Too often in our industry the grower, perhaps the most critical link between a good vineyard site and a great wine, is forgotten. This is a damn shame as growers have some pretty great stories to tell. The menagerie of personalities that we work with on a constant basis provides, outside of folks loving the wine, the greatest joy of running a small winery. Some, like Dino Amantite and Frank Evangelho, are the current advocates in a string of generations taking care of their vines. Others have come to it after enjoying other careers. There is a Texan with a French mother who got buried in her beloved bikini, one of the groundbreaking female viticulturists in California, a contractor who saved a vineyard and house as only a man who knows construction can do, the son of a Napa cement truck driver, a couple of fellow second generation wine brothers, an organic guru with a penchant for quoting beat poets, and even the man who invented the wine cooler.
To bring to life this rather incredible group of people, we decided to turn to our old friend, David Darlington. David, who is a James Beard award winning author, met me as a five-year-old while writing Angel’s Visits—probably the best book ever written on Zinfandel. His most recent work, An Ideal Wine, offers a penetrating look at the generation of winemakers that oversaw the rise of California wine through the '80s and '90s. We are absolutely thrilled that he agreed to take on the project and even more excited with the result.
“There’s no stasis in nature,” Diane Kenworthy observes. “Human beings look at something that’s chaos-controlled, and they see patterns – constellations, facial recognition of the man in the moon. It’s not really there, but you see it, right? We want nature to be forever the way it was, but everything’s like a fork. If it did this, it might do that, but there are no certainties – it just depends. I’ll catch myself in June saying that because it’s a hot, dry summer, we’ll have an early harvest – but it’s really fifty-fifty. If August is cool, I’ll forget I said that.
“I talk a lot,” Kenworthy admits. “I don’t always remember what I said, but I always mean it at the time. Of course, clients don’t like to hear this.”
Still, amid all the mutability, Kenworthy does acknowledge one certainty. “Farmers always complain,” she says. “It’s our job.”
Kenworthy’s other job is managing the Bedrock vineyard in Sonoma Valley. Her company, Sunbreak Vineyard Services, oversees more than a dozen other vineyards, but Kenworthy says, “Bedrock is the bread – the others are condiments.”
Diane’s path toward this sandwich of responsibilities began in, of all places, Orange County, where she was “the only viticulturist ever to graduate from Anaheim High School.” Her father John was an aeronautical engineer, as well as a wine nut – he and his wife Pat were members of Les Amis du Vin, and John made wine at home. “Engineers are fascinated by wine because it’s a practical, technological art,” Diane notes. “It satisfied my father’s artistic and craftsmanship sides, but with all the pumps and electricity, it’s still linear enough – and not bogged down in biology.”
Eventually John would found Kenworthy Vineyards in Amador County. When Diane was an adolescent, though, winemaking was a father-daughter project. “We used strawberries, rose hips, and Hawaiian Punch concentrate,” she confesses. “It was good, believe it or not. All that horrible synthetic color falls out, and it becomes white wine with tropical fruit character.”
Diane’s older brother Allan went to U.C. Davis. Contemplating college, she leafed through his course catalogue without much interest – until she got to Viticulture and Enology, when it dawned on her that “I can do this for a living!” She proceeded to enroll at Davis during the 1970s, when many soon-to-be-famous vintners were doing the same. But where most of them were graduate students, Diane embraced winegrowing as a freshman.
“I quickly discovered that I loved being in the vineyard,” she remembers. “Not in a cold dark cellar.” Consequently, she majored in plant science with a concentration in viticulture. “I had no interest in academia. I was a great reader, and had lots of romantic ideas about discussions in coffee shops. But I used the university as a trade school – I just needed to learn [viticulture] well enough to do it.”
In spite of this, her advisor told her she’d never get a job. “He said I could be a winemaker, maybe, but not a vineyard manager – that they would want somebody who grew up on a farm and could run a tractor.” Her first job was on the field crew at Domaine Chandon, but that proved a springboard in relatively short order, when her boss Will Nord introduced her to Zelma Long.
Long, formerly the enologist at Robert Mondavi Winery, was the first woman to assume senior management of a winery in California: Simi, headquartered in Healdsburg. “She liked to hire people from various backgrounds and give them opportunities to learn from the ground up,” Kenworthy says. “She had a degree in nutrition, but she could have been an engineer or astronaut. She was very process-oriented and she’s a great ‘big picture’ person, so she would allow us to work out the details in our own ways.”
On Nord’s recommendation, Kenworthy’s first job at Simi was making small experimental lots of white wine from different vineyards, and from varieties other than chardonnay. “Zelma was a star chardonnay winemaker,” Kenworthy explains. “But she wanted another white wine with low alcohol and low oak. It’s just speculation, but I think she wanted to avoid another Mondavi fume´ knockoff.” Kenworthy duly selected three vineyards in Sonoma County and fermented nine separate lots of wine from them at 21, 22, and 23.5 degrees Brix. The commercial result was a Simi sauvignon blanc fermented at medium maturity from two of the properties.
The following year, Diane’s part-time job turned into full-time technical viticulture: inspecting plant material, monitoring pests, setting irrigation schedules, and advising growers. “The job changed every year,” she says. “First I ran the grape maturity program during harvest; then I started doing all the grower relations, including setting up tastings for growers to evaluate wines made from their grapes; then we developed a winemaking team that I took part in; then we started a winegrowing team that I led. I was growing up both professionally and in real life.
“One of the great things about working with wineries as a viticulturist is that you see how everybody does things,” Kenworthy adds. “Zelma encouraged us to network with other people in the industry. The era of the Eighties was pretty special – there was a lot of energy and growth and change, and with growth you can take risks. The second year I was there, we were struggling to figure out how to stabilize color in rosé, so she gave me a list of people to call: Vern Singleton, Mike Grgich, Andre Tchelistcheff – all industry giants. Later I worked on canopy management with Richard Smart, from Australia.”
After 15 years, Kenworthy and her husband Robert Burney decided to pull up stakes and migrate to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. (“I wanted to get into production management,” she explains.) She took a job as general manager for the Oregon Grape Management Company, which grew fruit exclusively for Rex Hill Winery. “The people were so nice and welcoming,” she remembers. “And July and August in the Willamette Valley are what God meant summer to be – the days are long, and there’s always a slight breeze.” Unfortunately, “It’s hard for a California grower to raise grapes in Oregon. My first year, ’97, had eight inches of rain between veraison and harvest. ’98 had very dry weather but low yields. We made good wine, but it was a financial train wreck.
“If you’re the kind of person who can accept that the outcome sometimes can’t be as good as your efforts, you can be happy in the Willamette Valley,” Kenworthy muses. “But if my efforts don’t yield a good product, I’m not satisfied. In ’98 I did the best I could and the company still lost money. In Sonoma County, if I worked really hard I had a good outcome.”
Additionally, “Sonoma County felt like home. I missed my friends.” She and Robert moved back to California in 2000.
Kenworthy proceeded to do freelance consulting for a year, but she says, “I’m not a good consultant. When people ask my advice, I expect them to take it. If the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome, I see a lot of insanity a lot in the wine business. I once complained to [noted viticulturist, and Zelma Long’s husband] Phil Freese that people say they have a problem, I tell them what to do, they don’t do it, and then they complain. He said, ‘Bill them again and tell them the same thing.’ But it’s not for me. It’s different when you’re a vineyard manager; then you’re doing the work – you make a plan and implement it. I want to respect and like and learn from my boss, and eventually I figured out that what matters to me is the team.”
