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Harvest Moon Estate & Winery

In late June 2008 spoke with Randy Pitts, the Wine Shepard and owner at Harvest Moon Estate & Winery in the Russian River Valley. Most of the interview took place while wandering through their Zinfandel vineyard. We even got Randy to sit down for a few minutes at the end of the interview, a seemingly rare occurrence given his energy level. Randy talks in a stream of consciousness style, which we’ve tried to convey in this interview. Enjoy!

Wine-Food pairing with Harvest Moon wines

Randy Pitts in the Harvest Moon Winery Zinfandel vineyard How did you start Harvest Moon Winery?
Randy Pitts: I went off to college in San Francisco, afterwards got a job in corporate accounting world, had my fancy suits (that I must say I looked great in) and a couple years later found myself looking for something other than what I was trained (in college) to do. So in 1999 I reverse migrated home. My father was tired of being on the tractor every day and asked me if I would be interested in farming the vineyards for a year. Not too bad of a job, I worked it, farmed it, and sold the grapes to Deloach Winery for 8½ months of the year and then went to Costa Rica for a few months to surf and research wine.

It worked out great for a few years. I started to make some homemade wine with a small block of grapes. Unfortunately we didn’t save any of those first wines because it was so good we just drank it all!

2002 was the first vintage of Harvest Moon. My goal was and is to make a red wine, what I call a World Class Wine, that is age worthy and able to lay down next to those Pinot Noir and Cabernets. I thought that Zinfandel, being a “bastard variety” unique to California (not an Old World wine), could be grown and made into wine that is not overly tannic and can age for a long time. The key factor for my Zin is acidity. There are two ways to age a dry red wine: tannin, which is found in the red Bordeaux, and acidity. I recommend that you lay down my Zinfandel from 13-25 years. Buy enough so every few years you can taste it and see how it is changing, and improving.

VV: How did you learn to make wine?
RP: I took three courses at the junior college and a course over at UC Davis, but I spent many years studying in Germany and Costa Rica. Then there was Randy Ullom, who is the grand master winemaker over at Kendall Jackson Winery. He used to work at Deloach Winery and was our neighbor when I was starting out. I asked him tons of questions, and he was nice enough to answer them and help me out. I was never afraid of asking questions no matter where my learning took me and I don’t even mind failing as long as I can learn from it all.

VV: Tell us about your Zinfandel grapes.
RP: My father planted these (points to the vines) Zinfandel grapes when I was just a little boy. For 3 decades we sold the fruit to Deloach Winery. Dad taught me everything I know about growing and tending to the grapes. We have a 5-acre block of 25-year-old Zinfandel vines. I think we do more work to this 5-acre block than anyone else I know. I try to balance out the vines by keeping pounds per vine as low as possible without putting off too much imbalance foliage. In other words if you cut your fruit too much and/or drop your fruit too early you will get an excess canopy which will cause more vegetative flavors.

Our vineyards are orientated north and south, so one side of the vines gets the morning sun, which will never burn the fruit because the sun is not as intense. But you need to take out the leaves so the sun can get to the grapes and ripen them. The other side, which gets the afternoon sun, you have to be careful with. We let the canes and leaves be the natural shade for those grapes. We wrap our canes, which can get 12-14 feet long, around the vines to cause a massive pack of solar panels for the grapes which helps put natural nutrients back in. You only need 12-14 leaves per bunch for the grapes to ripen. You need to balance it out.

Randy Pitts working the Harvest Moon Winery Zinfandel vines We do all our work in the vineyard by hand, no machines are used for pruning, dropping grapes, or picking. It’s a great feeling to get my hands on the vines every day. Because we do this procedure with the leaves there is more air flow amongst the vines, which means less mold. Less mold means less spraying of chemicals. The Russian River Valley is cold and foggy in the morning and hot and sunny the rest of the day until the fog comes back. Which is the perfect recipe for the natural acidity in grape growing.

VV: When do you on average harvest your Zinfandel?
RP: Almost always after the Pinot Noir is picked and usually that is done in early September.

VV: We have heard that Pinot Noir is easy to grow and difficult to make into wine, and that Zinfandel is the other way around, difficult to grow and harvest at the right time because it ripens at different times but is fairly easy to make into wine. Do you find the same scenario?
RP: That is an interesting statement. I multi-pick my Zinfandel, I pick three different times. I come by my vines daily to taste the grapes and determine whether that bunch goes now or the next day or in 7 days. There could be two bunches right next to each other and one gets picked today and the other one gets picked a few days later. Sometimes we don’t know where we are going to harvest until that morning.
Zinfandel is all about the berry fruit and has zero tolerance for lack of sanitation. I top my Zin every week and keep the sulfurs high. The grape has a high Ph and low acid level, which is very inviting for negative microbiological activity, or “funk”. Cabernets and Pinot Noir have thresholds for funk and they benefit from having a little funk, which gives them the earthiness, and smoky flavors that add the character to the wine. I like 1-2% of funk in my Pinot to balance out the cherry profile. To answer you question, I feel that Zinfandel is more challenging to grow and to make than Pinot Noir because you have to be on it through out the whole process.

VV: Is Zinfandel your primary grape grown here?
RP: Yes, we also have 4 acres of Gewürztraminer and ½ acre of Pinot Noir.

VV: We fell in love with your sparkling Gewürztraminer (GT). What inspired you to make it and why do you use the GT grape to make a sparkling wine? That is an unusual choice.
RP: Sometimes things happen by accident. In 1977 my father planted 4 acres of a cane pruned GT. Not knowing too much about the GT grape other than the fact that most of it is made in the sweeter style, I was interested in a dry crisp white wine that I would be able to make and offer in the tasting room. I didn’t want to just be a house of red wine; I wanted to have other options. The sparkling wine was kind of an afterthought because first I made a dry GT. By experimentation I fermented it dry using Chardonnay yeast and I kept the temperature a little warmer on the finish, which encourages all the fructose at the end to be consumed, making it dry. I put some ML on it and then some oak chips, which made it a great wine to go with food. Each year I make four different styles of GT, a dry sparkling, a dry still, a slightly off dry and an ice wine.

