites in northern Santa Barbara County between Santa Maria and Lompoc. In that band along the coast, the windy, foggy weather acts as a stressor to the vines and slows down their progress allowing for more flavor development.
Whether it’s fruit from cool coastal vineyards or more inland areas, I am curious about how the drought is affecting our wines. It’s a complicated matter with far too many variables, but it’s interesting to think about. On the one hand poor irrigation water is hampering the vines growth, but this can be good, because excessive vine growth is associated with green, vegetal flavors in wine. And a general lack of water often means that the fruit produced is small in size and quantity, however both are good for wine quality because a small crop gives one wines of intensity. Another effect of the drought is that these warm dry winters are causing the vines to bud out earlier in the spring and ripen their fruit a month earlier than usual. This change means that the critical last month of ripening is occurring during August and early September rather than later in the fall when it is cooler. This excessive heat during ripening is giving us fruit with an entirely different flavor profile.
So, as you can see, it’s difficult to make generalizations about the drought’s effect on wine, however I think you will find from the selections that follow, that the results are quite successful!
John Denver thought that it never rained in southern California—and that’s how it seems these days, but it doesn’t mean the weather is always the same here. Some summers are cool and breezy and others are torrid, peaking out in the triple digits.
Though I acknowledge the wild variability as normal, I still think the last two years have been odd. With almost no rainfall and very mild conditions during winter the vines have been a bit confused. In both 2014 and 2015 the vines woke up early in the spring and matured their grapes three to six weeks earlier than usual—the earliest of my 35+ year career.
We harvest from climatically diverse areas—hot Ojai to miserably cool and windy Lompoc. And on top of that we make wines from grapes that mature early (pinot noir) and late (syrah), so a typical vintage might start in the last few days of August with viognier from Roll Ranch in Ojai and finish in late October or early November with syrah from Solomon Hills near Santa Maria. But in the last two vintages more than 2/3’s of our harvest occurred in August and we were all but done by the end of September.
This shift in harvest time has all sorts of implications for wine quality, but as usual there are far too many variables to make clear pronouncements. And however similar these two years were weather wise, the wines we made were not: 2014 gave us soft, generous, easy going wines and 2015 seems on track to produce highly individualistic expressions with structure and nerve. And as a lover of the esoteric I give the nod to 2015 and think we will be slurping down the 2014’s as we wait for the 2015’s to show their promise—they will be special wines.
For this season’s club shipment, instead of giving you a descriptive card for each wine, we thought it would be nice to change it up and send this brochure to cut down on the paper waste and show you all our club offerings to let you see the breadth of what we produce. Many club members don’t realize we bottle 24 different wines each year—it’s all part of our relentless drive to grow our knowledge of the craft. So much to learn and such fun!
Shall we talk about global warming? No, probably not—somehow science has become a political football and I’d rather talk about the pleasures of wine—but the fact remains that 2014 is shaping up to be the warmest year in California’s recorded history. I know it was warm this year because the grapevines told me so! We almost always start the harvest in late August and pick a few tons, but the bulk of the grapes come in September and October, with the last dribs and drabs harvested in November. Not so in 2014!
The severe drought in California contributed to the vines budding out early in the spring, but it was the weather that was the real driver. In Santa Maria and Lompoc we usually will have weeks’ long bouts of cold, wet, foggy, windy weather in spring, but this year almost every day was mild and warm. The vines loved it and made rapid growth—in fact the weather was perfect for flowering so the vines set a bountiful crop. The summer was warm but not extreme, so the vines continued to develop their fruit ahead of schedule.
By the end of July things were looking ready and we began harvest on August 1st—three weeks ahead of normal. The next couple of days we did some bottling and then immediately got back to harvesting. Except for Sundays we brought in grapes every day that month and by September 1st, our harvest was 2/3rds complete. In order to get the fruit harvested with optimal flavor we had to work fast. September was a cake walk by comparison and then we were done on October 2nd.
With the harvest mostly shifted from fall to summer we were concerned about how the wines would taste. The fruit that ripened in August was exposed to warm night time temperatures that could destroy acidity. Also, in early vintages like 2014 winemakers worry about the issue of sugar ripeness versus physiological ripeness, which is another way of saying we wonder whether the fruit had time to develop flavor. The peculiar thing was that even in July there were distinct signs of physiological ripeness. The vines slowed their leafy growth which allowed them to expend energy ripening their fruit, and the seeds, which turn from green to brown as they mature were already showing brown. The fruit did taste particularly good.
Now the wines are all in barrel and while many haven’t completed the secondary malo-lactic fermentation yet, they have fallen clear and can be tasted critically—and I have to say my worries were unfounded. Yes, it was a very unusual vintage, however the young wines taste great, so cheers to another harvest—my 37th!
This looks like the third year of drought in California, and that lack of water will have a dramatic effect on the vines and the grapes produced, but it is only one of the many weather related circumstances that will shape the vintage.
While California is thought to have “boring” weather, with uniform conditions every year, I’m a native and know that isn’t true. Our summer temperatures vary wildly, and some years are foggy, windy and cool, with others tepid and dry. The constituents in the grapes are affected by these differences; the warm years give us softer, fruitier wines and the cool ones fresher, spicier ones.
The trick is to be able to predict what the grapes will become as wine and adjust the winemaking to bring out the best the vintage has to offer. I’ve been working on this for over 30 years now and I might need another 30 to get it completely figured out—but it sure is fun trying…
Harvest began early this year at The Ojai Vineyard, we picked Roll Ranch syrah and viognier in Ojai and McGinley sauvignon blanc in Santa Ynez before the end of August. If the pleasant warm weather doesn’t falter we may finish by October 15th.
It is thrilling to have the winery hopping with activity once again! I love juggling the logistics and making the difficult decisions of when to pick for optimal quality. The timing of harvest has been the hot topic of discussion here at the winery as well as in the larger wine world.
From Bordeaux to Barolo there has been a reexamination of what constitutes greatness. Eric Boissenot, writing about Bordeaux in the geeky (and wonderful) wine magazine “Tong” talked about the disparity between some producers “that still think the best wines are the ones that are very powerful and tannic, and have to be made from grapes that are harvested as late as possible” and his view that “over-ripeness destroys terroir expression and individuality”, and “I think that the times of overconcentration are soon going to be over, and that the time of elegance and finesse will return to the Médoc”. Maybe it’s the internet, but we are all talking about the same thing!
I am definitely in Eric’s camp and feel there is only a short window of time to capture the illusive perfume and minerality of a particular vineyard. Harvested a day or three too late and the aromatic personality and freshness of a site is lost forever. This desire to get it right keeps me on my toes and in the vineyards—it’s not such a bad life.
To insure the best quality we buy almost all of our grapes by the acre rather than by the ton. In each vineyard we have a designated spot and get the same rows year after year. When paid by the ton the grower works hard to produce the greatest quantity, which can harm quality because it dilutes the flavor in the grapes. Paying by the acre eliminates any conflicts because the grower is guaranteed a profit and the winemaker has more control over yields. As usual, in 2013 we had our growers carefully thin the crop to insure getting evenly ripened fruit of the highest quality. After a generous 2012 and a winter of stingy rainfall we anticipated a small crop but were hoping it wouldn’t be like 2011, while extraordinary in quality gave us painfully expensive grapes.
