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DP: (con'd) And we developed good relationships with them early on. In fact, we bring them all in here [to the winery] between January and April to taste them on the wines; so in a group-setting, we'll taste wine from the grapes of each grower. Now, as a grower, consider: what do you want in a situation like that?— You want your wine, the wine from your grapes, to stand out and be the best wine on the table. So, if I create that competitive situation where each grower wants his grapes to outperform the others, it creates a strong drive for them all to want to succeed! And I think that we've been fortunate enough to create that environment and make it so that our people have a goal to grow the best possible grapes they can. But aside from that, we also have relationships with other growers that are different — some people with whom it's just a handshake year to year without any contract, and every year they come back.
NM: Speaking of Napa's mountain vineyards, what would you say is the common denominator in setting them apart from those of other appellations of the Napa Valley? And how do those differences affect the decisions you make in the vineyards?
DP: Typically, on the mountain, you'll be two, three, or as much as four weeks behind on budbreak. You'll go through the growing season at around 5º F cooler because of the elevation, which allows you to get through the summer heat spikes. And I used to think that was the only major difference. But I think another big difference is the fact that your vines are two or three weeks younger, which enables them to tolerate the heat a bit better. And so, during the heat spikes those vines have a little more youth on their side, and I think that helps to make the vintages balance out more. People were saying, for example, how hot a vintage 2003 was, when a lot of fruit got burned — but I don't remember seeing any of that happening in the mountains! So while a lot of people would like to write off that vintage, we actually had a phenomenal mountain appellation vintage in 2003.
"The key is that mountain fruit isn't ripening at overly warm temperatures."
Another advantage to the mountain appellations is that at the end of the growing season, when we finally get into late September through early October, what happens is that the fog rolls in and pushes the warm air aloft. And that's important because often when I talk about ripening, I'm talking about going to 26, 27, 28 brix, which a lot of people would say gets into raisining and carmelization. And I would argue that no, it's not — not on the elevations! It may be dehydration, but it's not raisining; your grapes may shrivel a bit, but they're not carmelizing, because the high will have been 74º, not 94º F. With the vine at the tail end of its cycle, I look at the vineyard to see if there are leaves on the vines so that they can continue to conduct photosynthesis and thereby further develop flavors in the fruit away from those green, herbal characteristics and towards those ripe qualities I'm looking for — blueberry, blackberry, ripe plum, ripe cherry flavors. If there are, then I don't care if it's 26.5 brix; if we're not there yet, let [the fruit] hang! And I think the key is that the fruit isn't ripening at overly warm temperatures. Another way to see it is with a comparison I always make to white bread: you put one slice into the toaster, another you leave on the counter; the one in the toaster will turn brown from the carmelization of amino acids and sugars in the bread, whereas the one laying on the counter dehydrates but doesn't turn brown and won't taste like toast.
NM: So, it sounds like you really have to take into the consideration the environment in which the grapes have been ripening and their sugar levels climbing, and that the elevations seem to offer some unique advantages in that regard. Are there any other advantages to working with mountain fruit, perhaps in the winemaking process itself?
DP: From a barrel-aging perspective, one of the advantages I had at Atlas Peak, which I'd never had in my career up until that point, was a scenario of 55º F and 95% humidity. With those conditions, you could take a wine of 16% alcohol and with 20 months in the cellar and drive that alcohol to below 14%. That's one of the things that drives me crazy in winemaking: in a high-humidity environment, there isn't much water that will evaporate — but the alcohol will! I think the Mount Veeder [Cabernet] in 2003 was 13.7%, 18 months after it went to barrel at 15.7%. As a winemaker, I was used to only monitoring levels of the VA and SO2, not the alcohol. But even with the lowered alcohol, our wines have a tremendous amount of legs; you swirl them in the glass, and they'll weep and weep and weep. So, though I don't know that it changes the overall proportion of the higher alcohols (like glycerol) to ethanol, I do know it allows me to have the confidence that if I need to pick at 28 brix, then I can do it.