In 2001, Kenworthy heard that Ravenswood Winery was looking for a vineyard manager. “Ravenswood didn’t own any vineyards, but I liked zinfandel and I liked Joel [Peterson],” she says. “He was smart and experienced, and he’s very intuitive about people – he always says that great people produce great grapes, so he looks for passion in growers. Of course, he’s also looking at basic site-management practices, but for a vineyard designate, he wants something extra. So he wanted eyes and ears in the vineyards.”
Joel intuitively liked Diane, who went on to work at Ravenswood for the next five years. “It was 15 percent vineyard management and 85 percent grower relations,” she says. “I worked with 150 vineyards in five counties.” Her duties included contract negotiations, harvest scheduling, monitoring management practices (shoot thinning, crop thinning, leaf pulling, irrigation, et al.), evaluating wine quality, locating new grape sources, and arranging grower-appreciation parties. “I got to see a lot of great old vineyards,” she says. “And I learned a lot about zinfandel.”
In 2005, the Peterson family acquired the 150-acre, 150-year-old Bedrock vineyard in Sonoma Valley, near Ravenswood old-vine stalwarts Barricia and Old Hill. “Bedrock has 35 acres of old vines,” Kenworthy notes. “Old Hill has five; Belloni [near Fulton] has eight. The only ones bigger than Bedrock are Monte Rosso [on Moon Mountain] and maybe Teldeschi [in Dry Creek Valley, though not all in one location].” In other words, managing Bedrock would be a big job, and an even more focused and collaborative one. Hence, Kenworthy and Burney partnered with the Petersons – Joel, his son Morgan, and Joel’s wife Mady Deininger – to form Sunbreak, most of whose duties are devoted to Bedrock.
“It’s a great site,” Diane says. “One thing about old, head-trained vineyards: If they could survive two world wars and Prohibition without being turned into prunes or houses, it means they’re really good sites. Some Napa Valley cabernet growers spend ten thousand dollars an acre grooming and manicuring vineyards, and guess what: They’re still mediocre because they’re on mediocre sites. Site trumps everything – I’d rather have a mediocre vineyard on a great site than vice versa. You can screw up a good site, but it’s harder.”
To illustrate, in her first year at Bedrock Kenworthy inherited a problem from the previous regime. “Spider mites are very common in zinfandel,” she explains. “They delay ripening, and they reduce wine quality. My predecessor sprayed for them every year, which is why we had a problem – it wiped out the spider mites’ natural predators. The only time I’ve ever used an insecticide was when I first came here. Then we redesigned the entire program.”
Kenworthy and her integrated-pest-management consultant, Laura Breyer, developed a four-pronged strategy for Bedrock: reduce stress by planting cover crops and improving soil health; increase biodiversity and attract beneficial insects with more summertime-flowering plants (“If you want wolves, you’ve got to have rabbits”); prevent road dust, which provides an environment for mites; and switch from sulfur to stylet oil to prevent powdery mildew.
“The next year we had no treatable predators,” Kenworthy says. “The idea [of sustainable farming] is to prevent pests from reaching untreatable levels – the goal is to have enough natural balances so that no one pest builds up to where you have to do a treatment. I think sustainable should mean that you default to cultural and mechanical controls, as opposed to chemicals. You allow some damage to occur, but when we determine that we need a pesticide, our options are broader [than organic]. It may or may not be a natural product – it can be synthetic if it’s safe for workers, the ecosystem, and obviously the consumer. There are natural pesticides like pyretheum, but it has a broad spectrum – it kills any insect it contacts. I would use a narrower target range, and maybe leaf-remove at a different time, or increase or decrease something else. That’s what we do with all pests, including botrytis.
“People think they know what organic is, but they don’t,” Kenworthy adds. For example, “They think organic farmers don’t use pesticides. But a pesticide is just something that kills a pest – and a pest can be a fungus, an insect, an arachnid, or a weed. Agro-ecosystems can’t stay perfectly in balance; powdery mildew is inevitable, for example, and if it starts can’t be stopped. So you have to prevent infection. It’s the only vineyard practice where we don’t wait and see – you have to have a plan for powdery mildew anywhere in the world, as far as I know.”
Most of Bedrock consists of classically head-trained, “goblet”-shaped vines. “It’s probably possible to grow zinfandel on trellis and produce quality,” Kenworthy allows. “Young head-trained vines are very similar to young trellised vines, but an old head-trained vine is a self-contained system – it becomes a three-dimensional cylinder, where a trellis is more a two-dimensional plane. A vine strongly wants to grow up, so when it gets older, a trellis crams all the canopy and fruit into a very crowded plane, whereas the developed arms of a head-trained vine create a structure that allows the clusters to hang freely in dappled light. No cluster or shoot is forced to touch any others, so they don’t rot – which is great for big-clustered, moderate-growing vines like zinfandel.”
Of 200 acres that Kenworthy manages, only five produce white grapes – “which is ironic, considering how I started,” she says. Not surprisingly, she now finds reds “more exciting to grow, because of the impact that farming practices have on them: ‘Wow! This used to be washed out, and now it has great color.’ Red wine is more directly expressive of the grapes – you’re extracting all that skin contact, whereas with whites you’re pressing right away and manipulating them more in the winery. The changes in whites are more about aromatics and balance.”
In context of this focus (and aptly in light of Bedrock), Kenworthy is especially partial to heritage varieties. More surprisingly, she singles out carignan for special affection. “If you’re a plant person, carignan looks like a grapevine is supposed to look,” she explains. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful plant – it’s big and hearty, with big, green leaves and big, uniform berries and clusters. And I love to drink it.”
On this last point – not a standard winegeek declaration – Kenworthy adds that she’s only had old-vine carignan. Still, when asked if old vines always make better wine, she says, “When somebody says, ‘Always,’ I think, ‘Really?’ Dogma doesn’t work in a complex agro-ecosystem – there’s no one answer. It’s a myth that old vines are always better; old is not enough – the basics have to be take care of.”
Other kneejerk biases that annoy her:
High altitude. “I did a tasting of different lots with a winery once. The winemaker said he wanted to source more high-altitude grapes, even though the worst one in the tasting was from a high-altitude site. I said, ‘You mean like this?’ Of course he said no.”
Low yields. “Quality is not linear with yield. It’s more a bell curve – quality will drop off if a vineyard is either overcropped or undercropped. On some sites, four tons an acre might be overcropped and two tons an acre might be undercropped, but another vineyard might be balanced at five to seven tons. Merlot has more veggie character in a low crop; last year the high-yield wine from Bedrock was good, whereas ’06 was low yield but one of the worst quality.”
Dry farming. “I’ve seen lousy dry-farmed vineyards and I’ve seen lousy irrigated vineyards. A lot of great vineyards have made bad wine because they ran out of water, but I’ve also seen great sites with too much [irrigation]. There are viticulturists who purposely choose water-limited sites because they want to be in complete control, but I’d prefer to have a site that has enough water. Many of the great old vineyards were planted when supplemental water wasn’t feasible, so they were planted in places where there was enough. Bedrock probably had enough, but today the economics have changed. How much are people willing to tolerate vintage variation and odd characters [which come with dry farming]? You don’t want to go back to winemakers and say, ‘Guess what – you’re not getting as many grapes [as you contracted for].’ So now everything has drip irrigation. Admittedly, we’re in a water-scarce world and excess water is bad for wine quality and for the environment, so you might argue that in the long run, sites in Sonoma County that don’t have adequate water-holding capacity shouldn’t grow grapes. But in the meantime, they grow some really good grapes with supplemental water.”
