Umbria and Sonoma  – Sagrantino, Food, and Motorcycles

Umbria and Sonoma – Sagrantino, Food, and Motorcycles

When late summer arrives, things get very busy in the wine business. There are endless last minute farming chores, the final blending of wines, emptying barrels and bottling (to make room for the coming vintage), and of course the impending harvest and winemaking.

Umbria and Sagrantino

Prior to all of that, and after the main thrust of Covid briefly waned in Europe, we were finally able to schedule our long-planned trip to Italy, specifically Umbria, to survey the latest in the world of Sagrantino – the deep dark inky Italian grape that we have been growing here at the Hydeout ranch. We are obsessed with Sagrantino and are one of very few growers in the United States. 

Sagrantino – see this article: The next ‘power red,’ poised for a breakout in the wine world

As an enthusiastic producer of Sagrantino here in Sonoma, the Umbrians received us like royalty at every stop:

After a few days in Rome to adjust to the jet lag, we headed into our Umbrian itinerary. First stop was the Chiesa Del Carmine where we met the executives and winemakers and tasted many Sagrantino blends from barrel and bottle. The Chiesa is in a rather remote location set in a small private valley, very much a sanctuary just like the old church from where it takes its name.

Of course, at every stop, the food and wine was spectacular. Here inside the converted church winery, Cynthia is starting in on another of many food and wine tastings. It did not take long to confirm that Umbrians feel strongly about their Sagrantino history.

Truffles are nearly a staple in Umbria. This truffle preserve in Montana Alta Umbria was purposely planted with Oak, Hazelnut, Beech, Chestnut, and then fenced from marauding animals (and people) and which yields a surprising quantity and quality of earthy leathery gems, generally harvested from December through April.

Naturally, the food scene in Umbria is not to be believed. The Umbrians are quite serious and proud of their food and wine.

Yet another very warm welcome as part of the “Sagrantino tribe”, one of the expected highlights of the trip through Umbria at perhaps the first and most well-reputed maker of Sagrantino, Arnaldo Caprai Winery, as they celebrate their 25th anniversary (Cinquant’ Anni).

Our hosts at Caprai pulled out all the stops opening every imaginable bottle, from pure 100% Sagrantino to various blends and white wines, including the 25th anniversary bottling (left), all different in style and all compelling and delicious.

Sonocaia (So-No-Kī-Yah), 2020 Estate Reserve Sagrantino

Our newest brand, Sonocaia (pronounced So-No-Kī-Yah)

We’ve been living and breathing and talking about Sagrantino long before we even planted it at the Hydeout ranch here in Sonoma. Above, the inaugural 2020 bottling of our new brand, Sonocaia. Pronounced So-No-Kī-Yah, we won’t be offering this wine for sale for a few years. Some bottle age is required.

Inaugural 2020 Sonocaia and some of the other Dysfunctional Family wines in the lineup

Sonocaia is our new Estate Reserve 100% Sagrantino brand name. Dysfunctional Family Winery remains our other brand. We released two Sagrantino-based wines, the 2018 and 2019, on our website, under the Dysfunctional Family Winery brand. These two wines contain some Sagrantino but when the vineyard was younger. 2020 is the first full-strength Sagrantino vintage. A blind tasting of Sonocaia up against several noteworthy Umbrian Sagrantino’s was recently conducted. Watch for the results in the next blog post.  To shop our wines now or to learn more, click here.

Touring the Mediterranean by motorcycle

We never miss a chance to squeeze motorcycle touring into a vacation. After Umbria and the enchanting world of Sagrantino, we flew to Barcelona, picked up our rented BMW R1200RT sport touring bike, loaded our gear, and headed for a cruise around the Mediterranean. Our route took us from Barcelona Spain, through Andorra, into southern France, and on into Tuscany, and eventually back to Rome.

Here we are climbing into the mountains not far from Andorra, a landlocked country inside northern Spain

No day drinking, ever, for this motorcycle pilot, so I have to rely upon other treats – like ice cream. Cynthia has no such restrictions as a passenger and, as is the local tradition, enjoyed wine with almost every lunch. But for sure we both enjoyed endless mountains of baguettes, olive oil, cheese, and Cassoulet. And wine with dinner! Here we are in Cap D’Antibe in southern France where everything closes promptly (and with no debate) for the afternoon.