As the harvest approached we saw normal numbers of clusters of normal weights and were encouraged, but despite further thinning for quality the crop was larger than expected in every vineyard we work with. We were just buried in grapes at the winery and it turned me into a maniac, working seven days a week as I tried my hardest to control the situation and take care of each lot of grapes properly. Luckily the weather was fine through the harvest—so the fruit ripened slowly which allowed us to bring in the grapes at their peak flavor and in an orderly fashion. What’s more amazing is that this generous crop produced wines of wonderful quality—the sugar, acidity and the maturity of the fruit were excellent and what we now have in the barrel tastes great.
So what did the harvest teach me? First, I think you have to fight against preconceived notions and always take a fresh look at a situation in order to see it without bias, and second, (and I know this is heresy) while yields matter, it’s a lot more complicated in our mild southern California climate and there are situations where higher yields can produce very good wines.
Making wine in California isn’t for everyone because it is such a test of endurance. In most places winter weather patterns force the hand of the winemaker to harvest grapes within a two to three week period. But here in southern California it almost never rains, so bad weather is rarely a concern. And because the Pacific Ocean exerts such a dominating influence, vines planted only a few miles from each other may ripen their grapes a month apart.
So, at The Ojai Vineyard we start the harvest in late August, picking early to ripen varieties in the warmer valleys (Ojai and eastern Santa Ynez) and finish in very late October or early November with late ripening varieties from our sites most influenced by the ocean (Lompoc and Santa Maria).I absolutely love the harvest, it brings all sorts of promise and possibility. I still clearly remember one particularly manic winemaking friend who exclaimed two decades ago: “When a new harvest comes I have another chance to make the best wine of my career!” I like that sentiment; however, after three months of frantic work making zillions of decisions which affect quality, I am happy when winter comes. There is nothing better than sitting back with a particularly hearty red wine in early December and contemplating the experiences of the fall.
Spring has already sprung and the vines are growing rapidly now, so there is much to do in the vineyards. We have removed unneeded shoots that popped out, helping direct the vines vigor productively. We also have begun to weave the longer shoots through the trellis wires in order to keep the fruit zone open and allow sunlight in. Flowering has begun in the warmer sites and will continue for the next couple of weeks. Last year we had wind, fog and rain during flowering and the vines set a meager crop; this year we are hoping for better—so far the weather has cooperated.
In the cellar we have kept busy topping barrels and monitoring the progression of the secondary fermentation called malo-lactic, in which naturally occurring bacteria convert sharp malic acid to the softer and biologically stable lactic acid. We also bottled most of the 2010 syrahs and a few white wines from 2011 that were ready.
Summer is over and the grape harvest is upon us! The most exciting time of year at the winery is when the grapes we have nurtured along for the last six months are brought into the winery. Because of cool conditions during the spring flowering we know that the crop will be very small–and with luck this could portend a great vintage. Only time will tell, but in the meantime we are getting into the rhythm of the harvest and tasting lots of wines and working like maniacs trying to transform the grapes we pick into the best possible expressions of their terroir.
I mentioned in the last newsletter that we opened a tasting room in downtown Ojai, and I have to say it has been both a delight and an educational experience. When I started The Ojai Vineyard in 1983 there were not many wineries in the area, perhaps 25 from Paso Robles to Ventura—now there must be close to 500. It’s a number so large that it’s hard keeping track of who is who, and that is precisely why we are so excited to be able to talk directly with you at the tasting room and have you sample our crafted wines. The Ojai Vineyard is quite unique in the California wine scene, and opening the tasting room has given us a venue to explain the special attention we take in making our wines. So far, the response has been great—the tasting room has been abuzz with visitors. Customers have enjoyed the wines so much that many have signed up for the Wine Club, enabling them to receive wine selections I personally make quarterly.
We anticipate a busy spring, as Ojai has many planned events this time of year. Of particular note is the 65th annual Music Festival in early June, which we are the proud wine sponsor. It will take place at the newly rebuilt Libby Bowl, which is a stone’s throw from the tasting room. We are also planning after hours wine education classes and a couple of visits to the winery to taste barrel samples of the exciting 2010 wines.
At the tasting room you will meet Dusti Pelow, a personable and knowledgeable advocate of The Ojai Vineyard. After much perseverance she convinced me to open the tasting room in her and Frank Masserella’s charming Firehouse, an old WPA built fire station, and she agreed to manage it using her extensive restaurant and wine sales experience.
Occasionally you will find Fabien, Frederick or Dominic from the winery staff serving, however, the regular alternate for Dusti is John Anderson, who started with us just after we opened. He is a recent Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo graduate and brings an avid enthusiasm for all things wine.
After one of the coolest summers on record, the 2010 harvest is on! So far we are thrilled with the quality of the grapes that have been picked. In particular the pinot noir responded well to the cool weather and gave us beautifully balanced grapes–the newly fermented wines are alive with flavor.
As we celebrate our 28th harvest we are embarking on a new venture at The Ojai Vineyard. In July we opened a tasting room in downtown Ojai, at 109 South Montgomery Street. We serve an interesting selection—both new releases and some rarer library wines. We hope to see you at our new tasting room soon!
In this newsletter, we feature our new wines for fall. The sauvignon blanc from McGinley Vineyard illustrates the attention to detail we give to making all our wines, so I thought I would take this opportunity to describe how we craft this special wine.
What is striking about McGinley Vineyard is the profound lack of vigor with which the typically energetic sauvignon blanc vines grow–a direct result of the poor soils there. Many sections have only a foot and a half of topsoil, beneath which is fractured shale, and in one block, serpentine rock. The wines from these poor soils are amazingly flavorful because the vine’s energy is concentrated on maturing its fruit, rather than on producing leaves.
Our vines are pruned in a completely different way from the rest of the sauvignon blanc planted at McGinley. When I started buying this fruit in 1998, I noticed that the shoots growing during the spring and summer were quite variable—some were vigorous and long and others stunted. This affected fruit quality, since one needs a certain number of leaves to properly ripen a cluster of grapes. The fruit on the short shoots wasn’t as flavorful, so we converted our vines from cane pruning to the cordon method, which helps concentrate the vine’s energy into producing shoots of more even length. Over time we have found this pruning change has given us a much smaller crop, and thus more expensive crop. But the benefit has been the quality we have been able to achieve in the wines. To test our hypothesis that less fruit grown on more even shoots makes higher quality wine, we purchased small quantities of fruit grown more conventionally in rows adjacent to ours. The fruit from those higher yielding vines produced a wine that was actually more immediately accessible–it was easy. But our carefully farmed vines produced a wine with greater personality and flavor intensity– clearly better even though it required longer bottle aging to fully reveal itself. In an effort to further increase quality, in 2009 we began to farm our blocks organically. Doing so is a little more expensive, but I think it’s worth it for the peace of mind alone—it’s not nice to use poisons on our food. There are also practical reasons for following organic practices; for instance, natural fertilizers affect the vine slowly while chemical fertilizers charge up the vine, bringing too much leaf growth, which is bad for quality. And, although synthetic pesticides are handy if you are negligent and find yourself in trouble, the careful grower anticipates problems before they develop and can use milder organic compounds to avoid those problems. Paying close attention to the vine’s needs is essential for fine grape growing–so going organic dovetails well with the goals of the craft winemaker.
