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Markham Vineyards

Napa Valley, California

Posted: October 16, 2001

Harvest Main | Harvest Diaries | News | Glossary

  • Michael Beaulac's Harvest Diary

    This Napa Valley winery is a leading producer of reasonably priced Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Markham was founded in 1977 by Bruce Markham, though the building in St. Helena that houses Markham has been a working winery since 1874. Mercian, a Japanese company, bought the winery in 1988, but it continues to be run by Bryan del Bondio, who has been with Markham since 1978.

    Winemaker Michael Beaulac came on board in 1997 to oversee the Markham varietal and reserve wines, as well as the winery's second label, Glass Mountain Quarry, of which 150,000 cases are made each year. The Markham line has an annual production of about 140,000 cases, which includes Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. The vast majority of its wines retail for $12 to $26 per bottle.

    The winery owns and leases four major vineyards in Calistoga, Yountville and Napa, totaling about 330 acres, and buys grapes from a wide range of growers.

    In January 2001, Markham entered the high-end market with the purchase of La Jota Vineyard Co., in the prestigious Howell Mountain appellation. Included in the deal were the La Jota winery, the brand name, inventory and 28 acres of vineyards. Best known for Cabernet Sauvignon, La Jota also makes Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah. Its yearly output was about 3,500 cases, and the wines were priced between $38 and $75 per bottle. With this harvest, Beaulac and his staff are now overseeing production of La Jota.

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    Michael Beaulac's Harvest Diary

    Tuesday, Aug. 28, 10:30 am.

    "It's happening!" reports Michael Beaulac. "We had a couple days of picking in the past two weeks, and things were going slowly, but we've ramped up rapidly since yesterday. We brought in maybe 50 tons of Sauvignon Blanc. Today, we're scheduled for a combination of 150 tons of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. It's supposed to be about 98 to 100 degrees today -- it was about that yesterday too -- then dropping to 85 or 90 the rest of the week.

    "It would appear that, as we suspected, many varieties are all going to become ripe all at the same time," he says. "I did field samples this morning on some Merlot and that showed it's ready to go, and I think we have another Merlot vineyard that's ready.

    "You can definitely tell that the valley has started picking. There were lots of trucks out on the road this morning, and as I drove by the Louis Martini and Sutter Home wineries this morning, you could smell the fermentation happening. That kind of thing really kicks you into harvest mode."

    Summing up this year's growing season as "pretty good," Beaulac explains, "We got some heat spikes, maybe four or five of them, during the course of the summer -- to 103 or 105 degrees. Nothing that I know of went above 105, though I'm sure there were pockets someplace. Our vineyards that we manage or get fruit from seemed to weather that pretty well; we had a couple days lead time so we'd start dumping water out there. Rumors have it from the sparkling-wine people that Chardonnay yields are down; some have said 10 percent to as much as 25 percent. Today is the first day of Chardonnay for us, so I don't know if that's true.

    "Sauvignon Blanc seems to be doing real well as far as projected yields," he continues. "For the Cabernet, we spent a lot of time dropping fruit; even in vineyards that normally set a good balance for themselves, we went through dropping fruit. We were seeing three clusters per shoot, so we brought that down, to just one cluster on the weaker shoots. Merlot is looking about average now."

    Although Beaulac and his team at Markham have been able to take Labor Day off in recent years, it looks like this week's hot weather means that they'll be laboring over this three-day weekend. One of his growers calls to report that they will be picking on Saturday. "That means we'll be working on Monday," he says stoically. "I think that we're going to stay rather busy for a while. We'll have plenty things coming in for the next couple of days."

    Monday, Sept. 10, noon

    "We have just been plugging along at 50 tons a day," reports Michael Beaulac. "We are mixing Chardonnay and Merlot at this point, and we are pretty much done with Sauvignon Blanc.

    "Everything looks really nice coming in," he adds. "We had fairly high acids on the Chardonnay so we've been letting the grapes hang a little longer in hopes of letting some of the acids drop out and getting more flavor in. We seem to have made the turn on that. The reds have not been much of a problem on the acid balance.

