One of the great Washington wines, the Delmas Syrah, originates from the SJR Vineyard located in the Walla Walla Rocks AVA of Milton-Freewater. If you haven’t had this wine yet, it is a must buy for not only Syrah lovers but those seeking excellent typicity of this exciting region. The SJR Vineyard is a majestic sight and is overseen by Brooke Robertson who serves as the vineyard’s director of viticulture. Having visited the vineyard on several occasions, it is a very special site with vines set on huge cobblestones. Brooke is a wonderful personality. Full of knowledge and humble, she has created a very special mini-head trained system at her vineyard. I think you will enjoy hearing more about her story in wine. Here is my interview with Brooke Robertson, Delmas Director of Viticulture.
WWB: How did you decide to study winemaking and viticulture?
BR: Life has a funny way of delivering you right where you need to be, when you need to be there…Even though you may not be able to see it at the time... It all ends up being for a reason. Being a kid in the Napa Valley, running amuck through the head trained Zinfandel vines at Hayne Vineyard, and then having the ability to play a role in the management of those same vines as an adult; was the moment for me when I thought, Yup… I’m going to play in vine rows my whole life. It’s fantastic. My undergrad is in Philosophy (OSU), and when I declared, I read through a list of possible careers for that particular degree. “Winemaker” was the first. After SJR’s inception, and while my father was leading The Rocks District AVA approval, I went back to school at WWCC for an AAAS in Enology and Viticulture. After which, I headed to Napa Valley for, what was supposed to be a 3-month internship working for Barbour Vineyard Management.
Five years later, after working harvest in Australia for Torbreck, working for other truly great Vineyard Management companies in the Napa Valley, and studying for a Master’s degree in Viticulture at Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo); I returned to Walla Walla. What I love about this business, is that there is always some uncertainty in it. By that I mean, there is no black or white... you live in the grey areas. Mother nature can change on a dime, and you’ve got to roll with her. You never feel as though you’ve mastered the vineyard because the mark is always moving. There is always something new to learn, and I love that.
WWB: What was it like serving as Viticulturist for The Napa Valley Reserve?
BR: t was like reaching Mecca. I developed a long-running dialogue with Mark Griffin (Vineyard Manager; TNVR) years prior to receiving a job offer. Every so often I would check in with Mark and see how the current season was going… Always, ending the conversation with “If you ever need an extra hand, let me know!” They gave me a shot, and it was by far one of the best experiences of my life. I was entrusted with considerable responsibility and was provided the tools to deliver on the highest level of expectations. Whether that was in the rows, or in the winery. Having the opportunity to operate under the terms of a “200 Year Plan” similar to that of my own family, was priceless.
WWB: Can you talk about how you have been developing one of the Pacific Northwest’s great vineyards, the SJR Vineyard?
BR: At SJR Vineyard, we are fortunate to be able to think in terms of longevity. Our goal for Delmas has always been world-class, distinctive wines that showcase “place”. Viticulture in the cobbles of The Rocks District demands specialized farming practices. Creativity, investment and critical adaptation(s) of current farming practices are essential for SJR. One example of that level of creativity is the MHT system of vine training. This Mini-Head- Trained system is basically a goblet vine with a trellis; a very low, single trunk vine structure with an open head. It allows for us to more evenly regulate crop load, and most importantly, to be able to bury the entire vine post-harvest over the winter. This allows for ultimate protection against killing freezes, as well as creating a perennial wood structure. No more burial canes!
Previously, our burial cane experience at SJR resulted in cutting the entire vineyard to the ground (due to killing freezes), three times in the last decade. For us, this method was not sustainable. Hence the development and implementation of the MHT; an entirely new training form arriving out of necessity, given the specific climatic/geological realities experienced within this region. With the MHT, someday we will have old, craggily vine structures, just like those old-world eccentric vines that look so majestic… I can’t wait until the vineyard hits 50 years old!
WWB: The 2016 Delmas Syrah (WWB, 96) is one of the best wines from Washington that I have sampled all year. Can you talk about how this amazing wine is made and the 2016 vintage?
WWB: Thank you Owen! The 2016 (10th leaf for SJR) was a wonderful vintage, and a fairly even growing season. We harvested mid-September, and the fruit spent six (6) days in a cold soak. Ferments for Delmas run fairly smooth given the, higher than average, YAN that comes off of SJR Vineyard. Our Syrah style targets roughly 8% Viognier in the co-ferment.
Depending on the year, (and how lignified the stems are at harvest) we adjust the percentage of whole cluster fermentation (33% for 2016). The balance of Syrah, and all of the Viognier is destemmed. Our oak profile is more aggressive than most Syrah producers given SJR’s unique ability to seamlessly absorb oak tannins: 60% new and 40% one-fill barrels. 14 months in barrel and bottled in December. The terroir of SJR directs our Delmas winemaking expectations. Soils are finer at SJR due to the location of the Vineyard on the edge of the SW corner of the AVA. This is where all the energy (and Rocks) from the Walla Walla River fell out. These fine soils help to provide the distinctive aromatic range of Delmas. As well as the wines textural qualities and length on the palate.
WWB: You have recently concluded harvest at the SJR Vineyard. Can you talk about the growing season and the fruit that was harvested? What will we expect from the 2018 Delmas Syrah?
BR: 2018 was a truly fascinating season. We experienced just about all aspects of extreme weather! The winter was more temperate than 2016/17, which was nice given the first full winter for the MHT! Even then, however, we had some hail and lingering snow in February. Spring, while a bit more wet than normal, arrived with a bang, and the vineyard rushed through bud-break and bloom fairly quickly. Fruit set was even, and the crop was bountiful. The MHT did a fantastic job, balancing canopy/cover of the fruit zone and providing just the right amount of dappled light and air flow.
Summer was extremely hot, with 16 days in a row over 100 degrees. The smoke that settled in early August, prevented UV light from penetrating, and slowed phenological ripening. We ran our overheads quite frequently during this time to cool things down. By the end of the month, however, the heat subsided, and the day/night temperature shifts helped to preserve acid and develop flavor. September was ideal for Harvest, no rain all month, and brilliant days of 70-80 degrees with nights in the 50s. We harvested on September 10th. New winemaking protocol this year! We did our first barrel fermentations and used puncheons to barrel ferment 1/3 rd of the fruit. Already the wine is showing even more complexity and seamless integration. In a string of solid vintages, this one was truly exceptional, with loads of aging potential. 2018 is also the first year Delmas will be producing a varietal Viognier, and it is currently resting in puncheons after completing ML. We are very excited about producing this new wine. Condrieu is the inspiration. Keep an eye out for Delmas Viognier in 2020!