We are always the first to harvest from McGinley vineyard; the intention is to capture the grapes when they are at their peak flavor with acidity that is fresh and vibrant. The timing is critical because at this warm site the grapes mature quickly, so we have only a day or two to pick before the balance is lost. The processing of the grapes at the winery is gentle; whole clusters are loaded in a pneumatic press, and very little pressure is used to extract the juice. The juice is then drained into barrels for fermentation. While most sauvignon blanc is fermented and aged in tanks, we like what barrel fermentation and barrel aging does to round out and bring complexity to the wine, though we studiously avoid using new barrels because the oak-y flavors they impart would mask the vineyard’s originality. After the fermentation settles down—which takes a week or two—the barrels are topped up and aged undisturbed for seven months before bottling.
The sauvignon blanc we make is a distinctive expression of McGinley Vineyard. Some who are accustomed to a more bland style might be startled by its wild personality; however, we love its in-your-face style. All of our sauvignon blancs from this vineyard have aged well; even the first one we made in 1998 is fresh, alive, and interesting today. I personally like sauvignon blancs best when they are about two years old although there is something intriguing about them as they near age ten.
People seem confused about the name of this vineyard, so here is the explanation: A few years ago Westerly Vineyard was bought by Jack McGinley, thus the name change. The old name for the vineyard, Westerly, was kept by the sellers because they had started a wine label with that same name, one that they still sell today. Coastal Vineyard Care, the company that planted the vineyard, continues to farm the site meticulously. The 2009 Sauvignon Blanc McGinley Vineyard marks our 12th vintage working with this vineyard and we are thrilled with its engaging personality. Check it out along with our other Fall offerings!
PS: Winter Newsletter:
The amazing vintage of 2010
We finished the harvest of 2010 relatively late this year, on November 5th-and I have a feeling the wine press will go crazy talking about how bad it was in California. To preempt some of the “man it’s tough being a winemaker” nonsense that will be talked about, I thought I better let you know it looks like 2010 could be our finest vintage in 28 years (I will reserve final judgment until after bottling). It was a difficult year for grape growers for sure. First, there was unusually cool weather in the spring and summer, which exacerbated powdery mildew problems-a serious threat to wine quality. The growers really had to be on their toes to avoid disaster. Then at harvest time we had a profound lack of heat for the longest time, and then a heat spell with temperatures up to 113 degrees f and then rainy weather. From the outside one could assume it truly was the harvest from hell, so why am I so happy ? Mother Nature gave us incredible physiological ripeness at reasonable sugar levels in both pinot noir and syrah, so we were able to make wines with intensity and balance. In California, because of our sunny climate, there always is the worry that the grapes will accumulate too much sugar before flavor develops. This year there was an unusually long period of time between veraison (when the grapes begin to turned purple) and harvest, so the fruit had time to mature. This slow, cool ripening gave us wines that are strikingly dark, flavor-y and savory, and wonderfully light on their feet-which is to say they are the opposite of heavy and sweet. We look forward to sharing this extraordinary vintage with you in the coming years.
Spring 2010 The controversy over high alcohol levels in wine continues unabated. The subject seems to arouse strong feelings because it obliquely questions one’s taste, and no one likes to be accused of having poor taste! Unquestionably, California produces too many wines that are impressively massive, but as undrinkable as cough syrup. While the underlying issue is that people have different ideas of what is good—I like oranges, you like apples—insecurity and pride get in the way, and the argument degrades into, “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” For me, every wine style has its place; I drink light, crisp, minerally rieslings with lower alcohol levels in the summertime and hearty reds like Châteauneuf du Pape and Amarone in the winter. One of the great joys of wine is that it is so varied—you can always find the right match for the meal and your mood.
However, after 30 years of winemaking, I have clear opinions of how wine needs to be structured in order to taste delicious and age gracefully. So much potential greatness is lost by waiting for more heft rather than picking grapes at just the right moment. In contrast to the general drift to pick riper and riper grapes, in the last five or six years we have redoubled our efforts to harvest ours in that two-to-three day period when one can capture every ounce of nuance and individuality that a special vineyard can produce. And I’m thrilled that the results of our efforts are finally coming in.
Yet, the quest for better-balanced wines is not only about alcohol and ripeness. New wood barrels are often used in the production of the finest wines, and many people confuse quality with the characteristic toastiness of a fine French oak barrel. I see oak as a potential destroyer of individuality, masking terroir, and since 2000 have scaled back its use dramatically. Our wines are still raised in wood; however, we now use mostly older, more neutral barrels to allow the personality of the vineyard to dominate.
We have also fundamentally changed the way we extract the flavors from red grapes. Grape skins contain a lot of character, and this is extracted by the juice during fermentation. The yeast convert the natural sugars to alcohol—which is a powerful solvent of harsh constituents in grapes—so we have modified our winemaking to capture more of the soft fruit and spice flavors earlier in the process, and avoid extraction later when the alcohol has reached higher levels. This has allowed us to make wines that are still fabulously intense in flavor but less heavy and tannic, with the added bonus that the wines that are both age-worthy and pretty tasty right now. This newsletter describes some of our latest successes with these refinements to our craft.
I remember so clearly a moment 28 years ago when a fellow winemaker expressed his ecstatic enthusiasm for the start of harvest. The new harvest was a chance to start fresh and if he was artful or lucky he might make the best wine of his career. His comment really struck a chord, and to this day I get excited about every harvest. Part of the thrill is the urgency involved in making quick sound decisions. In my view, in order to make the best possible wine, a winemaker has a window of two or three days to get the fruit picked from a particular vineyard. Too soon and the wine is insipid, too late and one forfeits the nuance and perfume the vineyard has to offer.
This harvest started off at a ferocious pace. After the coolest summer I can remember in Ojai, I expected ripening to be delayed. But instead a mild heat-spell that began at the end of the last week of August propelled all the grapes we buy in Ojai as well as the sauvignon blanc and pinot noir purchased in northern Santa Barbara County to ripen quickly. By the end of the first week of September we had brought in 60% of our grapes for the year, about 2 weeks ahead of our usual schedule.
Imagine my bewilderment when I was back up in the vineyards checking out the chardonnay, which always ripens later, to see another winemaker’s pinot noir grapes still hanging on the vine three weeks after I had harvested mine! I was so curious that I had to pick a few berries and taste this super ripe fruit. Regrettably these pinot grapes were flat tasting, since there was no natural acidity left. The grapes were mellow and sweet, tasted like raisins and plums-but they lacked freshness or spiciness.
The best time to pick a vineyard remains a quandary in rain-free Southern California. No compelling environmental worries, like impending winter storms force the hand of the winemaker. It is much more subtle-what aroma, flavor, and texture-profile does one prefer? A few years ago, the most popular style for chardonnay was a wine of super ripeness, extreme alcohol, over-the-top oakiness, and flabby acidity. Maximum impact was the goal, finesse and balance were eschewed. While the market for these clunky wines is still thriving, consumer interest in chardonnays with zip and minerality, wine that makes your mouth water for another sip, is growing apace. I see a similar future for red wine in this country, following the evolution we have seen with chardonnay.
We are thrilled with the results of our recent harvests, and I hope you share in our enthusiasm for the wines described here. It seems as though years of thought on craft has finally crystallized. And although we make changes slowly and incrementally, we’ve seen great progress in a short period of time. We think these wines are among our most aromatic and best balanced to date. Enjoy!
In the spectrum of California wine styles, I like to think ours have always emphasize balance. The few over-the-top monsters we have made turned into big commercial successes, but they didn’t represent our aim. The idea has always been to capture the exuberance of fully ripe California fruit and express it with a European sensibility (i.e. making wine that is delicious with food). I don’t pretend to have fully achieved that objective, because I see winemaking as a craft, a quest that doesn’t end. Complete satisfaction with the job would be tantamount to giving up the struggle.
