Less nurture, more nature: That’s the gist of an increasingly popular tendency among winemakers who wish to spotlight the virtues of a piece of land while downplaying their own skills at blending, barreling, fining, and aging. For many such winemakers, the most basic approach to showcasing terroir, that sense of place that lingers in a bottle of wine, is to make single-vineyard wines, or vineyard designates. Among the younger players in this game is Pali Wine Company in Lompoc, founded in 2006.
Focusing on pinot noirs of the Willamette Valley, Sonoma County, and the Sta. Rita Hills, Pali, which is owned primarily by Tim Perr and Scott Knight, has modeled itself after its next door neighbor, Loring Wine Company, founded in the late 1990s as a purveyor of single-vineyard pinots. Loring has historically allowed its contracted grape-growers to treat the grapes as they see fit. This philosophy, in the end, highlights the grower as much as it does the land. Pali takes a more focused approach. Throughout the growing season, the company sends consultants to check in on vines hundreds of miles away and assure that the vineyard managers are tending to the grapes and harvesting on schedule, as Pali winemaker Aaron Walker would have it.
But the strongest parameter controls take effect when the grapes arrive at the custom-built facility within Lompoc’s city limits. Here, each wine is fermented side by side at the same temperature, for the same duration, and in the same-sized three-quarter-ton tanks. Each is aged in 100 percent French oak for 10 months and bottled in August. Winemaking becomes, in Walker’s hands, almost a science experiment, aimed at eliminating all background noise in order to best study the properties of the land of origin as they manifest in the bottled product.
As might be expected, each vineyard has its differences-but these are not arbitrary nuances. These variations of character can be fathomed by even the most inexperienced drinker; that’s the land they’re tasting. And while Pali’s wines run $48 and are sought by enthusiasts, the young company’s winemaking approach does, to some effect, demystify the often esoteric, often pretentious hobby of wine appreciation, making it accessible to all levels of wine intelligence.
This year, Pali Wine Company will shift gears to take on a new approach during the harvest and crush of 2008. The goal will remain minimally influencing a wine and showcasing the best assets of a piece of land. This year, however, some vineyards may receive special treatment on the lees and in the barrel, depending on what Walker deems appropriate for coaching each unique vineyard to its full potential.
“We’ve realized that each vineyard and each AVA [American Viticultural Area] has its own distinct personality and traits,” explained Walker. “What works well for one place is not necessarily what works best for others.”
Pali has expanded its repertoire to 12 different pinot vineyards, up from eight in 2006 and 11 from the 2007 vintage, about to go to bottle. Production runs about 3,000 cases per year now and Walker says the plan is to remain at fewer than 10,000 cases no matter how prosperous the future.
Meanwhile, the search for great new vineyards goes on, and Walker pursues his passion with the subdued humble approach of a winemaker who knows that the world would turn without him. For wine, he points out, is a natural phenomenon and “practically makes itself” if left to its own devices. Moreover, even the best vintner in the world has only limited functioning power.
“It’s possible to make sub-par wines from great vineyards,” Walker said, “but it is nearly impossible to make great wines from sub-par vineyards.”
And in the end, we see that the real winemaker is the soil. The vintner just lends a hand.
Pali Wine Company will be open for regular tasting hours Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. They are also available for tasting and tours by appointment Monday through Wednesday. For more, see paliwineco.com.