2017 Cemetery Zinfandel harvest (agony of Nature, ecstasy of meticulous viticulture)
It’s always been said that in the most challenging vintages for any wine region – rain, snow, hail, drought, floods, hot seasons, cold seasons, rampant diseases or pests, anything that Mother Nature may throw at you – it’s the best growers, in the most favorable sites, that end up standing out far above the crowd.
Whatever the case may be, there’s nothing that Aaron Shinn – G.M. of Lodi’s Round Valley Ranches as well as owner of Shinn Farms – likes better than a challenge. And so far, 2017 has been as challenging a vintage as any.
At the break of dawn past Wednesday, August 23, Mr. Shinn walked and talked us through long, arduous road leading up to this particular moment of truth: the harvesting of 2017 Zinfandel from his own Cemetery Vineyard; located on the east side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River Viticultural Area, right across a country road from the Cherokee Memorial Park & Funeral Home.
The picking that we watched was destined for Lodi’s m2 Wines and Macchia Wines, although Cemetery Vineyard Zinfandel also goes into outstanding vineyard designated wines by Oak Farm Vineyards. Oak Farm’s vaunted winemaker, Chad Joseph, has described Shinn as a “passionate” grower with a knack for “being in the right place at the right time throughout the season, willing to do all the things that make the difference between wines that are just ‘good’ and wines that can be ‘great.’” In the world of ultra-premium grape growing, always something a lot easier said than done.
Here is what Mr. Shinn had to say about the lengths he had to go to achieve results satisfying his self-imposed high standards in his Cemetery Vineyard:
We had to work a lot harder to grow quality fruit in 2017. The three buzzwords that 2017 forced us to be conscious of were: rain, heat, rot. Last year was comparatively easy compared to this year.
We got a late start with the heavy winter rains, which lasted into spring. The fields were wet, we couldn’t get into them to prune. We battled constant mildew and crazy canopy growth. I don’t know a single Zinfandel vineyard in Lodi that didn’t have any rot.
This required constant passes to apply fungicides – every seven or so days, whereas normally it's 14 to 21 days. To manage canopies we had to do additional shoot thinning and suckering to balance out the constant new growth.
This vineyard is about 40 years old. For years it went to Mondavi’s Woodbridge White Zinfandel program, but now it’s farmed for optimal red wine quality. But when there is a lot of water in the ground, any Zinfandel vineyard can set a big crop. Left to its own devices, this vineyard could yield up to 12 tons (per acre). But because we’re going for higher quality, we normally farm it for four and a half, five tons.
Zinfandel is also a thin-skinned variety, prone to rot. But this planting did not have as much rot as other vineyards because of our constant vigilance. If you make the time and spend the money to make the extra passes, you can overcome almost any obstacle.
The key was to allow enough air-flow under the canopy of each vine to allow grapes to dry out, and to thin out clusters so that they’re not growing on top of each other. But at the same time, we had to meet the challenge of all those 100° days that we had. Weeks and weeks of it had to take its toll. This is why we left the canopy intact on the south side of each vine where the sun hits the hardest, to protect the fruit from sunburn. The fruit that did end up with a little burn or shrivel from the sun, we either dropped when we did our cluster thinning, or they get sorted out at the bin as we pick.
But this is also a special site. Here the sandy soil is extremely deep. We don’t irrigate a lot anyway, but when you do the water runs right through the ground. The soil is so well drained that it makes the vines struggle a little bit, which makes for higher quality fruit.
You’ll also notice that these vines are trained with spurs growing upwards (like a ladder, or “layered cake,” as one winemaker has described this style of head training). The advantage of this in years like 2017 is there is space between the spur positions, so fruit doesn’t have to grow bunched up against each other (possibly leading to increased mildew or rot).
Across the board, we’re looking at a pretty nice crop. For Lodi in general, the quality and yield will depend upon the amount of attention to detail put into each vineyard. If you worked to successfully suppress mildew, dealt aggressively with rot and managed canopies to resist heat and sunburn, you’re going to be very happy with the results.
A few more shots of the 2017 Cemetery Vineyard Zinfandel harvest: