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December 2012 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Modern Style for Old Soul Wines

John Fetzer's Saracina Vineyards is an attempt to showcase the fruit of Mendocino County

 
by Andrew Adams
 
 
    Winemaking based in antiquity
     

     
    Saracina purchased its first clay fermentation tanks in 2010. Winemaker Alex MacGregor has been experimenting with them, but as of yet no wine fermented in clay has been offered for sale by Saracina. “We want to do it properly,” MacGregor said. 

    So far the clay has generated some promising results. MacGregor fermented the same Chardonnay in stainless, neutral barrels and clay. While the clay did win out by taste, the wine had a slight hue. The winemaker said the Chardonnay fermented cooler and slow, but any real textural differences didn’t appear until after five months on the lees.

    Saracina has two large, 500-gallon fermentors and smaller, open-top clay tanks about half that size. The clay vessels look similar to large water main pipes, which is not that surprising because they’re made by Mission Clay, a clay pipe manufacturer based in the Southwest.

    Once MacGregor has worked out the best use for the fermentors, he plans to bury a few of the large tanks into the side of a hill next to the winery. Valve openings near the bottom of the tank will protrude from the hill and be accessible for racking. The larger tanks are closed with concrete lids sealed with beeswax. A 2011 Syrah is aging in one clay tank as well as in barrels. MacGregor admits the 2011 Syrah has been a bit challenging, but the clay has been tasting better than the oak.

    He’s also bringing in 60-gallon clay “barrels” to ferment Roussanne. The wine could either be a single release or a major component to the winery’s white Rhone blend “The Choir.”
    A.A.
In an interview published in 1977, Bernard Fetzer, the founder of Fetzer Vineyards, said he foresaw an inevitable change for the California wine industry.

“The wine business in California will evolve down to two types of wineries: big, giant corporate-owned factories that turn out jug wines, (and) small, family-owned chateaux, which turn out the great wines,” he said at the time.

Fetzer’s remarks were prophetic, even more than he would know. His family grew Fetzer Vineyards into a California giant and eventually sold it to an even larger corporate entity, Brown-Forman Corp. Following the sale, several of the Fetzer children went on to open their own small, premium wineries. (See Laurie Daniel’s interview with Patti Fetzer in the January 2011 issue of Wines & Vines.)

One of those small wineries is Saracina Vineyards, founded by John Fetzer, who was the CEO of Fetzer Vineyards when the family sold the company in 1992. After the sale, Fetzer tended his vineyards and sold the grapes to other wineries in the North Coast. Fetzer said he didn’t have plans to re-enter the market, but eventually he changed his mind. “Our house overlooks (Highway) 101, and I kept seeing all the grapes going south,” he said.

Chance to promote the county
Growers in Mendocino County were shipping their fruit to wineries in Napa and Sonoma. Fetzer decided he had the opportunity and was still young enough to get back in the wine business to give Mendocino County the recognition it deserved. “I had no plans to get back into it, but I had one more chance to help promote the county and show what opportunities are like here.”

Nearly 50 years ago, when Fetzer was still in high school, he and his father planted a Sauvignon Blanc vineyard at the family ranch in Redwood Valley, which was one of the first areas planted with winegrapes in the county. That vineyard, named Kathleen’s Vineyard after Fetzer’s mother, would later produce the first 500 cases of the inaugural vintage of Saracina Vineyards.

Fetzer said the Sauvignon Blanc “really portrays the flintiness and minerality that we’re looking for” and has been a flagship wine for the winery. Its success—both critically and commercially—helped convinced Fetzer that he should build a brand to showcase Mendocino County fruit.

Saracina now makes around 5,500 cases of wine per year, most of which is from estate vines or select vineyards in Mendocino County. The estate encompasses 300 acres of planted vines, but Fetzer sells most of the fruit. The vines are either CCOF-certified organic or farmed Biodynamically, which have been hallmarks of the Fetzer family. The name Saracina comes from a Tuscan farmhouse where Fetzer and his wife, Patty Rock, spent their honeymoon.

Fetzer said he designed the winery to facilitate quality winemaking with sustainable touches. He said he plans to have a solar energy system for the winery installed this spring.

Fetzer’s founding vision of the winery was to maintain a limited production while focusing on what he said the interior parts of Mendocino County do best: Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petit Sirah and Roussanne. Fetzer and Rock consulted with winemaker David Ramey, who had honed his skills at Chateau Pétrus and helped launch other notable wineries in California as well as his own winery, Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, Calif.

In 2002 the founders brought in Alex MacGregor, who had started in wine as a sommelier in his native Canada but eventually moved to California to learn winemaking at California State University, Fresno. Before taking the position at Saracina MacGregor worked in the nearby Sonoma County region of Dry Creek Valley at Everett Ridge Vineyards and Collier Falls Vineyards.

‘Free rein’ to experiment
MacGregor said it was easy for him to make the move to Mendocino County after meeting with Ramey and Fetzer and getting a chance to visit some of the vineyards in the region. The opportunity also gave him a chance to further explore his craft. “John Fetzer really encourages creativity and didn’t put any constraints on the winemaking,” MacGregor said. “With David Ramey helping me, I had free rein to experiment, beyond just native yeast and malo and no filtration but into whole-cluster experiments, extended extractions on varietals where it might have seemed counterintuitive (Petit Sirah for example), playing with white Rhone varietals, small stainless barrel fermentation and élevage—and now clay.”

MacGregor has made a few trial lots of wine in a handful of clay fermentation vessels. The approach is similar to the ancient winemaking styles of using kveri in Georgia and amphorae in Greece. Clay vessels buried in the ground are filled with juice and some skins that are left to ferment.

At Saracina, MacGregor has fermented some Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache and Sangiovese, but he’s still tinkering with the method and has yet to release any commercial wines from the project.

While Ramey helped form the winemaking philosophy and Bay Area architect Michelle Wempe designed the building, Fetzer literally built the winery.

Fetzer took a hands-on role at almost every stage from welding and erecting tank catwalks to framing the tasting room and laying concrete for the winery and crush area. “He loves laying concrete,” MacGregor notes.

During a recent tour, the winemaker pointed out that the tasting room bar, on which several visitors were leaning comfortably, had been built and installed by Fetzer and vineyard manager Rob Carrillo within the past few days.

Ample room for winemaking
The square winery building sits against a hillside a few miles north of Hopland, Calif., and off the west side of Highway 101. The estate is the former Sundial ranch, made famous by the Fetzer Sundial unoaked Chardonnays, a big-selling brand now owned by Concho y Toro of Chile. A modern, modular building with a design similar to the winery houses the tasting room. Entrances to the winery’s horseshoe cave open near the winery and tasting room.

As Fetzer built the winery MacGregor said he requested ample room for winemaking, and he received plenty of it. The large building is a utilitarian shell housing tanks and some storage space as well as offices and the lab. While simple, the building is expansive and MacGregor said he could set it up to receive and crush fruit outside or inside the cellar. The large space also enables workers to drive bins inside with a forklift to dump directly into open tops. “All the open space is a huge luxury here,” he said.

When the winery first opened, clients rented several of the tanks for custom crush. As more and more tanks were used for the Saracina brand, less space was available for custom crush, which currently accounts for about 10% of the winery’s capacity.

Rows of tall windows run along the sides of the building beneath the roof. The windows provide a view of hillside vineyards from the tank catwalk and allow in so much daylight that the lights stay off for most of the year.

The building design is simple, as if to match MacGregor’s self-described low-intervention winemaking style. He uses native yeasts and bacteria and rarely filters. Such an approach is common for high-end Napa Valley wineries making wine with grapes that are up to three times more expensive.

