The Laura Michael Wines Estate
A Small-Production Napa Valley Zinfandel With Big Flavor
Nestled at the foot of Calistoga's Oat Hill, Laura Michael Wines is redefining the meaning of limited-production wines with each vintage of its estate Zinfandel. Rich in rocky-gravelly volcanic soil, the estate provides ideal growing conditions for its carefully tended two acres of Zinfandel. Fruit quality is further promoted by the warm Calistoga climate and the placement of vines—tucked against Oat Hill, where they are protected from wind and frost.
"Zinfandel is probably one of the most difficult varieties to grow and make," says Vice President of Operations, Michael Swanton. The variety requires the full attention of both the vineyard and winemaking team. Vineyard Manager Placido Garcia works closely with Michael, farming Laura Michael Wines with an invaluable combination of intuition and understanding. Part of the original team that planted the estate vineyards for the Traulsen family (the previous owners of the Swanton property), Garcia has worked the Swanton land since 1976. "Placido has a strong sense of how this property responds to the elements," says Laura Swanton. "He knows what the vines need in terms of sun, water and nutrients."
We irrigate a little more frequently than other vineyards, as water runs straight through the fairly shallow, well-drained rocky soils of the Swanton estate. Vines are stressed just enough to allow concentration in the fruit. The soils are volcanic of the Franciscan and Great Valley series, but not because of the estate's proximity to Mt. St. Helena, which was never a volcano, but rather thanks to the Sierras. Thirty million years ago, the Sierra Nevada mountain range was dragged northwestward along with the Pacific Plate, bringing its volcanic geology with it.
"It's about balance”, says Michael of the winegrowing team's approach to farming its precious two acres of thirty year old Zinfandel. Clusters are thinned to one or two per shoot, allowing the plant to concentrate its energy into fewer clusters. Swanton harvests a mere 1.5 to 2 pounds of fruit from each vine.
"You can't farm Zinfandel like other varieties," cautions Michael. "For example, when you perform a cluster sample close to harvest, you could have different ripeness on the same cluster. If you based your harvesting decision on one sample, you might think you're picking at 26 brix, and then wind up with 28 brix the next day because of other fruit that had turned almost raisin."
The winemaking philosophy at Laura Michael Wines is to focus on small production wines that maintain a consistent style from vintage to vintage and are a delicious complement to food. As a result, the winegrowing team allows the fruit to fully ripen, but never to the point of developing the raisin or prune flavors that lead to higher alcohol wines. "We like big Zins, but not too sweet or over the top," notes Michael. "Our Zinfandel has vibrant fruit with currant flavors and good acidity. It's about 15 percent alcohol and always completely dry."
The Laura Michael Wines Oat Hill Estate Zinfandel is aged in American oak, 30-40 percent new. Michael and the winemaking team appreciate the maple syrup and brown sugars from American oak, but are sensitive to the intensity of these oak barrels. "We let the fruit speak for itself," says Michael. "We're never heavy handed on the oak. The oak should be in the background, so that we reveal everything the Zinfandel fruit has to offer."