When I started making wine 25 years ago we picked our grapes a little less ripe; however, we found the flavors of the wines to be a bit too green and vegetal. So we opted for more ripeness and thought the wines were better for it. The down side was they were a tad deficient in acidity and a bit high in alcohol-they seemed clunky. And although these wines have aged well, and with time in the bottle have come into better balance, I felt there was still room for improvement.
Since then great strides in California viticulture have changed the character of the fruit we work with. First, the introduction of drip irrigation allowed more accurate control of vine growth. And second, vertical trellising of the vines allowed for even sun exposure to the clusters. That coupled with our penchant for thinning the crop for lower yields has produced more evenly ripe fruit. So now we are picking a little less ripe again and are really excited with the results. The wines are more fragrant, alive and fresh-and so intriguing they beckon you to take another sip. Other winemakers, in pursuit of what they call phenolic ripeness, are picking not grapes but raisins-and making wines that may have a concentrated texture, yet I find tiring to drink.
My interest in viticulture has not slackened since all these improvements have been made. Now the Holy Grail is organic and biodynamic farming (a self-sufficient, spiritual farming method), whose success requires the grower to pay even more attention to the vineyard. With chemical farming you can more easily ignore the condition of the vine and when disaster is about to strike, simply nuke the problem away. When farming naturally you must better anticipate problems and carefully encourage the vine towards success. And of course, we should avoid using neurotoxins on the things we eat and drink. They’re not good for us, and not good for the people who apply them.
In wine we talk about the subtle differences that distinguish the ordinary from the extraordinary, and I believe organic farming is the best way to bring out the intriguing nuances of a vineyard. So, we are pushing our growers toward organic farming. We have begun buying biodynamically grown fruit from Presidio Vineyard, and are working with two of our other growers to get them to go completely organic. Our other vineyard sources are sustainably grown, which means only the safest conventional methods and sprays are used- and with California’s benign climate this not difficult…
In some respects you might look at our little winery and think nothing has changed in the last 20 years. The general physical structure hasn’t, the quantity of wine produced hasn’t, yet the wines made now are fundamentally different. Over the last couple of decades we have pushed hard to progress. The pursuit of craft is what I call our effort to make incrementally better wines. Manufacturing is the memorization of repetitive tasks, while craft is the melding of experiential knowledge with intuition to achieve a greater success.
Although we are best known for syrah, in this spring newsletter I also describe our recent work with chardonnay at Solomon Hills, a state-of-the-art vineyard planted on the western edge of the Santa Maria Valley appellation. We purchase the grapes by the acre, rather than the ton-which allows us to reduce the crop to concentrate the flavors. To avoid masking the personality of the vineyard we ferment and age this wine in older French oak barrels. The vineyard is in the coolest end of the appellation, so the fruit retains very high natural acidity, making it food friendly. Tightly planted to the superior Dijon clones of chardonnay and farmed meticulously for quality, we have been able to make a wine that is altogether different than a typical California chardonnay.
This wine is emblematic of our intentions for all the wines we produce–which is to continue pushing beyond the expected and attempt to craft something sublime.
One of the questions I hear most often is, “How was the harvest this year?” I can never manage to give an easy answer. It always takes me a few years to gain perspective on the wines we made, and separate myself emotionally from the trials and tribulations of the harvest. But now that the first reds from 2005 are being released it’s time to make some comments.
2005 was an amazingly prolific harvest, so right away I was concerned it would cause a dilution of character in the wines. Many vineyards I saw were hideously over-cropped, but I was smug with the knowledge that for the last nine years we had thinned the fruit in our vineyard sites to a low 2 to 2.5 tons to the acre. We were prepared this year as well and had gone through all of our vineyards, and though a few blocks came in at higher than anticipated yields, the vines and fruit had excellent balance. Timing-wise, 2005 seemed like a dream compared to 2004 when we had only a couple of days to pick the pinot noir. In 2005 the weather was so mild we literally had three weeks to decide when to pick.
In the barrel the 2005 pinot noirs and syrahs seemed radically different than the 2004s-they were alive with acidity and tannins and had none of the unctuousness that marked the 2004 vintage. I loved their precision and their persistent personalities, but worried that they were a little too subtle and esoteric. But after bottling, the wines seemed to fatten up a bit and the tannins calmed down and were well masked by the fruit. Tasting them now they still seem less rich than the 2004s, but they are more complex and utterly alive with freshness, which makes them very food-friendly. In my opinion these pinots are clearly our best to date. As for the syrahs I think they’re poised to be terrific, but will give them another year or so before judging-I don’t want to be too hasty.
The harvest of 2007 will mark our 25th year of making wine at The Ojai Vineyard, and so I have been taking stock and would like to share with you some of my thoughts on how and why I make wine and where I am going with it.
Basically I treat wine making as a craft. Going through the process year after year and learning how each detail affects the final outcome is fascinating. In order to concentrate on those details I have had to check my empire building tendencies and keep the winery small and manageable. I take an uncompromising approach to the goal of making the best wine possible and spend lavishly on any aspect that helps me toward that aim. A colleague of mine claims I am not a real wine maker-real wine makers are in the business of making money–I am what he calls a lifestyle winemaker. Be that as it may, I passionately enjoy the pursuit, and haven’t tired of the challenge.
Grapes are the basis of wine (obviously!), however it has taken California winemakers years to come to terms with that fact. Conscientious growers are now producing far better grapes than could have been imagined 25 years ago through improved trellising, training and irrigation control. The monetary issue here is how detailed one wishes to get with the vineyard work, and I have found very careful work does dramatically improve the evenness of grape maturation, which correlates positively with wine quality. For the wine to express the distinctive character of a particular vineyard one must take the farming to another level and reduce the crop size–25 years of experience tells me there is an inverse relationship between quantity and quality. This is extremely expensive, and while it is standard practice here at The Ojai Vineyard, very few people are obsessive enough to stomach the costs.
When I started making wine I was always one of the last to pick in a vineyard, but now I am often the first, even though I still pick at about the same sugar levels. Times have changed and it is widely believed that the way to get the pundits praise is to pick grapes after they have raisined. I like nice ripe grapes too; however I continue to believe there is a moment when one can capture the best of California’s fruitiness and generosity, yet preserve the aromatics, acidity and backbone that provide freshness and food friendliness. When picked at the right point the distinctive character of the vineyard is captured, if picked too ripe, dull wines are the result. Like choosing to restrict the quantity of crop for quality, this is another financial issue that the pursuer of craft has to come to terms with. The fashion of the moment is monster wines, and anything that is subtle and fine seems to get lost in the shuffle. Wine makers make excuses for the fact that they are picking riper and riper grapes. They give all sorts of reasons for doing so from global warming to new grape clones to unripe grape skin tannins, but I think it all comes down to worries about marketing wines that don’t play well to the critics. Because of the detailed work we are doing in the vineyards to insure each cluster is evenly ripened, we are moving against the current trend and picking slightly less ripe, and by doing so are achieving intensely flavored wines that are better balanced.
