Vineyard Report: Rockpile AVA, Branham Vineyard
Gary Branham’s fantastic petite sirah vineyard is hard to find, but well worth the effort.
The vineyard is located west of Lake Sonoma, over 1,000 feet above the Sonoma valley floor — it’s the most remote growing site we use. And with its steep, rocky terrain, crossing a seasonal creek (among other challenges) is required to access the vineyard.
Branham Vineyard is dry farmed and it produces intensely concentrated petite sirah. Water conservation and grape quality are two chief reasons dry farming is gaining more and more traction, even in drier climates like California. Right now, flowering is almost finished and we are already beginning to see the crop set.
2018 harvest — and incredible petite sirah — here we come!
Out in the Field
Mount Konacti is an inactive volcano in Sonoma's Lake County. The last time this volcano erupted, it created an incredible amount of obsidian and lava rock deposits. Today, those deposits have created extremely well drained soils that are perfect to stress grape vines, pushing smaller berry size and increased flavor, aroma and color in each one.
Mark and Sheila Farmer's story is as much about passion as it is about growing incredible grapes. They packed up their bags in Minnesota a few years ago and made the trek to the rolling hills and vineyards of California to follow their dreams -- dreams they'd had for over a decade. They've worked hard to turn those dreams into reality.
Wine lovers through and through, Mark has a story he likes to tell about another famous Minnesotan with some winemaking pedigree. “You might not know that a guy from Minnesota put Napa and California wine in general on the world’s wine map,” he says proudly. “He’s one of the most influential names in wine -- Robert Mondavi from Virginia, Minnesota.” He laughs. “Beware of Minnesotans!”
Mark and Sheila purchased what used to be called Kemp Vineyard and renamed it Famighetti Vineyards in honor of Mark’s dad. They continue to grow the flavorful grapes that Adobe Road Winery sources to make award-winning zinfandel, syrah, grenache and viognier. Famighetti represents some of the area’s great terroirs. The property itself is quite dramatic, with its sweeping vistas, old-growth trees, vines for years and tree house, overlooking it all high above one of Sonoma County’s wine meccas, Healdsburg.
Zinfandel as we know it, is grown predominantly in California, having made its way to the state during the Gold Rush in the 1850s. The variety is grown in over 10 percent of California’s vineyards and only cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir are planted in more abundance. These days, the popularity of the grape is no surprise given its versatility and renowned ability to pair well with a wide variety of foods. “I really love zinfandel,” Mark says. “It can be a big, rich, ripe, high alcohol red wine with higher tannins, or it can be made to be light and fruity. I like both, depending on the situation. For me, zinfandel is a good alternative to cabernet because I really like its ability to deliver spicy, smoky flavors.”
On any given day, you’ll see the couple decked out in their dirt farming duds -- worn jeans and boots -- lovingly working the land. It’s all hands on here at Famighetti. Elsa, Mark and Sheila’s trusting vineyard dog, completes the picture.
Farmer was first introduced to zinfandel by his uncle Tom Maple, who with his wife Tina, cultivate 26 acres of prime benchtop land in Dry Creek. “Uncle Tom’s passion for zin rubbed off on me and inspired me to not only drink fine zinfandel wines, but to pursue growing this grape.” Mark and Sheila acquired Famighetti Vineyards in 2015.
Mark and Sheila picked the perfect “zin” spot; the jewel in the zinfandel crown. Dry Creek Valley is known for being one of the best places on earth to grow zinfandel. Famighetti’s vines -- all 2,500 of them -- are grown on a sharp slope, at an elevation of almost 1,000 feet above sea level. “We have this very steep, bowl-shaped terrace cut into the mountainside. There aren’t many vineyards like it. So, we get a few microclimates that produce really great fruit. The vines tend to retain the heat throughout the day, getting a little extra warmth and this makes the grapes thrive.” There are even a few Primitivo vines scattered around the vineyard, which add to the unique flavors produced from the fruit.”
The Farmers’ relationship with Adobe Road goes back over 10 years. “Adobe Road does a great job with our fruit, getting the most out of all four varietals we grow here and this has been reflected in many high ratings and awards.” Adobe Road’s 2015 Zinfandel -- the first vintage from Famighetti -- just scored an outstanding 91 points from Wine Spectator (May, 2018 issue). “The winemaker, Garrett Martin, is great to work with and he spends a lot of time in the vineyard with me, making decisions on how to keep improving things. It’s a great partnership.”
That 2015 zinfandel crop -- the Farmers’ first -- was very challenging. “We were in the fifth year of a drought, so there was a lot of heat,” Farmer remembers. “I think generally, the zin crop was down about 40% that year and there were quite a few temps that reached 105 degrees, too. When the berries were picked, they were close to being shriveled and the brix was high. But despite all of the challenges, we ended up making a really good wine.”
Garrett Martin agrees. “We had some bad weather during flowering, too. 2015 was a challenging year, that’s for sure. It’s the great partnership between grower, winemaker and winery that makes the fruit the very best it can be.”
Wine to Try
The 2015 Adobe Road Zinfandel is packed full of blue and black fruits, fresh and vibrant. Cinnamon and baking spices play in the middle with a rich mouthfeel and details of cracked black peppercorns and licorice.