It was raining when I arrived at the vast Seghesio Family Vineyards’ facilities for a harvest time tour. Unlike Texas that would have welcomed it after a drought that wrought mass brush fires searing a swath through the Lone Star State culminating with a firestorm known as the Bastrop County Complex Fire, the early California rain was not invited. The particular Texas hell storm that engulfed Bastrop had, by September 30, destroyed 1,645 homes, burned 34,068 acres, and killed two people. The genius of failed would-be GOP Presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick (Oops!) Perry, the state cut dedicated funds from the Texas Forest Service Budget to create the illusion of a balanced state budget–part of the “Just Say No to Federal Stimulus” debacle. That, among other less-than-stellar accomplishments earned Governor Good Hair a Texas Monthly Bum Steer Award.
But I digress.
Rain, Rain Go Away
At the exact same time Texas was on fire, Dry Creek Valley, California, was panicking at the thought of an early rain three weeks ahead of harvest. Most of the smaller producers had picked what they could of their grapes — starting crews at 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. all weekend to bring in the fruit–because to save the vintage they had little choice.
Ted Seghesio, brand founder and winemaker for California’s signature grape, Zinfandel, that has become synonymous with the winery’s name, was not thrilled with having to bring so many grapes in early. “Most overrated damned fruit on the planet,” he said, of a particular vineyard that had just arrived at the winery, uncovered, in open trucks, with no protection from rain. Rain right before harvest is bad news. The vines soak up the water and the sugar/acidity balance is thrown off. Mildew and rot also becomes a serious worry. That’s what had the Dry Creek Valley harvesters in a panic, and had Ted Seghesio a less-than-happy camper.
Trucks and trucks of fruit were coming in to the winery, so Brandye (Associate Marketing Manager and tour guide extraordinaire) and I were dodging fork-lifts in the rain, Ted’s among them. So much fruit was coming in, bins were starting to stack up everywhere there was cover to keep them out of the drizzle. Seghesio, in downtown Healdsburg was my last stop before heading back to Texas from my Harvest weekend. One of our favorite Zinfandel producers, it is one Dry Creek Valley winery I did not want to miss. In fact, when the Seghesio 2007 Sonoma County Zinfandel was named number 10 in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2008, I think we bought up most of what was left in Houston. Alas, of the 30 bottles we purchased, none remain. (I blame Joe.) We drank our last bottle in February.
Seghesio Then and Now
Seghesio Family Vineyards was established by Edoardo Seghesio, who had immigrated from Piedmont in Northern Italy to work as a winemaker at the most prominent winery in turn-of-the-century Sonoma County; the Italian Swiss Colony. In 1895, Edoardo bought his first vineyard in what was then known as Chianti, California. Four generations of Seghesios owned, farmed and managed the vineyards and produced world class wines. Not much has changed other than the name on the deed, when last summer Crimson Wine Group purchased Seghesio Vineyards and most of the Seghesio family’s 300 acres of vines in Sonoma County’s Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys.
“Our winemaking and winegrowing operations are still tended to by Ted Seghesio and Pete Seghesio respectively,” Brandye tells me. “The main change is that Crimson Wine Group now handles finance, administration, sales and marketing.”
The winery, one of only about 100 to survive Prohibition, still has a family-run feel. Our first stop on the tour was the lab building, where I encountered Ted’s large German Shepherd, Charlie, in the lab’s front conference room. Brandye warned me not to be alarmed because “Charlie barks at everyone.” But, remarkably, the dog did not bark at me. Once inside the actual lab, I met 85-year old Edward Seghesio, fresh from his morning stroll through the property. Ed carried with him a basket of apples, picked from the trees on the property. “You know we make the best Zinfandel in all of California,” he said with pride, handing me an apple.
In the lab I also met assistant winemaker Andrew Robinson, and enologist Sonja Bugica. Sonja took me through her daily routine of measuring pH, Brix, Titratable acid (TA), free sulfur dioxide (SO2), malic acid and residual sugar from tank samples. “I’m just a scientist,” she says. But her scientific methods are exacting. And even though there are all sorts of high tech machines in the lab, all her calculations are first logged by hand. Sonja also makes a mean cappuccino. “She’s the only one here who makes them perfectly,” says Brandye. A native Italian, Sonja came to the United States after marrying Dino Bugica, now chef and owner of Diavola Pizzeria and Salumeria in Geyserville, where I’d lunched the day before. (Awesome pizza, I might add, some of the best I have ever tasted!)
Next, we visited the tank rooms, and then headed over to watch sorting and punch down, where I met Ted’s brother Dave, operations manager at Seghesio. The sorting and de-stemming machines are loud! This video, which for some reason is absent color except for green will give you an idea.
Pigeage or Punch Down
The color and tannin in the wine comes from direct contact with the skin. While the grape juice ferments, it produces carbon dioxide (CO2) which lifts all the skins and seeds to the top of the vat creating a thick cap. The cap must be mixed through the liquid each day or “punched.” Pigeage is the French term for the traditional “stomping” of the grapes in open fermentation tanks. The tanks at Seghesio are much too large for stomping feet, so they use a punch down arm. The punchdown arm is really big, and is operated manually by a guy standing on a platform at the top of the tanks. Here is a still shot of punchdown.
After punch down, Brandye took me back into the barrel rooms, and to the historic area, where a few huge redwood tanks (capacity 4.796 gallons) that formerly populated the barrel room were on display. Then off to see the tables, Dave, also a carpenter, crafted from other historic redwood barrels for the Family Table Wine & Food Pairings.
Blessings, Wives and Tasting
We finished up in the tasting room, where I met Pete’s wife Cathy, who had just come from The Blessing of the Animals at St. John’s Catholic School, which she told me, included a horse and some chickens in addition to dogs, cats and snakes. The annual blessing of pets is held in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi’s love for all creatures. Cathy, a native of Louisiana, is the Director of Marketing for Seghesio Family Vineyards.
In addition to its award-winning Zinfandels, Seghesio produces a number of Italian varietals, including Arneis, Pinot Grigio, Fiano, Sangiovese, and Barbera. They also produce a 100% Sangiovese called “Venom” from a proprietary clone on Rattlesnake Hill, and a Super Tuscan they call Omaggio, meaning “homeage” or “tribute” in Italian. I tasted a number of the current releases, settling on a bottle of Chianti Station Sangiovese and a 2005 Vintage Dionigia Sonoma County available only at the winery. “Dionigia” (Wine Goddess in Italian) is produced in small quantities, and named in honor of great-grandmother Angela Dionigia Seghesio. A port-style dessert wine, Dionigia is a blend of 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Zinfandel and 33% Petite Sirah. The family produced only 400 cases of the 2005 vintage.
Although the winery is technically owned by the Crimson Wine Group, Seghesio still feels very much like a family-owned winery, and every family member in attendance made me feel very welcome. I am looking forwarding to visiting again.
Check out more pictures from my visit to Seghesio.