In 1981, after working the harvest in Burgundy, Sarah Charmberlain, Jim Clendenen and I visited quite a number of wineries there. It struck me that it didn’t seem to matter whether a proprietor had a cellar with lots of fancy equipment or not, the quality of the wine produced had a lot more to do with how thoughtful the wine maker was. I ran with that spirit when I started The Ojai Vineyard, and at our winery there is not a lot of fancy equipment. This is not to say I am unwilling to spend generously if there is the possibility that wine quality can be enhanced. But I have a healthy skepticism of new techniques and equipment-my focus is on presenting a pure expression of a vineyard site. So much of what is done in wineries these days seems to be centered on taking a wine and manipulating it into a predetermined ideal rather than gently coaxing it to show off its attributes.
When I was in my twenties and thirties I had boundless energy and thought I could do it all, but with time and experience I’ve gotten pickier and notice more clearly the deficiencies in a wine when it has not been properly attended to. With this in mind I have assembled an eclectic team of employees that participate in fashioning the wines and help me focus on the myriad details involved with making wine. With their help I hope to further refine the craft and bring you ever finer wines.
Among high-quality wine producers there seem to be two general camps, those who make vineyard-specific wines and those who blend a variety of vineyard sources. Those who blend argue that the only way to make a complex wine is to mix several vineyard components together–in essence that the sum is greater than its individual parts. I do not deny that the idea is appealing; however, as you will see from this newsletter, I am not of that persuasion.
What drives me is the amazing distinctiveness a carefully farmed vineyard can express when its grapes become wine. I was first struck by this back in 1988 when I made two pinot noirs from vineyards that were literally across the street from each other in the Santa Maria Valley, Bien Nacido and Rancho Vinedo. While the grapes were treated similarly, the resultant wines were quite different. It was thrilling to taste what seemed to me the spirit of those two particular spots.
Assuming variety is the spice of life, blended perfection strikes me as sort of boring. This world already offers enough blended beverages designed to appeal to the widest audience–quirky and individual wines are simply more interesting.
Here at the winery, dealing with so many vineyards and keeping the resulting wines separate can be chaotic: however, every tasting becomes a tour of the unique characteristics a particular site delivers in flavors and aromatics. And because there is so much happening vineyardwise in Santa Barbara County, we’ll continue to introduce new wines to you in the next few years-while letting a few old friends go. I remain restless in the hunt for special vineyards. The search for the great vineyard site and the quest to best express its individuality in wine remain a lifelong pursuit.
After a winter of exceptionally high rainfall, the grapevines in our area were very happy. The root zones were flushed of harmful salts, so the vines grew vigorously, producing lots of flower clusters. To obtain good quality in 2005, a lot of money had to be spent in the vineyards during the spring and summer to control growth–carefully training and trimming the vines to avoid excessive shading. Also, the large crop of fruit had to be thinned.
With grapes, there is an inverse relationship between quantity and quality. A vine with a large crop has difficulty ripening the fruit, so it tends to produce unevenly ripened clusters, which compromises quality. A vine seems to have only so much flavor it can impart to the grapes it bears. So, when faced with a large crop, one must eliminate the excess clusters to concentrate the flavor into the remaining ones. This year it was essential to thin severely. For example, with the chardonnay at Bien Nacido Vineyard, we removed three quarters of the clusters during the summer, and, later when it looked as though there was still a big crop, we went back and trimmed again, removing the shoulders to reduce the cluster size. Had we not thinned, the quality would have been marginal; as it was, we still ended up with a generous, yet excellent quality crop.
The fall was mercifully benign-we had great weather for the harvest, rewarding those that did a good job in the vineyard with first-rate grapes. In this newsletter, we offer two wines that we think are indicative of the high quality achieved with this vintage, a sauvignon blanc and a rosé. The red wines offered here are all from the 2003 vintage, which might be considered 2005’s polar opposite, as the crop was tiny. However, the 2003 vintage had its own problems, but once again, detailed attention in the vineyard made the difference between success and failure.
Many winemakers in California are now picking their grapes extremely ripe and making what I see as ponderously alcoholic, prune-y flavored wines. The aim is apparently to make wines that give a huge impression in the first sip without regard to the actual drink-ability of the wine. Wine should be so savory that it beckons you to take another taste, so to me these overwrought wines seem preposterous.
This trend is reminiscent of what happened in the late 70’s when zinfandel was very popular. Zin had been know for years as an obscure varietal that wasn’t one of the classics, but it became fashionable as an intriguingly fruity, “nativist” revival grape. To counter the charge that zin was just a simple fruity wine, winemakers picked riper and riper fruit to make a more “claret” styled wine. These riper wines lost all the zest and vibrancy that was zinfandel’s strength, and became awkwardly alcoholic and tedious to drink. Consumers revolted against this new undrinkable style, and zinfandel sales went into a tailspin for years.
With the beneficent climate we have here, I have always understood the logic of picking ripe grapes. In Europe often the best vintages are the ripest, so why not try to duplicate the style, if not the flavors, of the greatest vintages? The question is really how ripe is too ripe? Ten and fifteen years ago I was considered one of those that picked late, but now, I’m often one of the first to pick. What has changed is the whole concept of what wine is supposed to be.
There is a whole new breed of winemakers–raisin pickers. To simplify, they are of two schools: Those that are following a trend and are seeking reviewers’ high scores, and those truly committed to the international style. The first group are content to pick near raisins from often poorly farmed vineyards. The second group, who often insist on carefully tended grapes, are so concerned with green herbal flavors and tannins that they are willing to forgo liveliness of flavors and distinctiveness of terroir for the international style of huge, seamlessly smooth wines that are impressive, but possess few distinguishing characteristics. What is the fun of having wines from Italy, Spain, Chile and California all tasting the same?
People say the international style has infected Bordeaux as well, and I’m sure it is true to some degree, but what I have tasted recently from the 2000 vintage impressed with its distinctiveness and style. More like a typical California vintage, 2000 produced fully ripe grapes of modest acidity in Bordeaux. While I am not much a fan of the cabernet family of grapes, I was floored by the overall quality for the price ($20-$70 range). Surely these wines are a great lesson in balance. For my California palate the appeal is the upfront richness and concentration of fruit, and the amazing intensity of character which was wonderfully balanced with acidity and tannin, making the wines age-worthy yet drinkable.
Some say that the times are changing, and modern wine drinkers are looking for that very occasional glass of wine to have as a cocktail substitute. That’s fine; however, for me, wine and food will be forever married, so I will continue to strive to make wines that can be enjoyed beyond the first sip, and whose personalities are revealed with food.
This newsletter features three of the six vineyard designated syrahs we make each year. My intent in making these wines is to show off the distinctiveness of each of these vineyard sites, which can only be done when the vineyards are farmed carefully and the yields are very low. The wines are all made with meticulous care, so for me it is not a question of which one is better than the next. What is fascinating is the expression that each site bestows on the wine. To help you understand the differences, we are again offering a sampler pack of two bottles each of the three syrahs at our special pre-arrival price.
Because our wines are built to age, I had hoped to print a guide with my recommendations as to when they are best to drink, but that will have to come in another newsletter. In the meantime, I want to mention that all of our red wines are best enjoyed if you decant them before drinking. The wines made here are relatively unprocessed because I have found it best to do the very least-fining and filtration strips character from wine. The down side is that these wines can take a while to open up. Simply pouring the wine from the bottle into a decanter or another empty bottle gives it a little air that helps bring out the personality of the wine more quickly. Enjoy!
