The less work Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith have to do in their four-acre Syrah vineyard atop Mount Veeder in California’s Napa Valley, the better they like it.
And it’s not just because they’re the main workers, with extra help only brought in at harvest. Rather, Lagier and Meredith aim to grow Syrah grapes in cooperation rather than competition with nature.
The strategy began with site selection, Lagier told growers at a viticulture conference hosted by the B.C. Wine Grape Council in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, this summer.
"Syrah is about choosing a good site, and I always say it’s better to be lucky than good," said Lagier, a former winemaker at Robert Mondavi, who now produces about 900 cases a year at Lagier Meredith Vineyard. "We found this place and made a wonderful home there and grow incredible Syrah on it."
The site won high praise from Jean-Louis Chave, owner-winemaker of family-owned Domaine Jean-Louis Chave in the northern Rhône region of France.
"Syrah will do very well here because Syrah loves a view," he told Lagier and Meredith.
The property needed a lot of work when Lagier and Meredith bought it in 1986, but they knew when they started planting their vines in 1994 that they would face an uphill battle unless they worked with the topography and other site conditions.
So, for a start, they planted up and down the complex slopes on the property rather than across the slopes, and spaced the rows to make the greatest use of the site without reducing the vines’ access to sunlight. Vines are trained on unilateral cordons.
The vines are spaced five by seven feet apart, which is designed to optimize the use of sunlight while still allowing access with machinery. Vines are 30 inches off the ground, which suits Lagier and Meredith as the main workers in the vineyard, and the height is also enough to prevent raccoons from enjoying too much of the fruit.
The mountain-top climate allows the fruit to mature gradually.
The Lagier Meredith vineyard averages about 2,800 Fahrenheit degree days a season and benefits from the moderating influences of its 1,300-foot elevation and proximity to San Francisco Bay, which is 15 miles away as the crow flies. The cooler climate suits Lagier, whose preference is for Rhône-style Syrahs rather than the bigger, bolder style characteristic of Shiraz from Australia.
"The cooler you are, the more spice—especially white character and floral characters you’re going to get in Syrah," he said. "As you move to the other mountain growing areas up in the northern part of Napa Valley, you’re going to tend to get these bigger, more fruit-forward wines that tend to push the alcohol higher and make thicker, richer wines and more in the Shiraz style."
The soils in the Lagier Meredith vineyard are also amenable to Syrah. A good clay content controls vigor while allowing minimal irrigation. Thinning of shoots and clusters help control yields, Lagier added, with the harvest running approximately three tons an acre.
"The site controls our vigor fairly well; we control yield," Lagier said.
He pays special attention to his younger vines, especially five clones he has from l’Etablissement National Technique pour l’Amélioration de la Viticulture in France. Unlike the Durrelle clone that he has, the ENTAV clones have proven fruitful in California.
"Some of these new ENTAV clones on big shoots will put three clusters, which is just ridiculous," Lagier said.
He attributes the abundance to the clones’ origins in France, where spring rains inhibit fruit set.
"When you move those clones to a location like ours where the weather’s beautiful during set, you can get a huge amount of fruit. So, we do a lot of cluster thinning," he said.
The grapes are harvested at between 25 and 26 degrees Brix.
"We want just a little bit of loss of pressure in those berries, so it starts looking a little bit like a golf ball, and that’s usually when there’s best sugar. There’s very little green in the pulp at that point; the seeds are brown; they taste right," he said. "It’s time to get the press."
When the grapes are finally crushed, Lagier and Meredith ensure the character of the harvested fruit shines through in the wine by avoiding extended maceration and using thrice-used barrels that lend very little oak flavor to the wine during aging.
"We want to do our best to get out of the way and let the fruit shine through. So, everything is done as simply as possible," Lagier said. "We try to protect our fruit from too much winemaking because it can stand well alone."