In this light, Kenworthy acknowledges a certain tension around sustainability, whether of the environment or of one’s business. “A few years ago, [the late, great Loire Valley winemaker] Didier Dagueneau came here to visit,” she relates. “He gave a talk and said, ‘There’s great wine and there’s good commercial wine. Great wine is sometimes hard to sell, because it’s interesting but it’s variable. Many people just want good wine.’”
In other words, commercial pressure calls for consistency. “How much wine are we selling in Sonoma County that’s great versus good?” Kenworthy wonders. “Today the economics [of the wine industry] are very strained. In the early Eighties, an owner could buy land, develop a vineyard, sell the grapes, and make a profit, but that’s not true any more – it’s tough to pay your mortgage with the proceeds and make a living. Land is very expensive, labor is expensive…. in the Seventies, canopy management just meant pruning; since then, there’s been a big move toward manipulating growth – trellising, shoot removal, leaf removal – but [despite the increase in labor-intensiveness] grape prices don’t have anything to do with your input costs. Still, in Sonoma County, nothing else even comes close – you can’t buy land here and start a truck farm.”
Like most things in the wine business, Kenworthy concludes, “It’s complicated. You have to treat land as an asset.” In other words, no matter how great a site like Bedrock might be, an equally important factor is the owner’s “desire for it to be a great vineyard, and willingness to invest in it. Bedrock is like a trust.”
A trust that exists between the Petersons and Diane Kenworthy. -David Darlington
It’s not uncommon to say that century-old grapevines have weathered a lot in their lifetimes. But Frank Evangelho’s 120-year-old vines have seen and survived more than most.
Evangelho’s vineyard is in Contra Costa County, south of the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta and east of Mount Diablo – the black sheep, you might say, of the Bay Area wine family. This might lead you to presume that its challenges are geographic (the area has an overstated reputation for heat), but Evangelho’s location is actually an advantage in that regard. Situated right on the San Joaquin River, its temperatures are ameliorated by afternoon breezes from the Carquinez Strait, and the fact that the vineyard is literally on a beach has allowed it to avert the phylloxera scourge, as that much-feared louse can’t survive in sand.
No, Evangelho’s trials have more to do with “civilization.” Since Frank took over the property 50 years ago (inheriting it from his father Manuel, who had been farming it since the Thirties), the vineyard has withstood one human onslaught after another. Indeed, it’s a miracle that these venerable vines survive at all, much less in the amazing health that they continue to exude.
Like many Antioch and Oakley grapegrowers, Manuel Evangelho came to California from Portugal – specifically the Azores Islands, which have a winegrowing tradition of their own. His first local job was tending a vineyard at a monastery in Los Gatos, after which he moved to Antioch to work in a paper mill – then the only industry in this area other than agriculture, which consisted mainly of orchards (notably “sandcots”: apricots grown in sand). He also worked in a vineyard that, at the time, was already 40 years old, having been planted in 1890 with a combination of zinfandel, carignane, and mourvedre (the latter known as mataro among early California growers).
In 1952 the vineyard was sold to PG&E, which built a power plant next door. The company preserved the vines, but built a series of electrical towers and power lines amid them. Manuel, however, capitalized on this development, buying 11 of the vine-bearing acres and leasing another 26 from PG&E – an arrangement that continues to the present day.
Frank, the youngest of four children, was born in 1946. All of his siblings were girls, so he was “the spoiled baby boy” – which may or may not be connected to the fact that he got lost in the vineyard at age four. “My father found me crying under a vine,” he remembers. “The funny thing is, one of my own daughters did the same thing when she was four.”
After recovering from that trauma, Frank grew up working in the vineyard. When he graduated from Antioch High School, however, he went to Cal Poly to study engineering. It lasted for only a year.
“I wanted to farm,” he explains. “Being out in nature is a whole different thing from being in an office.”
Having made that decision, he took courses at U.C. Davis to augment his own experience. He started overseeing the vineyard in 1963, when the main problem it faced was lack of demand – pre-California-wine-renaissance, many regions were still in post-Prohibition rehab, sustained mainly by home winemakers in other parts of North America. Antioch and Oakley – directly served by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, which follows the banks of the San Joaquin – had a couple of local shippers, so Evangelho decided to join their ranks.
“It was a cutthroat business,” he recalls. “I called a broker in Toronto out of the phone book who put me in touch with the Italian embassy in British Columbia; a company with an import business agreed to take 19 or 20 tons, but the next year they wanted it for 50 cents a box cheaper, even though they were higher quality.
“I said I’d let it rot first,” Evangelho recounts. “I found another place out of the B.C. phone book, then went up and made friends with the people there. We signed a contract, but the next year they weren’t putting in their order. Finally I learned that one of my competitors found out who was buying my grapes and charged them less.”
What about the contract? “Crossing borders in Canada, what are you gonna do?”
It could have been worse. Another of his competitors was reputed to have Mafia connections, and when Evangelho got into the business, the guy asked Frank he’d “gotten the flowers yet” (implying an imminent funeral). “I told my mother not to stand in front of her window,” Frank says. “Later the guy went to prison for driving the car for a murder in San Jose.”
A suitable corrective arrived in the 1970s, when Brother Timothy of Christian Brothers came calling. “He went through each block and tested the ages of samples and clones,” Evangelho says. “He found they were consistent, and bought the grapes for 200 dollars a ton. Because of sugar bonuses, though, we got closer to 450.”
This refers to the fact that, before intensive canopy management was introduced, wineries paid extra for ripe grapes. In eastern Contra Costa County, where harvest typically begins in August, that was money in the bank. As Evangelho explains, the solar reflection from Antioch’s sandy soil helps grapes ripen. (“It’s like the volcanic soil in the Azores,” he says.) Nevertheless, his riparian location is several degrees cooler than vineyards planted two miles inland.
“Only one year did we harvest the whole field in August,” he says. “Usually we start at the end of the month and finish at the end of September. Zinfandel is usually first; carignane [which he pronounces “care-ig-nan”] is last, except for last year, when it was one of the first.
“Each [variety] has their own issues,” Evangelho elaborates. “Carignane is susceptible to mildew, but its skin is tight so it doesn’t break. Zinfandel’s skin is softer, so it can burst and can get bunchrot if it swells too much. You really have to know what you’re doing to ripen zinfandel – it can have 18 to 26 [degrees Brix, a measure of sugar] on the same vine, but you can balance it out more with what you do during the year. Mourvedre’s foliage is more open, so it can get sunburn, but carignane and zinfandel have bigger [leaves], so in the last few years we’ve been doing more thinning and leaf-pulling. In the past, we just let the old vines decide what they wanted to do.”
In some ways that’s a good idea. “Old vines on their own roots are strong,” Evangelho believes. “I had ours tested for virus, and they were clean and healthy. Some are really big – their taproot goes down 40 feet or more. The health comes from their location – nothing prevents breezes from coming through here, and the vineyard has always been cared for. It’s been in my family for 78 years and farmed continually since it began.”
The property still produces between 2.5 and 4.5 tons of fruit per acre – an amazing figure for a dry-farmed, century-old vineyard. “I could get even more tonnage out of it if I wanted to pump them up. We used to irrigate in drought years, when we had access to a canal line in the Sixties and Seventies. When we sold the grapes for white zinfandel, they only had to be 18 or 19 sugar, and we got nine tons an acre.”
The turning point for Evangelho (and Oakley/Antioch in general) came in the late Eighties, after the white-zin boom subsided and Fred and Matt Cline appeared. Junior members of the Jacuzzi family – the notorious hot-tub purveyors who owned property nearby – the brothers began buying Contra Costa grapes for their eponymous Sonoma winery, which focused on “California heritage” varieties. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon followed, searching statewide for mourvedre and finding it only here.
