Winemaker Clay Mauritson Talks Zinfandel, Heritage & Place
I met winemaker Clay Mauritson of Mauritson Family Vineyards in the mid-2000s when I sold his wines in New York as a sales rep for T. Edward. He’s a sixth-generation grape grower in Sonoma, California, and the first to make wine from his family’s estate fruit for commercial sale. I wrote about his Dry Creek zinfandel earlier this week. He’s passionate about his craft, his family legacy and zinfandel, which we talked about at length during a recent phone interview. I’ve long been in the not-Cali camp, favoring instead high acid, lower alcohol French and Italian wines, but that’s begun to change as new California producers are shying away from the big flavor, heady, flabby, Parker-style wines, opting instead for a restrained approach and blended wines from varieties outside the usual suspects. “Ninety-three percent of the varietals planted within the United States are basically of five different vinifera,” Clay says. The new movement calls themselves the 7% Solution, making wine from atypical varieties and doing some exciting and interesting things. But there’s a swath of independent producers who were striving for moderate alcohols and balance long before the New Californians caught the media’s eye, and Clay is one such winemaker, keeping it real since 1999. His zinfandels might still reach alcohol levels above 14%, but most of that is the variety, which he explained in our conversation.
Our conversation was lengthy and some of it quite technical; this one might appeal more to the science-minded reader, though there is some art involved in all this, too.
I’m sharing a few highlights here. The full, lightly edited interview will be published as a long form conversation on Medium at a later date. Check back here or sign up for the Pig&Vine newsletter to keep in the know.
When I mentioned to Clay that I’d just finished reading Jon Bonné’s recent publication The New California Wine and that it got me interested in zinfandel again, he said he’d take it with a grain of salt - not in a negative way - just that the new cool kids club has a finely-honed vision, for which Bonné is a huge fan. He explained what the 7% Solution is and why it’s telling a good story, but not quite the whole story.
Clay Mauritson: There’s this group of wineries that have gotten together. That's what they've called themselves - the 7% Solution. It's a similar type of thing as in pursuit of balance. I always say, "Hey, at the end of the day, all of us wineries, winemakers, brands, whatever you want to identify us as, are very self serving.” Meaning of course, I'm going to talk to you about why Rockpile's the greatest place in the world to grow grapes because that's what I do. If you happen to grow pinot noir or chardonnay in a terroir region that gives you phenolic ripeness at 23 *brix and therefore you can make wines below 14% alcohol that are actually really good, then that's what you're going to talk about. If you happen to make blaufränkisch or vermentino or any of the other obscure varietals, you're going to talk about why that's the greatest thing in the world. That's what the 7% Solution is…the obscure wine that no one's ever heard of, probably for a reason.
Some of it, there's certainly a lot of credence in it. When people planted grapes, 100, 150 years ago, rarely, if ever were single varietals planted. It was always planted as a field blend, and when you planted zinfandel, you planted petite sirah and carignan and alicante and a whole bunch of other things to compensate for lack of phenolics and pH. Back then, they didn't even really know that's what they were doing. It's like, "Well, zinfandel's thin-skinned and doesn't have as much color, so let's plant petite sirah that has really thick skins. We get a lot of stuck fermentations with zinfandel, we don't really know why, but if we plant petite sirah and carignan and alicante that ripen later, and therefore are lower brix and higher acid, it helps with the fermentation." Just all that kind of stuff that we now have a better understanding of chemistry-wise.
Pig&Vine: Why is Zinfandel subject to a stuck fermentation?
CM: Well, Zinfandel, it's a bastard of a grape. It absolutely is. I joke all the time with friends and anyone who will listen, that any pinot noir producer who tries to tell you that pinot is the most difficult wine to make, has simply never made zinfandel. The number one reason that zinfandel is prone to stuck fermentations is because it ripens unevenly. More so than any other varietal, it ripens unevenly. It's really thin-skinned, and so they're far more prone to dehydration due to sun exposure or heat. When things ripen unevenly, winemakers in California have the tendency to err on the side of over-ripeness, because theoretically, you would rather taste jammy, fruit forward flavors in your wine, versus green vegetal flavors. The problem is, when you err on the side of over ripeness, you drive higher sugars in the wine, and obviously, high sugars correlates directly to higher alcohol, and higher alcohol correlates directly to stuck fermentations. Ethanol toxicity is the scientific term that we use, but most yeast cannot survive in an ethanol of 16% or greater. Once you get up to that 16% alcohol range, the yeast start to die off and cannot complete the fermentation, and therefore you have a stuck fermentation.
P&V: When you say overripe, what kind of brix are we talking about?
CM: Well, again, it's a huge challenge with zinfandel. No one, at least not that I'm aware of, wants to target 28 brix. What often happens is, you'll pick at say, 25, 25 and a half, and then three days later, once the fruit's in the tank, it'll be 28 or 30 brix, and it's just due to the uneven ripening. When you're out there doing sugar samples, whether you do berry samples or cluster samples, the juice that's going to be readily expressed in berry sampling or cluster sampling is going to be the plumper berries. That juice that you're sampling might be 25 brix, but once you macerate that and you get the must into a tank, the excessive sugar in the dehydrated berries is now released into the must, and so you see your brix go up in tank, and that's very common with zinfandel.
It's common in other varietals as well, but to see a half a point or one point shift in Bordeaux vinifera, that's somewhat accepted. In zinfandel, you'll see literally a two, three point shift in your brix. When you ask the question, "What brix are we talking about?" it depends if you're talking about what your harvest brix were or what your brix are at the start of fermentation. Those are often two very different numbers.
