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Sky Vineyards

Terroir-driven Zinfandel from the Mayacamas Mountains
Sky Vineyards
Lore Olds first stumbled upon the secluded, rugged slopes of Mount Veeder as a young winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards in the mid-’60s. Captivated by the frontier-like beauty of the mountain, he was taken under the wing of the legendary Bob Travers of Mayacamas Vineyards. It was here that he first learned to craft mountain wines in the classic Napa mould of the time; wines where refinement, soul and longevity were valued above power.

Olds purchased his own property in 1971, just a mile as the crow flies from the Mayacamas cellars. Instead of the in-vogue Bordeaux varieties, Olds chose to focus on ‘California’s own’ grape variety, Zinfandel. In those days, Californian Zinfandel was far from the bombastic, high-octane wines you often find today. It was something altogether more restrained, balanced and red-fruited, with alcohol barely topping 13.5%. The first vines were planted in 1972, the same year Paul Draper selected Lytton Springs Zinfandel to join Ridge Vineyards.

In keeping with the frontier spirit, Sky Vineyards is an entirely off-grid affair, relying on solar panels and occasional generator use for all its power. In the cabin-like winery cellar, Sky’s low-tech winemaking remains much as it was in the ’70s, down to the hand-cranked 1906 apple press used since Sky’s first harvest. The wines ferment naturally and mature at length in old French oak. Critically, all Sky’s wines age in bottle for many years before release. Not only does this allow Veeder’s mountain tannins to melt into the wine’s lithe structure, but it also allows its powerful volcanic terroir to unfurl in the bottle.
 
It pays to have friends in California, without whom we may never have found this wonderfully unconventional grower. Sky does not submit wines for review, seldom receives visitors and operates under the radar. For those who discover the wines, though, beauty awaits. Although Lore has taken on more of a consultant role in recent years, leaving the lion’s share of operations in the hands of his daughters Maya and Sky, there are no plans to deviate from the estate’s time-honoured philosophy. Olds is still at harvest, cranking his old basket press alongside his brother. You could say it’s a labour of love. These are some of Napa’s most soulful, terroir-driven, original wines, right down to Lore Olds’ ever-changing hand-painted labels, which adorn each release.

The Wines

Sky Half’N Zinfandel Syrah 2017

Sky Half’N Zinfandel Syrah 2017

The Sky Half’N came about by chance in a year when Lore Olds found himself with 135 litres each of Zinfandel and Syrah to look after at the end of harvest. Rather than vinify the batches separately, Lore deviated from his usual practice―never to blend varieties―and combined the two. According to Lore, the result was “something pretty special, unique and delicious”, and the blend has been replicated sporadically ever since. The Half’N is not made yearly; only one or two barrels are made for each release.

Notably, 2017 was an early vintage, so all the fruit was off the vines and safely in barrels before the notorious Tubbs Fire ripped through California’s wine country. The fruit was picked by the end of August, and the batches co-fermented in open-top vessels for 10-14 days with a small portion of whole berries (5 to 10%) and an even smaller portion of whole bunches. The wine was pressed in the estate’s 1906 wooden press and matured in oak barrels for 14 months.

Like all the Sky wines, Half’N is matured in bottle for years before release (although not as long as the Zinfandel wines). It’s softer and more approachable in youth and, at 13.5% alcohol, is as elegant, bright and detailed as you could hope. The nose gives you lovely blueberry and fruitcake spice, while the palate, framed by a powdery structure, gives you layers of creamy mulberry, roast herbs and pungent, zesty freshness.

This year’s label depicts the third generation of the Sky family: Lore’s half-grandchildren, Archer and Dakota, being taught how to scowl by their grandfather and painted by the man himself.   

Sky Half’N Zinfandel Syrah 2017
Sky Zinfandel 2015

Sky Zinfandel 2015

A small portion of fruit from Sky’s original 1972 block is included in the blend, but the lion’s share is drawn from vines planted in 1999. In 2015, California was in the midst of a five-year drought, so berries and clusters were small in this low-yielding year. The fruit was handpicked in early September at 13.3 Baumé and fermented in open-top fermenters for 10-14 days with a small portion of whole berries (5 to 10%) and a smaller portion of whole bunches.

The wine was then pressed in the estate’s old (1906) hand-crank press, run each vintage by Lore and his brother, and the wine then rested in used oak for 14 to 20 months before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. Each bottle is matured on site until Lore completes the artwork and the wine is deemed ready for release―there’s no hard and fast rule as to which comes first; Lore has his process!

Gerald Asher’s description of Zinfandel from the hillside vineyards above Napa Valley in the text above is apt here. There is real sinew and intensity here, yet Lore’s wine beautifully balances a Syrah-like spicy berry succulence with Zinfandel’s meaty-peppery savouriness. It’s long and complex, unfurling in leatherwood honey, olives, herbs and liquorice, with a tangy freshness and finish steeped in berries and spices.

Lore completed the artwork for the 2015 Zinfandel after the devastating fires of 2017. “The piece depicts the winery as an icon of survival, surrounded by flames, but not burning.”

Sky Zinfandel 2015
Sky Old Vine Zinfandel 2012

Sky Old Vine Zinfandel 2012

Lore Olds put the first Zinfandel vines into the ground on the Sky property in 1972. These old vines have seen their fair share of tragedy in the years since, surviving fire, drought and plenty of winter storms. But the death blow came in 2017 when, save for a half-acre, the original block was wiped out by the devastating fires that tore through the region. The precious juice from what few vines survived now goes into the regular Zinfandel. Sky didn’t make an Old Vine Zinfandel in the intervening years, so this is the swansong of a historically significant block from a unique site and a great year.

After a tough season in 2011, 2012 saw a return to regular transmission with warm and sunny conditions, producing a bountiful crop of beautifully ripe and structured fruit on Mount Veeder. The winemaking is little or no different from the Estate Zinfandel (above), so what you get over and above those wines is the deep-rooted complexity and engaging bottle-aged characters from four rows of dry-farmed St. George rootstock Old Vine Zinfandel.

Zinfandel’s ability to adapt to its place is highly prized amongst California’s old guard. With a decade in bottle, the variety has faded into the background, revealing a sweet, elegant, stony and savoury wine of terroir—almost classical Bordeaux-weighted—that is hard to stop sipping. Each sniff and sip reveals something evocative and new. At the same time, the wine’s svelte, braided tannin and mass of bright acidity provide a fine canvas for the wine’s procession of mellow raspberry, resin, earth, black tea and spiced meat notes. In a word: compelling.

This year’s label is a photograph of a redwood carving of a dragon, taken by Lore’s daughter, Mayacamas. Lore has been creating these kinds of pieces for 60 years and loved the photo depiction of the work. “The dragon is the hero and survives all the battles.”

Sky Old Vine Zinfandel 2012

“Zinfandels from the hillside vineyards above Napa Valley… have considerably tighter flavours. Closed when the wine is young, and then, as it develops, opening to an unexpected (sometimes even medicinal) intensity, the flavours are nevertheless all of a piece with the wine’s lean and forthright hillside style.” Gerald Asher, Vineyard Tales

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