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  • The Return of Valdiguié

    Jerry Lohr in the Vineyards

    Wine & Spir­its
    Patrick J. Comiskey
    August 2020

    No one goes look­ing for valdigu­ié. In Cal­i­for­nia vine­yards, it’s a vari­ety you come across in search of oth­er things. 

    Through­out this tumult, J. Lohr Win­ery, in Mon­terey Coun­ty, remains one of the few pro­duc­ers to con­tin­ue mak­ing valdigu­ié on a com­mer­cial scale. Since 1976 they’ve pro­duced a vari­etal bot­tling called Wild­flower, drawn from a vine­yard in the Arroyo Seco Val­ley where the Lohrs orig­i­nal­ly farmed eleven vari­eties. We plant­ed sev­en reds in Green­field,” says Jer­ry Lohr, now 83 years old and not plan­ning to retire any­time soon. The only one we kept was the gamay.” It has been a main­stay of the brand, con­sis­tent­ly win­ning acco­lades at com­pe­ti­tions, includ­ing a Best in Show” at the Cal­i­for­nia State Fair in 1989.

    Today, the win­ery farms near­ly 30 acres of valdigu­ié in Green­field, one of the largest parcels in the state. The mature vines self-reg­u­late their yields, which remain abun­dant; the team machine-har­vests most of the fruit, select­ing about one-third to pick by hand, a por­tion they vini­fy using car­bon­ic mac­er­a­tion to soft­en and point up the fruiti­ness of the blend. In 2007, wine­mak­er Steve Peck was pre­sent­ed with a dog-eared play­book for mak­ing the wine, a method that’s essen­tial­ly remained unchanged for 44 years. It yields a bram­bly, pep­pery, mild­ly meaty, deeply col­ored red with dark berry char­ac­ter and a jolt of tannins. 

    It can be quite tan­nic,” says Peck, a fact that sur­prised him giv­en its asso­ci­a­tion with Beau­jo­lais. It calls for a nice bal­ance between car­bon­ic and tra­di­tion­al fer­ments.” He builds the entire pro­duc­tion around ear­ly and mid­dle press cuts, the sweet­meat,” as he calls it, leav­ing out the final third of press cuts alto­geth­er. At $10 a bot­tle, often less, it’s one of California’s most appeal­ing red-wine values. 

    Valdigu­ié is an odd grape. It bears lit­tle resem­blance to gamay noir à jus blanc, start­ing with its berries, which are enor­mous (com­pared to those of gamay), as are its clus­ters — they’re the size of babies,” says Michael Cruse. The grape skins are firm and unyield­ing, like table grapes. When you’re pro­cess­ing it, if a clus­ter drops on the ground, the berries will roll around like mar­bles,” he says. It’s the only grape I know that will go through some car­bon­ic even when it’s not on the stem.” Oth­er­wise, in the vine­yard, it is sta­ble and dis­ease-resis­tant, with yields sub­stan­tial enough to keep it eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable. Its best fea­ture, per­haps, is how the grapes retain their acid­i­ty at full ripeness. There’s lots of green, crunchy acid,” says Chris Brock­way. More than in most of the oth­er his­tor­i­cal Cal­i­for­nia reds.” 

    David Wil­son, whose fam­i­ly has farmed valdigu­ié at Ran­cho Chim­i­les in the Napa Val­ley since the mid-1970s, is always impressed and a lit­tle daunt­ed by the high lev­els of mal­ic acid the grape car­ries late in the sea­son. For his Wil­son For­eign­er valdigu­ié (which he makes in part­ner­ship with South African wine­mak­er Chris Alheit), he watch­es the juice of the grapes as the col­or it extracts from the skins begins to change. When they’re mature the col­or goes to magen­ta,” he explains. Super- bright and elec­tric and intense. That’s when you know the mal­ic [acid] has soft­ened, the pH has come up a lit­tle bit, and you start tast­ing those tart cher­ry, red berry fla­vors. That’s when we pick.” 

    The Wilson’s fam­i­ly ranch, Ran­cho Chim­i­les, is in a small enclave north­east of the town of Napa known as the Wood­en Val­ley. When Wilson’s father, Ter­ry, was first start­ing out in 1974, he had heard that a man named War­ren Warin­sky” was look­ing for Napa gamay, so he head­ed to the Stags Leap Dis­trict to intro­duce him­self. War­ren Winiars­ki, the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cel­lars, met him, cor­rect­ed him, and did busi­ness with him for more than a decade, pro­duc­ing Gamay Beau­jo­lais, a soft, fruity wine with good col­or and a pro­nounced vari­etal nose,” wrote Winiars­ki in a 1975 sales brochure. To be released short­ly after bot­tling, it will be drink­able then, although it has su cient body to age.” 