Our last newsletter touched on the influences of soil, exposure and climate on wine grapes. The French use the term “terroir” to describe the distinctiveness a particular spot gives to a wine. And although it may seem a little fanciful at first, anyone involved with grape growing and wine making knows terroir is an authentic phenomenon–not a mere marketing ploy of the French bureaucracy. At The Ojai Vineyard we revel in the distinctiveness of vineyard sites and in the wines that are made from them. Hence a major winemaking objective here is to tread lightly winemaking-wise so that a vineyard’s unique characteristics are not lost in the process of turning grapes into wine. In this newsletter I wanted to touch upon the influences of winemaking on how (or if) terroir is expressed in the final product.
Over the years we’ve tried to assess each winemaking step and its influence on the wine. It’s not so simple, as there are hundreds of small steps–all of which have varying effects. And, some of these effects aren’t apparent for many years. (Needless to say, the review and assessment is ongoing and unlikely to ever end.) Paramount is yield: you can’t make wines that express their vineyard heritage unless you’re willing to accept a very small crop per acre. Another step that strongly affects the expression of terroir is deciding when to pick grapes. As they ripen, grapes go from acidic and mono-dimensional to rich and flavorful and then to prune-y and dull. There are standard measures of ripeness, sugar and acidity, that we all use, but they are only rough gauges of true physiological ripeness, so there is plenty of debate over when to pick. The issue is complicated by how carefully the growing was done. We’ve always picked very ripe grapes, but there is a huge trend to pick at super ripe levels. This is troubling as the distinctiveness of a spot is lost when one picks too ripe–the wines all taste the same-prune-y and raisin-y. Batonage, a century’s old practice of stirring the yeast lees at the bottom of the barrel, is another example. It can be a bad thing when overdone–the distinctive character of the vineyard is lost, and the wine tastes only like stirred yeast.
The point is that there are many processes in winemaking, like anything else for that matter, which are neither bad nor good. It’s more a matter of what the intentions and consequences of a practice have on the wine. We have tasted a few too many wines that mimic some of the aromas and flavors of great wines, and get many favorable reviews, yet are soulless because they do not possess any sense of distinctiveness or terroir. My concern is that too many people are trying to shape and manipulate wines to make them taste like what they think the pundits will praise, rather than working to express authenticity.
Despite the fact that we are a tiny winery, you may have noticed that we produce quite a few different wines. And while it can be argued that blending various batches of wine can improve quality, I have obviously chosen another path. The wine world is full of big rich harmonious wines that, to me are utterly boring and have no sense of place. I like wines from a particular spot…I like their quirkiness and distinctiveness.
What drives me is terroir (I’m not talking George W. Bush or Osama). Others have defined the word elegantly, but simply put, terroir is the distinctiveness that a wine from a particular spot possesses. The combination of the local climate, the micro-climate of the spot, the soil and how it affects vine growth, the exposure of the site..really everything that has a consequence on vine growth can be called terroir. My first experience of the effect of terroir was when I made pinot noir from two vineyards literally planted across the street from each other, and, despite identical winemaking, produced two totally different wines. I have been hooked ever since, trying to understand the subtle differences between vineyard sites and their influence on wine quality.
The most difficult question pertaining to terroir is what influences the vine (and therefore the wine) the most. The French tend to see the soil as the great definer of terroir. If you are in a particular area, and the climate, microclimate, and exposure are all the same, I can understand the logic that only soil is left to explain vinous differences between seemingly identical vineyard sites. Somehow it is different in California. Here, we didn’t have monks who spent a thousand years figuring out just the right spots for vines; the climate is so benign we are not limited to just a few spots that can ripen grapes.
The most exciting wines I drink are planted in places where there is barely enough heat to ripen the grapes by the end of the season. So, I see the general climate as the paramount influence on the quality of a site. It is the one thing that can override all other influences on a vine. For example, one can choose an otherwise lousy site in a cool climate for the finicky variety pinot noir, and make a much better wine than you could from the best site imaginable in a warmer area. Why? The ripening process is profoundly altered in cool climates: the grapes hang out on the vine longer in order to ripen, and cooler climates affect the way vines grow, restraining their vigor. And because the weather is cool, the natural acidity of the grapes, as well as their delicate aromatics, is preserved.
The weather conditions right before and during harvest have a major effect on the character of the wines produced, and in 2004, just as the pinot noir harvest began we had very hot and dry conditions. Because we felt the pinot was physiologically ripe, we chose to pick as fast as we could to avoid raisin-y flavors, and were able to capture some of the freshness we like. Our aim is for a less ripe style, but it was a nice lesson in how important uncontrollable aspects of the process play in winemaking. Mother Nature has the upper hand, and it’s best to be intuitive and not too ideologically rigid when reacting to changing conditions. The syrah harvest, which occurred a few weeks later, was less influenced by the hot weather, but the wines all have a plumpness and easygoing character that is the mark of the 2004 vintage.
The valleys of Santa Barbara County are unique in that because they lie east-west, there are no mountains between them and the ocean. So, although we are rather far south, the western portions of these valleys (Santa Maria, Los Alamos, Lompoc) are quite a bit cooler than most of Northern California’s cool climate districts. And because we are south, we almost always escape early fall rains. Thus, this is a perfect area for growing grapes in a cool climate. We feature four wines from the cooler districts of Santa Barbara County in this newsletter that we are particularly proud of.
Perhaps because I’m about to embark upon my twentieth harvest here at The Ojai Vineyard, I have been spending some time reflecting on my work. Coincidentally, I’ve recently been asked by a couple of people whether I still like what I do–and, I have to say, yes. When I first started in the wine business, I had a hard time imagining doing anything in particular for five years, let alone twenty. But there is something alluring in a craft that presents innumerable variables together with a rather long timeline during which many changes occur. The work is endlessly confounding and fascinating. I still have so much more to learn about wine.
In this quest there are a few ojectives I have pursued to help focus my energies. First, I have consciously approached my work as a craft and not as a business because, as soon as you get worked up about the cost of a cork or a cluster of grapes, quality seems to take a back seat to expediency and monetary concerns. While it is nerve-wracking to invest heavily in something without really knowing what the return will be, I have had success taking a no-compromise approach to wine quality. Most people are sick of the McDonaldization of every product and have been receptive to our attempts to make the genuine article: hand-made wine.
My intent has always been to make the best, but over the years I have either become more fanatical, or have learned enough to realize that the devil is in the details and that one must focus on these with utmost attention. In the vineyards we went from gently nudging the growers to insisting that they make radical reductions of yields and adhere to vineyard practices that might seem crazy to some-but the aim has been to do everything and anything that might improve quality. And in the winery, we went from the fringes of conventionality to the absolute extreme as far as the making and handling of the wines is concerned. I regularly freak out my more conventional winemaker friends when I tell them how little sulfur dioxide I add to my wines and how little and how late I rack (decant) them.
Another aspect that has kept this work fun for me has been to keep this winery small. As a born empire-builder, I have had to fight my natural instincts to expand, but in order to continue to focus on making better and better wine, I can’t be bothered with the logistics required to make and sell more and more. And making better and not more is the essence of what I am trying to do here. When I was at a wine tasting recently someone asked me if I was planning on expanding the winery. I told him I was planning just the opposite. That got me a round of laughter, because that is not what entrepreneurs do. But we do make plenty of wine now, and as I age I plan not to retire, but to make less and less-until I get to the point of doing just a few barrels a year. If I don’t keep this thing rewarding and interesting, what is the point?
