The reality of Dolce sings with a depth, a power and a richness that is the direct result of our unyielding pursuit of perfection.
Dolce can be created only when just the right elements of nature, science, craftsmanship -- and a little luck -- come together to create the magical conditions which allow Dolce to be made. The resulting wine is a triumph over adversity. The cost to bring such magic to the bottle is high. It is striking that such a tiny percentage of what started in the vineyard ever makes it to the bottle.
Dolce will never compromise its standards. It will continue to fulfill its destiny as one of the most remarkable wines to be grown in Napa Valley. It could never be realized without a single-minded devotion to quality. Dolce is a wine of unique, timeless and recognizable character, whose origin may be close to alchemy is it creates an impression akin to Liquid Gold.
The Dolce Vineyard
The magic of Dolce, like all of the world’s greatest wines, starts in the vineyard. Dolce’s vineyard is where excellent soils, ideal climate and expert viticulture converge to give birth to this rare wine that is nothing less than a gift of nature. These twenty acres are gently tended so the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes can fully ripen and then, if perfect conditions occur, be transformed by noble rot. It is risky and can be unnerving, but is only possible with the foundation of a great vineyard.
The western-sloping soils are a combination of gravel, volcanic ash, loam and clay that ages-old geologic forces formed at the base of the eastern hills at the southern end of the Napa Valley.
Nightly, the vineyard enjoys the moderating effects of the ocean. While this is one of the coolest areas of the Napa Valley, it is well protected from the morning and evening breezes. The fog, which is so critical to noble rot, can settle longer to help in the all-important transformation of Dolce’s small crop each fall.
Even these natural advantages would not be enough to create Dolce if they weren’t combined with our viticultural expertise and experience. This is where farming is more akin to gardening. Science and observation are combined in an annual contest to see if the finest grapes can be won against the odds of time and nature.
The greatest vineyards demand the finest in viticulture if they are to fulfill their destiny. Farming Dolce, as in other special vineyards, starts with attention to each detail that enables this remarkable vineyard to grow the exceptional. Scientific understanding and empirical knowledge gained through years in the vineyard have led to a balanced and sustainable approach that coddles these vines as if we were tending a prized rose garden. Whether it is when we are pruning each winter or reducing our crop by half every summer, we check everything constantly. We are quick to return to perfect whatever detail needs attention.
Ultimately, we aim to grow but one cluster per shoot. It must not touch the other clusters. It must be fully ripe before it can start its transformation by noble rot. Unknown to most, the Dolce season can stretch for up to two months beyond other wine grapes. These are long, risky and ultimately critical months. There is no shortcut when attempting to capture grapes capable of yielding Dolce. Even so, the grapes will only be harvested if they display all of the right qualities. Indeed, more than 80 percent of what began in the vineyard never makes it to the bottle. Farming Dolce is as demanding and as risky as any winegrowing ever conceived.
Noble rot is the ages-old term for botrytis cinerea, a mold that provides the near mystical richness, texture and complexity that sets Dolce apart. Once viewed as a harvest disaster, noble rot was eventually discovered – as early as the 1600s in Hungary – to be an enchantment to the grape, simultaneously evaporating the water, while concentrating the sugars and flavors.
Noble rot needs ideal and very specific, naturally occurring conditions to develop. The Dolce vineyard is situated where the still, morning air and the low-lying fog promote noble rot. Years of experience in the vineyard has taught us to tend the vines in a manner that encourages this fickle process.
Perhaps no other time or process in winegrowing is as anxiety filled as when noble rot spreads and blooms. A single rain at the wrong moment can destroy much of an entire year’s work. However, once noble rot takes a berry or a cluster from green to pink to purple to fully developed, it is a transformation that can then give us a wine capable of touching each person who partakes.
A Very Special Harvest
Harvest is never a single event with Dolce. While most vineyards are picked in a day or two, the Dolce harvest typically lasts six weeks or more, and the time-consuming effort is expended solely to bring in a tiny amount of fruit for the entire vintage. Each picking pass captures only the best clusters and grapes, leaving the rest to risk natural destruction while we wait for it to progress enough to become Dolce.
Dolce is harvested by craftspeople trained in the technique of identifying the right grapes and gently handling the delicate fruit. Many of our workers have been harvesting Dolce for a decade or more, and return every year to shepherd the new vintage. Occasionally a cluster can be inspected, picked, and gently stowed in a lug box. However, most clusters must be inspected and thinned with special shears to remove individual berries that are less than ideal. Sometimes, after minutes of work, it turns out that only a single berry is headed on its journey to the winery. Each picker works with the winemaker’s daily instructions that seek to capture the perfect concentration possible.
An observer can only wonder at the concentration and experience that is required to harvest Dolce. Equally striking is how little fruit is harvested. More than 80 percent of what was on the vines in the spring never makes it to our winery. This journey rewards but the finest.
Perhaps no other wine is as technically demanding to make as Dolce. Dolce winemaking achieves such heights because science and time-tested traditions are combined to coax a vintage into releasing all of its potential. Few wines demand so much experience as the making of a great late harvest wine. Equally, the consequences of mistakes are extreme.
While we rely on a foundation of empirical truths that are timeless, scientific advancements unravel mysteries that slowly lead to improvements. This synergy of experience and science, combined with our philosophy, allows the distinctive personality of Dolce to dazzle.