Gratified to be working with quality wineries, Evangelho encouraged skeptical winemakers to start with two or four tons. Soon enough, the old vines were commanding premium prices, though the recent market trend toward superripeness brought him a new kind of headache.
“A lot of times, wineries aren’t ready for Labor Day when the fruit is ready,” Frank reveals. “I don’t like waiting for 30 sugar – 24 or 25 is good, but as soon as you get over 26, the grapes dehydrate and lose weight. At 30, their concentration and character changes. It’s like an old man holding up a bunch of weight for four days – they’re just trying to survive, and it’s gonna hurt them. There’s no reason to do that to them. It’s a waste.”
Another evolving factor, which has affected Evangelho more than once, is the sale of wineries he sells grapes to. “It’s a shame when the corporate guys come in,” he comments. “They’re used to handling large parcels and marketing a commercial product that goes nationwide. With small boutiques, you don’t have accountants penciling out work or asking for more crop that I don’t have. I’ve been doing this for 50 years and I like working in a good relationship, so when somebody’s dictating, I’ll go someplace else. I want to make wine that’s good for the vine all the way around, and smaller guys are able to focus on quality. They can pay better, too.”
Evangelho’s current client list includes Bedrock, Hess, Neyers, Precedent, Renwood, Toucan, Turley, and Three (Matt Cline’s latest venture). “It’s a little hectic trying to pick for so many wineries,” he acknowledges. “I always have to make sure the crew is in the right area.” It’s not bad, however, for his eccentric portfolio to be in demand. Evangelho carignane wins critical kudos, and “a number of wineries want mourvedre now – if I had more, I could sell all of it.”
Back in the day when Evangelho shipped grapes to Canada, all of them were called zinfandel. “After I became a Christian in 1977, I couldn’t do that any more,” he says. “So I went to the state and asked if I could call them mixed blacks. They said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but we did fine. Years later, they red-tagged a bunch of shippers [for misidentifying the grapes].”
The whole picture is counterintuitive: the old vines holding their own in the sand, continuing to confer superlative wines year in and year out, in the face of not only shifting markets but encroaching power plants, industrial warehouses, and housing developments. In 2006 the city of Antioch even put a pipeline through the middle of Evangelho’s vineyard, claiming the property by eminent domain.
“They took out some mourvedre and carignane vines in July, right before harvest. At first they offered to pay me $1.50 per vine, which is what it would cost to buy one today. But these were a hundred years old! There were some good, big vines – I lost probably 15 tons a year, but they compared the property value to undeveloped land between Pittsburg and Concord, which what was a tenth of what it’s worth. Mine was producing good money.”
Ironically, the pipeline – built to service a commercial development next door on “Vineyard Drive” – has been idle ever since. “It’s been here six years now and nobody’s hooked up to it. I was going to replant some of it, but now the city owns it and plans to make it a public street. They have the right to come back and take more vines out to build a road with sidewalks.
“In Napa you wouldn’t have this attitude,” Evangelho insists. “But a lot of people are coming into Antioch and Oakley now. When I was growing up, there were 14,000 people here. Now there are over 100,000. A lot of vineyards have been taken out for housing, but the area expanded way too fast and got overbuilt. It was hit hard by the recession – there have been a tremendous amount of foreclosures, and it brought different people who dump freezers and trash in the middle of the vineyard. We never used to have people purposely breaking vines, but I had some go-karts racing in the vineyard and tearing things up. Finally I had to dig a ditch around the vineyard to close it off. These weren’t kids, either. They were in their twenties, but they didn’t care – they were arrogant as could be. One of them backed his truck up at me, and after I chased another one on a motorcycle, his father came here with a pipe in his hand and said, ‘You’re trying to kill my son!’ But I have some counseling skills so I was able to talk the guy down.”
This derives from the fact that Evangelho is also a licensed marriage and family therapist. “In church, for whatever reason, people would come to [me] and ask for advice and counsel,” he explains. “So I went back to school and got my bachelors and masters degrees in three years from the Azusa Pacific University extension. I worked for Christian Family Services, but I had to cut back in ’95 after I had a heart attack.”
This coronary event lasted for two hours. “I was in intensive care for ten days – the doctor said it was a miracle I was alive. I lost half the function of my heart, so now I have a pacemaker and defibrillator. I can’t do things in the vineyard any more, but I know the vines, so I trained Manuel Caranza, who takes real pride in it. It’s still a family operation – Manuel’s daughters were out here when they were little, and one of them lives here now in a trailer, trying to defend it [from trespassers].”
The upshot, Frank says, is that “you learn to appreciate the value of things. That’s what so sad about the situation with the city – they’ve lost connection with the earth and the local heritage. Old vines are pulled out and tossed away because live in a tossaway society. Some of these young guys don’t respect the old things that brought this community into being. They have no clue about what it means to be a part of it – to treat things with respect and care.
“A person who works out a lot might have good muscles,” Evangelho says, “but not the character or understanding of people who have gone through stress. Some stress is good, and something this old, which has gone through droughts and development and everything else, has an understanding that’s much deeper.” -David Darlington
When you talk about the “old Italian growers” of Sonoma County, you won’t find a much more authentic example than the Teldeschi clan of Dry Creek Valley. This is a family with more than its share of history, augmented by a tendency to repeat itself.
The vineyard’s current padrone, John, spoke Italian before he spoke English – this despite the fact that, while he and his brother Dan and sister Nancy represent the fourth generation of Teldeschis to grow grapes around Healdsburg, they were the first to actually be born here. All their forebears immigrated from the village of Casabasciana, in Tuscany northeast of Lucca.
John’s great grandfather, Michele, arrived in California at the turn of the twentieth century, going to work as a vineyard manager for the Sargenti Brothers in Dry Creek. John compares the situation then to that of Mexican farmworkers today: The men lived in labor camps and traveled back and forth to the old country, gradually sending for other family members. Hence, a few years after Michele arrived, his son Lorenzo came to work as a cook, and eventually the two managed to start a small winery on Lytton Station Road, selling the product to Petri, a big bulk-wine purveyor.
Lorenzo returned to Casabasciana to look for a wife. When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the Italian army, and when the war ended, he was missing in action and presumed dead. A funeral service was held for him in Casabiasciana – but the following week, he came walking into town.
Given this second lease on life, Lorenzo departed again for Alexander Valley in 1922, but it wasn’t until 1929 that he could send for his wife Eugenia and sons Franco and Michele. Frank and Mike, as they came to be called, attended school in Healdsburg, but when Lorenzo and his father Michele died within a few months of each other, the boys had to drop out to care for the vineyards.
After serving in the Navy during World War Two, Frank and Mike bought a ranch together in Alexander Valley. 1946 was a boom year – winegrapes sold for $135 per ton, but when the price dropped to $35 in 1947, the Teldeschis responded with a practice that continued for the next 50 years: they loaded their fruit onto a truck with a crusher and drove south across the Golden Gate Bridge, selling juice to Italian home winemakers in San Francisco.
In 1952, the brothers acquired another ranch bordering theirs to the north. But the pull of the old country never died: when Frank – now an American citizen and U.S. military veteran – decided to start his own family, he returned to Casabasciana, where he homed in on the Iacomini sisters. Pasquina thought he was too short (Frank was 5’2”) but Caterina wasn’t as tall as her sister. Nine months later, she followed him to California, and nine months and four days after that, they had Nancy.