That happens with cabernet [sauvignon]. One of the things, as a zinfandel producer, I'm always very prickly or sensitive to, is when someone grabs a bottle of my zin and the first thing they do is they look at the alcohol content. Drives me absolutely freaking crazy. ETS, which is one of the major labs here in Napa and Sonoma county that does a lot of chemistry work for wineries, they had 17,000 data points from the harvest of 2015 which they were extrapolating this information from - don't quote me on this, because I don't have the number in front of me, but the average brix at harvest of zinfandel was, for 2015, like 26.4, and the average juice samples of cabernet they got was 26.2.
This notion that zinfandels are higher in alcohol than cabernets is a total farce, it's a joke. Now, granted, cabernet has higher tannin levels, higher phenolic levels in general, so it supports alcohols better than a lot of zinfandels do, but I get so offended when people, the first thing they do is look at the alcohol content on a zinfandel when the majority of cabernets in this day and age are as high, if not higher. Zinfandel just kind of got painted with a very broad brush of being overripe or out of balance. Our alcohols tend to be lower than most zinfandel producers. I think in the last five years, out of the eight zinfandels we make a year, so 40 different zins in five years, maybe two or three of them have been bottled at over 15% alcohol.
P&V: You're reaching those alcohol levels because of how you're farming, you're not adding in significant water or anything to balance it out?
CM: No, and part of it is our winemaking practices. Our zins are always fermented in open top container. It doesn't sound like a lot when you talk about the conversion rate, but let's just say that you pick zinfandel at 25, okay? In an open top, your conversion is about .58 per brix, and in a closed top, your conversion rate is about .62. Again, it doesn't sound like much, .04 of a point, right? If you picked at 25 and you ferment in open top, that translates to about 14.% alcohol. If you ferment in closed top, it translates to 15.5% alcohol. In an open top tank you have a distillation effect, where alcohol is a more volatile component, and it will basically blow off, but in a closed top, it hits the top of the tank and condenses back down into the wine or the must.
P&V: That’s fascinating. Going back for a second, we were talking about weird grapes. The 7%, unusual grapes. You actually have some of those planted that you put in your Independence port-style wine, right?
CM: We do. I guess in California, they’re very weird. There’s not a lot of tinto cao or tinto madeira, tourigo national, or sousão growing in California, but that is the traditional way to make Port, using those traditional varietals. My family loves true, traditional, vintage ports, and we saw an opportunity to emulate that in Rockpile. We wanted to do it the right way, not have a zinfandel that we got a stuck fermentation and said, Let’s call it Port.
P&V: Do you feel like zin making a comeback, or did it ever disappear?
CM: It's funny, I've been asked that question like three times in the past week. I don't think it ever disappeared. I think the most objective measure that you can look at is not to say, "What is zin doing in the marketplace?" But go back to the basics. “Okay, what's zin doing in terms of planted acreage? You can probably guess what pinot noir looks like. It looks like this exponential plane, this growth curve. You can probably get a pretty good idea what merlot has looked like over the last, say, 30 years. It had this huge steep climb, and then this huge steep decline. Syrah did a similar thing. Chardonnay and cabernet have this just very slow, steady climb, so there's no big peaks and valleys in that. Then when you look at zinfandel over the last 20, 30, 40 years, it is this perfectly flat line. [Reading from state-wide acreage data] In 2004, there were 42,000 acres of zinfandel in the state of California. In 2012, there were 46,000. It's about a 10% increase. To give you an idea, let me compare that to pinot. This’ll blow your mind. Pinot [noir], there were 25,000 acres in 2004, and 40,000 acres in 2012.
P&V: That's crazy.
CM: Zin's just kind of slow and steady wins the race. I don't think it has surged in popularity. I think more than anything, it just never went away. There is a transition, absolutely, from zinfandel being used in white zinfandel production, to being in transition to red zin. You're seeing this kind of rediscovery of some of these old heritage vineyards in Lodi and Sierra Foothills. A lot of people are branching out, and not just making zinfandel from Napa and Sonoma counties.
P&V: Your story is pretty unique. There are not too many people in California who actually come from wine growing families.
CM: We have the luxury of having a very authentic, amazing story. The thing I'm the most proud of about our family is that we have owned and farmed the same piece of property continuously, since 1868. When you think about the concept of sustainability, what's more sustainable than one family being able to make a living off a piece of land for six generations? Next year will be our 150th anniversary of growing grapes in Dry Creek Valley.
There were a lot of other wineries that started making wine a hell of a lot earlier than we did. We were a little bit late to the game, but better late than never. Part of it is simply because my brothers, and dad, and grandfather before them, they were farmers and ranchers, and they loved to do that. As much as I revere the vineyards, my passion is on the winemaking side, the more entrepreneurial…I love winemaking because it's a new experience every year. You never do anything exactly the same as you did the year before. I think that's very much in that entrepreneurial drive. It's why I love wine so much. It's a constant challenge.
P&V: You're looking for that sweet spot every vintage.
CM: Absolutely, and it changes from year to year. That's why you put a date and a place on the bottle. Every single bottle of wine tells you that story and, more importantly, that's all a bottle of wine should be, is a perfect representation of those two things. Not perfect in the Robert Parker or James Laube sense, but perfect in that it should never be anything more than a representation of the vintage and the place it came from. The place can be as large as California, or it can be as small as the Cemetery Vineyard block that is 2.9 acres in Rockpile.
*Brix is the American measurement of grape must density - aka sugar within the grape berries.