In many ways, Paul Gordon's Syrah tastes like a Zinfandel. But that doesn't bother him.
Gordon, owner with wife, Valerie, of Halcon Vineyards in Mendocino County, grows his grapes on a ridgetop 2,500 feet above sea level in a location baked by the summer sun and cooled most nights by frigid breezes from the Pacific Ocean, not 20 miles away. The Yorkville Highlands location, one of the loftiest vineyards in the state, is unique and rugged, and Gordon believes there may be no better way to preserve and express his property's idiosyncrasies—and the uncharacteristic taste of his wine—than by leaving his Syrah as the land makes it, and putting it into the bottle as a single-vineyard wine.
Also called vineyard designates, single-vineyard wines are exactly what they sound like—wines made solely from grapes grown in a single location. Of course, this was once the default way to make wine. But as long-distance shipping became viable with the advent of motor transport, many wineries began adding grapes from faraway regions into their own fermenting vats. Over time, interregional blends became the norm in winemaking, and today, only in the best of locations do winemakers bother making single-vineyard wines.
"A vineyard has to be special, or else a vineyard designate just isn't worth doing," says Mendocino County winemaker Alex MacGregor, whose Saracina Vineyards uses grapes from the upper Russian River valley.
At Ravenswood Winery, founder and winemaker Joel Peterson says that blending, though an art form in itself, can come at a perceived cost.
"By blending, you get a more homogeneous product," he says. "These large blends may taste fine, but they'll only represent the state or nation that they're from."
Peterson, well known for his Vintners Blend series, began his winemaking career in the 1970s with a commitment to making vineyard-designate Zinfandels. Among these is his Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel, made from vines planted in the 1860s and notable for its flavors of cherry, mint and raspberry. Ravenswood's Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel is another favorite—a dark wine strongly redolent of blackberry jam with vague scents of vanilla, bacon and pepper.
These vineyards and others represent microclimates and specific locations worthy of recognition on the bottle. But beyond grape quality, there's also financial incentive for a grower to see his or her property's name go onto a bottle of wine. So says Sierra foothills winemaker Marco Cappelli.
"When I bought my property, I knew that [the vineyard's] reputation would allow me to get a higher price for the fruit, and that my customers would be able to sell their wine at a higher price because of the designation," says Cappelli, whose Herbert Vineyard produces some of El Dorado County's more esteemed Zinfandel. "All my customers use the Herbert Vineyard designation, and it helps them sell their wine."
Even when a vineyard is planted on upstanding, grape-friendly real estate, there will always be years of lesser—even bad—quality harvests. Following such problematic vintages, winemakers often, if reluctantly, choose to suspend their vineyard-designate programs and, instead, use the failed wines anonymously for blending. Two thousand eight was such a year on the North Coast. That summer, huge forest fires set a layer of ash upon thousands acres of vines, and as a result, much of the region's wine that fall was almost unpalatable.
"We used reverse osmosis to clean out the smokiness of the 2008, and then we used the wine in a blend," says Jeff Cichocki, assistant winemaker at Bonterra Winery. Bonterra's McNab and Butler vineyards are points of particular pride for the Ukiah-based biodynamic winery. Most years, these two locations are made into vineyard designates, of which bottles go for roughly $50.
"But not every season is worthy," Cichocki says. "We produce vineyard designates when they deserve it." Most winemakers work by a similarly selective approach.
But occasionally, the historical value of capturing a vineyard in a bottle takes precedence over just how fine its crop is each year. At the Scholium Project, a small winery near Vacaville, owner Abe Schoener makes vineyard designates from 10 small vineyards around Northern California. Schoener takes particular pride in using relatively unknown, off-the-map vineyards, sometimes no bigger than a backyard. In some years, Schoener sets aside subpar harvests for use in blends, but for one small block of grapes, the McDowell Vineyard on Glos Lane near Yountville, Schoener has bottled up every vintage since 2004, good or bad.
"Even when the Glos vineyard doesn't measure up, I bottle it every time," Schoener says. "The owners have told me it's going to be torn out soon, and I'm pretty sure that 2012 will be its last harvest." In 2006 and 2007, the Glos vineyard's wines "were more interesting than they were excellent," Schoener says, "but I bottled them anyway, because I think it's important that I preserve the historical record of that vineyard."
Makers of vineyard-designate wines tend to acknowledge that their job as winemaker is to exert a minimal influence on the wine and, instead, do their best to showcase the land and its grapes. Winemakers attempt to do this in varying ways. At Halcon Vineyards, Gordon doesn't filter or refine his single vineyard wines, and he points out that his Syrah touches nothing but steel tanks before going to the bottle.
At Bonterra, vineyard manager Chad Boardman believes that biodynamic farming is the key. In biodynamic farming, no fertilizers or nutrients produced offsite are ever introduced to the life cycle of the vines. "Our McNab and Butler wines are the truest possible expression of those sites," he explains. "We aren't trying to add or mask anything."
MacGregor at Saracina Vineyards believes commercially made yeasts will homogenize the nuances of a wine, and that the best vineyard designates are made with native airborne yeasts. Also, the addition of grape concentrate to boost final alcohol levels and the use of artificial coloring agents—both common winemaking tactics—"can mitigate the whole point of a single-vineyard wine," he says.
But winemakers also must intervene at times as their wines ferment and age.
"I'm trying to showcase the vineyard more than anything else in the winemaking process," says Judson Hale, who makes a vineyard designate of Yorkville Highlands Pinot Noir. "I try my hardest to stay out of the process, but I'm also a UC Davis [wine program] graduate. I know where things can go wrong, and I know how to fix them and keep a wine palatable."
Hale's chief wine is a buttery, chocolatey Pinot Noir, a popular variety for use as vineyard designates—but at the Scholium Project, grape names are irrelevant. In fact, Schoener doesn't even put them on his bottle labels.
"I want the focus to be on the vineyard, not on the grape," he says. "The grape variety brings too many expectations with it. I don't want people to look at my wine and say, 'Oh, another Syrah.' It doesn't matter that it's a Syrah. It's the Hudson Vineyard wine."