Our imagined inaugural vintage
You shouldn't make wine from a recipe, respected winemakers say. The fruit and the season will tell you what to do.
But harvest is a long way away, and we're a bit antsy, so here's one way Herrmann York 2020 might look. We've written this work of imagination as if it has already happened. (If you're interested in what led us to this draft, keep reading after the specs).
Picked with the freshness for rosé , the fruit was direct pressed straight to neutral French barrels where the resulting wine went through malolactic fermentation. When done, we let it rest in a stainless steel tank, then bottled it.
Wines that inspired us:
We picked at the first sign of ripeness. Half of the fruit was direct pressed to neutral french oak barrels, and half was left on skins for two days. The skin-contact portion was later pressed into the barrels with the juice portion where they fermented together. The wine went through full malolactic fermentation in barrel. We did not stir the fine lees, which rested in the bottom of each barrel. When done, we settled the wine in stainless steel prior to bottling.
Wines that inspired us:
50% Muscat with 50% Alicante Bouchet. Half of the fruit was destemmed before co-fermenting the whole clusters in a 500L neutral American oak puncheon, then pressed to a neutral french barrel for malolactic fermentation. We removed the wine at the end of malolactic fermentation, cleaned the barrels, then returned the wine for 5 months of élevage before settling it in stainless steel and bottling.
Wines that inspired us:
Picked ripe (but not too ripe), whole cluster fermentation happened in a 500L puncheon with periodic, daily pigeage. We racked the wine when fermentation was complete to neutral French oak barrels for malolactic fermentation, then the wine slept for 8 months of élevage prior to bottling.
Wines that Inspired us:
2019 Herrmann York Chuck Hill Zinfandel (our first go-around with this vineyard)
If you've read much about wine, you've probably come across phrases like "wine is made in the vineyard," or "nature always bats last" or other variations on the sentiment that you're fooling yourself if you think you can predict—let alone control—what a vintage is going to bring. But we're young and a little dumb, so we tried to do a little predicting anyway.
Not only is this the winery's inaugural vintage, we've also never worked with the fruit we've contracted to harvest. Research has guided our equipment buying and harvest preparations, but it has also been very important for us to develop a philosophy before we dive too deeply into the technicals. Famed Portuguese winemaker Luis Seabra encourages young winemakers to start with philosophy because unless you know what you like, you'll never make a great wine. This is, of course, because "great" remains an intellectual concept, not an actual physical descriptor. Simply put: If you don't know what you're after, you won't know it even if you find it.
A few factors have guided our decision making. First, and most importantly, we are Southern California winemakers, so it's important for us to start with grapes from this often derided part of the state. Other corners of the world, both old and new, have the benefit of generations of devoted families who have codified sub-appellations and clos and crus. The've selected their champion varietals and narrowed their set of winemaking practices. Humans love patterns and discovery, so these regions offer tradition, endless comparison, and a constrained, human-scale exploration.
Things are a bit less tame here. Some people also claim it's too hot to grow fine wine in our region, but this dismissive posture has always smacked a little too much of the unimaginative mindset that has brought us opinions like "you can't grown Pinot Noir in Oregon" and "wines that [enter a sacred-cow-quality] are ALWAYS superior." We're new to the game, and even we can see that anyone who hangs their hat on an absolute ends up looking a bit foolish at some point.
Given our chosen region (or, more accurately, a region that chose us), we were then guided by books, podcasts, websites, videos, interviews, conversations, and many bottles of wine. We've walked into bottle shops from California to New York, asking for hot climate wines, often to the confusion of the proprietor, followed by the recommendation of a Touriga Nacional, Mexican Nebbiolo, or a Puglian Primitivo. Before we could get into the "how" or even the "what" of our inaugural vintage, we had to figure out the "why."
One of our great challenges—and fortunes—is that we all have wildly different palates. It's the rare bottle we can agree on. Dusty is hyper-sensitive to the influence of oak. If he mentions dill or vanilla, chances are he's disappointed. Taylor hates the smell of reduction, which he refers to as "rhino farts": a holdover from his decade as a home brewer. I'm sensitive to brettanomyces (think band-aids) and pyrazines (think green bell pepper). We didn't always know the words to describe what we didn't like. Before we built up our vocabulary, we would hunt out tech sheets and research faults (Jamie Goode has a great book on the topic). We focused on drinking a single varietal, vintage, or region, isolating what we wanted to emulate and what we wanted to avoid. It's sounds scientific, but there was a lot of sloppiness, too, which lead each of us to see that, in the right context, oak, reduction, brett, and pyrazines could not only be acceptable, but preferable.
Again, we're careful to remain aware of the fact that nature will decide what the wine ultimately does. It's simple (and quite fashionable) to say that, but it's only true insofar as you believe that wine should express the place from which it comes. If you think wine is like any other beverage and should be consistent, predictable, and unsurprising, then there are all sorts of conventional processes both in the vineyard and in the cellar you can use to make the wine taste the way you want it to. Many folks do this, they make plenty of money, and they make plenty of people happy doing it.
