PASO ROBLES — For Janell Dusi, 2020 was going to be a big year. Her label, J Dusi Wines, was closing in on its 15th anniversary and she was turning 40. 

“There was just something about 2020. It sounded so official and big and grandiose,” Dusi said. “It just went downhill so fast. We had high hopes for 2020 and it wasn’t all negative and bad. There were some negative and bad but not all bad. Hopefully, no more big, big surprises.”

COVID-19 hit America in late January and it has been crazy ever since — one surprising thing after another.

California shut down its economy for a solid three months and has been bouncing back-and-forth since. The state was ravaged by a historic summer of fires ignited by 6,235 dry-lightning strikes amidst a heatwave in mid-August.

Even with everything that transpired, Dusi was hopeful the 2020 harvest would be smooth. 

For the most part, it was, Dusi said, adding that it looked to be on track after a cool growing season.

“Then we got that heat, and then it was a rush,” said Dusi, while standing in her tasting room on Highway 46 West. 

“Those high temperatures didn’t do us any favors,” Dusi said. “A lot of our stuff is dry-farmed, so we get a lot of accelerated raisining or prune dimples kind of going on the grapes.”

Yields are lower than usual, Dusi said. The intense heat leads to fruit with high sugars and fermentations are getting stuck. Par for the course for 2020.

“Every year, there is a different challenge that presents itself. I wouldn’t expect anything less for 2020, right,” Dusi said. “We are dealing with Mother Nature, the weather, and everything she brings along with it, which is always a gamble in farming.”

All of this is pushing winemakers in the cellars. Fortunately, smoke taint has not been an issue.

“There are some challenging things happening in the cellar — fermentations aren’t wanting to go,” Dusi said. “I think it just needs time in the cellar. It’s finishing, but I have been pleasantly surprised with the taste and the quality is looking good.”

Most of the grapes for her wines come from the prized family Dante Dusi Vineyard. She is the fourth generation in the family grape farming business. Her great-grandparents immigrated from Northern Italy in the early 1900s. They settled into Paso Robles and planted Zinfandel vines in 1925.

She started the J Dusi Wines label in 2005 and opened her tasting room in 2013. Her focus has been red wines, specifically dry-farmed Zinfandel. 

She added a second label, Paper Street, to the portfolio in 2015. Paper Street Vineyard is located in the Willow Creek District of the Paso Robles AVA. Her father, Mike, and her brother Matthew planted it in 2013 with Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah.

“It’s four wines right now, all from one vineyard,” Dusi said. “Super high elevation, really steep hillsides. The quality of grapes that come off of the property are intense and big. It’s really, really good.”

On Oct. 8, her J Dusi 2018 Zinfandel Dante Dusi Vineyard was awarded a Double Gold medal, and her J Dusi 2017 Zinfandel Paper Street Vineyard was awarded a Silver medal in the distinguished “Best California Zinfandel” awards for 2020 from Fifty Best.

J Dusi survived the economic downturn from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s months-long shelter-in-place order and disjointed reopening guidelines, thanks to its wine club and marketing.

“For being shut down for two and a half months, we are doing OK,” Dusi said. “You just have to be proactive. People want their wine. It was nice to see.”

Since reopening, Dusi said people are making reservations and excited to be out tasting wine.

“People are coming out,” Dusi said. “They’ve been cooped up and now they are excited to sit outside overlooking the vineyard with the sunshine.”

J Dusi’s tasting room, 1401 Highway 46 West, is currently open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily by reservation-only — jdusiwines.com or call the tasting room at 805-226-2034.

Getting through this together, Paso Robles