Whole-cluster fermentation
Almost all of the reds at Saracina are fermented with a portion of whole clusters, the amount of which depends on the varietal. The winery’s Anderson Valley Pinot Noir is usually fermented with 5%-10% whole cluster, the Grenache 25% and Syrah as much as 40%. “The high-elevation Syrahs are superb using whole-cluster ferments,” MacGregor said. “Spicy, dried herb, saturated, dense and bright at the same time—all with relatively high pH at bottling, actually, really high in most cases. They appear to be aging admirably.”

MacGregor said he finished a 2006 Syrah with a pH of 4.16, and instead of being a flabby or “soapy” wine, it tasted fresh. MacGregor said whole-cluster fermentation “lifts the palate” somehow with a boost of acidity that doesn’t register as a higher TA. The approach also alters the tannin structure, provides a touch of “garrigue” flavor as well as pepper notes, less color saturation and slows down the fermentation. And yet for a variety like Petite Sirah, MacGregor said a bit of whole-cluster fermentation can soften tannins yielding a wine that is as not as lean.

For nearly all the reds, MacGregor shovels whole clusters from bins to tank. When the grapes reach the bottom of the racking door, the door is closed. A must pump then sends berries from a Puleo Vega 10 destemmer in through the bottom valve. Pinot Noir ferments in open-top tanks that allow MacGregor to drop in whole clusters with a bin dumper mounted on a forklift. Fermentations are managed with either Carlsen irrigators or manual punch downs.

Thanks to the cold evening temperatures in Mendocino County, MacGregor said he rarely needs to chill tanks down for cold soak or mess with adding dry ice while filling tanks.

A dependable old press
MacGregor said he rarely chills whites, and he thinks too much chilling can strip nutrients from the juice, leading to sluggish fermentations. Saracina makes an unoaked Chardonnay that stays in stainless steel tanks on its lees but with no stirring and no malolactic fermentation to create a wine “as crisp as possible.”

He makes a white Rhone blend with a process similar to the winery’s signature Sauvignon Blanc. A 30-year-old Bucher Vaslin press (still going strong with just an occasional membrane replacement) processes whole clusters, and the juice spends a cold Mendocino night in a tank. Workers rack the juice off the heavy lees into neutral barrels, most of which are 15 years old, and a small portion of stainless steel barrels.

MacGregor admits that during the first vintage at Saracina he became a bit nervous waiting for the native yeast to start fermentation. A few days of waiting turned into more than a week, and the juice just sat there and did nothing.

Eventually a thin brown skin formed on the top, followed by some fermentation activity, and then the barrels were off and running and the lot finished.

MacGregor said his goal is to make a bone-dry Sau vignon Blanc. Lees contact and stirring is adjusted to match the wine’s acidity. “The old vine SB is very cool, less about primary tropical fruit with more austere secondary aromatics and great texture, and there is great natural acidity. It works well with lees contact and some stirring in completely neutral oak.”

The white Rhone-style wine is a blend of Viognier and Roussanne named “The Choir.” The percentage of the varieties depends on the vintage. The grapes come from Lakeview Vineyards in Sanel Valley. “The white Rhones we work with, I think, are suited ideally to our growing season: They like the heat of August and don’t mind waiting around a little to be picked, late October in some years,” MacGregor said. “We seem to be able to get good texture without the oiliness/heavy glycerol that sometimes overwhelms these varietals.”

Aging in French and American oak
The Choir is produced for Saracina’s other label Atrea, under which the red “Old Soul” blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Malbec is also sold.

Once fermentation is complete, workers move the barrels to the winery’s cave for storage. Excavated by California Wine Cave, the cave runs 1,400 linear feet. One entrance is near the winery, and another is by the tasting room. MacGregor uses François Frères, Taransaud and Demptos, specifically noting the Demptos three-year, toasted head barrel as a good choice for American oak because of its subtle characteristics.

