It wasn’t until recently, when some of my younger staff at the winery starting talking a lot about stem inclusion, that I decided to reexamine the idea. The trick with stems is that they impart a lot of potassium into the wine, which can raise the pH and cause an unwanted flabbiness. The other issue is that some wines are improved by stem inclusion, while others are ruined—and this all depends on the vineyard site and the maturity of the stems. I’ve begun using subtle amounts of stem inclusion in many wines lately, but I first toyed with using a lot of whole-clusters in our 2013 carbonic pinot noir from Bien Nacido’s iconic clone 22 fruit in T Block. It was a brash success, but I had ideas about how to better employ the technique. I needed a site that gave an especially tart pinot noir that needed a bit of greenery to balance out the fruit.
By coincidence, it came up that my son’s drum teacher’s father-in-law owns Kessler-Haak Vineyard in the Sta Rita Hills. Planted out in the Northwest corner of the Sta Rita Hills, Kessler-Haak is right next door to Clos Pepe vineyard, which we worked with from 1999-2008. This patch of the appellation, which is cool and dominated by sandy loam soils, produces pinot noir that is vibrantly fruity and high acid.
Assuming a similar profile to Clos Pepe, I imagined that Kessler Haak could be a great site to toy with some hefty stem inclusion. So in 2014 we did an experiment, fermenting half the Kessler Haak fruit carbonically (whole cluster and not punched down) and the other half destemmed. The results were startling. The whole cluster wine was softer in acidity, pleasantly pucker-y with tannins and generally quite herbal. The destemmed lot was zippy, fresh, fruity, but a little too straightforward and simple. Blended together the wine was sublime, and people loved it and it sold out quickly!
I’m super excited about working with Kessler Haak, the wines are proving to be dramatic and delicious, plus it’s been a pleasure to work with Dan Kessler, he’s so willing to adapt to my ideas in vineyard care.