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“Well the Universe is shaped exactly like the Earth. If you go straight long enough you’ll end up where you were.” – Isaac BrockAugust is the month of pre-harvest rest and reflection in the cellar. With this in mind I headed out to the local movie theater last night to catch a film with a friend. This writing I guess is an attempt to explain why I loved Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary about the New York Times fashion photographer. The unadulterated passion for and mastery of subject, the honesty, the modesty, these are all the characteristics I can only hope to bring to my own work. I don’t think I’ve seen a more inspirational embodiment of my ideal in this funny little world we must work in. Sacrifices of life that must be made to keep to that ideal are too vast to follow myself, but I love to be reminded that there are so many paths to so many pinnacles.
It also reminds me of one of the underlying features of wine and wine making that I love so, the all encompassing nature of the craft. Try as I might, it would be extraordinarily difficult to apply lessons from the life of a Spartan fashion critic to my previous path of synthesizer of research pharmaceuticals. With wine though, whatever idea presents itself, there seems to be a relationship one can find to expound upon. One of the sub-currents of the film that fascinated me was that of the cyclical nature of the fashion world. How styles and designs come in and out of being the leading edge of the day. Along with that, one begins to see the cyclical nature of all those industries that are based upon aesthetics and taste. Styles of dress, art, writing, music, film, design, architecture and yes, wine all seem to be progressing in a self-referential way that by nature must look back upon itself as it moves forward.
Beyond the obvious agrarian cycle of wine production itself, there are other cycles in the wine industry we must confront. Varietals go in and out of vogue. What is considered balanced is a moving target because it has no true definition, being rather one of those Justice Potter Stewart subjects that you know when you taste it. Regional styles get acclaim, then become passé and fade. The techniques of the winemaker, from the treatment of the fruit to the materials of the containers are all in constant flux. From this we get the ideas, trends, and styles of wine that come, go, and then return.
This all flashed through my mind today when a taster asked me what “my goal was” when making the 2007 York Mountain Cab. I was stuck on the basic response of “just trying to make the best wine I possibly could.” (Sadly, in all honesty, this is still the best answer I can give without writing a long blog post about it!) But so much more was at play than just trying my best. The hundreds and hundreds of discussions and reactions I’ve been privy too involving our 2005 and 2006 Cabs obviously had some say. The lessons from the winemakers I learned from and the opinions of friends and peers all manifest themselves somehow. Even the monthly tracking of inventory depletions creates a most stark criticism which is difficult if not impossible to simply ignore. All these factors create the context from which my personal expression comes forth.
This frees me from worrying too much as we plan for the emmient harvest. The pre-season is done, it is time for the real games to begin. I’ve spent the last 9 months in reflection of all my previous harvests and in adding new life experience which are bound to bring new influence to what will come. Decisions about ripeness, acid, brix, stems, soaks, temperatures, extractions, pressing, oak, racking, oxygen, which beer to drink while hosing down the destemmer must all be made. All of which are choose your own adventure questions leading you to a mysterious outcome. The past is our only guide, thus in showing the way will make itself known. It cannot return in whole though, being more the candle casting light unto and creating shadows of the current vintage. Just like life itself, despite all the best plans and forethought, making wine is an act of constant improvisation.

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This fact, along with the rarity and one time nature of the vintage create such a unique excitement. A new start, all possible outcomes are again out there to be reached. This explains the butterflies in the stomach feeling that walking in the vineyard invoked this morning. The arrival of veraison, like the firing of a starting gun has officially set harvest in motion. It is time again to create the best possible wine we can, and I can’t wait to try.

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For the remainder of summer and into fall, J. Lohr Viticulturist Anji Perry will be with us on Wine Lohr, documenting the progress of our Paso Robles vines as we prepare for harvest.Image

Anji in Snowden Vineyard, Paso Robles AVA

It’s the height of summer, and right now we’re focusing on our irrigation regime in our Paso Robles vineyards. 2010 was the coolest vintage in a decade here, and so far in 2011 it’s been even cooler. This is excellent news for color development and vine health, but can bring unwanted green and herbal notes to Bordeaux varieties if irrigation is not restricted to the necessary minimum. In controlling irrigation, our goals are to stop vine growth, to manage our watering to control berry size, and to burn off some basal leaves (the lowest leaves on the shoot) to get just the right amount of sunlight on the clusters.