This time around, with so many wines to offer, I am going to skip most of the preliminaries and get right to the wine descriptions. Offered here are the last three wines from the 1999 vintage–and as they have had some time in the bottle now, I am now even more confident in saying that it was a spectacularly good harvest for us. Also, be sure to check out the list of future releases.
With this letter we attempt to confuse you further, dear reader, with another one time only release of a special bottling, in this case from Roll Ranch.
California is a huge state, and, as I have mentioned before, the weather can be horrid at one end of the state and yet very pleasant at the other. Such was the case in the fall of 1998. The Santa Barbara County area did have a little rain at the beginning of the harvest, but it did not amount to much, and we had a particularly successful vintage. Further south, here in Ojai, the Roll Ranch grapes were very special. Spring frost had left us with a small crop that ripened late because the moderate and breezy summer had slowed the ripening process.
When we picked the grapes from this small vineyard, we kept separate a particularly stressed hilly spot because the berries were tiny and were ripening ahead of the rest. When the wine from this spot was made, it proved to be so extraordinary that we could not bear the idea of blending it in with the other lots of Roll, and thus we offer it now. It is named Lot “E.H.” for the name of the clone of syrah planted in this spot, estrella, and for the little sloping hill that the grapes were picked from. This wine is, of course, huge. While different in personality, it compares favorably in many ways to our last special bottling of syrah, the memorable Henry Daniel.
I had an opportunity recently to taste all of our Roll Ranch syrahs we have made and compare them with the E.H. I would like to share my thoughts on how they are aging, and so here are my impressions. We tasted them backwards, that is, oldest to youngest…
1995 I have always loved this wine for its fruitiness and down right deliciousness. I had it about two years ago in a similar lineup and the wine struck me as good–although certainly the weakest of the Rolls. But on this day it was very different; having lost its baby fat, it was strutting its stuff. There was lots of fruit still, but a wonderful earthiness now played strongly in the aroma. It is as if the wine has matured to a new level and is finally ready to drink. For me, this is a very exciting development.
1996 Early on I worried whether I had bottled this monster fruit and tannin bomb with too little sulfur dioxide (especially since I had a lab measure it, and the test results came back with none detectable). But relying on the grape tannins to act as an antioxidant turned out to be the best choice. This wine is fresh and the tannins have mellowed to the point where it is a joy to drink. This is the biggest Roll, with time on its side. Don’t hurry to drink it.
1997 This one seemed even more tannic in the barrel than the 1996. We racked it a little more than we usually do to introduce oxygen to help soften the wine. Shortly before bottling, I suffered horrible doubts about how I had crafted the wine; I was sure it was ruined. But, after a few months in the bottle, I realized I was wrong, and that the wine and I had gone through a little pre-bottling shock. Now I really like it. In some ways it is the most complete Roll at this point, not showing too much fruit and possessing nice, fine, mouth coating tannins. It will not have the longevity of the 1996, but it is great now, and won’t fade any time soon.
1998 Open knit and delicious, this one has all the charms the 1995 had in its youth without as much tannic bite–but it is quite a bit bigger and richer. Fruity as all hell, if I didn’t have the 1995 for reference, I would suggest drinking it now. This wine is certainly ready for drinking, but I think more will come of it with time.
1999 Rivaling the 1996 in concentration, this one is a lot less tannic. It’s easy to drink today, if you do not mind the slightly oxidized character of recently bottled wine and the texture of 40 wt. motor oil. A big one-its on a great course! P.S. Don’t even think about opening a bottle until next year!
1998 E.H. How nice it is to hold a wine an additional year before sale. A year ago this one would have been more difficult to comprehend than the 1999 Roll. The nose is still brooding a bit, but packed tightly with the typical Roll apricot and plum fruits. The mouth is unbelievably concentrated and the wine has amazing length– seamless in texture from the first burst of fruit in the mouth to the very copious but fine textured tannins in the finish. If the 1996, 1999 and E.H. are the biggest of the bunch, the E.H. is the most elegant of the big boys. You really can drink this one today, and I recommend you try one now, but certainly hold on to a few bottles as this wine has the structure for years and years of positive development.
2000 (from the barrel) This is a lot like the 1999, but in a more open knit style, with little of the brooding quality that the 1999 has. I would liken it to the 1998 in its accessibility, but it is much bigger and has more of a black fruits aroma rather than the red fruits of the 1998. Definitely another big delicious wine from Roll Ranch!
Santa Barbara County is going through great changes viticulturally. In the last five years, the acreage of grapes planted has more than doubled. And while most of this acreage has been planted by the huge industrial wineries whose names we all know, there have been significant plantings by independent growers who know great wine and are developing carefully farmed vineyard sites that ultimately should produce great wine. We have been fortunate enough to meet a few of these enthusiastic new growers and to purchase their grapes, and with this newsletter we introduce a wine that is a product of these new plantings.
Since the first vines were planted in the modern era of Santa Barbara County in 1969, things have evolved. Back then the U. C. Davis mantra was to plant vines very far apart from each other because fewer vines per acre translated to lower costs. Trellising the vines was considered unimportant and, since it was also very expensive, the ‘California sprawl’–where the vines grew haphazardly in any direction–was the norm.
It took pioneering work by the Australian wine industry to convince people here that there was some logic in training vines the way the French have done for a hundred years or more–so that the fruit is evenly exposed to the sun. Having a trellis that narrowed the leaf canopy and allowed in sunlight helped avoid disease problems, ripened the fruit more evenly, and improved wine quality dramatically. And it took high land prices to convince people here that planting vines closer together made more efficient use of the land. Now that we are working with these new vineyards that have three or four times as many vines per acre, we are finding vine vigor is controlled because of inter-vine competition. With grapevines, the quantity of vegetative growth (vine vigor) is very important for wine quality–less growth almost always produces superior wines.
The only down side for quality minded vintners of these new close planted vineyards is the possibility they will produce so many grapes that the flavor of the wine will be diluted; there seems to be only so much flavor a vine can pump out. But we have handled that potential problem by buying grapes by the acre instead of by the ton (which allows us to thin the crop without affecting the grower’s income). One final benefit to wine quality of these new plantings is that many of them are being planted with new clonal stock from France. These new selections of our old favorites (chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, etc.) are superior because the criteria for choosing them is wine quality rather than abundantly productivity.
And why dwell on the changes taking place in Santa Barbara County viticulture? Because, although we have had great success making wine here already, perhaps the best is yet to come. For a preview, check out our 1999 Chardonnay Clos Pepe: I think it is terrific.
While there are many factors that influence grape quality, of primary importance is the quantity of grapes on the vine. A grower will happily cooperate on many viticultural issues of concern that influence wine quality, such as irrigation practices or leaf pulling to expose the grapes to more sun. But when it comes to controlling the yield of grapes, money is the only thing that will move a grower to do the right thing.
Each year after the harvest is complete, California’s Department of Food and Agriculture publishes a report of every individual purchase of grapes by price and tonnage within the state. Wineries are not identified, but it is easy to find one’s own purchases in the report. When I mentioned to Helen that we paid the highest price in the state for pinot noir in 1999, and that we paid either the highest or nearly the highest price locally for every other grape variety we bought in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties, she was not impressed. I ‘ll admit I was dismayed as well. On the surface it appears we are being fleeced. But in order to obtain the best grapes possible, we have to be willing to pay growers generously to ensure smaller yields.