The Serchio River, in northern Tuscany, province of Lucca, as it passes under the “Devil’s Bridge” (Pont De la Madeleine). On this day, the key feature was the temperature, almost 100F inside our helmets.

Our United Airlines pilot somehow noticed our enthusiasm and invited us onto the 777 flight deck for a look around. You can see who he put into his pilot’s seat. Yeh. It was a fantastic trip in every way. And we arrived home rested and ready for another harvest season. This will be my 23rd vintage.

The smoky grape harvest of Sonoma 2020

The smoky grape harvest of Sonoma 2020

A smoky harvest like no other…

Pandemic, wildfires, smoke, and riots. And who can forget the electromagnetic solar pulse that destroyed the electrical grid! While all this mayhem has been going on, the Sonoma wine industry has been grappling with a grape harvest like no other.

While firefighters fought blazes across the west, growers attempted to protect their employees from the virus with masks, thermometers, and testing while also protecting the valuable grape crop from endless exposure to smoke. The compounds from smoke can settle on the grapes and be metabolized into the fruit through the grape skins. In some wines, the effect will be little to none and the smoke is no cause for worry. In other cases, experts and trained consumers will detect the smoke taint in the wine after 6 months or so. Behind the scenes, most winemakers are saying that the frequency of smoke taint is overblown. We’re just not seeing detectable levels as wines complete fermentation. But no one wants to be caught pressing a narrative that could appear to be self-serving. Click here to read a detailed story on smoke taint from noted SF Chronicle wine writer Esther Mobley and this article by noted chemist Clark Smith.

Here are some photos of Hydeout Sonoma’s first few days of the smoky harvest:

Bringing in the fruit:

We managed to bring in great fruit despite the many challenges, and thankfully most of it looks to be free of smoke taint. But we won’t really know for sure until a few months from now when a) the lab test results are back and b) the wine is safely in barrels.

Processing the fruit:

This time-lapse video link below says it all: Click here for the time lapse video of the winery crush pad.  Note that each white bin that arrives and departs represents a half-ton of fruit, equal to about 80 gallons or 35 cases of finished wine. I am standing atop the catwalk at the top of the frame ruling over my loyal subjects.

Fruit processing

A 1/2 ton bin of Syrah waiting for the de-stemmer

Surprising news about what wine drinkers care about:

Grape growers and winemakers live and breathe farming and fermentation all year long, and many wine marketers wrongly assume that is what consumers want to hear about. But no, it appears that they are not very interested in how the wine is made or for that matter even how it’s grown. The top three important pieces of information consumers are after are 1) wine type, 2) flavor and taste, and 3) where the wine was produced. I suppose then a word to the wise – no more putting people to sleep droning on and on about farming methods, special blocks, blending trials, oak barrels, and so on.

Whhat wine customers are looking for?

Dysfunctional Family Winery construction news:

After 3 1/2 years of Sonoma County-required studies for a micro-winery Use Permit, we finally ‘turned some dirt’ and started digging test pits to reconfirm the building foundation requirements.

Geotech test pit 1

Excavator operator Jim Rong digging the test pit next to the old barn which will become the winery some day.

Geotech test pit 2

Don Whyte from PJC Geotechnical climbs into the test pit to study and report on the soil characteristics. We tossed in a Coors Light and a small dog and said “have fun down there”.

Happy winemaker:

Underway with my 21st vintage. My happy face and the bags under my eyes is a regular gift from the long days of every harvest. That hat on my head, my local gym, well, I haven’t seen the place since March.

There goes my hero! – (watch the Foo Fighters song on You Tube)

Were you perhaps wondering who is this brave firefighter featured at the top of this post? His name is Dennis Wornick, and he is our middle child. He is a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service ‘Texas Canyon Hotshots’ based in LA. I am not certain where or when this picture was taken, but it was likely either on the Red Salmon Complex fire in or on the Dolan fire in Big Sur; and today his crew went into the Bobcat fire.