Four Voices, Harvest At Pagani Ranch, Sonoma

Ξ November 12th, 2013 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History |

Part owner of Pagani Ranch, Dino Amantite is a man of few words. Working with the invaluable assistance of David Cook, president and founder of Cook Vineyard Management (CVM), I was able to make contact with the gentleman. After a wordy request to visit to which he responded “OK”, we began swapping ever briefer emails over a series of weeks in September/October. To my repeated question, “When will Pagani Ranch be harvested ?” He replied, “Not sure…” Then one day the finest email arrived, “We are picking for Ridge this Thursday at 7:00 a.m.”
 
A bit of background. This summer I was touring Sonoma County, the birthplace of the California wine industry. While driving Hwy 12, on a stretch named the Valley of the Moon – said to be the Native American translation of the word ‘Sonoma’ – an extraordinary vineyard appeared. Thankfully the roadsides are wide just there for in a heartbeat I was parked off the highway. For the next half-hour, and as the sun set, I walked the vineyard boundary in speechless wonder. Head-trained vines as thick as a football player’s thighs dotted the landscape from the highway to a bank of distant trees in shadow. Heavy bunches of jet-black grapes, through which no sunlight could pass, hung in canopies of green, red and fiery orange leaves. At the base of many vines, wooden stakes had long ago been absorbed into the massive, twisting trunks they were once meant to support. More, pathways through the vines just here were crowded. No tractor could ever pass. All hand-harvested, clearly, this magnificent vineyard was of a different order; living history of a very rare kind. I had to learn more. And I did.
 
I was at Pagani Ranch, in the area anyway, well before 7 a.m., before dawn. The stars shone on a fertile expanse; and the headlights of many a harvester vehicle raked the vines and hillsides and cast eerie shadows as they snaked up dirt roads, blinking out over a ridge or soon veiled within stands of Cypress, Cedar and Myrtle. The dust thrown up by 4-wheel drives, late-model Camrys and primer-gray Civics rose into the still air. I had not been told where to go, how to get to Pagani Ranch. I had not thought to ask Dino. Let’s just say I learned a lot that morning of agricultural by-ways too incidental even for Google Maps to plot. But I did at last find the staging area of David Cook’s harvesting crew, which, it must to be said, was among the finest I’d ever witnessed.
 
Right off I met Dino Amantite, a substantial, no-nonsense man. He is all about the work, and no detail, however small, escapes his attention. My job was to document the harvest crew, the extraordinary vines and, with any luck, interview both the principle owner of Pagani Ranch, Dino, and his very active mother, Norma, the ranch’s matriarch. Mostly I was to keep the hell out of the way. I had been given no assurances, no guarantee, apart from access to the vineyard itself. “Let’s see how things go”, David Cook would caution early on. And with David Gates of Ridge also present, a man I have long admired, this was good advice for I was obviously in the big-leagues now.
 
What follows is an irregular story, more of a series of interview impressions, if I may put it that way, from four of the principle figures I encountered that day. For crucial background, please see this fine background gloss on the history of Pagani Ranch published in the Press Democrat a couple of years ago.
 
NORMA PAGANI AMANTITE
 
Norma Pagani Amantite stands straight as a post in the midst of a very active harvest crew. Seeming never to miss a single picker’s motion among her beloved vines, vigilantly assessing the quality of the bunches tumbling into the bins, her dignified bearing nevertheless had a calming effect, a talent she would have put to good use had she been granted her wish to become a police officer when young, if only it had been permitted of women back in the day. Buoyant, humorous, she was also a surprising source of lyrical moments. She graciously took a few moments to speak with me ‘on the record’.
 
Ken Payton What are we harvesting today?
 
Norma Pagani Amantite It is a mixture of six different reds in the same block. That’s how they planted them in the olden days. And they all ripen at different times. Folks have already come out and checked the sugar. I don’t do that anymore. That’s one less job for me.
 
How would you describe your job now ?
 
Norma Well, Dino is in charge. I just like to be out here. I can’t stand to be in the house. I like this big yard ! No neighbors.
 
How many acres is your ‘big yard’ ?
 
Norma One hundred and eighty-seven point seven, the whole ranch.
 
And railroad tracks used to divide the property. Now there is just this road. When did that happen ?
 
Norma When they put in the highway people quit using the train to travel. Then when the war came they came and got the steel off the tracks and used them for the war. And they gave the old railroad ties to Grandpa and Uncle Louie. They made fences out of them. The railroad used to go to Santa Rosa, down to Sonoma, to the Bay Area, all over the place. Northern Pacific ran it. I was told Grandpa had a fit when they came in to do it; but it was eminent domain. He didn’t want his ranch divided by tracks, but he couldn’t stop them.
So now instead of going on the highway to go to the upper ranch, I go on the old tracks. I have my own private highway ! That was my boys’ idea.
 
So what grapes do we have here ? We have Zinfandel, we have Tokay and Alicante Bouschet…
 
Norma (laughs) You pronounce it different than I do ! I guess that’s the correct, fancy way to say it. Uncle Louie used to just call it Alcantee. So there’s Alcantee, Grand Noir, Lenoir, Carignan, Zinfandel, and Petti Sear [how she pronounced it].
 
Petti Sear ? I don’t believe I know that one…
 
Norma (laughs) That’s how Uncle Louie pronounced it. The correct way is Petite Sirah. He only went to grammar school, you know. So there are six reds, maybe seven. Can’t recall the last. In those days they planted a field blend. And they would all ripen at different times.
 
