According to the publisher of a now-defunct wine publication, “The romance in wine is spent.” I beg to differ. While the prominence of the 100-point system and the proliferation of “critter” labels may be disheartening, spending time in a winery during harvest is all I needed to spark a love affair with wine. I was reminded of this recently as I cradled a bottle of the 2011 Arnot-Roberts Touriga Nacional Rosé – one of the wines made during my harvest internship and the first of the lot to be bottled.
I developed a strong interest in wine ever since moving to the Bay Area a little over five years ago. Ready access to Sonoma and Napa made the agricultural core of winemaking more apparent to me. I was also lucky to meet many people who were willing to talk about the history, science, and craft of winemaking.
Last summer, during a break from my legal career, I decided to continue my wine education by seeking a harvest internship in California. But I didn’t want to work for just any winery. I wanted to find a place that continued to explore the full potential of domestic wines. A place willing to take a gamble on lesser-known grapes and obscure growing regions. After all, the U.S. has a relatively young wine history and part of the excitement about California wine (at least for me) is that there is still plenty of unchartered territory.
That spirit of adventure is what drew me to Duncan Arnot-Meyers and Nathan Roberts, the owners/winemakers at Arnot-Roberts. Duncan and Nathan have made a name for themselves by producing high-quality, balanced Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay. Although they could have relied solely on the popularity of these well known varieties, they started seeking out some odd-ball grapes, including Trousseau Noir (also known as “Bastardo”) and Touriga Nacional, a red grape variety typically used to provide tannin and structure to Port. There are approximately 220 acres of Touriga planted in California — less than 0.5% of total amount of Zinfandel in the state. It takes guts to make wines that people have never heard of much less be able to pronounce. Needless to say, I was thrilled when Duncan and Nathan agreed to bring on board an attorney with minimal winemaking experience for harvest 2011.
Let me dispel any notion that I had traded in the law firm for sun-soaked days traipsing through vineyards. The bulk of harvest consists of manual labor: moving heavy objects, scrubbing down bins, shoveling out tanks. I probably spent more time handling a power hose than I did walking through vineyards. It is exhausting work, and the rewards are not always immediate or obvious.
One of my favorite activities in the winery was the pump over. When red wine grapes arrive at the winery, they are put in large bins. As fermentation begins, the resulting carbon dioxide pushes the grape skins to the top of the tank, creating a cap that sits on top of the juice. In order to ensure a healthy fermentation and promote color and tannin development, the skins and the juice must be kept in contact. One way of accomplishing this is to pump juice from the bottom of the tank and use a hose to spray over the cap.
A friend at a Napa winery told me that all the guys there loved doing pump overs because they feel like firefighters when they get to lug the hoses around the winery. I never thought of it that way. To me, pump overs were about providing basic care and feeding. I felt more like an attentive gardener rather than a swashbuckling firefighter. Each time I got to pump over a bin, I thought about how the color and smell had changed from one day to the next, and contemplated the natural process that allowed these changes to happen. When Duncan first taught me how to do a pump over, he mentioned that he found it to be very meditative. I can see why: there is a certain calm that comes over you as you tend to the needs of the juice and must.
2011: A Challenging Year
In addition to juggling the multiple tasks involved in any harvest season, wineries must also keep a watchful eye on the weather. The combination of cool weather and rain made 2011 particularly challenging for California winemakers. Percipitation that late in the season can lead to rot or mildew. Wineries have to play a delicate game of chicken with Mother Nature, and decide if they should continue to let the grapes hang to ripen and risk potential crop damage, or pick them early, potentially before the berries have reached the desired level of ripeness. According to a local newspaper, “grape growers [were] reporting significant signs of damage to [Sonoma] county’s $400 million crop” as a result of early-October rain storms. Every morning at The Flying Goat, a Healdsburg coffee shop, you would hear multiple people say, “I’ve never seen anything like this in all my years in the industry.” During this stressful time, Nathan and Duncan were in constant contact with the vineyard managers with whom they worked, and scheduled numerous visits to see first hand how the vines were doing in order to determine when to bring in the grapes.
Taking the Touriga Nacional from Grape to Bottle
On October 13, Nathan and Duncan decided to pick the Touriga Nacional from Luchsinger Vineyards in Lake County, an AVA about 1.5 hours northeast of Healdsburg. I eagerly waited for the bins of grapes to arrive, hoping that the higher elevation and lower humidity of Lake County had allowed the grapes to dry out from the rain. Thankfully, the clusters were healthy — ripe berries with good acidity and minimal damage. After we QC’d the lot of them as they rolled by us on the sorting table, we pressed the grapes whole cluster (i.e., stems included), and the resulting juice ended up in a large steel fermentation tank.
We kept an eye on the temperature and the sugar levels as we waited for nature to take its course and for natural yeast fermentation to begin. When it did, it was magical. I was mesmerized by the bubbling cauldron of juice turning into wine, the heat that rose from the surface, the alluring smell of fruit and spice. And the color — a stunning raspberry red — had us wondering if the Rosé might actually turn out to be darker than the Trousseau. This liquid had a palpable personality and life force of its own.
As the sugar levels dropped, we started sampling the goods. It was lively — lots of zip and good structure to boot. Nobody wanted to claim victory quite yet. The winemaking process is long and drawn out, and there is plenty of room for things to go awry. There’s no counting chickens before they’re hatched in this business. We were, however, cautiously optimistic that this had the potential to be the best domestic Touriga Nacional in the history of California wines. [Yes, I know that's going out on a limb.]
I wrapped up my harvest internship in early November but got periodic updates from Duncan and Nathan. I found myself talking about the different wines as if they were kids. (“Oh how’s Joey? He was always a strong student — is he still getting As in school?”). During a Beaujolais tasting at Arlequin Wine in mid-November, I asked Duncan how the Touriga Nacional was doing. I can’t quite recall what he said (no doubt due to the amount of wine consumed that night). I do, however, remember him raising an eyebrow, nodding his head, and giving a thumbs-up.
Two weeks ago, I had a chance to come back to Healdsburg and was happy to find that Nathan and Duncan (along with help from our friends Pedro Rusk and Hardy Wallace) had bottled the Touriga Nacional.
Giddy. Proud. Awe-struck. It’s hard to pick one word that describes how I felt when I first saw this bottle of wine. I imagine it’s how parents feel when they see their kid graduate from college. You take some pride in thinking that maybe, just maybe, you had a hand in making it possible. But you also realize that there are so many other forces at play — forces that are largely out of your control — and you simply give thanks that you’ve gotten to see this day.
I hardly recognized the wine. The color had softened dramatically and now had a slight salmon pink tinge. How did it taste? Frankly, I was so overcome with harvest memories that I didn’t take the time to jot down aromas or flavors. But that doesn’t bother me. The first sip brought together pleasure, excitement, and experience — something any score, aroma wheel, or tasting note would fail to capture.
There are a number of other wines that will be bottled over the next 12 months, and there will be countless moments of nostalgia for harvest 2011. Indeed, most of my favorite red wines from the 2011 vintage won’t be bottled for quite some time. But you always remember your first, and that’s why this particular wine will always be special to me.
Even in the modern era of commoditized supermarket wines, there is plenty of romance to be found. It is in the appreciation for the agricultural roots of the industry; the sense of exploration, experimentation and discovery of certain California winemakers; and the awe-inspiring transformation of grapes into wine. Even as I write this, I can feel my mind race, my pulse quicken, and a smile creep across my face. If that isn’t romantic, I don’t know what is.
Arnot-Roberts has an open mailing list, which means you can sign up and buy the Touriga Nacional directly from the winery. Here are the official winery tasting notes:
Our 2011 Rosé is made from 100% Touriga Nacional grapes farmed adjacent to our Trousseau block by the Luchsinger family in Lake County. The fruit was harvested at 21 brix on October 13th and was direct pressed to steel tank for a native yeast fermentation. The pale salmon colored wine has aromatics of blood orange and melons dusted with white sage and sea salt. The wine has some weight from the structure of the Touriga grape but floats delicately to a crisp and fresh finish with great acidity, (12.4% alc). We are very proud of this wine and think it will pair well with shellfish, seafood, game, poultry and even mildly spicy foods.
[Note: picture of the sorting table was taken by Robert Morris of Copain Custom Crush, and is used here with his permission.]