    "Things seem to be coming in pretty good as far as yields. Chardonnay may be a little light, but it's still too early for me to make that call. For Merlot, we're picking up about what we thought we'd get or a little higher as far as tonnage goes. We have 12 tanks of reds going in the winery so far, and we'll press off our first tank of red tomorrow. That's yet another thing to find time for.

    "I just walked into the winery for the first time today; I was out sampling grapes all over Howell Mountain at La Jota, trying to get a handle on that -- the mountain fruit being very different from what we get down here in the valley," says Beaulac. "We have yet to pick anything for that. We may pick a little Viognier that will be blended into the Petite Sirah down the line."

    Since Markham just purchased La Jota earlier this year, this will be the first harvest at the property for Beaulac and associate winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls, who are more familiar with conditions on the valley floor, where most of Markham's vines lie. "We're trying to get a handle on the vineyards; there's about 27 acres planted," says Beaulac. "There may be five rows of Cabernet next to another five rows, and the two [sets] can be completely different. It has to do with the shading of the trees at the site, and the soils on the slopes can change quickly, within 20 feet. The different depths of the soils are stressing the vines in different ways.

    "Kim and I were talking, saying we should only pick three-quarters of this row one week and pick the other quarter later on. Usually, you try to pick entire rows. We're trying to figure out how we are going to do this logistically. We're looking at maybe only 90 tons up there; down here, we can do 90 tons before 11 in the morning. It's completely different up there, which is why we are treating it completely differently. For the 3,000 cases we do up there, it will probably take up 65 percent of our time," he says, laughing.

    "But it's a beautiful winery, very peaceful," he adds. "We just hired someone to dig a cave for us. That'll start in January after the harvest. We'll also start working on fixing up the old stone winery, which I think dates back to the late 1800s."

    So back down on the valley floor, how has the harvest rush been going since Labor Day? "The rush really hasn't happened," Beaulac says, sounding surprised. "Fifty tons a day is pretty easy for us here. Friday we didn't harvest any fruit, Saturday was just 35 to 40 tons. We are only 25 percent of the way done. You start slow and finish slow, and in between comes that crunch time. Maybe this weekend is when it's going to happen.

    "We're doing real well, and the weather is beautiful. There's been some fog in the mornings, but warm afternoons -- 85 to 90 degrees -- perfect weather for grapes," he notes. Although, he add, "up on Howell Mountain this morning, it felt more fall-like, even though I was breaking a sweat walking the slopes. There's something about the air being different up there. And cell phones don't work there, pagers don't work."

    But at Markham, "Overall, we still have a fair amount of Chardonnay out and lots of Merlot. Everything looks very, very sound. Usually at this time, we're a little worried, maybe we'd see some botrytis [a fungus] forming, or some vineyard with a problem. But we're not seeing that this year so far. It kind of feels funny; we're thinking we should be much busier than we are. On Saturday, the crew was gone by 3:30, and I went home by 5, and I was expecting it to be nuts. But we've got good weather, so we can just let the grapes hang and develop flavors the way they should."

    Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2:30 p.m.

    "We started our first harvest at La Jota last Saturday, and we brought in a small amount of Viognier and all of the Cabernet Franc," reports Michael Beaulac. "We're very much on a learning curve with this very small, hands-on production. Even though we only brought in 2 tons of Viognier and 6 tons of Cabernet Franc, it was an incredibly difficult day.

    "While we all know how to use the equipment in theory, it's different when you put it in practice," he says, laughing a little. "We were predicting that we'd be done by 1 o'clock, and I left the cleanup crew there at 6. But we had a good time, and the fruit was spectacular.

    "On Monday, we brought in just under 10 tons of Merlot up there, which is pretty much all the Merlot [at La Jota], and maybe next week, there will be a little Cabernet ready," Beaulac adds. "The intensity of the Howell Mountain fruit, everything up there, it's all new to me. Even though my office looks out on Howell Mountain, I haven't worked with fruit from there before."