What do you do when a vine dies ? I saw one back there that was looking a little tired…
 
Norma You would too if you were born in 1880 ! But when one dies we try to stick with Zinfandel. I was told that, even after all these years, we still have the biggest holdings of Alicante Bouschet in the county. The wineries buy them for color, to add color to the Zinfandel. They don’t make a pure wine out of Alicante Bouschet. It’s too powerful. And the Lenoir is real tough, like small rocks. They’ll stand for anything Mother Nature throws at them. Those Lenoirs can handle it. They’re loose and they’re real tough. You don’t get the crop off of the old vine, the big crop; but you get the flavor. You cannot plant an old vine; I mean the young vines will not have the deeper flavors of the old.
 
You’re a pretty fierce guardian of this ranch.
 
Norma I try. There are nine owners now. After my aunt died, my sister and I disclaimed (sic) our shares to our sons. But my big sister didn’t. She kept what she had coming for herself. Grandpa had seven kids. My dad had three girls. I turn around and have three boys! And my sister has two boys. The Man upstairs is in charge. And of the grandsons, only Richard is interested in viticulture. The rest are not interested. That’s normal. One in three is not bad.
 
She paused to watch the harvest continue, the grapes piling up in the bins, and then looked long and slow across the property.
 
Norma Listen. Do you hear that ? When the vines are in leaf, you can’t hear the highway.
 
DAVID GATES
 
Can you tell me a little of what Ridge is looking for here at Pagani Ranch ? And also about Lenoir, a delicious grape I’ve been snacking on.
 
David Gates We’ve been buying fruit from Pagani since 1991. We really like it. It’s one of the latest Zins we get in each year. It usually comes in after our Dry Creek or Alexander Valley fruit. It has racy acidity; and of all of the vineyards we source our Zinfandels from, this vineyard probably has the highest percentage of old vines. Even the replants here, some are 40-50 years old. So they too qualify as historic vines themselves.
The family has been involved intimately in this ranch for many, many years, several generations now, which is always nice to see. What that does for me and for Ridge is tell me this is good ground for grapes. These vines have survived two world wars, Prohibition, the ‘white Zin’ craze, the white wine craze, the grape recession even, and they are still going strong. Why ? Because they make great wine.
 
Which wines does Ridge make of these grapes ?
 
David We make a Pagani Ranch, and it is predominately Zinfandel, but is does have a bit of Alicante and a mix of other grapes. That’s one thing you see here: the pre-Prohibition plantings in California. There are still a few remnant vineyards left throughout the state. A lot of them are in the North Coast, in Napa and Sonoma Counties. They typically are mixed plantings, they are mixed up. Here at Pagani, Zinfandel is predominant, but there is also Alicante Bouschet, there is some Mataro or Mourvedre, there is a little bit of Petite Sirah, and a grape called Cinsault or Black Malvoisie, then there is Lenoir.
And it is a direct producer. The vine was bred in the south of France directly in response to the phylloxera threat that was happening in the 1870s and 80s in France. It came to California in the 1870s, and by the 1880s it had wiped out a lot of the vineyards of the Sonoma Valley, where California’s fledgling fine wine industry was located at the time.
 
People back then were replanting to what they called ‘direct producers’. This was before it was common to use root stocks to combat phylloxera. Now, this grape Lenoir could resist phylloxera but it also made good wine. To this day there is probably maybe less than 1% Lenoir vines scattered in this block. It’s got these tiny, little berries with really intense juice; and the juice is red. It is a teinturier variety. But it’s also got good acidity. It doesn’t make that interesting a wine on its own, but a little bit mixed in adds a raciness to the Zinfandel and to the other varieties that are here. It’s a neat grape.
 
DAVID COOK
 
Thank you for assisting me in the visit to Pagani on this harvest day. Ridge is here. Can you tell us what it is you do ?
 
David Cook I am a vineyard manager. I own the vineyard management company that manages Pagani Ranch. So we do all the pruning, all the canopy management, up through harvest. I’ve been in this business since 1995.
 
What does Pagani Ranch offer ?
 
David Its old vine Zinfandel, which is a hot commodity around here. And these are especially healthy vines. There is a way you manage those. And that is one of our kinds of expertise. We know what these vines need. A lot of these vines are dry-farmed. You’ll see that we just put it some irrigation in the last couple of years. We’ve decided to do this because the water table is down.
 
What’s happened to the water table ?
 
David We think it’s a season change.
 
Speaking of seasonal changes, have you noticed any changes here in the climate over the years ?
 
David It seems like we have rain happening later on. We used to get the early rains, in late September. But we haven’t gotten those for the last 4 or 5 years. But the experts say that is more of a seasonal change, that is has done that throughout history. And the last two years have been great growing years.
 
Is this the oldest vineyard you manage ? And there are special requirements ?
 
David Yes. And there are special requirements. These vines are more vulnerable in certain ways. You just need to know when to fertilize, and be attentive to the little things you do. We leave a low crop on. That’s probably the secret to old vines. We don’t push them. It’s kind of like an older person: you just don’t have them running marathons. They used to carry three and a half tons per acre; now were down to about two to two and a half. But the quality went up. And we now get paid more for the fruit because of this increase in quality. It’s much easier on the vines. That’s why they are surviving: we’re not over-cropping them. That’s just good management.
 
THE FOURTH VOICE
 
There was suddenly a pause in the harvest. It seems the tractor meant to haul the heavy bins to the winery was not working. Bad starter. Dino was called away to assist in its repair, promising, before he left, to be interviewed another day. And I will make it happen. But as to the fourth voice, that would be the collective shouts, murmurs, the laughter and jokes, the voices of the harvesting crew itself. One fellow in particular stood out, Jorge, a soft-spoken, thoughtful man, who told me of his family’s coming to California many years ago. His aged father has long since retired and returned to Mexico where he began his own ranch. And Jorge thinks that in a few years he himself may return to help.
 
Great thanks to Dino Amantite and David Cook for their generosity.
 
Ken Payton, Admin
 
All photos are copyrighted by the author.

 

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