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To “burn off” basal leaves, we impose a level of water stress that causes
the leaves to turn yellow and fall off.

For the most part, we’re still awaiting the onset of ripening, which is a few weeks later this year. But this week, in our Snowden Vineyard, Red Winemaker Steve Peck noticed the very first signs of veraison on our Cabernet Sauvignon vines. He snapped a photo so we could give you a close up view.

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The first signs of ripening (veraison) in Paso

Stay tuned through the rest of summer for weekly J. Lohr vineyard snapshots!

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We’ve had the same vineyard team here at Tablas Creek for the last fifteen years. Neil Collins has overseen both the vineyard and the winemaking since 1998. He is assisted by Winemaker Ryan Hebert and Vineyard Manager David Maduena, both of whom have been here since our 1997 harvest.So it’s with some excitement that we introduce Levi Glenn, who joins us this summer in the post of Viticulturist. He brings a decade of experience managing vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, and has focused on converting vineyards from modern to biodynamic viticulture for the last five years. Plus, he’s got formal training, which none of the rest of us do, with a degree in Viticulture & Enology from Cal Poly. We couldn’t be more excited to add him to our team. He introduces himself, and gives a brief overview of shoot thinning, in the below video.

We took some close-up photographs of the shoot thinning process as well. The goal of shoot thinning is to select the two best shoots on each of the three spurs that we’ve left on each cordon. As our vines are pruned double-cordon, this means we’re selecting a dozen shoots per vine, each ideally with one cluster of grapes. These shoots are going to provide the photosynthetic capacity, as well as the grape production, of the vine for the year.

This process completes the effort that we begin with our winter pruning of taking a three-dimensional plant and turning it into something more two-dimensional so that we can better ensure even access to sunlight as well as better flow-through of air. Good air circulation reduces the potential for mildew or rot and allows whatever nutritional or antifungal treatments we think the vineyard needs to penetrate the canopy. On the left is an un-thinned vine, so bushy it nearly obscures Levi, and on the right a vine post-thinning, fruit exposed to the light:

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Shoots that don’t have fruit, that exit the cordon horizontally rather than angled up, or that are too close to a better shoot, are pruned away. Below, Levi points at the spurs that will be kept, with the others pruned away. In this selection process, we’re also thinking of the coming winter, when we’ll select three of these shoots per cordon to become the next year’s two-bud spurs.

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The process this year is more challenging than normal. The principal cause is our April frosts, which damaged many of the spurs that we left last winter and forced the plant to sprout from secondary buds that were not in ideal starting locations. A secondary cause was the wet, cool, late spring, which delayed us getting into the vineyard until later in the year, when the long days, the sudden arrival of warmth in June and the abundant ground water have combined to produce explosive growth.

Despite our late start, we’re more than 90% done with shoot thinning. One more photo will give you a sense of the progress: thinned vines on the row on the left, with bushy vines awating thinning further up the row as well as on the row to the right:

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Thursday: The Winery Team on Tour

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Wednesday:

With a mouthwatering theme! gamey: a wine with a distinct animal aroma, not necessarily in a bad way. Often characteristic of Syrah and Mourvedre. flabby: lacking in acidity, could be characterized by a lack of focus in the way a … Continue reading →

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Tuesday:

Keys to the new winery facility were handed over to the winery team by the construction crew as of yesterday. The excitement is palpable! After a full 2.5 years of anticipation, we will finally be moving into our new production … Continue reading →

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Monday: Just Photos: Triangular

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Sunday:We are back pouring in our newly remodeled tasting room! The weather is beautiful, our wines are showing wonderfully, and we finally have room to accommodate more of you! Come check us out!

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I hate to dampen my general wine know-it-all credibility, but the last time I was in France, the Euro was just an exchange unit. The Franc was still the currency of notes and coins. My joy for and impression of the French was greatly increased upon receiving my first 50 franc note. What a country, the Little Prince right there in my hand. For whatever reason, my country would never embrace Maxon the 50, and I feel we suffer a bit for this. A culture that embraces the importance of its artistic contributions right along with the political is a grand and confident culture indeed.This image did its job, and I tracked down a different book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry at an English language book store and learned why France would hold this author in such high regard. I was forever changed by a quote I found in that book. A quote that I would suspect came from Japan or Sweden, but in fact was French. “Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n’y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher.” Translated in the book I read as “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This hit home with my own fledgling design esthetic and is still with me now when I consider making white wine.