How long the white wines age in barrel depends on the vintage. In 2011, the Sauvignon Blanc came in clean and only spent three months in barrel, while in the wildfire year of 2008 MacGregor said he opted to use a Champagne-style press at low pressure with minimal rotations to avoid smoke taint coming through. That wine stayed in barrel for eight months, and MacGregor said the treatment mitigated any smoke issues.

The Pinot Noir goes to bottle prior to harvest of the following vintage. Other reds will stay in oak for 14-18 months. Saracina works with mobile bottlers Halsey Bottling and Mill Creek.

The cave’s famous choir
Near the rear of the cave is an exposed section of Franciscan shale that forms the backdrop for a sculpture display that has become a signature image for Saracina.

While on a trip through China, Fetzer and Rock discovered an artist that had turned old clay fermentation vessels into figurines by turning them upside down and adding long metal necks and round, metal heads. At first glance the sculpture beneath a half dome of stone resembles a line of bowling pins. A closer look, however, reveals the figures’ faces, many of which are contorted, mouths open in what could be song, laughter or screams.

Fetzer and Rock were treated to a performance in which the Chinese artist had timed lights to illuminate certain figurines during a performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” Enthralled by the performance, the couple purchased a set of the statues for the wine cave, where the choir stands in the middle of a silent and somewhat eerie performance.

The art is one of the most visible embellishments to the winery built by Fetzer. He said the sculpture is part of the theme for the winery, which he had designed in a blend of Asian and Italian styles. The Chinese wine vessels helped pique his interest in using the clay fermentation tanks and barrels.

MacGregor said he’s eager to show the quality of Mendocino County’s grapes and is lucky to have the resources and commitment behind the winemaking to help make it happen. After wildfires left their mark on the 2008 vintage, MacGregor said the decision was made not to try and salvage the wine through filtration or other treatments. “We elected to bulk out at a loss everything from red grapes I produced that year,” he said. “That takes deep pockets and a commitment to quality.”

Building a reputation for quality
The change is coming, Fetzer said. More wineries are identifying the Mendocino County vineyards from which they source their fruit, and the amount of grapes leaving the county is far lower. New restaurants are opening up in Ukiah, Calif., the county seat, and Fetzer said people are buying properties to turn their day trips into long weekends.

Already Anderson Valley has enjoyed a good level of success by focusing on Pinot Noir, and Fetzer said he sees that type of varietal focus spreading across the rest of the county.

Grape prices have remained stable, even if they still lag behind Napa and Sonoma. In 2000, the average winegrape price for Mendocino fruit was $1,500 per ton, but that average slipped to just over $1,200 per ton in 2011. Sonoma County stayed at $2,000 during the same period, but Napa County’s average rose from $2,500 to $3,400—and some vineyards there command prices of more than $8,000 per ton.

Mendocino’s average is still more than twice the state’s average price for winegrapes. Growers in the county also lead the state in organic farming by percentage of organic acres. Despite the steps toward establishing a distinct reputation, Fetzer admits the county is not quite there yet. He is hopeful that new opportunities in the global market will further fuel demand for the region’s wines. He sees potential in Italian varietals but also said the county could benefit from growing many different types of grapes.

Fetzer referred to an “earthiness” of Mendocino County’s red wines, a positive quality that made them unique and authentic. He said the Atrea Old Soul blend was marked by such a quality that may come from Mendocino’s rustic terroir. And the dramatic shift between night and daytime highs—as much as 105°F in the day to 48° at night—during the growing season yield white wines of remarkable balance. “I think the whites—the Rhone whites of Roussanne, Viognier—are really doing well here in our county.”

MacGregor said he wants Mendocino County to share the same place of prominence as the other notable counties of California’s North Coast. He said, “We can stand on the level with Napa and Sonoma and compete on actual wine quality.”

Fetzer s aid believes his father’s prediction about the direction of the industry was accurate. And as an owner of one of California’s smaller wineries, he is focused on quality, but also trying to put Mendocino County in the top tier of California’s wine regions.

 
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