Last year, I attempted to secure fruit right at the beginning of harvest, which is the worst time to bother anyone in the wine industry since harvest is a very intense, if not frantic, time of year. Given my timing, the fruit from the vineyard I was most interested in had already been snapped up by another winemaker. The biggest takeaway for me from that experience was understanding the importance of getting arrangements involved with winemaking set up early on in the year. And so, when January of this year came around, I jumped on the right wine train to see if I could set to securing a small bit of Aglianico fruit from the one vineyard I reached out to last fall.
It worked. I got my bid in early enough and as luck would have it (and believe me, much of what “works out” in the world of winemaking is often based on luck or “right time/right place” scenarios), the vineyard manager said the winemaker who usually takes all the Aglianico decided to pass on it this year. I reached out to Ed to make sure he’d be okay with my making a single bin of wine and he gave me the green light.
During bud break, spring of this year, Dave and I headed up to Jamestown in Tuolomne County, a small gold-rush era town that seems frozen in time. I wanted to visit the vineyard in which my fruit would eventually be born and also meet Cody LaPertche, winemaker and vineyard manager for Gianelli Vineyards.
There are only a handful of vineyards this far out; it’s pretty remote. The terrain is fascinating to me though as there are two basaltic plateaus out that way, once joined but eventually cut down the middle by water flow and further formed by volcanic lava which lopped off the top so that it appears to be flat. It is a mountain though and called Table Mountain in lieu of its geologic history.
What makes this area even more unique to me are the boulders or rock formations that were likely thrown during ancient lava flow or explosion and look like they have been put through egg slicers. In some fields, these black rocks rise up like clustered spires. I would not want to go traipsing through these fields for fear of impaling myself!
The vineyards at Gianelli are nestled on a fairly steep ascent of a hillside. These vineyards are devoted to Italian varietals and the Aglianico represents a few rows. When I saw the vineyards in the spring of this year, they were just beginning their bud break. Now at harvest, being one of the last to be picked since it’s classically a late ripener, it was amazing to see the once all-encompassing verdant greenery now morphing into a kaleidoscope of autumnal color bound up in leaves on the vines now going dormant.
But the most beautiful sight to me was walking into the winery and seeing my bin of fruit for the first time – deep purple-hued fruit clusters resting one on top of another, just freshly picked that morning, waiting for us to take them home. I couldn’t help but explore the fruit right away to see if whole cluster was a good idea and if the berries had around up to two seeds each (for tannin) that were in fact brown (not green). All looked very good indeed.
Dave was gracious enough to be my willing cellar rat for the day and drove me up in our rented cargo van (we wanted an enclosed vehicle with air conditioning to keep the fruit cool and to protect it from any areas of smoke we might be driving through). Given this year’s unprecedented number of fires, it just made sense to take no chances.
Sure enough, a 200-acre fire had broken out in Dublin, Pleasanton on that very day and we hit some of the smoke that was drifting through. Fires had not left the Jamestown area unscathed either. As we drove along Algerine Road (which the area used to be called) to the vineyard, we passed a large area of acreage that clearly had been scorched in a recent fire. It was only so many yards from Gianelli, too. However, that fire broke out in July when the fruit in the vineyards wasn’t quite ready to go through veraison (when the berry formation is at its most vulnerable to its environmental surroundings), so the fruit was fine.
Apparently, another fire had broken out just beyond the top of the hillside where the vineyard stretched out and down the hill on the other side, but it too was put out before damage ensued. Like I said, everything in the wine business seems so “as luck would have it” on either the human side or the mother nature side of things. And yes, we were lucky.
When we got to the vineyard, my bin of fruit was sitting atop a scale ringing in at around 840 lbs. “Uh-oh,” I thought to myself. I requested 1,100 lbs to have enough for topping purposes. Cody and his brother Christian knew this and were about to go out for another pass through the vines to pick up more fruit; however, there was not enough quality Aglianico for the full amount so we offset with about 20% Sangiovese Grosso. This particular clone of Sangiovese is the Brunello clone and so, I am curious to have a bit to balance out the intensity of the Aglianico. I guess on some level this is akin to how this clone of Aglianico – the VCR2 – (not to be confused with the Vulture clone which is native to Basilicata, which I wanted to work with more, but is just not available in California yet) is typically worked with in Campania – blended with other grapes (although usually more indigenous ones).
We took readings at the winery to check sugar levels and the pH of the two varietals and they ended up showing lower sugar readings there than when we got the fruit back to the winery and destemmed it. I was aiming for around 23 Brix and it tested at a whopping 26 back at the winery, which was a pretty surprising difference to me. When it came time to dump the fruit from one bin into ours to cart back in, most of the Aglianico was on the bottom, so it worked out well because as we used the rotator on the forklift to slowly turn the bin to its side, the bulk of the Aglianico ended up on top for the most part, making it easier for me to pitchfork out clusters by hand (for some whole cluster fermentation) when we got back to the winery in SF. Instead of shovels, we just scooped the fruit out by hand and that made for more control and efficiency. It was impressive to me though that Cody and Christian were able to eyeball enough fruit on their second pass to get it nearly spot on with the 1,100 lbs I was aiming for. It weighed in at 1,125.
Given that the bin was now heaping and ready to overflow, we wrapped red shrinkwrap around it several times and over the top to prevent spillage. It looked like a hilariously wrapped Christmas gift. I joked about putting a bow on the top.
As Dave and I drove back to SF with my little present in the back, we again passed the charred remains of certain areas, and I thought about what growth has been lost amidst all these fires that seem to be surrounding us, what was, “as luck would have it” spared, and what new growth will emerge. Again, I felt fortunate. My fruit survived. It was one of the lucky ones.
As we drove quietly back, passing the volcanic spires rising up out of golden fields that were green in March and past Table Mountain, I continued to glance back around to check on my little bin of fruit snugly strapped to the sides of the van. I felt like a parent of sorts – as if I had just adopted an animal that was innocent and freshly removed from its environment, potentially needing things I wasn’t aware of yet. Instantly, an overwhelming sense of childlike wonder washed over me, balancing out that flash of parental concern I had a moment ago. I was grateful for the chance to care for something living and do right by it – to be supportive of whatever it wants to become.