By Bandy Miceli.
Fanny Osborne Stevenson, widow of famed author Robert Louis Stevenson, bought the 120-acre property around 1900 to build a summer home on after Stevenson’s passing. The sloping nature of her property, combined with the song of the birds echoing throughout it reminded her of the tropical terrain she laid her husband to rest on in Samoa. In Samoan, the word “Vanumanutagi” means “valley of the singing birds.”
And rightly so; when I visited Vanumanutagi with Gary, Richard, and Gary’s dog Paolo, the birds’ songs filled the hilly ranch. We went in early May on a sunny day, just after bud break. Last year, Gary purchased all 3 tons of Vanumanutagi’s Syrah, from which he made 75 cases of Fiz Nat. What wasn’t used, Gary made into a traditional Syrah, which will go into the Left Bend Mashup. In 2012, Left Bend bottled a Vanumanutagi Syrah.
While strolling through Vanumanutagi, Gary explained to me how the light pink shiny shoot tips atop the vines are typical of Syrah. As I learned about these vines and their environment, we joked about keeping our balance amidst the steep landscape. Apparently Gary has taken a tumble once or twice.
“Syrah can thrive in either cooler climates, similar to Pinot Noir, or in warmer climates, like Cabernet Sauvignon, or anywhere in between,” Gary said. “Vanumanutagi lies on the eastern slope of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which is warmer. The fruit from this vineyard is full-bodied with plenty of red, dark fruit. It shows some pepper aromas, typical of Syrah, as it ages.”
The contrast between Vanumanutagi’s cool nights and daytime heat allows for ripening in the day and acidity preservation at night, Gary said. The vines have unique challenges that affect how the wine presents.
“While Vanumanutagi is not dry farmed, it receives very little irrigation and is on rocky soils depleted of nutrients,” he said. “So the roots have to go deep in search of water, creating an extensive root system. Lots of roots creates a high level of tannins in the grape skins. So, the Syrah from Vanumanutagi has nice acidity and high levels of tannins, which together, give the wine great aging potential.”
Because the vineyard is planted on undulating slopes, the soils are variable. In areas where the vineyards have some topsoil, the vines flourish—in areas where the vineyard has little to no topsoil, they struggle. The vines are also quite old; I read in a book called South Santa Clara County that owner Leo Ware, who purchased the land in 1961, planted the vineyard in 1981. Vanumanutagi is currently owned by Leo’s son, Lincoln Ware. Matt Oetinger is the vineyard’s grower. He is also the owner and winemaker at Fernwood Cellars, which sits just below Vanumanutagi. Currently the vineyard is home to Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
The Syrah for Fiz Nat is harvested on the early side, around mid September. This means lower sugar levels, lower alcohol, and brighter acidity. Gary says these characteristics all work well in a sparkling wine. The early harvest also accentuates the uneven ripening in the fruit, which he believes adds character and complexity to the Fiz Nat, a naturally fermented sparkler created in the Pét-Nat style. People who taste the Fiz Nat often remark on the distinct aromas of grapefruit and guava, combined with a smooth fiz.
“These characteristics are directly related to the early harvest, variable ripeness, bright acidity, and native yeast fermentation,” Gary said.
When Gary goes to pick up the grapes after harvest, the Vanumanutagi crew loads all the hand-picked Syrah into Gary’s trailer, which is backed into a sliver of flat land above the vineyard. He hauls them off to the winery in San Martin where Left Bend’s wines are made, and begins the Fiz Nat process.
“This is what makes it pink instead of deep purple.” he said.
The juice is racked to a stainless steel tank where it starts to ferment using natural yeast that came in on the fruit from the vineyard. The juice is not temperature controlled, but stored in a cool area of the winery at about 65 degrees. As it ferments, he checks sugar levels, and as the sugar level gets close to the desired bottling level, he chills the wine to slow fermentation.
It sits for several days to allow sediment to settle out to the bottom of the tank. If the sugar level goes too low, Gary adds back in a small amount of unfermented Syrah juice.
“This brings the sugar up to a level that provides the correct level of carbonation,” Gary said. “Once the wine is clarified by settling and the sugar levels are correct, we bottle and cap the wine.”