The best thing about living on a vineyard is having the close-up view of the changing seasons. It’s more than just the weather. The transformation of the vines from week to week draws you into a colorful and compelling story. From bud break to harvest, we watch each vintage unfold before our eyes, knowing that we won’t really taste the beauty of the season for another couple of years.

We recently picked the Sauvignon Blanc from a neighboring vineyard. White wine grapes ripen before the reds, so now we watch and wait for the Jungle Love Cabernet. Over the years, we have harvested the Cab grapes as early as September 25th (2015) and as late as October 21st (2012). As the perfect time approaches, we are doing several things. First, we walk up and down the aisles tasting grapes from different parts of the vineyard. If you come visit, you can try it! Chew up the grape, including the crunchy seeds, tasting every drop inside, then spit.

As the grapes become sweeter to our taste buds, we start to measure things more scientifically, with a pocket spectrometer that shows the brix level when you hold it up to the light, then a full “juice panel” will be performed in a lab. For the latter, we collect 200 grapes and deliver them to the lab for a “grape phenolics” report that shows levels of malic and tartaric acids, brix, glucose/fructose, potassium, pH and other components. Interestingly, although these measures let us know we’re on track to produce a high quality wine, the numbers will change as the wine goes through fermentation. This is one area where the art of winemaking comes in. You can’t just pick by the numbers, so our decision of when to harvest can become a lively debate among us, with the winemakers and the vineyard manager making their expert recommendations. Everyone has a lot at stake, and all opinions matter.

Meanwhile, we’re also monitoring changes in the weather that could compromise quality, and working with our vineyard manager to ensure a great crew of men and women is even available on the optimal night for picking. Our vineyard takes a good three hours to pick, and that’s because they’ve gone through in advance, dropping the less perfect fruit to the ground to concentrate flavor in the remaining clusters. We also have to make sure we can get on the crush pad early in the morning with our freshly picked grapes. Keeping everything cool is essential.

Many vineyards will be reaching their peak at the same time. The nights will be noisy, and the vineyards brightly lit for the workers. The roads will be crowded with truckloads of grapes en route to their wineries, and you’ll even see the occasional, disastrous, grape spill on Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail. We don’t breathe easy until the grapes are in the tank!

This is an intense time on the vineyard, full of collaboration and drama, science and guessing. One thing I know for sure is that when we step out the front door in the early morning and smell grape juice, it’s time.

As a small producer, we sincerely appreciate the support we have received from our friends and family in launching and growing the Okapi brand. Like you, we want to drink high quality, clean wines, so we carefully adhere to sustainable vineyard and winemaking practices. We make all grape growing and production decisions with these values top of mind.

For the last several years we’ve expanded our reach by supporting the Okapi Conservation Project, the organization that manages the wildlife protection program in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their presence in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve helps defend it against illegal hunting, logging and mining, and acts as a stabilizing influence in a place where the government has little ability to control the chaos of economic and civil instability. They also run programs in alternative agriculture and community development that directly support the people who live in this region. (www.okapiconservation.org)

While okapis are nearly impossible to see in the wild, it turns out the endangered animals do very well in captivity, and this has been the key to their conservation. When the Sacramento Zoo acquired two okapis last winter, our friends at the OCP encouraged them to contact us about supporting the PR and fundraising around the announcement. No okapis have been exhibited in Northern California in decades, so their arrival is newsworthy! We have poured Okapi at two major zoo events for donors and community supporters of the zoo.

We love to partner with zoos and conservation advocates. Although we didn’t know much about okapis when we named our wine, the brand emerged as a play on the name of our Napa Valley home: Jungle Love Vineyard. We liked the name because the okapi symbolizes the rare and unique quality of our micro-boutique wines. Like the okapi, we come from only one place in the world. The wildlife conservation mission is consistent with our values of producing Okapi wines responsibly, and making a meaningful difference through our connections with fans and followers.

After all, nothing creates connection like sharing a great bottle of wine.

It hardly seems possible, but we just completed our 10th harvest at Jungle Love Vineyard. We still feel like beginners, learning more each year about farming and winemaking. After a decade in Napa Valley, we’re reflecting on what the development and launch of our own micro-boutique wine label has meant to us, and where we want to take Okapi next.

