While still exceptions to the rules, some California winemakers are challenging common assumptions about how Golden State wines ought to taste. Some of the movement’s chroniclers think about these wines and winemakers as “New Wave”. Prominent critics will ascribe California wines’ emerging stylistic diversity as part and parcel of a “widening and maturing of consumer tastes“. No matter how you characterize it, though, Hardy Wallace and his 2012 Dirty & Rowdy Rosewood Vineyards Old Vine Petite Sirah are signposts for California’s new age. Hardy’s wines have been described as some of the most memorable ones that came out of California last year. The funny thing is Hardy is showing what is possible by doing as little as he can get away with to produce wines he likes to drink; mostly by letting individual vineyards express themselves without interference. Could changing California’s wine status quo be just that easy? I caught up with Hardy last week, needing to know more about this mysterious and riveting Petite Sirah.
WineZag: You seemed to be getting focused on Mourvedre and Semillon…why did you make this Petite Sirah: attractive fruit source, pure experiment, expansion of portfolio, or something else?
HW: The story with the Petite Sirah is simple – we more or less got stuck with it. We wanted to work with an incredible 85 year old planting of Mourvedre just when it was in the process of being torn out. We wanted to get in and save what was left to see what it was capable of. On the same vineyard, the block next to the Mourvedre was about one acre of 85-year-old Petite Sirah. When we reached a deal with the grower for the Old Vine Mourvedre, he asked, “what about the Pet”? I said, “We don’t make Petite Sirah.” “You do now,” he said.
He explained that even though there is a little more than an acre, the block produces less than a ton of fruit. It would be much easier for him if we took it all. I agreed, but in the back of my head had no clue what to do with the Petite. Like the way we got started with Mourvedre, I just did what felt right.
WineZag: The wine is so fresh. It lacks excessive volume and extraction. It’s not black/purple like most Petite Sirah. You can’t chew the fruit nor die from alcohol poisoning by sharing a bottle with a friend. What’s going on here?
HW: Thank you. A couple of things are happening. The vineyard is in a hot spot with struggling old vines. It gets great hang time and a chance to develop great flavors, but it doesn’t really pump the sugars. The winery that had the vineyard before us gave up on it as they had a hard time getting it to their desired level of ripeness (higher than mine). Because of the site, we get great flavor development, are able to maintain serious acidity, and are able to produce moderate alcohol (12.5ish %). Also, the wine is a 100% whole cluster, which is kind of nuts for Petite Sirah.
WineZag: You say that you make wines that you like to drink. Can you share a few of the most important winemaking lessons you have learned towards that end, and also used to make this particular Petite Sirah?
HW: We are still learning so much. Each of our four vintages seems like a lifetime. On the top layer, I think we just want to find great and curious vineyards, nail our picking decisions, and try to do as close to nothing as possible. Really. No destemming, minimal puchdowns, gentler pressing, old barrels, and barely any SO2.
But that being said, the Petite Sirah was a real eye opener for me. I hate to admit it, but I had intentions for it; preconceived ideas. I was hoping it was going to be light and floral…the Petite Sirah version of our Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard Mourvedre…soulful but gulpable. It did not go that way. It developed its bones really, really early. It had lift and cut from acidity, but wow, it had rails and nails. Lighter than most Petite Sirah? Yes, but still very much Petite Sirah. Shortly after fermentation, I remember tasting this with John Lockwood of Enfield Wines. We both looked at each other and thought this one was serious sh@*.
WineZag: The wine really helped me further understand what it means to “protect varietal character”, yet with a style that has little to do stylistically with anything else I have known about Petite Sirah in a bottle. The fruit tastes as Petite Sirah would, but in a completely different package than any other bottled presentation of it. Can you explain this?
HW I think this is one of the things I love about this wine. It is still so Petite Sirah. I love it. It has power, texture, and the flavors. But, while we are most used to Petite Sirah as the Olympic Power Lifter, this is a gymnast on rings. There is strength but it is moving with fluid energy.
WineZag: What role does the Mendocino AVA play in producing this style of Petite Sirah? How much is fruit source vs. winemaking responsible for this style wine?
HW: This fruit comes from Redwood Valley in Mendocino. Redwood Valley is east of Anderson Valley…inland. It is hot and arid. I think 95% of the wine is the soil, the vineyard/vines, and the grower. I feel with a wine like this, we can only make a few decisions. When to pick? Whole cluster? How gentle we approach it?
I spend a lot of time in the vineyard on canopy management. Pulling leaves, increasing airflow…making sure that each cluster has a chance to ripen. There is not enough fruit to drop out there. Everything needs to ripen because it is all going in.
WineZag: After opening and a vigorous decant, the wine was crispy, fresh, tart, and saliva inducing. One of the things I noticed about this wine on day 2 was how much it pulled itself together— where the components became tighter knit. Can you explain this and also share your own tasting note on this wine?
HW: I’m with you. Pop and pour, this wine is crisp, fresh, and purple light – but with air (and yes, like two days of air) everything just falls into place. It becomes almost seamless. It is a little haunting. For me, this is always a litmus test of sorts for where the wine is heading—after a few days, how is the texture? The balance? The depth of flavor? The purity? I think this wine has good things in its future.
We only released about 330 bottles of this wine. I think I opened 3 of them myself; two for tastings and one to watch for a few days at home. I wish we had more, because I’d like to get better acquainted with it.
WineZag: How is this Petite Sirah consistent with your developing approach to winemaking and the finished product you shoot for?
HW: I feel a lot of responsibility working with this vineyard. As I mentioned, when we picked up the vineyard the vines were being torn out. So, we didn’t know how many more years these vines had nor how many we had to work with them. I felt a huge responsibility that if at 85-years-old 2012 was going to be their last vintage, it had to be great.
To me, great is a lot different that beautiful and lively. It can be those, bit it is so much more. It is something timeless, built for your kids, the future, it needs to be able to live a very long life in the bottle, even if that means it is hard as rocks in its youth.
All I know is that we gave this one everything we had. Working in this vineyard puts a different feeling of weight on my shoulders. I think that carries into all of our other sites as well…this could be the last time!
WineZag: Can you compare the feeling you get at a really tight Dead show to the one you feel when this kind of wine comes out of the barrel or egg (you don’t really have to answer this one, but maybe it would be fun for you to think about it)?
HW: Let me stick my toes in the deep end for a second. I think about music non-stop. And it is almost always rooted in improvisation. The type where you have to hold on to every note and sometimes bend your ear to hear the tune—because you don’t know where it is heading, but you are along for (and part of) the ride.
It can be the Grateful Dead, jazz, but more often than not it is Indian Classical music (which I studied for 15 years). I experience wine in a similar way. When I think about the Raga, I see its structure – Alap (meditative introduction), Jor (the intro of the melody) Jala (composition), and then Gat- where the tabla (drums) kick into melodic discovery.
A great wine takes a similar approach in its structure and discovery; slowly revealing itself and eventually hitting its rhythmic, but improvisational stride. But, there are even more emotional similarities. A Raga is colored and driven by multiple emotions…joy and devotion, sorrow and pathos, etc. At a Raga’s greatest expression, the combination of emotions communicates feelings and experiences that are beyond words and that transcend the limitations of language. You experience something greater.
I believe wine taps into the same universal stream. It is the connection between the center of the earth and the center of the universe…and it lives, changes and evolves. We just hold on while we can.