FOXEN OWNER BILLY WATHEN ON THE 2019 HARVEST:
Q: So, last day of harvesting grapes was Friday…. what comes next in the process?
A: Just babysitting at this point. If you look at the board here of our fermentation tanks, you can see that there’s no Pinot Noir anywhere…. It was probably a month’s worth of Pinot and these were pretty much all full. Then at the end of that month-long period, we did the de-juicing and press-offs as we started filling with Rhones and Bordeauxs, etc. Now we’re back to almost full capacity and today we’ll start doing the same process with these. The biggest thing about now that we’ve just finished harvesting is it takes all of the brain pressure off of having to follow those vineyards and varietals and make those picking decisions. That’s the hardest thing in the course of a vintage is to make those calls.
Q: Are those decisions yours?
A: They are, but I’ve been doing that with my troops so they can learn how to do it in the future. Knowing where all our fruit is coming from and the sequential effect of everything we do. You have to know where everything is and when it’s going to ripen and historically when it’s ripened. So, it’s pretty complicated and stuff that you lay awake at night worrying about. Now we don’t have to worry anymore – just babysit.
Q: How did this year stack up against previous ones?
A: This has been a vintage where everything has been outrageous! It never got too hot for too long – it’d be a few days and then it would cool off. We had a little scare with cold but it never got too cold. So, it’s been good in that respect – we never had to panic.
Q: How did the estate fruit do this year?
A: We had the best harvest on the estate that I think we’ve ever had! Just awesome! The way that ’17 and ’18 kinda set that all up – good vintages with normal rainfall and then this last winter was 150% rainfall – so the vines are feeling really good. A normal winter!
Q: Any standouts?
A: The Old Vine Cabernet Franc and Old Vine Syrah. We started to separate out the Syrah in ’16 and the Cabernet Franc in ’17 and those will be released at some point. The young vines are producing more since they’re now 12 years old. We got almost 10 tons from those two and about 3 tons to the acre average on the estate. For dry-farmed fruit that’s great!
Foxen’s dry-farmed Tinaquaic Vineyard is home to our estate Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Franc.
The Chardonnay portion is made up two different clone varieties – Wente and Clone 4. Wente are typically smaller clusters, while Clone 4 are bigger and more acidic. The Clone 4 block is Chardonnay grafted to Merlot rootstock!
Yesterday, Billy took samples of our Chardonnay for testing and tasting before harvest in a week or two.
“Hens and chicks!”
“It’s looking like a huge crop this year! Pretty healthy for no irrigation! Haven’t seen one like this since the ’90’s!” – Billy
“We started harvest today, August 30th, with Swan clone Pinot Noir from Riverbench Vineyard for our first ever rosé of Pinot Noir – a few days ahead of my prediction (between September 5th and the 10th). We pick rosé a little bit earlier than normal, so I feel really good about how we’ve viewed the harvest so far.”
“The table’s set and it looks really pretty! Hopefully, there’ll be no bull in the china shop to ruin the table! Weather’s looking great. Knock on wood, things look really good!” – Billy
THE CLUBHOUSE WILL BE CLOSED THIS SATURDAY FOR AN EVENT. TO TIDE YOU OVER UNTIL NEXT WEEK, HERE’S FOXEN OWNER DICK DORÉ TELLING THE STORIES BEHIND OUR VINTAGE CLUBHOUSE PHOTOS!
“These pictures were all taken circa 1910 through 1950 by my grandmother on her box Brownie. She developed all these pictures and I was lucky enough to find the negatives and started going through and saving them.”
“This first one was probably the poorest-saved negative, but it’s a great picture. It’s my great uncle Ernesto Wickenden – the namesake of the vineyard of our Chenin Blanc. He was a polo player – probably one of the greatest that ever came out of America. He was a ten-goaler which was like being a baseball player that hits .500.”
“As I grew up here on the ranch in the late forties-early fifties, this is the way we used to handle our cattle. They were all roped and taken down, branded and earmarked and that was the procedure. This particular photo has my grandfather branding and one of the old veterinarians here who would come out and vaccinate the cattle when they were incapacitated like this. It’s very synonymous with the early days of California ranching.”
“This crazy little photo here is of my mother Margery and my uncle Winston on a pet donkey that used to be here that obviously needed a pedicure. The fellow behind was Salitelle Gonzalez, who worked here for fifty years. He came here when he was fourteen and quit working when he was sixty five.”
“My grandfather John Richard Wickenden on his horse, Cyclone, taken down the road a little bit on the hill. He was quite a rancher and ran a lot of cattle here for almost forty years. He was really quite a horseman.”