Our first barrel of wine, made as a “test” in 2009, produced such delightful results that we jumped in with both feet – and our feet have been purple ever since. We still have a few dozen bottles of that original vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, and we’re happy to open one when you visit the vineyard. Since this was not produced for sale to the public under the Okapi license, ask for it by its nickname “Jungle Juice!”

Making 100% estate grown Cabs means that we don’t blend with grapes from other vineyards to create a consistent flavor profile or hit targeted numbers in some lab. Instead, our winemaker Ted Osborne works closely with vineyard manager Mike Nuñez to pick the grapes at the peak moment of their ripeness, then handles them gently to coax out the very best qualities of each year’s harvest. As a result, each vintage is different, but Cabernet lovers can detect the common thread tying them all to our exuberant 1.7-acre patch of dirt.

The wonderful crew of men and women who hand pick our grapes can clear the vineyard in about three hours. Working in the middle of the night, they wear miner’s lamps on their heads and may even tape a blade to their glove so they can work faster. They cut and drop the best grape clusters into a small bin at their feet, kicking that bin down the row as they go. When it is full, they carry it to larger bins that will eventually hold half a ton of grapes each. They work fast, but they pick “clean,” meaning they don’t take underdeveloped clusters, or mix in sticks and leaves as they go.

Our favorite harvest was the year hot air balloons dipped low enough to graze the top of the vineyard palm tree, taking aerial photos of the workers as the sun came up. Everyone was cheering and waving, and we couldn’t have been happier to share the experience with these enthusiastic gawkers. If only we had those pictures!

Each year brings some drama: Will we get last minute rain that could dilute the fruit or – worse – allow mold to develop on the skins? Will our crew be able to get here on the night we decide the grapes are ready? Will the birds discover the grapes’ deliciousness before we can chase them away banging pots and pans? Have we accurately predicted the yield and ordered enough barrels from France?

With experience comes the understanding that it is more art than science, and more good luck than anything else. Good luck in finding talented people to help us. Good luck in planting the right rootstocks and grape vines. Good luck with the weather. Good luck in avoiding the devastation of the smoke and fires. Every time we open a bottle of Okapi, we do so with gratitude, because we know we have been lucky, and we know we will be happy with the wine.

The grapes we picked October 15th will become the 2018 Okapi Cabernet Sauvignon, available sometime in 2021, after 18-22 months in the barrel and another year cellared in a bottle. Until then, we have earlier vintages to keep you amused. Thanks for joining us on this ride. We sincerely appreciate your business, and love your referrals for corporate gifts, restaurant placements, special events and new club members! ❤

Dan & Kim

If you follow Okapi Wines on Facebook, you know we are starting to promote more special offers and interesting tidbits about our wines, winemaking, grape growing, visiting Napa Valley and more. Right now, you can get free shipping on orders of our “Perfect Pairing” gift of two bottles of Okapi – gift wrapped! That offer is only available for a limited time, but we are always happy to customize a gift for you. Follow us on your favorite social media platform so that you never miss a deal.

case goodsMore experienced winegrowers around us say that the 2012 vintage will benefit from the nearly perfect growing conditions we experienced this year. 2012 is “sixth leaf” for us, which means the vineyard has come into its maturity just in time to take advantage of nature’s generosity. We harvested over seven tons of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from our little vineyard this year – more than double the yield of the last two years. The quality of the fruit is outrageous, and we can hardly wait for our first post-crush barrel tasting this spring.

When you sign up to become a member of our community, we’ll keep you in the loop about developments in the vineyard and at the winery. We want you to feel like insiders…members of an intimate group that shares a cool secret. When you decant Okapi with friends, invite them into our circle, too. Members will receive notice of new releases, invitations to join us for tastings and other events, and – importantly – a discount on each bottle of Okapi. We want to hear from you as we learn how to make the ecommerce part easy for our customers. Ask lots of questions. We’ll use this space to share what we have learned so far, and what we figure out as we go along. Cheers!