There's an opportunity with wine, though, that doesn't exist with other beverages. It's that everything you need comes with the grape, which allows it to interpret its place in a uniquely direct way. Jamie Good (again) has done a lot of persuasive writing on this (particularly in Authentic Wine), but put simply, the most exciting thing about creating wine is that it is a partnership between humans and plants and climate that results in a unique expression of a moment in time in a place. If we claim to be Southern California winemakers making Southern California wine, the "somewhereness" of the wine is fundamental.
When you drink a really good wine, it's a moving experience. If you haven't had one yet and you drink wine broadly, you will. Like literature or music or food, it picks you up and shakes you a little. And that's not by accident. We are a part of the natural world, despite our best efforts to engineer ourselves onto a different plane of existence, and, in an inarticulable way, wine can be a reminder of our connection, particularly if we come from the same place as our wine.
I'm a big Ingmar Bergman fan (my wife can't stand him), and I've been inspired by his films and writing. In an essay about how he came to be a writer and director, he wrote, "It was fairly obvious that cinema should be my chosen means of expression. I made myself understood in a language that bypassed words...suddenly, I had the possibility of corresponding with the world around me in a language that is literally spoken from soul to soul in terms that avoid control by the intellect in a manner almost voluptuous."
But also very cool.
Hugh Johnson writes in the introduction to Randall Grahm's Been Doon So Long,"Wine needs words. Without an accompanying script, it stands little chance of being noticed." I respectfully disagree. I love words and derive no small pleasure from tossing them around, seated at a table of uncorked bottles, but good wine doesn't need words. There would really be nothing of consequence to say about them if the experience weren't a little more like what Bergman describes when he's talking about film. A language spoken soul to soul. Our souls. The soul of the natural world, which we can—and often do—go a long time without recalling.
Sure the molecules in our bodies could only have been formed in the heat at the center of the sun, but we're also from dust and to dust we shall return. And so is (and will) wine.
After emerging from the philosophical deep end, we could return to the more terrestrial topics of the "what" and the "how" of our wine.
We asked around, and the most compelling vineyard was up in Lake Los Angeles in the High Desert. It was unexpected. Also, Taylor and I grew up there (close enough to there). What started out as a lead from a few friendly folks in the Antelope Valley of the California High Desert AVA led to what we hope will be a meaningful relationship with Javier Chavez (we will write more about him and his vineyard here).
Situated in the center of the valley, the vines are on a gently sloping 20 acres in granitic sandy loam. The San Gabriel mountains' snowmelt replenishes the water table throughout the dry spring and summer. The winter of 2019 brought drought-ending rains (seriously, read the news) and quite a bit of alpine snow as early as November and as late as April.
The vineyard is planted to 13 different varietals, which Javi's father selected over two decades ago. We were immediately drawn to Alicante Bouchet and Muscat. If forced to say why, it may be a combination of their their novelty (compared to "noble" grapes) and the fact that, if there were heritage grapes in this part of the new world, suited for its scorching summer days, these would be them.
Outside of the Antelope Valley, we want to return to a vineyard in the developing Yucaipa Valley AVA this year where we made some exciting Zinfandel in our Gragiste days (more to come on those soon). It's only about a quarter acre of six-year-old vines in what may soon become California's newest AVA, and it put out some peppery, medium bodied Zinfandel—all despite a harvest date of November 12th (quite late). If you're interested, you can read more about what we did and what we learned elsewhere on this blog, but suffice it to say we want another crack at that fruit.
We are in—what feels to me like—a golden age of variety in wine. We have access to bottles from all over the world, made from hundreds of varietals in thousands of different ways. Everyone from Kevin Zraley to Alice Feiring is excited about their own corner of the industry. Natural wine drinkers have focused international attention on previously sleepy regions around the world, and the New California winemakers have been challenging conventional thinking in this state long before John Bonné captured their movement in his book. We're more aware and sensitive to the efforts of conventional farming and harmful chemical agents in the vineyard and the cellar, and drinkers are not only open to new styles, skews, and varieties, but ways of thinking about what wine is and how it fits into our lives. This, of course, comes with its downside. The homogenization of corporate wine, the (some would say) flood of faulty bottles (and increasing acceptance of faults), and the skyrocketing prices for some of the worlds great wines that make them inaccessible for common drinkers. There's also a partisanship between the natural/bio/minimal-interventionists and their sommelier counterparts and the Beckstoffer-worshiping cult cab Parkerites and all those in between. Folks like Gamling and McDuck sit right in the middle, making wines that say neither side is right.
So what does all of this mean for our inaugural vintage? Simply put, it means we have more choices than ever when it comes to how we make wine. It also means we have to be cognizant of how each of those choices reveals or obscures our wine's sense of place and how we string together those choices—along with the variables presented by the vineyard and season—to align with that philosophy. Finally, we are obligated to be aware of the sustainability and impact of our efforts in a world experiencing climate change and an evolving brand of globalization.
It's a lot to consider for 150 cases of wine.