Dan was born in 1955, John in 1963. Between those events, Frank and Mike had a disagreement and split their ranch in half, Frank taking the northern parcel. Over the next decade and a half, Frank acquired four more properties and converted a prune orchard into a vineyard. He sold most of his grapes to Frei Brothers, which became part of Gallo in the 1970s; nevertheless, one day a young winemaker knocked on the door and asked Frank if he could buy some grapes. Frank said he sold all his fruit to Gallo, but they sat down under a tree and Frank opened a bottle of homemade Zinfandel. After about an hour, Frank said maybe he’d consider selling some grapes. After about four hours, Joel Peterson could hardly walk but Ravenswood had a deal for a few tons.
In 1982, Frank learned that he had colon cancer. “Dad died from a slow illness,” John says. “He had time to tell us what he expected. He said he’d come here with nothing, but that we had a head start. So he thought we should have a winery someday. And he wanted me and Danny to keep working the ranch together.”
Whether or not this reflected Frank’s feelings about his relationship with his own brother, John said at the time, “It wasn’t going to happen. Danny and I didn’t like taking directions from each other. He thinks everything through and does things very slow and methodical; he’s book-smart, and I’m the opposite. I did more of the labor and grunt work.”
(Dan has another interpretation. “John and I are both Aries,” he explains.)
After Frank died, Dan oversaw the family books for a couple of years, but in 1987 he moved to Southern California to work as a wine steward. “The restaurant served mostly seafood,” he recounts. “Ninety percent of the wine was white, and a lot of it was French.” After a couple of years, he decided he’d had enough of that. He came home, put up a building on the family property near the corner of Dry Creek and Lambert Bridge Roads, and began producing red wine under the F. Teldeschi label, which features a picture of Frank. “I stayed out of the vineyard, and John stayed out of the winery,” he says. Thus, John is now the family grapegrower, though Caterina still owns the vineyards. She pays for chemicals and fertilizers, John pays for equipment and labor. And every summer, Dan takes Caterina back to visit Casabasciana.
In light of their long relationship with Gallo (when Frank died in the early 80s, the family’s sole offer of financial help had come from Julio Gallo), the Teldeschis were reluctant to relinquish that relationship. Still, over time, Ravenswood received more and more of the fruit, making Teldeschi a vineyard designate in 1997. John also sells a few tons to the nearby Frick Winery and – continuing a more recent family tradition – Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock, who bottles the wine as Lorenzo’s Heirloom: a classic Italian California field blend of 50 percent Zinfandel, 25 percent Carignane, and 25 percent Petite Sirah (with “trace amounts” of Alicante Bouschet, Valdigué [a.k.a. Napa Gamay], and Cinsault).
“I deal in Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Carignane,” John says, hewing to his cultural heritage (and discounting the fact that he also grows Chardonnay and Cabernet). Zinfandel accounts for three-quarters of Teldeschi’s fruit, which is now distributed over five ranches totaling 70 acres. Many of the vines are over 100 years old, and – also in time-honored California-Italian tradition – dry farmed. “Mother Nature has a way of balancing things out,” John says. “Dry farming has worked here for 100 years.” Consistent with that approach, the vines are head trained and widely spaced: 8 feet by 8 feet for old plantings, with newer ones varying up to 8 x10 or even 8 x 12.
“Flat, gravelly soil holds moisture better,” John explains. “Up here [on the eastern Dry Creek bench] it’s red clay, but the [area around the] winery is rocky, and my sister’s place [at the valley’s northern end] goes from sand to deep loam to gravel. There I have Zinfandel in the gravel and Petite Sirah in the heavier soil at the bottom.
“I plant what’s suitable for the soil,” John says. “I’m really good at knowing the soils and how to work them. You can’t know that out of college; I went to college for one year – then my dad died and I had to go to work.”
Sound familiar? On the other hand, his son Lucas – at 18 the oldest of John’s three children – is about to graduate from Healdsburg High. “The only time I go into Healdsburg is to get my kids from school,” John reports. “There’s nothing else to do there. I can’t even buy underwear now – everything is for yuppies.”
As this intimates, John has a history of – shall we say – resisting gentrification. In the 1990s, he admits, he resented the influx of non-agricultural money into Dry Creek. “I didn’t want any changes,” he concedes. “Now, though, it doesn’t seem like there are so many outsiders. Real estate here doesn’t pencil out to farm unless you own a winery, so wineries are the ones who buy the properties – and they’re mostly estate wineries.” Still, he observes, “Healdsburg is so overpriced, it’s like going on vacation. But it brings a lot people up here, which is good for the wine industry. So I’ve gotten to like it.”
Fact is, John himself has undergone a few changes. Since getting divorced in 2009, for example, he’s been clean and sober. In that sense, Teldeschi history is repeating itself yet again: Like his grandfather Lorenzo, John is getting a kind of second chance – one result being the fulfillment of his father’s wish that he work closely with his brother.
“Before, I was too headstrong – it was my way or the highway,” John confesses. “In the last few years, Danny and I have more understanding in our feelings and thoughts about the vineyard. Now I see it as a family unit, so I ask for his opinions about how to farm and I take direction on what he wants to do, whether it’s spacing, rootstock, head pruning or trellis. Two heads are better than one. And it’s easier for me to not be so responsible for everything [in the vineyard].”
Indeed, Dan now helps John with the vines, and last year John made wine for a private group of clients. “We still don’t agree on winemaking,” Dan reports. “John does it the way my dad did – maximum extraction and lots of skin time. But I’ve changed my ways – now I use whole berries, cool fermentations, and press at 10 or 12 degrees Brix.”
Still, when it came time this year to replant a block of old zinfandel vines that had succumbed to phylloxera, there was no disagreement about what should be planted to replace them.
“Zinfandel,” says John. And Dan. -David Darlington
“This is exactly like the Danube around Wachau,” says Tegan Passalacqua.
Passalacqua is standing in the Kirschenmann vineyard in Lodi. The river he compares to the Danube is the Mokelumne, which comes out of the Sierra Nevada foothills in Amador County and joins the San Joaquin River nearby. The sandy environs, which border on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the west, seem supremely flat. None of these features are commonly employed to invoke Austrian white wine.
“No one talks about it,” Passalacqua agrees. “But this place is different from the others around it. If you look east and west, the vineyard slopes down in both directions – the high point is the middle, and underneath is sandstone. The Mokelumne comes down here, makes a dogleg to the right, goes around and comes out on the other side. There’s a constant flow of air throughout the day, pulled by the moving water. Then, at about four in the afternoon, the delta breeze starts ripping through.”
Like most of the vineyards around Lodi, this 15-acre plot – which Passalacqua purchased in 2012 – consists mainly of Zinfandel, planted on its own roots in 1915. “This is ground zero for old Zinfandel vines in Lodi,” he says. “It’s like the Russian River Valley around Carlisle – all old vines. There’s also some Carignane and Mondeuse Noir, and two acres of Pinot Gris. Morgan [Twain-Peterson] made an interesting wine from it, but I believe Chenin Blanc will do really well here, so I grafted some over to Chenin and Green Hungarian – or what I thought was Green Hungarian. I got it from Turley’s library vineyard in St. Helena – the most mixed vineyard in Napa Valley – and it turned out to also have Grec Rouge and Lignin Blanc. But the neat thing about field blends is that nothing can play first fiddle, so I think it’s going to be primarily a wine of place.”
