SYRAH and…? THE FUTURE OF STOLPMAN VINEYARDS

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We believe Syrah is the best suited grape for Ballard Canyon. Sangiovese also does exceptionally well in our vineyard, but it ripens simultaneously with Syrah. The timing creates one of our very best wines, La Croce, but it also creates a tough picking rush for La Cuadrilla and an insanely frantic period for Sashi and the winery. Enter Grenache, which has gained a fervent following since we began bottling it with the 2006 vintage. We’ve figured out how to baby Grenache to perfect ripeness on our vineyard and we love the fact that it ripens well after Syrah.

As we plan the long-term future of Stolpman Vineyards, Grenache seems to be the logical varietal to plant on some of our 70 fallow acres. But we grapple with the question, is Grenache truly a noble grape?

LISTENING TO OUR CUSTOMERS
Estate Wineries can’t operate based on the popularity of varietals. Because of our boutique size, the only competitive space is quality, and therefore we must focus on only the perfectly-suited varietals for the vineyard. None the less, as we debate our next move, I was curious to find out what varietal our customers think Stolpman does best.
I asked our Facebook followers and here is the response:

 

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Compared with acres of each planted on Stolpman Vineyards:

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While I know better than to make conclusions based on Facebook responses, I’m happy to see a fairly representational fan base relative to what’s in the ground. If I were to make conclusions from the survey, I would say that Sangiovese demand (26%) is higher than supply (11%) and perhaps we have too much Syrah planted (50% demand versus 69% supply). I must remind myself that Sangiovese is much less relevant to the national wholesale market than to our direct consumers; and after 23 years of experimenting we stand confident in Syrah as the best fit for Ballard Canyon.
We’re not holding off on planting more Syrah because of this survey, rather, we are waiting for Stolpman Syrah Clone Generation 3 to mature so we can cherry pick the best plant material for Generation 4. We’re simultaneously developing the Extreme Provignage block & more Hilltops High Density Syrah blocks will come in the next 5 years, but right now, we’re looking at the 2014 planting season.
The Roussanne balance appears almost an exact match (13% demand for 12% supply). For now, Roussanne is off the expansion drawing board simply because of the labor involved in leafing, hand-twisting clusters, and taking a dozen harvesting passes for ripe fruit. La Cuadrilla is maxed out at our current 15.35 acres of Roussanne under vine.
This leads us back to the question of Grenache.

IS CALIFORNIA GRENACHE GOING THROUGH AN ARTIFICIAL BUBBLE OF POPULARITY?
California Grenache is on fire right now. I could sell all of our fruit by the ton to other wineries for top dollar because winemakers can’t make enough.

Here’s what I think is going on:
1. Easy to Please: Grenache is the high-octane, ripe blending component of Southern France. Because of this, it’s easy for Americans to dig. After all, we are a nation raised on Coca-Cola or in the South, sweet tea.
2. Pinot Noir Fade, High price for the good, low quality for the bad: As prices have escalated for Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir, local wine drinkers are looking for more affordable alternatives. Also, chasing demand (what Stolpman should not do), large wineries planted Pinot Noir throughout California and Oregon resulting in less expensive Pinot Noirs available to customers, but at much lower quality. After a couple bad experiences, consumers start to look for alternatives when ordering a glass of wine at the café. This all makes sense, as Pinot Noir, the ‘heartbreak grape’, is extremely fickle and needs the perfect place to grow. Maybe great Pinot Noir should be expensive. After all, there’s a reason why Pinot Noir is traditionally grown in a small pocket of Burgundy surrounded by vast fields of Chardonnay. California Grenache is the logical next grape for a California Pinot Noir lover as both grapes are seductively fruit forward.
3. Ease of Growing: The opposite of Pinot Noir, Grenache is very well suited to the warm climates of California and excels with minimal labor and good yields. Seems like a no brainer NOT to make Grenache.
4. Critics: Wine critics are judging wines for the style they think American consumers like, their palates are fatigued, or they just like the big “jump out of the glass” fruit flavors of California Grenaches. They award varietal wines and blends, especially from Paso Robles, with huge scores.
These all seem like good things for Grenache until we extrapolate them to the world. Because Grenache is easy to grow and will make attractive wine in almost any moderate climate, it has long been ubiquitously planted throughout Spain, Mediterranean France, and now the New World. We have to ask ourselves; is Grenache a noble grape or should it remain the main ingredient of the world’s table wine? Can it be both??
This is where the bubble question arises. Will all the folks now discovering California Grenache soon realize that decent Garnacha can be picked up at the local wine shop for under $10?

LOOKING AT FRANCE FOR NOBILITY
As per usual, we have to look to Europe for answers. Chateau Beaucastel takes great pride in steering their planting away from Grenache to the more difficult Mourvedre grape. Beaucastel’s owners, the Perrin family, also stand by Roussanne, rather than easier Grenache Blanc and Clairette. However, perhaps the most prestigious Chateau Neuf du Pape producer, Chateau Rayas, relies on only Grenache. Other than Rayas and the second label Pignan, we find exciting examples of monocepage Grenache to be few and far between. Many wines seem flat, lacking acidity.

WILL GRENACHE BE STOLPMAN’S STRONG SECOND?
Since 2011, we’ve almost doubled our planted acres of Grenache from 8 to 14. We’re making a bet that our cold nights and Limestone soils will continue to produce wines of zest and vibrancy. However, only time will tell if we can soundly break through Grenache’s table wine curse, and create something noble. It’s similar to the gamble we’ve made with Syrah, which produces a jammy fat wine in typical warm areas but can be complex and stunning in the right, magical spot. With Syrah, we are reassured by the many examples of noble Syrah in the Northern Rhone versus far fewer inspirations with Grenache in the South.
For 2014, we are planning to put a few Grenache cuttings originally taken from Chateau Rayas into our highest Limestone slopes. We will take our cultivation one more step away from the California norm, and leave these vines un-trellised, as bush vines. Sashi believes that this is Grenache’s natural state, as the vines are treated in the Old World. We might be able to push the quality envelope even further by letting the vines grow unhindered.
In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts on Grenache and we’ll keep you posted on our end!