This morning, 1300 feet above sea level on a mountain in Felton under a sky blue enough to be a painting, I loaded three tons of Merlot on a flatbed truck to take back to the winery. The hill at Zayante Vineyard slopes down south to the sea, and there is a rusticity about the plantings there that recollect a time when there was an emotional weight attaching every winemaking activity to the beginning of things and to the center of the world.
The vineyard is not big in size, but its potential for world-class quality (especially under the genius eye of Prudy Foxx, the vineyard consultant, and Faustino, the man who gets to spend every glorious day there, elbow-deep in that gorgeous soil) seems fated by the minds behind the original planting. Zayante soils are largely composed of sand, a medium difficult for the louse to move through. It is also secluded, practically alone pasted to the hills like celebratory confetti.
Greg Nolton and his wife, Kathleen Starkey, planted the vineyard in 1983 with the idea of maximizing the natural, viticultural excellence of the site. It is rare for a vineyard in California at this time to be planted on its own roots and farmed organically without irrigation. Own-rooted vineyards are susceptible to phylloxera, a root louse that nearly wiped out the vineyards of Europe in the 1870s before it was found that rootstocks native to the United States were resistant to the bug. The scion (or fruiting portion of the vine) was grafted to the rootstock and the vineyards of Europe eventually regained their former glory.
Henri Jayer, renowned Burgundian winemaker, remarked that great wine starts in the mind. I couldn’t agree more. Great vineyards start there, as well. With the vineyard’s
seclusion and soil type, you don’t need to graft. With a great well and a relatively high water table, you don’t need to irrigate. Not only do these viticultural practices take advantage of the site’s qualitative contours, but they also add greatly to the potential of the fruit coming off the vine. When the plant has to fight through the soil to get to the water source, it generally gets only what it needs. The limited amount of water leads to smaller berries which, in turn, leads to more complexity of flavor, and a large skin-to-juice ratio (resulting in greater structure).
Historically, I have sourced Merlot only from the Livermore Valley, but Prudy called one day to let me know about the availability of a few tons of fruit from this magical place, Zayante. Over the last couple of years, I have been expanding the vineyards we work with beyond the gems of Livermore Valley: the Home Ranch and Ghielmetti Vineyard, with the intention of producing amazing wines that taste and feel as if they could only come from one palate and one site. The view down from the top of the hill with the fog from the Pacific farther out adding ethereal bunting to the old-growth trees separating the vines from the sea told me everything I needed to know about its magisterial potential.
The fruit is now in the fermenter. Patience and watchfulness abide.