Passalacqua turns back toward his Subaru, in which he logs 55,000 miles a year managing vineyards for Turley Cellars and his own incipient label, Sandlands. “There’s no Green Hungarian left in California,” Passalacqua points out. “Mike [Officer of Carlisle] and Morgan haven’t found it, and Jancis Robinson [another partner in the Historical Vineyard Society] doesn’t have it in her new book. I work with a lot of vineyards where it used to be planted, but it’s basically gone the way of the dodo. Old timers say good luck with Chenin and Green Hungarian, but today people have a different approach – they’ve travelled to the Loire and [Australia’s] Hunter Valley, and a lot of people who drink wine on a daily basis don’t care if it’s a blockbuster. A lot of wines made at a lower price point aren’t made for those people, or in an artisan style. In Napa Valley you can’t buy grapes for three thousand dollars a ton and make a fifteen-dollar bottle of wine, but in Lodi you can.
“See that vineyard next door?” Passalacqua says as he starts the car. “It’s furrow-irrigated, but it has carignane and grand noir and alicante [bouschet]. I’m thinking what should be made from it is fresh, crisp, low-alcohol rosé, picked around 20 degrees Brix.”
Embarking eastward for Amador County (where Turley recently purchased the former Karly winery), Passalacqua explains, “Part of [my motivation] is respect for the past. The good stuff has been leapfrogged and kind of forgotten, but I’ve tasted numerous older Chalones and Chappellets [made from Chenin Blanc] and been blown away by them. It’s something Lodi and Amador really need – they’re taking red wine seriously, but you can’t really argue that they’ve taken white wine seriously yet. I have a vision for how it would be if it’s farmed well and made well. It might not be for the mass market; I’m not talking about simple wine that tastes like butter, oak, and fruit – I’m talking about unmanipulated wine that tastes of soil and stone. I don’t think California has a wine like Muscadet sur lie – a cheap white that’s taken seriously.”
In the space of this interlude, Passalacqua provides a window on the role he has recently acquired in the California wine world. As not only the vineyard manager but head vintner for Turley Cellars, the 35-year-old winegrower has recently begun to be recognized for helping that winery return to the limelight. But this professional status merely touches on Passalacqua’s broader personal mission – shared by his partners in the Historic Vineyard Society – to rescue, reclaim, and update a tradition on which the state’s wine industry was founded.
“Tegan is creating a sea change,” Twain-Peterson says. “Along with David Gates [of Ridge Vineyards], he’s probably the best farmer of old-vine Zinfandel in the state. What’s really impressive is the level of viticulture he’s brought to what was formerly considered the boondocks. Whether you’re talking about Lodi, Contra Costa or Amador County, his are the best farmed vineyards in their respective regions. His vines are so much healthier that people drive past them just to look at what he’s doing.”
Asked what sets Passalacqua’s practices apart, Morgan says, “It starts with organic viticulture – by focusing on vine balance and soil health, he asks the vines to do a lot less, and in return he gets a lot of typicity out of whatever area he’s farming. He wants to be make wine that’s uniquely Californian, but also suitable for Lodi. He thinks even irrigating is an adulteration of terroir, so he’s had to develop viticultural techniques that take the variability out of dry farming. For example, he allows more sunlight into the canopy, which builds base tones into the berries so you get more developed skins early on. With that incredible phenolic development, you get much more flavor earlier, and at lower sugar levels.
“One thing that make Tegan unique is that he developed a strong philosophy and sensibility early,” Morgan observes. “He’s so intellectually curious – his mind is constantly going, always challenging conventions and soliciting advice from anybody he finds interesting or thinks he can learn from. He’s constantly having conversations and he knows everybody everywhere. I used to call him the mayor of Napa, but if you travel with him, you realize he’s also the mayor of Lodi and Contra Costa when it comes to shaking hands and kissing babies. He’s always looking out for people – somehow he’s hooked everybody in our generation up with vineyards.”
Not incidentally, Morgan adds, Passalacqua “is intensely driven. He works really, really hard.”
“A lot of things have come my way just because I just showed up,” Passalacqua demurs. “It’s the same with getting what you want done in the vineyard. If you’re out there every week and no other winemakers are, they’re gonna do your stuff first, because they know you’ll be out again next week.”
Passalacqua’s influence is all the more amazing when you consider that, although he grew up in the city of Napa, he didn’t get involved with wine until after he graduated from college. Ten years ago, he was still an aspiring intern with a degree in public health, but no formal training in enology or viticulture.
When Passalacqua was growing up in the 1980s, the Napa Valley wine industry was exploding into international prominence – but, he says, “It never seemed like anything special. A lot of my friends’ parents had jobs at the larger wineries like Beringer, Mondavi, and BV, but it was just something people worked at – another industry, like Mare Island.” He chooses that example for a reason: Both his grandfather and great-grandfather (who was born in Healdsburg, to parents who’d immigrated from Genoa, Italy) spent their lives building ships in nearby Vallejo. Boat traffic on San Francisco Bay plays more than one part in Tegan’s legacy – for example, when she was two weeks old, his paternal grandmother was discovered in a bassinet in a bathroom of the San Francisco ferry building. “She was adopted by my great-grandmother,” Tegan recounts. “They found her on April 15, so they celebrated her birthday on April Fools Day.”
Tegan’s own father drove a cement truck, but his parents also had a side business restoring old Victorians. “They did everything to period, so they spent a lot of time at flea markets looking for antiques,” he says. “It might be a connection to my interest in old vines.” His father is also an amateur gambling historian who collects antique poker chips. “He inherited an ivory set from my grandmother. She was married to Paul [Marcucci] of Paul’s Resort in Sonoma, who we always assumed had gambling connections.”
After graduating from high school, Tegan – whose first name is Irish, though he says his parents “found it in a magazine” – went to junior college near Lake Tahoe, subsequently transferring to Sacramento State to study public health. “I wanted to be a teacher,” he says, “but first I was going to be a social worker to get experience in the field.” The hiring process for social workers, however, took six months, during which candidates were ranked statewide. “I was number three on their list,” he discloses. “I was offered a job in Siskiyou County.”
A friend who knew that Passalacqua, equipped as he was with a bachelor of science degree, was qualified to work in organic chemistry and microbiology, recommended that he get a job in a winery lab while awaiting a better offer. That was how he ended up at Edgewood Estate (now Hall Wines) in St. Helena, where he worked for seven months. “It took two months for me to get bit by the wine bug,” he reports. “It just put together all the things I’d enjoyed in life up until then. As a kid, I was into machine shop, choir, and basketball – and wine combined the physical, the mechanical, and the fine arts. Then, once you find out how much you don’t know, it taps into your intellectual curiosity.”
He started buying books, taking enology and viticulture classes at Napa Valley College, and moved on to another lab job at the Napa Wine Company, the noted custom-crush facility in Oakville. “That was my true education,” he says. “The top consultants were making wines there – Helen Turley, Heidi Barrett, Pam Starr, Pahlmeyer, Andy Smith at Larkmead – and they all wanted information from the lab ASAP. From a practical standpoint, I was at the ground level – I was the only person without an enology degree, so I was the hungriest for knowledge. A funny thing about the wine industry is that it attracts people who are way overqualified to do the work. A lot of them had a chip on their shoulder because they weren’t winemakers, but I was just happy to be there learning.”
At the Napa Wine Company, Passalacqua befriended Gary Thomas, a former New Zealand broadcaster who had switched careers late in life. “Up until then I was in love with Petite Sirah,” Tegan reveals. “He turned me on to New Zealand wine that you couldn’t get in the U.S. – small-batch pinot noir, which had such a different flavor profile from anything I’d tasted.” He also got to know Smith, an alumnus of Ted Lemon’s Littorai winery, who advised him to get a job in an actual cellar. Putting one and one and one together, Smith recommended him to Doug Wizor, another Littorai veteran, who had since migrated to New Zealand and Craggy Range. Tegan subsequently worked the 2003 harvest there alongside several other interns.
