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Tasting wine from a Known Farmer Is a Strange Intimacy

Tonight I’m drinking Thomas Coyne 2006 Grenache Lodi Old Vines.  While I’m not 100% certain where the grapes for this vintage were obtained, I do know that Thomas Coyne gets his grenache from an Acampo farmer named Norman Knoll.  I know this because I interviewed both Thomas Coyne and Norman Knoll for an upcoming article that’s slated to be published in edible East Bay.

When I initially began interviewing people, I wasn’t sure what direction I was going in.  I spoke with a representative for a winery in Lodi, but upon further examination, the operation was larger than I had anticipated.  I wanted to find a smaller winery.  I decided to go into my proverbial backyard: the Livermore Valley.

I called and met with one winemaker who I had interviewed before and asked him about Lodi fruit and the local scene (Livermore).  He mentioned Thomas Coyne and Fenestra.  I had remembered the Thomas Coyne winery from many years ago, when they first opened in 1994.


After I made the arrangements for the interview, I went to Livermore to meet with Thomas Coyne.  We began talking about fruit in general, either that sourced from Livermore or from outside the Livermore Valley.  As he kept talking, he began telling me about a farmer in Lodi (Acampo).   He told me the story of the elderly farmer growing grapes for decades who specialized in small lots of uncommon varietals.  While he he told me the story of the farmer finding a wild vine growing in the Mokelumne River and planting it for grapes, I knew I had to meet this man.

Norman Knoll was born in 1926.  He was born to August Knoll, a farmer, who tended his father’s vineyard.  Norman’s grandfather,  Jacob Knoll, immigrated to America from Russia around the turn of the last century.  He chose to settle in Lodi  after a doctor told him to leave his homestead in North Dakota to get away from the cold, and he purchased 40,000 acres of vineyards in Lodi.  He is mentioned in a Lodi Sentinal article from 1937.  To say that Norman was born into the wine business is an understatement.

On the day I went to meet him, I got lost.  I was under the impression Acampo was above Woodbridge, off Highway 5.  When I pulled over off the freeway and discovered I had to cross town through Lodi on Highway 12 to Highway 88 and continue traveling, I was deflated — until I met my host.  I pulled into the driveway of a farmstead under a number of shade trees.  The number of buildings was indistinguishable due to the size and age of the trees, but there were at least 4 buildings.  Norman was sitting in an old office chair off the driveway in front of the house amidst a pile of old bottles, wine barrels, and other farm equipment. 

As I got out of the I apologized for being late, although he acted as though I was timely, and I went to the back of my car to provide him with some back issues of the magazine to show him what edible was about.  He greeted me with a small box full of table grapes and identified them for me, with only one I remember being the historic Tokay grape.

We settled down and talked about everything.  We talked about his family, including his father, his grandfather, his grandchildren, and his great grandchildren.  He told me gossip about a famous Napa winemaker who had had everything, and lost it while gambling on the wild vine’s fruit.  While we talked two cats lazily strolled by occasionally.  It was warm that day, but not hot.  He trusted me, and I was comfortable interviewing him and felt I could ask him anything.

While we talked about wine grape varietals, another vehicle drove up.  Two men got out and began talking with Norman about fruit he may have for sale this upcoming harvest.  Both men were backyard wine makers making wine with small amounts of fruit for personal consumption.  As one man spoke with Norman, the other and I decided to check on what was out on the farm. 

The man, Tom, and I tromped around a lot so I could get a good picture of some fruit.  This was difficult as this summer has been exceptionally cool, and the spring rains went into June.  We found an area where Norman had removed some ancient mourvedre and had replanted some young vines.  As we traveled through the vines southward, we came across one small row of dark grapes next to numerous white grapes.  We pulled a bunch of fruit off the red vine and went to check on the whites. 

Once we arrived back to the house, we learned the lone row was grenache.  Either Tom or his friend, Phil, crushed one of the grapes to check the brix level.  Norman, who knew how cool this summer had been, and how little the grapes had grown, guessed the brix would be at 21.  The juice came in at 20.25 brix, and in the middle of September!  To put it in perspective, this year’s harvest is going to be so reduced, that Norman, who has been in the vineyard since practically birth (his mother packed Tokays when he was born), said many of his vines never bloomed.

We chatted a bit more, and I exchanged information with the men who had stopped by before making my way to leave.  Norman walked me to my car, and hugged me goodbye.  He invited me to come back to visit him anytime. 

On my most recent visit to Thomas Coyne, this last weekend, I mentioned to Thomas that I’d met with Norman.  He nodded knowingly.  I went into the tasting room to look specifically for wines I knew Thomas had made with Norman’s fruit.

Tonight’s wine, the Thomas Coyne 2006 Grenache Lodi Old Vines is summer evening in a glass.  I can taste the evening’s soft breeze, the day’s heat adding a specia complexity to the fruit.  To Norman, cheer!  You are a great farmer!


About Helene Kremer

San Francisco East Bay

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