Pressing grapes is as old as wine itself.
This gentle squeezing of the grapes is the first step in the three-year journey to realizing Dolce. The precious juice, a concentrated nectar, drips from the skins and is as sticky as syrup. It is richly colored in the press. There may be as little as two or three barrels of juice to show from a day’s picking and pressing.
After many hours of pressing, the skins are dry to the touch. They are ready to be returned to the vineyard to continue their natural journey and enrich the soil for the next year's harvest, while in the cellar, the juice settles in a small tank under the scrutiny and care of the winemaker.
In ancient times, fermentation, the transformation of juice to wine, was viewed as a gift of the gods. While we know that yeast is responsible for fermentation, the results are still too complicated to be completely understood by science. However, the conversion of juice to wine with each vintage feels magical. It is a gift of nature at work that has its roots in prehistoric times.
While most wines complete fermentation in a near violent rush of a few days or a few weeks, the fermentation inside each French oak barrel of Dolce seems stately, but is, in fact, a slow struggle that usually lasts six months. Dolce ferments as its own ecosystem, where the needs of the yeast work within a “hostile” environment full of sugar. Juice with such a high sugar concentration is an extremely difficult environment for yeast. Growth is slow and the opportunity for disaster is always a concern. Dolce’s winemaker, through experience and careful analysis, shepherds each individual barrel in its journey as sugar is converted and flavors are created in a manner that still eludes comprehension.
There comes a point, usually in May, when the yeast fall silent and fermentation has run its course. Experience has led another vintage of Dolce to where the yeast can go no further and the remaining sugar is in perfect balance.
Dolce invests in 100 percent new French oak barrels with every vintage. Only the French forests, combined with the artistry of their coopers, are capable of yielding barrels that deftly and delicately cradle Dolce as it matures.
These barrels reflect their heritage of craftsmanship as much as they reflect the flavors of the centuries-old French forests where they grew. The cooper uses his experience as he bends the staves over oak fires and toasts the interior of the barrel to meet the specific needs of Dolce that will spend nearly three years maturing in barrel. Harmony between the wine and the barrel is imperative.
Dolce requires the finest- and tightest-grain French oak barrels. Each stave is selected specifically by its density. Only the tightest grain will do. Not only are the wine’s flavors slower to release and integrate over extended time in barrel, but these are the only barrels suited to the difficult reality of aging Dolce.
Evolution in the barrel is slow. Dolce starts as juice that is transformed through many months of fermentation. It is an even longer journey to tame and cultivate the raw power, forward tropical fruit, and awkward youth of the wine. There are no shortcuts to achieving the grace, elegance and depth of Dolce. It requires the integration of oak. It requires time. It requires attention to every detail.
Aging is a process that can’t be rushed. Dolce’s time spent in barrel is a period of constant change and transformation. It is the time-proven crafting or "raising" of Dolce to let it develop all of its strengths and subtleties in full harmony. Only then is Dolce ready for seeking greater maturity in the bottle. At first, each barrel of Dolce is opened every seven days. The wine is checked and the barrel is carefully topped up to replace any wine that was lost to the oak and evaporation as we protect it from the dangers of air. Eventually, the wine can go two weeks before the barrels are topped. Each barrel is regularly tasted and evaluated throughout its maturation to determine if it will be chosen to be part of the blend that becomes Dolce.
Sometime during the third year, only the finest barrels are selected, blended and bottled. That wine in the bottle represents but a tiny fraction of the grapes, juice and wine that started the journey to become Dolce.
An Intricate Blend
Blending is the winemaker’s art. While he needs a deep understanding of the strengths of each barrel being considered, it is the winemaker’s sense of Dolce’s "house style," in harmony with the characteristics of the vintage, that provide the perspective to create the finest blend.
Each barrel is evaluated. The volume of possible choices could overwhelm. While the most modern laboratory analysis is never ignored, great blends start and end with tasting. We discover where blending two barrels creates harmony and where they clash. We taste to find a path that maps the best possible route. It is a given that the final blend must sing with the personality of Dolce. Therefore, it is our unique style that is the guiding principle. This sense of style allows the hundreds of options to be honed to a single wine that is the expression of Dolce for that year.
The art of blending Dolce is about the personality of the wine for the vintage and how that vintage fits in with all the others from Dolce. This lengthy process ends with certainty that we have found the finest wine possible, but it also means that many fine barrels, in spite of our best efforts, were not good enough to make it to the bottle.
Bottling is the last time the winemaker touches the wine before it leaves the cellar and continues to age and evolve in its glass environment. Bottling is important. Bottling is industrial as compared to the handcrafted world of making Dolce, but it must be accomplished with the same level of control and perfectionism. The finest equipment is paired with the most modern analysis to assure that each bottle of wine is fully protected from the damaging effects of air. If anything is amiss, we stop until it can be corrected. Such attention to detail is the best way to introduce Dolce to its new home so that it can continue to age and improve for many years.
While the winemaker monitors the scientific quality needs of bottling, the aesthetic commitment of Dolce is self evident. The bottle captures the traditional high-shouldered feel of Sauternes, but was designed specifically for Dolce. The label is a blend of the romantic Art-Nouveau ideas of the artist Tom Rodrigues, and the advances that allowed it to be applied to our bottle in such a way that the inks vitrify to become part of the glass, while the 22 carat gold shines as brightly as ever.