March 26, 2018 | Ralph Sands
All the Zinfandel was picked by Friday October 6th at the historic Rossi Ranch Vineyard in Sonoma that was first planted in 1910; and spirits were high on the quality of the grapes from all the wineries that buy the fruit. The only varietals that were left to pick were the Grenache and the Mouvedre which represented 20% of the ranch starting on Monday the 9th.
The only good news from the devastating fires in this case the Nuns fire that erupted in the early hours of the 8th is that it burnt right thru the wild brush and trees down to the vines, but the vines were somehow spared. But, it would be two weeks until workers were able to legally return to work and pick the remaining, now overripe grapes. Everyone associated with the vineyard knew there would be big problems. They fermented the wines separately and hoped for the best.
A close friend of mine is close with the owner of Rossi and I was asked to come spend a day with them as non-biased professional taster to taste the wines made from five different vintners along with the Rossi Ranch vineyard management team to help evaluate the wines. My only experience with smoke tainted wines was from a few wines affected by the Mendocino fires back in 2008. Only one vintner really had any experience dealing with smoke tainted wine and his experience was horrible resulting in a hard financial hit for this small producer. This was new territory for every else and no one had any insurance for this situation in the purchase agreement.
The old vines in this Heritage vineyard produce small berries with intense flavors and yes the fruit is expensive. Making wine from an historic vineyard like this is a winemakers dream; I could see the love and passion in the faces of these vintners for this vineyard even as they discussed the difficult topics of what to do with the wine and if payment for the Grenache and Mourvedre would even be made.
The first winery’s wine was the best tasting of the day and the smoke was barely detectable on the nose at the beginning but as the wine opened it started to it came out, but on the palate it was there from the start, the wine was pinched and astringent in the back of the mouth and was worse on the finish.
All the others were loaded with smoke on the nose and worse on the palate and virtually unsellable for expensive wine, and none of these winemakers would want to hurt their brand by using any of these wines.
It is a tough situation with no real solution. At the end of the day four of the five wineries, looked at the owner of the vineyard and said we will pay you in full for the fruit even if we have to dump it, and that their relationship is long term and that they are honored to buy the special fruit from this historic vineyard.
At the end of the day we tasted a beautiful 2015 Grenache-Mouvedre blend from one of the wineries that fully expressed the greatness of the Rossi Ranch; vibrant and fresh, with lovely purity of deep fruit with spicy hints and deliciously Rossi!
While sipping I was asked what I thought they should do with the tainted wines? I had been thinking about that all day and I said that to be honest I have tasted many far worse wines in my career than the smoke tainted wines we tasted today. If the wines tested ok for sale and consumption I would blend them all together and add 20% of a soft, very fruity red (all of these winemakers are fantastic blenders) and 12oz can it, and half bottle it and sell it at BottleRock in Napa with all proceeds over production cost going to the Fire Relief Fund. I have witnessed and tasted almost everything possible in my over 40 years in the wine trade, but this afternoon was very different; it was really nice to see passion prevail over money for a change.