    How was the La Jota harvest different from a typical one at Markham? "Here, if we have busy day, we might have 150 tons and we can handle up to 200 tons. The equipment here is faster. Up there we are picking into half-ton bins and rotating those above a crusher. Someone is standing up there with a pitchfork knocking clusters slowly into the machine to destem them. When you talk about doing that for 10 tons of fruit, it actually takes quite a while. I know our equipment real well here; if we don't like something about the way the fruit looks coming out of the destemmer, we can change the speed or the rollers. There, we're trying to figure out what happens if we speed it up or slow it down."

    How are things going in the vineyards for the Markham wines? "We're actually kind of quiet," he says. "The busiest we've been has been 80 tons, today we had only 40 tons, and we expect even less tomorrow. The fruit seems to have stalled out a little bit, just below where we want it. The acid level is still a little weird, with higher acids than we would normally pick at, so we have to have the grapes hang out there even longer. We brought in some Chardonnay today that is over 25 Brix, and I'm guessing the acid will be 0.95. In a perfect world, it might be 0.65."

    Throughout Napa Valley, Beaulac said, ripening in the vineyards seems to be stalled. "I ran into the general manager of Napa Wine Co. at the Oakville Grocery, and he said they were only doing 30 tons, when normally they'd be doing 200. Driving around, you see a lot more vineyard workers doing weeding, trellising and staking vines as opposed to how many you would expect to be picking.

    There have been some new developments since last week, however. "We have picked a little bit of Cabernet, from a new vineyard that we're getting in the hills above Yountville," he reports. "While it was a small amount, maybe 10 or 11 tons, it's spectacular fruit. We picked some of our own Cabernet off our Yountville ranch and picked some Primitivo maybe 10 days ago. That has so much flavor, like eating blueberries when I tasted the grapes. I had to go to that vineyard and I walked through looking for second-crop grapes, and I couldn't help just eating some of them."

    Overall, he says, "Things look really good, and the weather seems like it's holding. It's 85 degrees most days, with a fair amount of fog in the mornings. They're not real warm days, so we could use a little more heat.

    "We just so expected to be crazy right now and we're not. We're moving ahead, picking a little every day. We have some early Merlot tanks that have been pressed, and we can rack those and start cleaning up, and we'll put things into barrels shortly. Last night is the latest I've gotten home and that was 8:30. I think I may be able to catch dinner with my family tonight."

    Monday, Oct. 1, 9 a.m.

    "Last week, we had quite a hard rainstorm here on Monday night," reports Michael Beaulac. "Down here, we probably got half an inch and on Howell Mountain about 0.7 inches. It gave us a little concern because it rained so hard, but I don't think it really affected anything. We opted to pick some Zinfandel that was getting close maybe a couple days early, because I was afraid rot would set in, but it came in fine.

    "Last week was still slow for us -- 50 to 60 tons a day which isn't a normal harvest for us at all," he continues.

    "It finally started to get warm on Friday and over the weekend; it probably hit 100 degrees on Sunday and will probably reach the 90s today. We have scheduled about 160 tons of fruit today, and tomorrow and Wednesday I expect about the same. So we are anticipating being quite busy, which is great.

    "We kept calculating our percentage finished, and it would be 42 percent, then 43.5 percent, and it became quite depressing after a while," Beaulac adds, laughing. "Now we are over 50 percent, and by Thursday we expect that to jump up a lot.

    "I was just out in our Merlot vineyard and that had been moving a little bit, and a little bit as far as getting ripe," he says. "This morning, it tasted great. It just needed that little bit of heat to push it through."

    So what varieties will Markham be bringing in over the next three days? "We are finishing off all of our white grapes, all of our Sémillon, a lot of Merlot, and Cabernet Franc and Cabernet," he replies. "By the end of tomorrow, on two of our four ranches, everything will be picked, which is really nice. Then we'll just have some Merlot at the third ranch, and our Calistoga ranch, which is farther north, is all Cabernet. And that'll be a while even with this heat.

    "At La Jota, we had a huge day on Saturday, which is over 17 tons." He laughs at how funny that statement sounds. "We're still trying to adjust to the differences. You have to realize that's almost 20 percent of the whole production in one day. It was a long day there.