    Ran­cho Chim­i­les is one of the few places left in the Napa Val­ley where the grape once known as Napa gamay is still grown. Set out on the east­ern fringe of the Val­ley, clos­er to Vacav­ille than to the Sil­ver­a­do Trail, it’s the kind of out-of-the-way place where valdigu­ié has endured, on the periph­ery of North Coast wine regions, under the care of multi­gen­er­a­tional fam­i­lies whose devo­tion to their prop­er­ty has pre­vailed over mod­ish plant­i­ng decisions. 

    That cer­tain­ly describes the Lolo­nis Vine­yard in Mendocino’s Red­wood Val­ley, where Athan Pou­los farms a 106-acre prop­er­ty on behalf of his wife’s fam­i­ly, now well into its third gen­er­a­tion. Try­fon Lolo­nis, the patri­arch, set­tled in the val­ley because it remind­ed him of Greece’s Pelo- pon­nese region, where he grew up. His son Nick con­vert­ed the prop­er­ty to organ­ic farm­ing in the 1950s, well before such prac­tices were com­mon­place. Pou­los believes that valdigu­ié was one of the first vari­eties plant­ed on the prop­er­ty, near the orig­i­nal home­stead. There is an old pho­to­graph of two fig­ures stand­ing in the vine­yard, one in cov­er­alls, the oth­er wilt­ing in a wool suit. No one is cer­tain how old the pic­ture is; Antigone Lolo­nis, Athan’s moth­er-in-law, thinks it was tak­en the for­ties, but the cloth­ing sug­gests the thir­ties. At any rate the vines already look quite mature. 

    Even for a vari­ety known for acid­i­ty, the valdigu­ié from Lolo­nis is espe­cial­ly nervy. Pou­los attrib­ut­es this to the dai­ly incur­sions of marine air chan­neled into the area by the sur­round­ing hills. In the dead of sum­mer,” he says, the valley’s in the nineties. By the end of the day it’s down to forty or fifty.” 

    In its mod­ern iter­a­tions, valdigu­ié seems to accom­mo­date a range of expres­sions. On one lev­el, the wine can make a fine rosé, like the pét­nat rosé Cruse has made with valdigu­ié since 2013, a wine with a crisp berry fla­vor limned with a text­book valdigu­ié ten­sion, like bit­ing into sprigs of fresh­ly picked herbs. 

    But on anoth­er lev­el, the ten­sion is like a live wire, need­ing to be chan­neled, a process that starts with har­vest­ing at the prop­er ripeness. Valdigu­ié reach­es full ripeness at a low poten­tial alco­hol, but if it’s har­vest­ed ear­ly the wine will come off as painful­ly aus­tere. If it’s too ripe, the result­ing wine feels bland and non­de­script, like lack­lus­ter zinfandel. 

    Beau­jo­lais remains a point of com­par­i­son, even if it isn’t meant to be. Lik­it­prakong has Beau­jo­lais in the back of his mind when he’s mak­ing valdigu­ié — he’s after that lev­el of charm and exu­ber­ance of fruit. 

    Learn­ing it was the vari­ety that was once Napa gamay has some mean­ing,” he says, even if there’s no con­nec­tion [to gamay]. It got me inter­est­ed in exper­i­ment­ing with whole clus­ters, and with car­bon­ic.” He now sub­mits about 40 per­cent of the fruit to whole-clus­ter fer­men­ta­tion, at least some of which goes through a car­bon­ic phase. 

    Oth­ers feel com­par­isons to Beau­jo­lais are amiss. My take­away, after six years,” says Lick­lid­er, is that [valdigu­ié] has more in com­mon with cool-cli­mate syrah than gamay noir. It comes in more black-fruit­ed, and the way the tan­nins work with the black fruit had me think­ing more of Crozes than Morgon.” 

    Or valdiguié’s sat­u­rat­ed fla­vors and briny tan­nin might resem­ble dol­cet­to, or the red wines of the Jura, wines with both sun­ny charm and edgy tannins. 

    But these are ear­ly days — an odd thing to say of a her­itage vari­ety. There are so few in the mar­ket that when Cruse hears peo­ple talk about a bot­tle of valdigu­ié he can usu­al­ly tell who made the wine. If they men­tion fruit, it was prob­a­bly mine,” he says, but if they think it’s green, they’ve prob­a­bly had Broc’s. Kenny’s [at Folk Machine] and Matt’s [Lio­co] are usu­al­ly some­where in the middle.” 

    Aside from Steve Peck at J. Lohr, none of the wine­mak­ers I spoke to have been mak­ing valdigu­ié for more than a decade. The lat­est gen­er­a­tion to take on valdigu­ié is still exper­i­ment­ing, tin­ker­ing with what they want their wines to say. What­ev­er style they set­tle on, they’ve breathed new life into a vari­ety whose her­itage, once hid­den in anonymi­ty, is com­ing into view.

    Read the full arti­cle here.

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