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Mixed Whites

October 2, 2020

The story of the Mixed Whites is unusual in our world of varietal white wine. The idea came to me while wandering about in Sonoma Valley’s historic field-blended vineyards.  As I heard their stories, I came to understand how precious the few, but ever-present white grape varieties were that existed among all the reds. 

It was a gamble to gather all these varieties in the form of cuttings and bring them to Old Hill.  We grafted them as a field blend in single block.  What I knew is that some of the varieties were aromatically intense, such as Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Malvasia and the various Muscats, but that others such as Muscadelle, Chasselas, Clairette, Semillon, and Grenache Blanc were more neutral in character.  Blended together, I hoped, the resulting wine would be pretty, with modest intensity, but not dominated by any one variety. 

I did not know what to expect of the wine. The risk and resulting anxiety of this enterprise was considerable.  It took one year of soil preparation, five years from planting to harvesting any fruit, and then another year to bottle before I would know what we had.  I might add the vineyard was replacing Cabernet, a wine we can sell more easily for more money (guh!)

Lizanne and I both enjoy a “glass” of white wine before dinner. Our budget is modest and generally we steer ourselves to French or Italian, finding, for example, Sancerre to be right in our wheelhouse.  We like bright acid, slightly neutral, with plenty of citrus or tropical or earthy mineral notes, but not sloppy, big, oaky or sweet! 

Our first vintage of Mixed Whites was in 2015 and we made a whopping 28 cases.  I was enthusiastic about the wine, especially the aromatics, but admittedly, there was a certain cloying character that appeared on the palate.  I suspected that in my enthusiasm to get yield, I had pressed the grapes too hard.  In 2016 and 2017 the character was still present, however more modest, as I pressed more gently and made a few other winemaking adjustments. 

Since 2015 I have steadily become more in love with the wine, or should I say the vines. They grow on what is the most stressful block on the Ranch, with very rocky, shallow soils up on top of a volcanic dome seen as you drive by on Hwy 12.  Underneath the shallow soil is a layer of volcanic tuft, an impermeable layer of ash and stone welded together in another eon. 

We grafted the vines to St George rootstock, hoping the vigorous rootstock would help the vines survive the annual drought inflicted by the shallow soils.  But it turns out the site is also the windiest on the Ranch too, adding to the overall stress and dryness of the site.  

Some of the vines are thriving, but many are overly stressed. Dry farming the vines is still my goal, but there are too many factors that have worked against success.  This year I installed some irrigation to see if we could nurture along the vines that are behind.  The production continues to be very limited, with the average yields remaining under one ton per acre. 

It is these kinds of winemaking challenges that are most interesting to me.  Forging ahead in unknow territory and investing time, energy and ego. There is no doubt that I have lost all objectivity about the wine, but I still think you should give it a try, especially if served chilled with oysters! 

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