Many growers and winemakers I’ve talked to try to justify larger crops with the “balanced vine” theory of viticulture. Proponents of this theory believe a vigorously growing vine puts too much of its energy into producing leaves, and not enough into the grapes. The grapes from such a vine will lack flavor because the vine was too busy working on leaf production. To get the vine back in balance, one prunes it so it will produce a huge quantity of grapes, which causes the vine to put its vigor into ripening those grapes rather than producing leaves. This actually works great if the aim is to make a better $10 bottle of wine.
However, if you are aspiring beyond the ordinary, there are other methods to counteract vigorous growth besides loading the vines up with a large crop. A balanced vine is important, but this theory rejects the notion that quality and yield are closely tied together.
From personal experience over the last twenty years, I disagree, so instead, at The Ojai Vineyard, we look for vineyards located on poor soils or in extremely windy and cool spots that naturally limit vigorous growth and yields. In more fertile places, where we need to control growth, we have found that water deprivation and aggressive vine trimming can work well in keeping a vine’s growth in balance with smaller crops.
Your best shot at making a profound wine is to start with grapes from a very low-yielding vineyard. This approach is expensive, but if you consistently want to make special wines, you really have no choice.
There might be some truth to the popular notion that it never rains in southern California. But, even though the weather here is almost always mild and nice, it does not follow that, climatically, every year is like every other year. In fact, natives of this state know what is certain about southern California weather is its complete unpredictability. Here, we can have summers without heat, and winters without cold. So, to say that we had two very unusual growing seasons in 1998 and 1999 is a little ridiculous, but let me try to explain what that meant for the wines we made.
Both years were characterized by cool spring weather that made the flowering go poorly. This gave us small clusters that didn’t weigh much, and thus a small crop. And as much as growers and wine-makers would like to deny it, there is a very strong reverse correlation of crop yield and wine quality. There is simply more flavor in grapes from vines that produce a modest crop. The other major factor that influenced wine quality in 1998 and 1999 was the lateness of the harvest. In both years we didn’t harvest a grape until the last few days of September–and didn’t finish until November 19th! The important period of grape maturation occurred late in the season when the days are shorter and the weather cooler. This had a profound effect on the grapes, which had higher acidity levels and more intense fruit flavors.
The weather here in 1999 was decidedly stranger because we had no summer. It never got hot, not even in Ojai. We had a nice warm sunny September, which saved us, because otherwise many of the grapes from our vineyards would never have ripened. Most of the wines turned out a lot like the 1998’s, high in acidity and full of extract. In a word, fantastic! There are a few wines that are so extreme that they strike me as odd at this point. I do not know whether they will be truly great or just wonderful and weird. These are wines with very high alcohol, very high acidity and amazing flavor. Only time will tell whether they will come into balance, but at this point in time I am quite optimistic.
We have produced some of our best wines to date from these two extraordinary years. In this newsletter we offer our richest chardonnay to date, a compelling and delicious pinot noir, and three of the five syrahs we made in 1998. Enjoy!
“Hedonistic fruit bomb”
That phrase evokes damnation and praise in the wine world. There are those who think a wine’s attributes should be hanging out for all to see and enjoy, and others who think that wines which are tough, and not necessarily pleasant, are far more intriguing. I am a little leery of the implications of either extreme, but, aren’t balance, finesse, and a sense of place important traits of a well made wine? In today’s wine world, perhaps not, for there is great interest from consumers and critics in the new, big fruited, immediately accessible, oaky-as-hell, larger-than-life-wines. These are wines that could come as easily from Spain or Australia, as from California….the so called “international” style.
As an independent wine maker, I like to think I am the master of my own destiny. I have my vision of the ideal wine, and I know what to do to help insure I get the desired result. You obviously need great vineyards, low yields, and delicate handling of the wine in the winery. But in any trade that depends on the weather, there are no guarantees. In the bountiful 1997 vintage there was one special vineyard, Thompson, that went its own way and produced a very modest crop. And just as the fruit was almost ripe to perfection, we had an incredible heat spell that caused the grapes to dehydrate. We got in there asap and picked, but the grapes were super ripe. Tempestuous and difficult to ferment, I had no idea where this wine was headed. I nervously watched it bubble along for a full year. Bear in mind, the typical yeast fermentation takes only two to three weeks to complete. Miraculously, it finished successfully. And, as it turned out, the new wine was the stand out of the vintage, black in color, thick with flavor. A hedonistic fruit bomb, if you will. This wine wasn’t something I would call my style, but it was amazing, so I couldn’t see the point of blending it into oblivion. Because of its singularity, we chose it to mark the birth of our second son, Henry Daniel Tolmach, in 1997. This wine’s outgoing, in your face personality matches Henry’s to a tee.
So, the question of style comes up with this wine. Am I disappointed we were unable to turn this into a light, thin, thought provoking wine? Well no, these grapes were never destined to be that way, but be forewarned, this wine is shockingly huge!
The most amazing thing about the harvest of 1998 is that it did not turn out to be the disaster that almost all wine makers in our area expected. I vividly remember the last big el nino cycle in 1982-83. 1982 was a good harvest although there was some late rain. The problems began that winter. It started raining, and it didn’t stop until well after the 1983 harvest was over. It rained in August, September and October. It was awful, and the grapes were too. We did the best we could, but with todays improved vineyard practices we could do a lot better. Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to make fine wines when one encounters weather conditions like that.
I was certain 1997-98 would be a repeat of that previous el nino cycle. We lucked out with a trouble free harvest in 1997, but surely we would have hell to pay in 1998. I was getting very nervous by mid-September, and then we had some rain that caused major problems in some low-lying chardonnay vineyards. Luckily ours were spared. Because of late spring rains and cool weather, the harvest did not really begin until the third week in September, and by the end of the month, we had harvested only 15% of our crop. In the last days of the month, we brought in the pinot noir. Bien Nacido came in looking good, with only a little bunch rot to sort through. Pisoni was absolutely stellar. I was happy to have some good red wine in the cellar, but was certain October would bring huge rain storms. The weather stayed stubbornly cool, but because of the small crop on the vines, the fruit ripened slowly anyway. The pace of the harvest picked up, and by the end of October everything was in and looking great – except the Bien Nacido Syrah. And until the 19th of November, I wondered each day whether the weather would cooperate. Several times during this period I had horrible doubts about my sanity. I kept thinking I was crazy not to pick the grapes at lower sugar levels while they were still heathly. Why was I risking the loss of the whole crop to rain and then rot? But we lucked out again (it never really rained again until late January!) and the syrah finally ripened fully. Whew!!
In 1997 and 1998 we saw the influence of yield strongly affecting the quality of wine. 1997 was an abundant harvest, and, with one notable exception, our growers thinned the crop to reasonable levels. This allowed us to make big, flavory wines, as vines with too much fruit on them produce wines with dilute character. 1998 had a naturally small crop, and the wines are intensely flavored. The most extreme example of the qualitative effect of low yields occurred with the viognier at Roll Ranch. Because of poor weather during flowering, it set only 3/4 ton to the acre (that’s only 3 barrels from two acres!). And as much as I do not want to believe that incrementally lower yields give one ever more intense wines – the economics of a yield this low is troubling – surely this viognier proves the point. This wine is simply stunning.
These last few harvests have convinced me that low yields are one of the essential keys to making wines of the highest quality. And while I find thinning back a bountiful, healthy crop of grapes contrary to my basic instincts (the farmer in me), in the long run the results of doing so are far more satisfying.