Nalle is estate grown and bottled, meaning we grow our own grapes and bottle at the winery. It might be hard to tell the difference when you see wines on the store shelf, but a lot of wines are outsourced fruit or pre-made juice that is bottled at some unknown facility before a label is just slapped on it. The fruit could be coming from all over California and just blended.
Nalle is a true taste of place. It is grapes from our 97-year-old estate vineyard, produced by our very own hands at the winery that sits on the vineyard, and bottled here too. However, because bottling requires an ultra-sterile environment, we use a mobile bottling line onsite to ensure quality. A lot of wineries do the same thing. Once we bottle, the wines must settle down and are left to rest for 6 months or so.
Our wine club is unique in the sense that the club shipments consist of our new release wines. So, our wines are bottled, rest, and then are released to the club. This ensures that the club gets the latest vintage as most everything sells out to the club. Click here to learn more about the Nalle club memberships. And because our wines are meant to age, we live by the rule of 3s: decant to drink one now, age one, and share the other with a friend. Bottle shape is a whole other discussion. There are burgundy style bottles, Bordeaux style, different colors, etc. Some of it is tradition based, some is for aging and some is stylistic. For example, we bottle our Pinot Noir in Burgundy style bottle. We also like glass that is tinted a darker color to protect from sunshine getting in and damaging the wine. I’m sure my husband could go on and on about why we choose the glass we do, bit this is my simple explanation.
In a nutshell harvest looks something like the following although it is my highly simplified version:
Starting in August sometime, we begin brix sampling, which means we go through specific blocks of grapes to assess their sugar level. For example, we like to pick our Zinfandel at around 24 brix. So, we need to keep checking where it is. Usually, the grapes go up about 1 degree brix per week.
Once we think the flavor, acid, and brix is where we want it, we call the pick date.
When the grapes get delivered to the winery we then sort, sort, sort. We don’t like any raisins or any under ripe fruit either.
Then the fruit gets destemmed and put into tanks where it ferments and then we press it and start the aging process in French oak barrels.
The Nalle winemaking style follows traditional vigneron techniques: low yields in the vineyard, hand picking and sorting, gentler macerations, and small fermentations. Aged exclusively in French oak (Alain Fouquet, Demptos, Francois Freres) 25% new, for 11 months.
When are grapes ready to harvest?
The 2021 harvest kicked off at Nalle Winery on September 1 when we picked the Bernier-Sibary field blend Zin. We tend to pick on the early side to keep alcohol levels down and retain bright acidity in the wines. Pick dates are super important when it comes to winemaking. We are looking for the right sugar levels, the right acid levels, but also flavor development and ripeness. It’s not just numbers from the lab that we rely on, it’s over 35 years of making wine from the same blocks and knowing right when the flavors start to get that perfect profile. We are usually some of the earliest people to start picking Zinfandel for red wine production. This is because we don’t make big jammy wines with high alcohol. It’s just the opposite, we make moderate alcohol, delicate and smooth wines with finely integrated oak and zinberry characteristics true to place. We like to call our style ‘old-school’ California: moderate in alcohol, bright acidity, smooth tannins, dry and flavorfully round in texture.
Part of the secret to getting moderate alcohol wines is that we sort, sort, sort. We drop fruit in the vineyard, we sort out bunches we don’t want in the field when we are picking, and we sort the grapes as soon as they hit the crush pad. Zinfandel is a varietal for which it is hard to call a pick date because the bunches on the vines ripen unevenly, and that creates a challenge in judging the block as a whole. So, there will be underripe green bunches on vines and then raisining bunches. We follow the goldilocks rule and like it just right- not green and not raisining or jammy. We look at each grape, taste, and hand sort everything ourselves- what we are looking for is something a machine can’t tell you. It takes human eyes and hands.
How long does harvest season last?
Because we only make about 2500 cases and we as a family make it ourselves, we are usually done with harvest come mid-October. Harvest is hard but it is an energized time of year. When we talk to our kids and they ask about holidays or big events coming up it always goes in this order: HARVEST, Halloween, thanksgiving, Christmas. It’s up there in big ‘events’ coming up. The reality is that we start getting ready for harvest with the very first decision we make in the winter to prune. Very early on we start thinking about crop load, crop quality, and canopy management. We seed cover crop and prep for the growing season well in advance. Harvest is a culmination of everything we do during the growing season.
Simply put, dry farming means no use of irrigation water, and relying solely on natural precipitation. This is an old-fashioned, labor-intensive way of farming. In Dry Creek Valley, this method has traditionally depended on the Mediterranean climate here in Sonoma, which provides dry summers and wet winters.
Our dry farmed estate old vines rely on winter rains to replenish the soil profile and get us through the season. This year (2021) we had very little winter rains, but water management can go beyond water use or input. Canopy management techniques are used to reduce water stress, these might include:
reducing crop load
shoot thinning and suckering
soil and vineyard floor practices
In some ways the drought has really shifted our thoughts and practices to regenerative farming. Our goal is to store as much precipitation from winter rain in the soil as possible, as well as encourage root growth down to the water table source. This practice is also called dust mulching, wherein you cross cultivate to seal the moisture into the soil. Sometimes when worry sets in, I think about how these vines have been in the ground since 1927 and they have seen their fair share of drought and stress, yet they keep producing year after year.
Are dry farming practices better at protecting crops against drought?
Yes, with the threat of wells being shut off, or highly monitored, it is safe to say that dry farmed old vine blocks can weather the drought. Vines that are irrigated cannot handle being suddenly shut off from water, their root systems are generally too shallow, whereas dry farmed roots go deeper to the water source, but that takes time.
Will more vineyards start using dry farming techniques?
I believe this is the way we are going. Water restrictions in the City of Healdsburg now prohibit automated irrigation, including sprinklers or drip, for all residential, commercial, and industrial customers. Small family vineyards like Nalle Winery can transition over, but massive operations with acres on the wire and irrigated will have much more trouble transitioning to dry farming. Dry farming is a completely different farming model and yields a lot less fruit.
What are examples of sustainable agriculture practices?
Nalle Winery has focused on land preservation and sustainability for over 93 years. Thankfully sustainable practices are becoming the norm, but in my opinion the old timers around Sonoma County have always kept the next generation in mind. Almost all farmers in our area are very conscious of sustainable farming, it is a philosophy that runs deep here in Dry Creek Valley. Examples of sustainable agriculture techniques we currently utilize include:
Compost tea applications
Vineyard floor management
Additionally, any grapes we source are from families who are generational farmers and radically regenerative. The Bernier Family farm the Bernier-Sibary block that has been utilized by Nalle Winery for over 25 years. They mulch, dry farm, and use compost religiously. The Hopkins Family provides Pinot to Nalle Winery and are very active in environmental protection.
We are also moving towards permanent cover cropping in some of our blocks.
In regard to energy consumption, our electricity bill is less than a single-family home. It can get up to 107 degrees outside in Dry Creek Valley, but the temperature in our above ground cave will naturally stay 56 degrees. The building was completed in 1990 and requires very little maintenance, and the cave’s living rosemary roof is a bee sanctuary for sure! Learn more about our above ground cave here: https://www.nallewinery.com/the-cave/