So,…I went into my first harvest a bit starry-eyed, thinking I would be able to secure a ½ ton of Aglianico fruit for my first barrel. Well, while I did get the thumbs up from two growers, neither worked out for reasons I’ll explain, but more importantly, I realized that securing fruit is really just the first step. Making sure you have the means to physically get it via a truck and then afford to have it custom crushed or partially so (if I help out with it myself) AND then find a temperature controlled space to store 30 or so cases is another deal entirely. Therefore, in the hunt for this great late-ripening red in October, I realized that I need to get my duckies in a row. And while I can now say I know how to make wine, there are still many decisions to make in the course of making wine that warrants another year’s worth of harvest experience.
In my quest to find Aglianico fruit, I found that it was the quest itself that I wanted to conquer this year in terms of finding growers who might be willing to sell me a small bit of it, but not so much the reality of having to arrange to get the fruit and then store it. It’s okay. At least I figured that out before my romantic side flung me into a reality I could not financially support.
At the beginning of my search, I contacted the best source I knew on locating obscure, high-quality varietals growing in California – aka, folks who are growing rare stuff that’s really good – Bryan Harrington. In the urban vintner community of San Francisco, Bryan is definitely known for producing incredible bottles of wine from less popular, or even in some cases, unknown Italian and Spanish varietals in particular. He does all the research himself, comparing soils from areas in California with soils in the Old World. It’s not that he’s trying to make say, a Barolo in California that you’d find in Italy, he’s trying to learn how true to the characteristics a grape (like Nebbiolo) can be when it’s planted in soil (in a part of California) that matches or contain types similar to the grape’s native soil.
From all my research on Aglianico, I was on the hopeful hunt to find this fruit from a vineyard that was positioned to ripen more traditionally in the latter part of October and in soil that was primarily made up of a mixture of limestone-clay. I was also after the del Vulture clone found in Basilicata, but all the clones I came across were Campania ones in California. In my research, I did eventually discover that low and behold, the best place for this grape is in the Santa Ynez region, the backyard to Santa Maria of where I grew up given its belt of limestone. They say you always return home for some reason. Well, I’d love it if that reason was growing or making wine for me.
That said, I realized that just being able to secure Aglianico from anywhere was the bigger challenge. Granted, I was reaching out to growers at the beginning of harvest, much too late in the year to be successfully securing fruit since most growers already have their fruit situated with buyers. Still, I figured I’d give it a shot given that Aglianico isn’t exactly Cabernet and might not be spoken for in every vineyard it’s grown in.
This led my search to begin with Ron Siletto in San Benito County, the first of several stellar leads offered up so graciously by Bryan Harrington. I was particularly stoked that Bryan recommended someone from the region I had been increasing growing interest in for wine grapes in general. I’ve loved so many of Bryan’s wines, the fruit for which a good many came from the San Benito area in general.
Note: about a month ago, my Dave and I took a trip down to the Santa Lucia Highlands area, San Benito County, and I fell in love with one of my now-most-favorite vineyards in California – the Pedregal Vineyard. Every wine I’ve had from the San Benito region is hands-down, incredible – full of life and surprises and balance.
Okay, back to Ron, my first lead. Ron expressed interest in wanting to sell me a ½ ton of fruit, but this year’s crop of his 15 rows of Aglianico were already contracted out. He asked me to check in with him next year. Strike one!
Bryan then recommended I try Cory up at Gianelli Vineyard in Tuolumne County. This vineyard is part of Jamestown in the Sierra Foothills, a blink-of-the-eye sort of town. Unfortunately, just as Bryan suspected, Cory had indeed already promised all of his Aglianico to Ryan Glaab of Ryme Cellars. Oh well! Good thing I love Ryan’s wine anyway! Strike two even though Cory did try to offer me some of his Nebbiolo (another varietal I’d love to work with) but it was coming in just too darn early, so I had to pass.
Okay, let’s pause for a moment! So, I had another variable in needing to acquire a late-ripening varietal. Given that I was planning on doing it as a custom crush at Ed’s facility and I signed up to be his intern, I couldn’t let my winemaking duties interfere with my own wine stuff, so Ed was open to the idea of taking on a new client so long as the fruit came in later after all the pre-contracted fruit had come in. Unfortunately, even though Aglianico is characteristically known as being a very late-ripener, this year got an unexpected heat spike at the beginning of harvest and boosted pick dates. Aglianico was coming in earlier by a couple of weeks or so which simply wouldn’t work for my situation. It was an interesting waiting game with Mother Nature to be sure! Eventually, I thought to explore vineyards growing it up in Humboldt or Mendocino, where it is cooler and the fruit might ripen more slowly naturally, aside from other weather issues going on in the state.
So, after Cody, I reached out to Luna Matta and French Camp down in Paso, but theirs had already come in and been contracted out. Strike three! Beyond that point, I decided to seriously research ALL parts of California growing Aglianico, obsessed with finding this fruit. At this stage, I was actually more interested in just seeing if I could a) secure fruit b) secure fruit at the desired pick timeframe and c) secure fruit that Ed would still be up for working with.
I independently reached out to Amador Foothill Winery, Briceland Vineyards, Montoliva Winery, and Moonstone Crossing Winery, but all the responses ended the same way – “Thank you for your interest, but nope, sorry!”
Finally, I got a good conversation going Heringer Estates in Clarksburg. At this point though, I was growing tired of receiving rejections and was ALMOST willing to go with any vineyard that had it. And while I was kept abreast of Heringer’s Aglianico Brix levels and the planned pick date, AND even though, finally, that pick date matched with Ed’s availability, I was (as was Ed) too exhausted after having done a harvest as well to really commit seriously to bringing in more fruit and working with it this year. So, ultimately, after this great adventure I’d chartered, I decided to pass, hilariously enough.
So, here’s what I’ve learned when you’re looking to make your first barrel of wine:
- Secure fruit, a place to make the wine, your fees for crush, delivery, bottling, storing in advance – ie; much earlier in the year!
- Don’t settle for fruit that doesn’t fit what you want unless you’re just open to whatever. I now personally know that I want fruit from either the San Benito County or Santa Ynez (Santa Barbara County) for my Aglianico.
- Don’t get roped into a contract, especially for a small acquisition of fruit.
- Don’t take fruit from a vineyard you’ve never had any experience with yourself unless again, you’re just going for blind luck.
- If you are custom crushing, don’t inconvenience the winemaker who has several other clients to make wine for; and if you wish to be involved, find out to what extent you’re able to.
- Get serious about what you plan to do with 30 or 60 cases of wine beyond storage issues. Figure that out long before you figure out where you want to get your fruit.
In short, get your duckies in a row before you get serious about acquiring fruit!