The morning sun splashes across a vineyard east of Lodi. Markus Niggli, tall and nimble, moves knowingly among the grapes. Wearing his dust-caked low-cut Merrell hiking boots, Niggli scans, sniffs, touches. Finally, he tastes.
Then he keeps moving.
“Not ready,” he says.
Originally from Switzerland, Niggli is the winemaker at Borra Winery, an innovator who has created new blends and embraced a German grape, Kerner, in a fresh way.
He is a winemaker with a love of the vineyard — one who personifies the energetic spirit of Lodi’s winemaking community.
During harvest, he sleeps only a few hours a night and spends long hours in the field.
“As a winemaker, you must listen to the vineyard. You need to know the story of the fruit to make a great wine,” he said.
He is driven, he says, to produce Lodi wines that are not just good, but exceptional. Niggli is entirely affable, if a bit brash.
“My goal is to make wine that over delivers,” he said. “Wine that you buy for $19 a bottle and you are absolutely blown away by.”
At 6-foot, 3-inches tall, in long khakis (his winery colleagues kiddingly refer to them as ‘man-capris’) and a light vest, he marches through the vineyard with a long stride and a sense of purpose. He stoops, grabs several blue orbs of Syrah, pushes them into his mouth. He closes his eyes for just a moment.
“Yes,” he says. “These are ready.”
Rain is forecast in just a few days. There are many tons of grapes ripening, some to be crushed in Lodi, some to be trucked fresh and chilled across the country to wineries in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Niggli, in his hiking boots, is racing.
A zeal for hard work, creativity
Niggli, 41, has traveled and sampled wines all over the planet. He grew up near Zurich, in the town of Weesen, only steps from renowned ski resorts. He apprenticed in marketing at the Swiss Railway, worked for American Airlines, then became a manager for the Swiss-based Kuoni Group, which provides travel and tour services globally. His job demanded constant travel to the U.S., South Africa, throughout Europe, and Australia. In his late 20s, though, he started losing interest in the travel industry and gaining interest in wine.
At 30, he quit his position at Kuoni. He wanted to work in wine, and he wanted to learn winemaking from the soil up. Through a friend, he found a job on vineyard near Perth, Australia. He came to California in to work as a viticultural assistant at the Atlas Peak winery in Napa.
Then, in 2006, he learned about a job in Lodi.
Lodi appealed to him, he says, because it is has a reputation for both innovation and collaboration. A place where a purposeful young winemaker could learn — and ascend — rapidly.
He applied for the job as a cellar assistant at Borra Winery and spent two hours locked in conversation with owner Steve Borra.
“His abilities were well beyond being a cellar helper,” Borra recalls. “We were in a growing phase. It was clear Markus could help us grow.”
Since joining Borra eight years ago, Niggli has taken on increasing responsibilities. Today he is in charge of winemaking, marketing and general operations.
Borra has been impressed with Niggli’s relentless work ethic. He often starts work at 5 a.m. and pushes hard until 7 or 8 p.m. He’s a model of versatility, pouring and chatting in the tasting room, helping with bottle designs, even driving a forklift.
He revised growing practices in Borra’s 135-acre Gill Creek Ranch to secure Lodi Rules certification.
Moreover, he’s won praise as an innovative winemaker.
His white blend, Intuition, was made from white German varietals aged in new oak barrels. That’s a break from tradition, as German varietals are expected to have no hint of oak and to be aged only in concrete or steel tanks.
But Niggli suspected that, with the German grapes he could access in Lodi, and the right technique, he could pull off an oak-aged German blend. The result of that hunch, Intuition, won wide critical and consumer appeal.
Of the 2011 Intuition, wine blogger W. Blake Gray wrote: “This is a great wine, one of the best California white wines I’ve tasted this year. It’s delicious. And complex. And constantly interesting. Every sip was worth savoring.”
After reading the blog post, several wine enthusiasts drove from Los Angeles to Lodi specifically to taste Intuition.
“They had a great day, loved the wine, and said they’d be coming back to Lodi again,” Niggli says.
Niggli has also embraced the Kerner grape, sourced from Mokelumne Glen vineyards in Lodi. Kerner is used in some European wines, but very rarely in Lodi offerings. Again, Niggli, with his background in European wines, felt the somewhat neglected Kerner could offer an opportunity.
Under his own label of Markus Wine Co., Niggli has created Nimmo, a successor to the Intuition series. Nimmo includes nearly 70 percent Kerner, along with Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Bacchus. It is, he says, a “complex wine meant for complex foods” and aimed at young and feminine market.
Such ventures mark Borra as a long-established winery with a creative zest, said Camron King, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission.
“Markus is pushing the envelope with some beautiful wines,” King says. “He’s forward thinking; his exposure to winemaking in different parts of the world is an asset to our winemaking community.”
That community’s willingness to share, help and learn is what Niggli finds appealing. For example, he’s borrowed cellar space from other vintners and shared grapes with others to experiment with new blends.
When a fledgling winemaker wanted to make a test batch of wine and said he’d do the crushing manually, Niggli insisted he bring the fruit to Borra.
“We crushed his grapes in 15 minutes. It would have taken him a day or two to do that himself,” Niggli says.
Borra said he’s largely turned the operation of his legacy winery over to Niggli.
“He has great integrity. I trust him implicitly. I like to say it is really Markus’ winery — I just happen to own it.”
Boots in motion
Back in the Gill Creek vineyard, the sun is high in the sky. Niggli pauses and points out long green tendrils uncoiling from a vine.
“See, these are happy vines. They are growing. Healthy.”
He strides a few paces and points out tendrils that have turned coppery. The vines are scraggly.
It is near-cliche but true, Niggli said: Great wines are born in the vineyard.
“The most important decision for a winemaker is when to pick,” he says. “Without great fruit, you do not get great wine.”
Nearly all of the fruit for Borra’s wines is hand-picked. Niggli is at the epicenter of the harvest, typically juice-spattered and dirt-crusted by the end of the day. (He always carries a change of shirt and shorts, he says, if things get too messy.)
“If we see fruit that isn’t up to standard, we don’t pick it. You can’t be that selective with mechanical harvesting,” he said.
So assessment of the fruit is pivotal. And that, he said, is as much art as science.
A few years back, Niggli took on an intern. The young man was studying enology at a major university and insisted on bringing his textbooks with him into the vineyard.
“I finally told him to put the books down. I told him: look, smell, taste for yourself. Be open-minded. Develop your own senses. You don’t learn that in a book. I am Swiss and I am detail-oriented. But I also believe you have to love what you do to do it well. When I hire someone, I may not be looking for the person with the most knowledge. I look for someone who really glows when I open a bottle of good wine to share.”
During harvest, Niggli’s work involves a relentless balance. Grapes cannot be picked until Niggli deems them ready. Meanwhile, the harvest crew does not wish to be idle.
And now, a gray wisps appear in the afternoon sky above the vineyard; rain is due in two days.
“Rain means moisture. Moisture means mold. And mold means we cannot sell the grapes,” he says.
Niggli, though, thrives on the stress and challenge of it all.
“I don’t sleep much. I am always thinking about the next day.”
He and wife, Diane, have two children, Alexis, 13, who attends Lodi Christian School, and Lucas, 5, a kindergartener at Vinewood. After harvest, Niggli’s days become slightly more normal and he’s able to spend more time with his family. Weekends typically revolve around the kids’ sports events or a night out with Diane for dinner and a bottle of wine at Pietro’s, Crush or Thai Spices.
For now, though, the grapes are ripening. The sky is darkening.
The hiking boots stay laced up and dusty.
Through the vineyard, Markus Niggli’s race continues.