The harvest of 2007 will mark
our 25th year of making wine at The Ojai Vineyard, and so I have been
taking stock and would like to share with you some of my thoughts
on how and why I make wine and where I am going with it.
Basically I treat
wine making as a craft. Going through the process year after year
and learning how each detail affects the final outcome is fascinating.
In order to concentrate on those details I have had to check my empire
building tendencies and keep the winery small and manageable. I take
an uncompromising approach to the goal of making the best wine possible
and spend lavishly on any aspect that helps me toward that aim. A
colleague of mine claims I am not a real wine maker-real wine makers
are in the business of making money--I am what he calls a lifestyle
winemaker. Be that as it may, I passionately enjoy the pursuit, and
haven't tired of the challenge.
Grapes are the
basis of wine (obviously!), however it has taken California winemakers
years to come to terms with that fact. Conscientious growers are now
producing far better grapes than could have been imagined 25 years
ago through improved trellising, training and irrigation control.
The monetary issue here is how detailed one wishes to get with the
vineyard work, and I have found very careful work does dramatically
improve the evenness of grape maturation, which correlates positively
with wine quality. For the wine to express the distinctive character
of a particular vineyard one must take the farming to another level
and reduce the crop size--25 years of experience tells me there is
an inverse relationship between quantity and quality. This is extremely
expensive, and while it is standard practice here at The Ojai Vineyard,
very few people are obsessive enough to stomach the costs.
When I started
making wine I was always one of the last to pick in a vineyard, but
now I am often the first, even though I still pick at about the same
sugar levels. Times have changed and it is widely believed that the
way to get the pundits praise is to pick grapes after they have raisined.
I like nice ripe grapes too; however I continue to believe there is
a moment when one can capture the best of California's fruitiness
and generosity, yet preserve the aromatics, acidity and backbone that
provide freshness and food friendliness. When picked at the right
point the distinctive character of the vineyard is captured, if picked
too ripe, dull wines are the result. Like choosing to restrict the
quantity of crop for quality, this is another financial issue that
the pursuer of craft has to come to terms with. The fashion of the
moment is monster wines, and anything that is subtle and fine seems
to get lost in the shuffle. Wine makers make excuses for the fact
that they are picking riper and riper grapes. They give all sorts
of reasons for doing so from global warming to new grape clones to
unripe grape skin tannins, but I think it all comes down to worries
about marketing wines that don't play well to the critics. Because
of the detailed work we are doing in the vineyards to insure each
cluster is evenly ripened, we are moving against the current trend
and picking slightly less ripe, and by doing so are achieving intensely
flavored wines that are better balanced.
In 1981, after
working the harvest in Burgundy, Sarah Charmberlain, Jim Clendenen
and I visited quite a number of wineries there. It struck me that
it didn't seem to matter whether a proprietor had a cellar with lots
of fancy equipment or not, the quality of the wine produced had a
lot more to do with how thoughtful the wine maker was. I ran with
that spirit when I started The Ojai Vineyard, and at our winery there
is not a lot of fancy equipment. This is not to say I am unwilling
to spend generously if there is the possibility that wine quality
can be enhanced. But I have a healthy skepticism of new techniques
and equipment-my focus is on presenting a pure expression of a vineyard
site. So much of what is done in wineries these days seems to be centered
on taking a wine and manipulating it into a predetermined ideal rather
than gently coaxing it to show off its attributes.
When I was in
my twenties and thirties I had boundless energy and thought I could
do it all, but with time and experience I've gotten pickier and notice
more clearly the deficiencies in a wine when it has not been properly
attended to. With this in mind I have assembled an eclectic team of
employees that participate in fashioning the wines and help me focus
on the myriad details involved with making wine. With their help I
hope to further refine the craft and bring you ever finer wines.
The weather conditions
right before and during harvest have a major effect on the character
of the wines produced, and in 2004, just as the pinot noir harvest
began we had very hot and dry conditions. Because we felt the pinot
was physiologically ripe, we chose to pick as fast as we could to
avoid raisin-y flavors, and were able to capture some of the freshness
we like. Our aim is for a less ripe style, but it was a nice lesson
in how important uncontrollable aspects of the process play in winemaking.
Mother Nature has the upper hand, and it's best to be intuitive and
not too ideologically rigid when reacting to changing conditions.
The syrah harvest, which occurred a few weeks later, was less influenced
by the hot weather, but the wines all have a plumpness and easygoing
character that is the mark of the 2004 vintage.