I get a lot of surprised looks and disagreement when I tell people during conversation that I feel making white wine is much harder then red wine. I don’t mean physically harder, as minus the punch downs, whites are quite a bit less taxing on the body. But as for making decisions that must be correct, whites are much more demanding. I’m not the type of winemaker who will go on and on about how my immense cellar skills will take terrible fruit and craft perfect wines. I am of the firm belief that the ceiling for the quality of a wine is set the second you pick it. My experience is that my chief responsibility as winemaker is to not allow the wine to weaken in my hands once I have taken on stewardship from Mother Nature.

With red wines, you can get away with not perfectly timing your pick. You can adjust the length of cold soak and fermentation based on the ripeness level of skins, seeds and stems. You can hit your wine over the head with oak to fill holes in the nose or palate. You can just let the fruit hang for a long time in the vineyard and call it your “big, heavy, ripe style” and no one bats an eye. Whites are not so. White wines are like an ink on paper painting or calligraphy, if your lines are not skilled and beautiful, there’s no distracting with pretty colors to hide this fact. Any mistake made in the vineyard or cellar is plain to see, smell and taste. White wines, and roses for that matter, are a stripping away of everything that is possibly superfluous, leaving only the purest form of the wine behind.

Because of this I take immense pride in our white wines here at Calcareous. In particular, I stress over our white Rhone blend more than any other wine. After years of trying various varietals, I have narrowed the blend down to a yearly mix of Viognier and Marsanne. The Viognier sees no oak, as it is settled, fermented and aged in stainless for its life in the cellar. The Marsanne sees a single new French oak barrel, the balance being fermented in barrels used at least two times before filling with Marsanne. The two components are kept separate until a blending takes place a month before bottling.

This month we released our 2009 Viognier-Marsanne blend, and I could not be prouder of the wine. It took home Double Gold at the San Francisco International, then popped up last week on Steve Heimoff’s top ten of the week posting (the second straight vintage of our flagship white that Mr. Heimoff has so blessed). I also could not be prouder of Paso Robles in general. The creation of more serious white wines coming from the area is as bold a declaration of vineyard and cellar quality as any other critique. In last month’s Wine Spectator article on exciting new California Whites, Paso Robles was probably the single region getting the most acclaim. Local white wine champions like Caliza, Denner, Tablas Creek, Terry Hoage and Villa Creek were all rightly given their due for showing we here in Paso Robles have more up our sleeve than just powerhouse reds. So enjoy the summer months with these fine examples of our craft in its purest form.

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As we posted this Tuesday past, the final passageway for our caves broke through on Wednesday with a celebratory toast. Below we will include a few photos, and links to a few videos of this momentous occasion! Keep an eye … Continue reading →

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Lateral removal is ramping up! We now have teams on block 6 Merlot, block 12 Cabernet Sauvignon, block 26 Sauvignon Blanc, and block 40 Cabernet Franc. A few other groups are dropping fruit on block 36 Counoise, block 37 Cinsault, … Continue reading →

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We are in the process of transferring the 2009 Syrah, Cabernet, and Ancestor from barrel to tank for bottling! This photograph is an accurate representation of the space our winery staff has been working in to this point. Serendipitously, the … Continue reading →

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We will be submitting our package of records, forms, figures, photos, reports, and projections to the third-party auditor this week for our 2011 Sustainability in Practice Certification. This submission is the product of months of hard work from our own … Continue reading →

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Midday on Wednesday July 13, the construction team will break through the final corridor in our wine cave system! Much work will remain to be done finishing and stabilizing the interior, but in terms of digging the cavern is virtually … Continue reading →

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As stated in previous posts, our vineyard is enthusiastically swelling with the summer warmth. This vibrant progress includes two of our most recent plantings, visible in this photograph. Toward the bottom left, that brown patch was recently planted to … Continue reading →

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The vineyards this morning produced a most philosophical perspective in me. Sunrise amongst the greenery and expansive views sometimes bring forth thoughts beyond worries of heat stress and micro-nutrient uptake. My thoughts were constantly returning to what is this essence of wine that fascinates? Why don’t people spend weekends traveling the back roads of , books, and blogs have all been dedicated to idea that wine produces a unique signature of place, the terroir. But does a grape vine speak more to the terroir than an heirloom tomato or pasture raised beef? In this summer season of plenty, with the mantras of slow food and flavors of locality preached on each menu, you would be mad to suggest so. Any random combination of those offerings explains Paso Robles on the palate just as much as a wine can. So again I ask myself, why the captivation with this drink?

