On a cold autumn evening smack dab in the middle of harvest in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma, California, you will find Randy Pitts crushing grapes and rocking out to old-school, punk rock legends like Pennywise and NOFX.
“Music motivates us. It inspires us with the little notes that dance around in our head through our workday,” said Randy. “I brought punk rock concepts to growing grapes and making wine. In other words, cool-climate, elegant zinfandel from the Russian River Valley? @#$& yeah. People did not really understand it for years. They had to have it in their glass to find out if it was for them or not.”
Growing up in Sonoma, the winery property was considered to be on the wrong side of the tracks. According to Randy, back in 1975, there was a demarcation line on Highway 101 between the sophisticated people and the country folks. “I grew up watching people work extremely hard building stuff, riding our farm tractor, and being outside in the garden. That was our playground.”
Randy attended business school in San Francisco, thinking he would leave the farming life behind when in October of 1999, he had an early-life crisis and headed home. His father had just retired and was sitting there in his bathrobe staring at Randy. “Both of us were wondering what the heck am I going to do? My mother suggested I take over the farm and responsibilities of the modest eight acres planted on the property. That is how it all started,” said Randy.
Under the tutelage of Bruce Rector, master enologist, Randy produced wines with great balance. One of the key focus areas was cool-climate zinfandels. “Farmed with integrity and intensity, zinfandel can be quite incredible, particularly from coastal regions like the Russian River Valley, with floral perfume, rose petal, black pepper, and stone fruit qualities. I guess I’m applying principles of pinot noir to zinfandel,” said Randy. He also pulls massive amounts of leaves and drops 20-30% of the fruit at veraison, resulting in a more elegant style of zinfandel that is intentionally aromatic, surprisingly light, and has a zesty, peppery finish that still allows the juiciness of the fruit to linger.
Randy is also crafting a series of sparkling wines. In 2013, he bought his own equipment. “I remember both fondly and frighteningly the day the equipment arrived because I had no idea how to operate it.” Harvest Moon now makes a tiny lot of four to five sparkling wines each year ranging from a sparkling gewürztraminer to a shiraz-style, sparkling petite sirah.
Over the years, Randy has applied a “less is more approach” to both grape growing and his wine craft. “When you extract less color and tannin—and play a little bit lighter hand on the sugar levels— during the winemaking process, each variety has its own floral, perfume, and pedal expression,” noted Randy. “We’ve been making wine for 6,000 years. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
Recently, Randy has also been buying grapes from Lodi, California, which offer a plusher style of wine without the higher alcohol levels. “It has been fun to make them. They are restaurant-ready wines, aka wine cocktails. Most of my reds in the past would sit 20 months in barrel, two years in bottle and age gracefully for a decade. My barbera and malbec— these are turn and burn baby. Pull the cork and go,” said Randy.
Things have not always been easy— the financial crisis of 2008 led to some dark times and a loss of about 35% of the customer base, which has instilled in a Randy a sense of resolve. As storm clouds envelope the globe from the COVID-19 outbreak, Harvest Moon has returned “back to basics,” while also exploring new technologies to virtually drive the business.
As 2020 brings a whole new set of challenges for Randy and many winemakers out there, I think of the lyrics from Pennywise’s “Bro Hymn,”
“Ever get the feeling you can’t go on. Just remember whose side that you are on. You have got friends with you till the end. If you are ever in a tough situation. We’ll be there with no hesitation.”
About Writer Joe Campbell
Based out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell, aka Sierra Wine Guy on social media, is an experienced software technology solutions consultant by day while spending his weekends and evenings working on the family farm and ranch properties while providing color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry.
Bio Courtesy of The Vintner Project.