VV: Why does the GT grape grow well here in the Russian River Valley?
RP: Cool climate and the temperature swings. I pick my GT grape early. I get it off the vine before any damage can occur. You can’t add citric or tartar based acids to the juice for complete replication, it has to be natural. The problem with GT is that if you leave it on the vine the acid will fall off very, very rapidly and you get a soapy texture with GT, which is not good. I pick my grapes for my sparkling wine at 18 brix, tart with lots of green in there, and for my still wine I pick the grapes at 22.5 brix because I like my alcohol low. A GT will finish at 11.8-12% alcohol, dry. That’s important especially when you are pairing it with food.

VV: What foods do you like to pair with which of your wines?
RP: My mother is a great chef, I have a great relationship with her, she loves to cook and I love to eat! I like crab cakes, oysters, anything seafood with my whites. Burgers, polenta with a slightly reduced mushroom sauce with the Pitts Home Ranch Zinfandel is great. Something that is thick enough that my estate Zins will cut through.

VV: How do you make your “California style” ice wine, since the grape doesn’t freeze naturally on the vine like it does in Oregon, Washington and other states?
RP: It’s a pain to make first of all! We take about 2 ½ tons a year which equals about 5 bins of fruit that I pick whole cluster, gently set in a bin and rush it to a commercial freezer. It freezes for nine days, not ten, not eight, but nine days. We then pull the fruit out frozen and rush it to the crush pad where we have all the equipment set up and ready to go. Once we pull out frozen fruit, we’re in a rush. We want to capture any of the liquid as it is thawing from the grape. It is the lovely nectar, i.e. sugar molecules, i.e. fructose, that makes the ice wine. The water from the thawing grape stays in the basket. One reason why ice wine is so sweet is the intensity of the fruit, the other is that we pick the grapes after everything else has been picked so it has had more time to ripen before the rain comes.

VV: How do you feel about the high levels of alcohol in the wines today?
RP: I’ve been called militant about my alcohol levels. And I’m OK with that. I think it’s how wine should be made. Making wines with high alcohol is not a way of the future; it is not what California wines should be known as being about. The current thinking of bigger is better, and making SUV-melt-your-face style wine frankly needs to stop! Also, these heavy alcohol wines tend to be over oaked. I always tell people to be wary when you see on a label that a wine has been aged for 20 months in new oak. We are making these wines for a handful of people, and it’s up to us to make a wine that is in balance.

Randy Pitts in the Harvest Moon Winery tasting room VV: How did you come up with the name Harvest Moon?
RP: Well, this happened in 2001, when we were still selling our grapes. We were harvesting the GT and were well into the evening, feeling no pain, and we were trying to figure out what we were going to call this new winery. We split off into different groups, my mom’s group was called Harvest Moon and I was in her group. Later that night through the trees rose a giant moon, which silenced all 16 of us, which is hard to do since we are of Irish blood. The next Monday I went to the lawyers and checked to see if the name was available and to our surprise it was!

VV: What is your role in the winery and who helps you out?
RP: I am the Wine Shepherd. I am 34 years old and have an over abundance of energy, and don’t have a wife or children to spend time with. I have two guys who live on the property and work for me full time. I take good care of them and they take good care of my property. We work together daily. I work 6 eleven-hour days and 4-6 hours in the tasting room on Sunday. But I’m up at the crack of dawn so my day is usually done by 6:00 pm. During the wintertime I slow down a bit, use that time to work on projects, relax and catch up.

VV: How many cases did you make in ’07?
RP: We crushed 4500 cases last year, which is a lot for us. In this economy it is probably a little more that we should. But we will probably sell 3,000 each year and hold back 1,000 cases of different varieties so I can showcase an older vintage on a Friday afternoon if I want. It also shows lineage, agreeability, especially being in the Zin world.

VV: Do you have a wine role model?
RP: Yes. Bruce H. Recter. He is my spiritual wine mentor. He used to work for a very large winery that was sold in 1999. He came out of retirement in 2002-03 and made wine with me. He didn’t answer a lot of questions but I watched him carefully and learned by his ways of doing things.

VV: I see you have an olive crusher here. How long have you been making olive oil and how much do you make? RP: We started harvesting our olives in 2002 and took them to a custom crush in Glen Ellen and did that for 3 years and I didn’t like the community blend thing. So I bought a crusher and people can bring me their olives, about 300 pounds at a time, and I’ll make 4 gallons of oil for them. You don’t make olive oil for the money though. It takes 110 pounds of olives to get one gallon of oil. So it takes two trees worth of olives to get 1 1/3 gallons of oil. You have to hand pick the olives because the machines will break the limbs and things like that. We have 115 trees that we planted in 1999.

VV: Who designs your labels?
RP: Various unknown artists. I go online and look for them. Being a former punk rocker I understand the importance of helping starving artists. I was looking for a Van Gogh impressionist perspective on this particular style of wine. I communicated with an artist and after seeing her sketches I commissioned her to do the label. It’s a great way to get original art at a reasonable price and it’s a win-win for the artist and me.

VV: In conclusion, what are your goals and philosophies about Harvest Moon Winery?
RP: My goal is to showcase the elegance of Russian River Valley through low alcohol, well-balanced wine. We are a fun and approachable winery, non-pretentiousness is a must and I work hard on that on a daily basis.

Harvest Moon Estate & Winery
2192 Olivet Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Harvest Moon Estate & Winery