    "But we're having a lot of fun there," he adds. "The high-quality fruit up there is just amazing. We're buying from two growers up there; we picked one site on Saturday and we'll be picking the other on Wednesday, and by Thursday, we'll have picked a big chunk of our own vineyards. By Thursday, we'll be two-thirds of the way done picking at La Jota. The little Cab Franc we have there is in, the little Merlot for blending is in. We also have Petite Sirah, and I don't know when that's going to get ripe. That's part of the learning curve. We already picked our Petite Sirah down here."

    Has Beaulac learned anything else unexpected at La Jota? "Well, we're still trying to get a handle on what the fruit is going to be like. We had expected more tannic wines," he answers. "The Merlot we pressed off already, and the Cabernet Franc we're doing extended maceration on. We really thought the big thing up there would be taming the beast. We only brought in Cabernet Sauvignon on one day, and it's not that tannic and there is more fruit complexity than I had thought there would be."

    As far as the overall picture at Markham, Beaulac says, "Early in the year, we were very concerned with the high acids in the wines. I think now finally things are starting to look normal when they come in. We're not adding acids to the grape must; they are right where they should be or need very small corrections. At Markham, we've been pressing off for several weeks, and I'm really happy with flavors. The wines aren't big, huge fruit bombs. I'm guessing they'll be elegant, approachable early on."

    As he had indicated earlier, yields are lower than usual. "We were lucky with Sauvignon Blanc because we were able to find some extra grapes. Chardonnay is down for us, but that's probably a good thing in today's market since there are so many Chardonnays out there. Merlot is down. We haven't brought in enough Cabernet to have real feeling for it. I thought it was going to be a up a bit, but now I think it's a little down too."

    Beaulac concludes, "The weather is supposed to hold, and I think 10 days from now we'll have most of fruit in. I'm happy that, while we've had some long days, it's finally going to feel like harvest for a while." But, he adds with a chuckle, "My wife may not agree with that."

    Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2:30 p.m.

    "It's crazy, which is really nice," says Michael Beaulac. "It's the way we should have been weeks ago. We have been bringing in 65 to 100 tons a day, every day. I just did my game plan for tomorrow, and it looks like I've got one tank in the entire winery that isn't full. You always need one tank to press into or something like that, so it looks like it's going to be tight. If I had the tank space, I could order everything to be picked today! But it's going to take until Tuesday or Wednesday to take care of it all.

    "Everything looks good coming in. I was worried about the heat for the while, afraid the vineyards would get tired. But the Cabernet we brought in today was 24.5 Brix. And for once, a vineyard came in heavy; we thought it was going to be 25 tons and it came in 35 tons. That's very good for this year -- even though right now I'm complaining about tank space," he says, laughing.

    "On Sept. 30, it got over 100 degrees here in valley," he elaborates. "Monday it was quite warm also, maybe upper 90s, but after that there was a cooling trend -- by that, I mean 80 degrees. Just today it started to get warm again. Up until that heat spike, the acids weren't changing, the pH level wasn't changing, Brix wasn't changing; it was the same whenever we checked the vineyards. But the heat really pushed things along. And yet we haven't received anything here that's been off the chart at all. We brought in some of our best Cabernet last late week; it's a vineyard on rootstock 5C, which when it gets heat and doesn't have enough water, the vines shut completely down. But that didn't happen at all."

    The weather in the immediate future looks promising too, Beaulac says. "Today is beautiful here -- 85, maybe almost 90 degrees. I'm imagining everyone in the valley is very pleased. People are really winding down. I haven't heard anything about rain, but of course now I've just cursed it."

    In the winery, he says, "All of our Chardonnay has gone dry, and I'll start topping that off this weekend. A couple tanks of Sémillon are fermenting, but most of the Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillion is done."

    As far as what's left in the vineyards, "At La Jota, we are picking Cabernet on Thursday, Petite Sirah on Friday and then we are done. We were hoping to bring in 98 tons there, and I think we'll hit just about 90. It's still a lot of fun up there. I'm amazed at the color we get in the wine after two days. It hasn't even started fermenting yet and it looks like full color. We have three tanks up there that have gone dry and will go into extended maceration. But the tannin structure is still not what we expected. We have to ask around and see what other people's experience [on Howell Mountain] has been this year."