As it happened, Wizor’s fiancée worked at Turley Cellars in Napa Valley – where, after writing them a letter, Tegan was offered a ten-week harvest apprenticeship. Apparently he made a favorable impression because after only three weeks, Turley’s winemaker and general manager Ehren Jordan offered him a full-time job on condition that he first work another southern-hemisphere crush.
“I think Ehren felt he needed someone with a technical science background,” surmises Tegan – who, after a subsequent sojourn in South Africa, accepted a 33-percent pay cut from his Napa Wine Company job to join Turley. “There isn’t one thing that I haven’t done there. I’ve pruned vineyards, suckered vineyards, driven tractors, picked fruit, done pumpovers, pressed wine, racked wine, topped wine, run the bottling wine, and plunged toilets.”
At the same time, he continued studying viticulture at Napa Valley College – and after two years, seeking to fill out his education in the same way Jordan had once done – by working in the Rhone valley – he made a connection (through Larry Turley’s wife Suzanne Chambers of Chambers & Chambers Wine Merchants) with Alain Graillot of Crozes-Hermitage.
“It was neat to focus on one 40-acre estate. I was the only intern; at harvest I would pick grape samples, and Alain would say, ‘Crush and taste them and tell me which ones we’re going to pick tomorrow.’ The first time I said none; two days later I said, ‘Maybe this one.’ He said we’d pick it when it was 11.5 Brix; I measured it and it was 11.6. Each year he would choose a few barrels – not necessarily the best ones, but the most interesting – for his La Guiraude bottling.” Referring to the northern Rhone’s most prestigious appellation, Tegan says, “Graillot’s wine is better than half of Hermitage.”
When Passalacqua returned to California in December 2005, he expected to move on to another winery – “but Ehren said, ‘What if I gave you all my vineyard responsibilities?’ At that point he was still involved with Neyers, and his own brand [Failla] was growing. I said, ‘Sure!’” From then on, Passalacqua assumed the management of all of Turley’s 20 organically farmed vineyards – a number that has since doubled, spanning from Napa to the Sierra foothills to the Central Coast.
“I was in every vineyard every week, working with every grower,” he says. “The only way to get to know people and vineyards is by spending a lot of time with them – and if you’re among old vines 60 hours a week, you can’t help but fall in love with them. The history, the families that farm them…. it’s like hanging out with older people – there are challenges in terms of what they can and can’t do, but it’s a constant education.”
Among the things Passalacqua learned was that old vines are more stable than young ones. “In our Dogtown vineyard [which Turley has leased in Lodi since 1997], old vines retain acidity better than young ones,” he says. It’s fun to make a loop from Contra Costa to Lodi to Amador, then go back and taste the wines; they all come from decomposed granite – the sand comes down from the foothills, moving toward the Golden Gate. You get a skeletal structure from granite; the wine’s not fat, but the farther you get from the parent material, the less structure there is in the wines. Contra Costa has softer tannins; Lodi is a little firmer; and Amador is all about tannin.”
On one of Passalacqua’s early trips to Lodi, Marcus Bokisch – perhaps the area’s leading “new wave” winegrower – pointed out the Kirschenmann vineyard on the east side of town. “I tasted the wine from Leland Schmeid’s vineyard next door, and was blown away by it,” Tegan remembers. “It was not like any Lodi Zinfandel I’d had. In that white sand, it was a true vin de terroir, with more red fruit and spice, and a different structure. Everybody in Lodi knows there’s a big difference between Zinfandel from the east side and from the west side; it all comes from Tokay fine sandy loam, but the soil on the west side is a lot darker, and that wine is softer, with less acidity. The east-side wine is lighter in color –Morgan and Chris [Cottrell of Bedrock] think it tastes likes Cru Beaujolais. The east side doesn’t appeal as much to people who want to make 15-doller supermarket wines, but I thought it could be as good as Napa or Sonoma Zin.
“I wanted to make wine from it, but the owner [name] wanted one winery to take the entire vineyard,” he says. “People here were always happy selling to big wineries – they never struck out on their own, so there was no [artisan winemaking] history to look back on.”
In 2012, Passalacqua asked [name of owner] if she was interested in selling the vineyard. “I made her an offer based on what I could afford; she wanted more, so we parted ways.” But the next morning at 7 a.m., Passalacqua’s telephone rang again. “She’d thought more about it,” he says. “She said she felt that her father, brother, and grandfather would have wanted me to own the vineyard.”
Recalling this episode still makes him emotional. “A lot of people in Lodi would have bought it,” Tegan says. But apparently no one had asked, because “Lodi vineyard owners don’t sell – or, if they do, they sell to their cousins or neighbors. She sold it to me knowing she could have gotten more for it, because she wanted it to be in her family’s interests. That’s the kind of stuff that happens in the Rhone valley – Graillot would have liked to have bought a Grand Cru site in Burgundy, but he couldn’t afford it. So instead he bought in Crozes-Hermitage and made the best wine the region had ever seen.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to infer that this is what Passalacqua hopes to do in the underdog district east of California’s glamour appellations. He’s about to launch his own label: Sandlands, named for the decomposed-granite soil that he’s come to prize. “It’s all about old vineyards or varieties,” he says of the embryonic brand. “Most of them are head-trained and own-rooted with noncommercialized varieties: Amador County Chenin Blanc, Contra Costa Carignane, Placer County Grenache. I have the ’10 and ’11 vintages in bottle – 150 cases of each.”
For now, the portfolio doesn’t include Kirschenmann. Turley is taking the lion’s share of the Zinfandel, supplemented by several other labels, including Bedrock, Bokisch, and Carlisle. “To do what I’m doing – selling to 20 wineries from one vineyard – is sort of unheard of in Lodi,” Passalacqua acknowledges. “But in 20 years, my dream is for Sandlands to be Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc from right here.”
Still, one gets the impression that the mayor of northern California might hatch a few other plans between now and then. -David Darlington
Of all the adjectives that can be applied to Stuart Bewley, proprietor of the Alder Springs vineyard near Laytonville in Mendocino County – smart, energetic, inventive, meticulous, competitive, disarming, obsessive – the foremost choice is “counterintuitive.” For example, you wouldn’t expect high-end winegrapes, grown in the most remote northerly vineyard in the California wine country, to be raised by a founder of California Cooler, that low-end commercial phenomenon of the 1980s. But then neither would you expect someone from a farming family in the San Joaquin Valley – or the founder of California Cooler – to have grown up drinking fine French wine, and to have a degree in international business from a European university.
Whichever part of Bewley’s biography you examine, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Stuart himself identifies the common theme in his seemingly schizoid career as – indeed – one of mental challenges. “Alder Springs and California Cooler were both great challenges intellectually,” he says. “California Cooler was a challenge in business and in building an organization quickly under adverse conditions. Alder Springs is a challenge in comprehending the complexity of chemistry and agriculture and what makes great wine. Both are a challenge – but not the same challenge.”
Bewley grew up in the winegrowing town of Lodi. Both of his parents came from agricultural families; his mother’s side raised zinfandel, carignane, aliagnico, and tokay grapes. His father bucked the farming tradition by becoming a dentist, though Stuart’s family still lived in an orchard and raised chickens and pumpkins. His older brother, Kirk, worked with their paternal grandfather, Ross, farming hay and walnuts. “Now he’s a businessman,” Stuart says of Kirk. “He runs a company called Culinary Farms, producing dried tomatoes and chiles. I started out as a businessman and ended up a farmer.”