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The answer to these type of questions often lie in that time which formed my perspective, my youth. Maybe it’s the answer to the riddle the Jims () asked of me in childhood. I remember the strange anxiety that small skit created in me and my initial dawning of thought on the enigmatic complexity of life, time and space. This great mystery of the unflinching progression of things was always with me in quiet times. In order to remain calm, I convinced myself that there must be a path of grace () that could lead one away from fear and into understanding. Just because something is beyond comprehension does not mean one should recoil from it; the unknowable should be embraced. The wine we produce then is a product of that acceptance. The vintage is, in its essence, the capturing of the moment into some tangible state.

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There is something more to wine than mere ethanolic intoxication. The corked bottle represents a chance to return to a place and time, without trepidation that the past is lost forever. Wine with its intrinsic link between our senses and memory can provide a wonderful window unto personal contemplation and revelation.

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The idea of wine and the memory of my favorite wine experience are forever linked. This occurred on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. My future wife and I were enjoying a beach-front campground with a single little market from which to order our dinner. We sat eating a meal of fresh grilled octopus that neither of us would have ordered in different setting. Drinking a local wine, Samos Vin Doux (a fortified muscat!), that we picked off the shelf because it was the only bottle offered. Yet this perfect combination of all things new and beautiful along with the sun resting into the sea, created for us an experience that nothing could ever top. While not by any means the most technically superior wine I have ever had, it is perhaps the best wine I will ever drink.

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So maybe this isn’t madness, laboring as we do to create wine. As the spectre of harvest looms just weeks away and I prepare to be enveloped completely by its demands, these thoughts give me assurance that it is all worth it. That the sacrifices that must be made of time, energy, mind and family will be rewarded. The goal is sitting out there plain to see in my mind. For me it is the end of November, with fermentations few and a Thanksgiving table filled with family, friends, food, and of course, wine.

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Block 42 is currently undergoing the very focused and time consuming process of lateral and wing removal. Laterals are shoots that grow outward at axil (base of a leaf) points along the vine. Fundamental to the pruning process is arranging … Continue reading →b.gif?host=halterranch.wordpress.com&blog=20215195&post=543&subd=halterranch&ref=&feed=1

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Early June, when I wrote about how cold our spring had been, seems like a lot longer ago than one month. When I returned from a two-week trip to the Rhone (during which it was consistently in the 90s here in Paso Robles) the vineyard had grown so much that it was barely recognizable. There are vineyard blocks where the canes have grown so much, so fast, that you can’t see the ground between them. Neil, Ryan, Levi, David and the vineyard crew are spending most of their time shoot thinning, but it will be another few weeks before they’ve caught up. This last month of warm weather is exactly what we wanted to see. We’ve nearly caught up to last year in degree days, and more importantly the vineyard looks like it’s only a few weeks behind rather than a full month.I snapped one photo of a hillside of Grenache that gives a sense of what things are like out there, with a sea of vines topped by a robin’s egg blue summer sky.

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This week, in celebration of Independence Day, Sarah Shotwell (J. Lohr Marketing Communications Specialist and History Grad) recounts a tale of wine during the first days of the U.S.A. All images Public Domain. Recently, I read in journalist and wine critic John Hailman’s fascinating book, Thomas Jefferson on Wine, that Americans have been enjoying wine at summer barbecues and fish-fries practically since the Mayflower landed. So as my friends and I prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July this weekend with a barbecue on the coast – planning menus, plotting the wine list— I’ve been contemplating wine’s significance to the holiday. We’ve all heard about the Boston Tea Party and the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act and all the other perilous steps leading up to our independence from Britain, but not many remember the role that wine played in the founding of our nation, or the role our founding fathers played in the making of the modern wine industry. While we didn’t see our major Renaissance until the 1970s with the Judgment of Paris, Americans have been striving to set up a successful wine industry here since before the Revolution.