    Down in the valley, in the Markham vineyards, he predicts, "Maybe by Friday, we'll have 100 tons left. We're bringing in 100 today, 100 tomorrow, and I don't know how many I can get in here on Thursday. It's mostly Cabernet, but there's still some Merlot and a little bit of Cabernet Franc. We'll finish Zinfandel on Thursday."

    So far this year, which of the varietals seems most impressive? "I think the Merlot has huge potential right now, which is great for this place," he says. "The first couple blocks we picked tasted fine, and it's usually the kiss of death when I say something's 'fine.' But everything that's been coming through in the past 10 days has just tasted so good. Vineyards that haven't historically had a lot of color have tremendous color this year. The downside is that they're coming in light in terms of size. We were picking a Cabernet vineyard of 10 acres: We were hoping for 30 tons, expecting 25 tons, and it came in maybe at 18."

    As far as the timing of this harvest goes, Beaulac says, "This falls into the normal category. We predicted we'd start on Aug. 14 and we actually started the 15th. I predicted we'd be done by Oct. 15. I'm not sure if we'll make that but it's close. But if we hadn't just had all that great Indian summer weather, it would have been late."

    Beaulac concludes, "This is the fun time when you're really crazy. I look at everything that has to be done, and instead of writing one page of work orders per day, I'm writing three or four pages. I'm not sure the guys like that, but they get the overtime pay."

    Monday, Oct. 15, 10:15 a.m.

    "Our last day of picking is tomorrow. We've scheduled all of our fruit to be finished by then. We're very excited by that!" reports Michael Beaulac.

    "We've just about filled about every tank we have here at the winery," he continues. "Today, we're going into tanks that we've never used before. [The grapes] have been coming in real steady at 80 to 100 tons a day. We actually didn't bring in any fruit over the weekend or today. It got kind of warm over the weekend, which was predicted. I think those last few vineyards we have out needed one more little shot of heat, which they got.

    "We have one large Cabernet vineyard out in Yountville, and two small vineyards in St. Helena -- a new Cabernet vineyard that is just coming online, and along with that is some Cabernet Franc." So it's not your northernmost vineyard that you're still waiting on? "For once, we had Calistoga in before something else," he chuckles. "It's always been our last vineyard in. But it did come in very light."

    Most of Napa Valley seems to be wrapping up its harvest, he notes. "Yesterday, I had four winemakers over to my house, and everyone is hoping to be finished by the end of the week."

    Summing up the 2001 vintage, he says, "I think the overall quality is really good. I'm quite pleased with the colors, flavors and the tannin structure we got. I think the Merlot turned out really nice this year. I'm not just saying this, I really think everything turned out pretty good this year. The Cabernet also has good structure and color. I was talking to our controller, who asked 'Are we going to make any reserve Cabernet this year?' We don't make it every year, but there's a good chance that we will this time, although it's still too early to tell."

    Does this vintage resemble any other recent one in California? "Maybe 1996," Beaulac speculates, "as far as the quality of the wine goes."

    As far as overall yields, he says, "I haven't really tallied up the reds yet. We're probably down 20 percent overall. We started some new contracts this year, and at the beginning of harvest, I thought 'We're not going to have room for everything.' Well, we never really do, but even more so this year. But because yields have been down, we have had space. Although one of the reasons we put off picking until tomorrow was to make a little more space in the winery today."

    Where do things stand in the winery? "It's all over the board. We have tanks we crushed into last week getting pump-overs, we're pressing out tanks and filling barrels, we finished inoculations for malolactic fermentation in our Chardonnay on Saturday, we're racking our Sauvignon Blanc tanks. It's still very busy and will continue to be so for two more weeks. Probably this week will be the last week we have to work weekends and long days Monday through Fridays, and then we'll have weekends off starting in two weeks."

    And then Beaulac is planning on celebrating. "Every year after harvest, my wife and I and our little boy go someplace -- generally up to Lake Tahoe -- so we can spend some time together. We need to reintroduce ourselves," he says, with a laugh, although he adds, "Really, this year hasn't been that bad."

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