When it comes to variety, Baskin-Robbins has nothing on Dragoo-Magoni. Thirty-one flavors is impressive, but when Mick Dragoo, proprietor of Escondido's Belle Marie and Chateau Dragoo, met with Camillo Magoni in Tijuana a few weeks back, he heard numbers that were more impressive still. Magoni — who also makes wine at L.A. Cetto — supplies Dragoo with his grapes, grown in Baja and sent north in refrigerated trucks. And as of that meeting in Tijuana, those grapes may come from any one of 51 varietals. "It's really fun for us to be able to play with them," says Dragoo, who is already working with around 30 of the 51. "We'll pick up 8 more next year; most of them will be Italian. This year, we tried Nero d'Avola, which is from Sicily."
The range is not accidental; Dragoo is no kid in a candy store, mad with desire for the next new thing. "We have a 15 percent ownership" in the vineyards, he explains. "Three and a half years ago, we decided we were going to rip out the old stuff we didn't like — Palomino and such — and put in small plantings of things we did, never producing more than five tons of anything. It's experimental," with the caveat that any successful experiments will be put on the tasting room shelf. "We don't want to be a me-too Cabernet-Zinfandel-Chardonnay winery. I want to do things that nobody else has, let people experience different tastes from around the world."
He is, however, a man at play. "We're still at 5000 cases — cut out a little of this, put in a little of that. That's about all we can reasonably handle. If I couldn't do all of these experiments, I wouldn't enjoy what I'm doing. We've got the capacity to make a heck of a lot more, and maybe someday we will. But not now — I'm having too much fun."
The essence of the experiment is to see if he can replicate the wines of the world, starting with vineyard conditions. As much as possible, "We make the wines the way they make the wines. When Camillo gets these cuttings from around the world and propagates them in the nursery, he always records the type of soil and microclimate that they came out of." Climatically, Baja's Guadalupe Valley "is all over the place," so Magoni usually has a good chance of finding something similar to a cutting's place of origin. "If he doesn't own land with exactly the same soil or microclimate, then we lease that land from another owner. It's worked out pretty well." Their first plantings of the Brunello clone of Sangiovese proved less than satisfactory. Four years ago, they put new vines in more suitable soil, "and now I think we're there. This year will be our first crop."
This year will also see the results of his first attempts at long-term barrel aging. "We took a lot of the '02 Petite Sirah and bottled it after a year, but when we found out it was doing so well, we kept some behind and aged it another year. We bought our first Guadalupe grapes in 1997, and we haven't had a year since then that was good enough to label as our Crescendo." The 2002 may be the first. "It's got good mouth feel, nice spice — it's very balanced. I'll probably only tweak it by blending the different barrels together — we've got some in French, some in American, some in Yugoslavian. We spread it around to give it a little more complexity."
The '02 Cabernet, often blended with Nebbiolo to make the winery's Maestro, also merited two-year aging and will be bottled as a straight varietal. Same for Barbera, another varietal that usually ends up blended. "It's not a particularly easy wine to work with — it gets to be a little dickens. You've heard of children being in the terrible twos? Barberas get into the terrible ones; you don't know where you are with the wine." To demonstrate, he pulls out tastes of the '02 and '03, two wines that went into the barrels with near identical chemistry. The '02 is bright and pleasing, but "a year ago, it didn't taste this way." It was more like the '03 is now: "a wild beast. It just comes off as hyper-fruity." Time will tell if it will settle down like its predecessor. "We don't know where it's going to go. We have to take the good with the bad."
If time doesn't look like the answer, Dragoo is happy to seek better wines through blending. The '03 Cabernet was all fruity attack, with a muted middle and little finish to speak of. So he brought in 20 percent Nebbiolo to mute the fruit and beef up the structure. "If I know I want to make a Maestro, I'll blend 75 percent up front to marry the wines and give myself a 25 percent hedge factor, so I can reblend when I bottle it."
Best of all is fixing problems before the grapes even leave the vines. "The Tempranillo we made before came in at four tons an acre — a lot for us. We couldn't tame it; it was slow to come around." So this year, he cut back production on some of his vines to see if he could get a more manageable end product. One barrel of Tempranillo comes from grapes harvested at one and three-quarter tons per acre; another, a mere half-ton per acre. "We gave them the same ripening period, same harvest date, same everything. Everything is matched up, so that we can see what will happen." The '04s are only a few weeks old, and the high-volume stuff is (understandably) still a mess, but the reserves are already drinking like wine. "That's the way I usually distinguish a great vintage from a good vintage. We've got an aftertaste. We've got a middle. We've got body and structure. Can you imagine what this is going to do?" He taps the half-ton barrel. "We can produce this premium fruit down in Baja for about $1235 a ton. I think I would rather spend my $1235 here than my $900 there," he says, indicating the one-and-three-quarter-ton barrel. "Volume is not everything in this world."