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Portrait of Jefferson by Rembrandt, c. 1805

Thomas Jefferson, who penned the U.S. Declaration of Independence and lived one of the most fascinating biographies in American history, is considered by many to be the nation’s first prominent wine enthusiast and viticulturist. Starting as a young college student, he began collecting wines from Europe, and devoted much of his leisure time to studying the potential for winemaking in the New World — even believing that making wine at home could be a way for colonialists to bite their thumbs at the Crown and claim their independence against the steep taxes being levied on luxury goods. Wine was also being used as a means of personal protest in other ways. In Richard Hooker’s article The American Revolution Seen Through a Wine Glass, we get a picture of colonialists using wine toasts at public taverns as a means of aligning themselves politically. (You knew who was who, based on whether they were toasting to the health of the King, or to the health of revolutionary figures like Thomas Paine or George Washington).

Around 1773, a Tuscan-born viticulturist and physician named Filippo Mazzei was working in England as a wine broker when he bumped into Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Adams, and the three tumbled into a conversation about wine and winegrowing and colonial politics. Mazzei admitted he had a premonition that America had the chops to become one of the world’s great wine producers – a belief then considered absurd by Europeans. Franklin and Adams convinced Mazzei to travel to Virginia to experiment, likely mentioning that their friend Thomas Jefferson had similar interests. So, with revolutionary activity brewing ever more intensely in the colonies, Mazzei went to pay Jefferson a visit, bringing with him ten skilled Italian vineyard workers, his girlfriend, a tailor, silkworms, and thousands of vine cuttings from a myriad of European varieties. His goal? To form and run a domestic luxury goods supply company specializing in silk, oil and wine. Mazzei hit it off with Jefferson, and the two went on a walk around the grounds of Jefferson’s home at Monticello. Lo and behold, Mazzei fell in love with Jefferson’s yard, announcing it nearly identical to the conditions of Burgundy. (Doubtful, but we still smile at his enthusiasm.) So Jefferson gifted him almost 200 acres, and the site became the first commercial vineyard experiment in America. They called it Colle.

thomas-jefferson-2.jpg Thomas Jefferson Surveying his land at Monticello

At first, there seemed to be immense potential for Virginia winegrape growing, but that first year, the vines were destroyed by a severe frost, and during subsequent years crops were ruined by pests, weather and disease. When Mazzei, a naturalized U.S. citizen, left Virginia to work as a secret agent in Italy, gathering intel and sending arms to the patriot forces back in the states (I like to imagine that he shipped wine barrels full of gunpowder, though I don’t think it happened that way), Mazzei’s vineyards were neglected, then trampled and eaten by horses. But the two grew in their friendship, writing to each other of wine and war. As they passionately pursued the cause of independence in their public lives, in their private lives, they pursued the cause of New World wine. In spite of their experimental failures, it had become a source of national pride for them. They never gave up hope that wine could be made on American soil.

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Could the Declaration of Independence have been inspired by an Italian winegrower?It is widely believed that Jefferson and Mazzei were so close, that the most famous line of the Declaration was even borrowed by Jefferson from one of Mazzei’s original pamphlets, which read in Italian “Tutti gli uomini sono per natura egualmente liberi e indipendenti.”

Jefferson sought up until the last moments of his life to try to grow Vitis vinifera at Monticello, and to make wine from its yields, but history tells us he never saw a drop. Even so, he learned enough in his lifetime to make some significant contributions to the modern wine industry – and to farming in general – and his research laid the groundwork for others to succeed later. As he penned the Declaration of Independence, perhaps with Mazzei’s help, he had a private dream to see America emerge as one of the world’s great winemaking nations. And exactly two hundred summers later, at a blind tasting in Paris, it happened. So this weekend, as I raise my glass of California wine, I’ll be drinking not to the health of the King or to that of George Washington, but rather to the health of America’s now thriving wine industry, 235 years in the making. Viva il vino, and happy Independence Day.

Sources:
– Hailman, John, Thomas Jefferson on Wine. University Press of Mississippi : Jackson, 2008.
– Hooker, Richard. “The American Revolution Seen Through a Wine Glass” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jan.1954.Third Series,
Vol. 11, No. 1

– “Philip Mazzei,” wikipedia.org. Accessed 6/30/2011.
– “The Vineyards” Jefferson’s Monticello. www.monticello.org Accessed 6/30/2011.

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