“This last picture is my grandfather again and my mother and uncle are in the front seat. My grandpa was very proud of his first Cadillac that he bought in 1910. He liked to show it off. In fact, the metal building next to the shack he built particularly because he was afraid of fire with these new fandangled cars that were coming out and he wanted a building next to the road that wouldn’t burn. So he built that tin garage and kept the Caddy in there. He used to drive that car every year during football season all the way up to Berkeley to watch Cal play football – a fourteen-hour drive.”
“So that’s the story of the pictures around here. I’ve got a bunch of other ones too that I’m planning to incorporate also. It’s amazing to see the quality that can be maintained for pictures that were taken 105 years ago.” – Dick
Q: When was the last time Foxen did a straight Merlot?
A: Before the 2016, it must have been the 2006 – also from Vogelzang vineyard in Happy Canyon AVA. Before that, 2001 from Carhartt vineyard. We sourced from Carhartt for quite a few years – when their vineyard was mostly Merlot and a little bit of Syrah. Before they started their own label and they were just farmers.
Q: How do you feel about it as a varietal?
A: You look at Merlot as it sits on the Right Bank in Bordeaux – it’s such an important grape. Especially for the wines of Pomerol and Saint Emilion. Over here, I think the movie Sideways did it some harm, but it’s a great workhorse of a varietal. It’s versatile because it has softer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. Not necessarily as thin-skinned as the Pinots but much softer than the other Bordeaux varietals. Merlot also brings that nice, plummy fruit together with whatever we’re blending it with. We use it for five different wines at Foxen – Range 30 West with Cab Franc, Pajarito with Petit Verdot, Volpino and Volpino Rosato with Sangiovese and now the 2016 100% Merlot.
Q: Why 2016?
A: It was an abundant year. We knew from the get go that we were going to be able to do it so we treated it differently. We used newer barrels to add some spice – the same French Taransaud barrels that the Vogelzang Cab goes into.
Q: Pairing ideas?
A: Again, it’s versatile. Cheeses, meats, vegetables. It doesn’t have a lot of acidity so I wouldn’t pair it with tomato elements necessarily. It’s all over meat and sauces. Crispy chorizo tacos with some nice sharp cheddar and shredded cabbage.
Q: Any Sideways anecdotes? Were you at the filming?
A: Yeah, it was awesome! They filmed the scene at the Shack in about 45 minutes. Paul Giamatti is very into wine. He was renting a place here with his family while they were filming so I would run into him occasionally and talk baseball. The crew hung out quite a bit since they were filming elsewhere in the area. When it came out, we saw it in Buellton and everyone in the theater had been around the filming so it was like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was nuts.
Q: How did 2018 harvest differ from previous harvests?
A: The main difference as far as the growing season was concerned was that the ’16-’17 season had 23.75 inches of rain compared with 9.85 inches for ’17-’18. Because of that, yields were a little bit lower, but the quality was exceptional. Another big difference was the low-and-slow, later part of the growing season. We had a nice mild beginning of spring, without any high winds, and then there was a heat spike toward the end of July that brought things back up to par. The friendliness of this weather pattern was especially evident in Happy Canyon with the Bordeaux varietals. Typically, when we pick these varietals in their ripe and mature state, they need help with their pH levels. Because of that, you’re usually having to add acidity to the wine to bring it back into balance. This year, we didn’t have to add anything. As the wine’s custodian, the less you have to manipulate anything the better.
Q: What were the biggest challenges?
A: The biggest challenge this year was being patient with the longer harvest. In the previous four or five harvests, we’ve had a narrow window to get everything done. This year was like a huge engine revving up to go nowhere in a hurry. So, stepping back and letting everything happen on a normal timeline was actually a bit difficult. The upside was that we got to spend SO much time with all the ferments. For instance, what I’m emptying right now – the Cabernet Franc from the Tinaquaic Bajita vineyard – was able to ferment for a whole month before going to barrel. Also, with the cooler weather in October, we had no stuck ferments – everything went nice and smooth. For a winemaker, that’s a huge sigh of relief.
Q: How are the estate vineyards doing?
A: The Tinaquaic Alta vineyard is doing surprisingly well. We’re getting two and a half tons to the acre of dry-farmed Chardonnay! I’m convinced there’s an aquifer under it somewhere – either that or it’s a miracle. Tinaquaic Bajita is also doing great thanks to a new well. During the heat spell, we were able to give that little bit of water to the vines to keep wilting to a minimum. We’re starting in with some watering now as well to get a head start on next year’s crop. Should have even bigger buds and thicker canes because of it. As soon as we get some rain, we’re going to disc and plant nitrogen-fixing cover crops in both vineyards to keep things as sustainable as possible.
Q: Final thoughts on the 2018 harvest?
A: I think 2018 is going to be known across the board as being one of the most spectacular harvests that California – especially the Central Coast – has seen in a long time.