Bewley’s maternal grandfather, Weymouth Roberts, served as an anesthetist and X-ray technician in World War One. In France he developed a taste for wine, which he later advanced while working for Standard Oil. “I grew up drinking Bordeaux and Burgundy,” Stuart says. “My father was a member of the San Joaquin Wine and Food Society. We had a wine cellar in our house, and we went to Napa Valley all the time when it was just B.V., Louis Martini, and Charles Krug.”
After majoring in international business at the University of Oregon, Bewley spent a year in Holland studying business and economics at Nijenrode University, a training ground for European CEOs and finance ministers. Following a stint in London as a trainee at the Bank of America, he asked an old contact from the Stockton-based Klein Brothers agribusiness company (“they controlled a lot of the dried peas and lentils in the United States,” Bewley says) for career advice. “They told me, ‘Go to work for Fred Shafer at Blaine Richards – he’s the most brilliant man in the international business world.’ He was actually a wild and crazy guy, but the Kleins owned 25 percent of Blaine Richards and they wanted somebody in the office they could trust.”
Thus did Bewley become a commodities importer/exporter in New York, buying dried legumes from mills and arranging for their transport to other countries. “It wasn’t very exciting, but it was fascinating,” he says. “I was dealing with people in all parts of the world and learning how they do business in different countries, which is neither easy nor obvious. I learned a tremendous amount about cultures and about protecting yourself from being cheated.”
After a year, Bewley took his training to Portland, Oregon, where he spent the next five working for North Pacific International, which dealt mainly in timber exports. His experience landed him in the legume department, where wages were low and the bulk of employee pay came in the form of annual bonuses. In April of 1979, at the height of the economic recession brought on by the Iranian oil embargo, NPI announced that it would no longer award such bonuses – with the result, Bewley says, that overnight “it went from 500 traders to a sea of empty desks.”
Bewley went home determined to start his own company. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he says, “but I had three criteria. It had to appeal to a mass audience; it had to have a decent profit margin; and it had to be something that no one else had done, so there wouldn’t be any competition.”
Bewley had an old high-school friend named Mike Crete who was working as a salesman for the East-Side Winery. Crete told Bewley that he had an idea for a product called a wine cooler – a blend of wine and fruit juice mixed with soda water. “Wine coolers have been around forever, but people always mixed them themselves,” Bewley says. “You’d throw in a few ice cubes and call it a ‘spritzer’ or ‘sangria.’ But it didn’t have a recipe, and it was a hassle – a lot of work, when you really just wanted to pop the top off something when you were off work.
“Mike asked if I wanted to try one. His original recipe had citrus, pineapple, cherry, almond… all sorts of stuff. It was sweet and sour, like a Mai Tai or piña colada – alcoholic, cold, and fun, sort of like Squirt with a kick. It wasn’t about wine, but beer isn’t about wine, either – it’s just different. I don’t refuse to drink one because I drink the other.” More to the point: “It was the only thing I’d run across that fit all my three criteria. I asked if he wanted a partner, and he said, ‘Absolutely!’”
Over the next year, Bewley wrote a business plan and researched things like liquor licenses, shelf life, and glass and label prices. He and Crete decided to sell the product in fourpacks, equal in both price and total alcohol ($2.99 and 24 percent, respectively) to a sixpack of beer. They mixed the first batches in 55-gallon drums and did all the initial selling – to bars, liquor stores, convenience stores, mom-and-pop stores, and supermarkets – themselves. “When we started, we were in 35 stores,” Bewley says. “Our first case shipped on August 15, 1981, and we were profitable 20 days later – we hit the break-even point and passed it.” This was possible partly because their overhead was so low and also because coolers were sold through beer distributors, which have a lower profit margin than wine.
Once the launch was underway, Bewley calculated that they needed $140,000 to get fully up to speed. (For example, he says, “We needed hand truck. In fact, we need two hand trucks.”) They raised all of it from local investors – chief among them Bud Klein of the aforementioned Klein Brothers, who (among other things) founded Kirkwood Ski Resort and owned Rodney Strong Vineyards. Klein had considerable clout with the Bank of Stockton, which enabled Bewley to employ a tool from the commodities trade: a letter of credit from the bank, which he divided into parts so as to make deals with different suppliers.
Because of the recession, interest rates on loans were over 20 percent – but, Bewley says, “We never had to borrow a dime, and never went back to our investors for more money.” They were able to pull this off partly because of what he calls their “inverted cashflow” system: “You make the product, you sell it, you get your customers to pay you in 15 days, and you pay your suppliers in 30,” he says. “So as you grow, you accumulate money.”
Like so many of California Cooler’s commercial advantages, this owed itself to the fact that the product was more in the beer market than the wine market. “Most wineries and distilleries have their customers on [payment cycles of] 30 days, not 15,” Bewley says. “But it takes a year to grow grapes, which, in our [vineyard] operation now, costs a million dollars. If you make wine from those grapes, you need at least another million for things like tanks and barrels – then, if you want to expand, you need another two million. But when California Cooler doubled its business, we ended up with a lot of money in the bank.”
Even among producers of things other than wine, Bewley says this formula is surprisingly rare. “The biggest problem with entrepreneurial companies that grow quickly is they grow themselves out of cash,” he says. “It’s not hard to say, ‘I’ll get everybody to pay me in 15 days,’ but it’s hard to do. The biggest problem with entrepreneurial companies that grow quickly is they grow themselves out of cash. There are so many moving parts that have to work together – if any one thing falls out, whole system comes apart. After we really got going, we were turning inventory over in 12 to 36 hours – we’d bring in glass, load it right onto the bottling line, mix the product, cool it, bottle it, and ship it, all in the same day.”
There was one economic benefit to the fact that wine – not beer or spirits – was the foundation of the product. “In the early Eighties, there was a lake of wine in California,” Bewley says. “There was not one empty tank. People were desperate to sell wine, and were selling it for next to nothing. We were buying [bulk] wine at 40 cents a gallon.”
With all of these factors feeding it, California Cooler grew by 3,500 percent in 1983 alone. Because he was buying so much wine, Bewley was the keynote speaker at California Grapegrowers Association meeting in 1985 – by which time (1) the company was selling 20 million cases a year, and (2) several beverage behemoths – E&J Gallo, Anheuser-Busch, Seagram, and Canandaigua, et al. – had gotten into the cooler game. “Some of our investors were getting nervous,” Bewley says. “A massive amount of wine was being sucked off the bulk market, and in growing so quickly, we’d had a lot of stresses and strains.” The upshot was that Bewley and Crete decided to sell California Cooler – founded four years earlier for $140,000 – to the Brown-Forman corporation for $200 million.
After the sale, Bewley stayed on with the company as president and Crete as chairman. The relationship lasted only a year. “[Brown-Forman] is good at buying companies, not running them,” Bewley says. “Look what they did to Fetzer – they don’t buy anything they can’t break. When California Cooler was sold, we had 500 employees, a sales staff of 75, and a national distribution system. Brown-Forman fired our distributors and sales force and ran the company into the ground in two years.”
This proved traumatic for the former bean trader. “I thought working for a Fortune 500 company was going to be like getting a PhD on steroids,” Bewley says. “Instead it was like watching somebody use your dream car as a rock truck. California Cooler was better run by leaps and bounds. And I’m more outspoken than is good for me, because I hate stupidity – I just can’t be around it.”
Washing his hands of the enterprise, Bewley faced the prospect of restarting life at age 32. “I needed a break. I was shot, but I was too young to retire. I wasn’t ready to play golf. I don’t play golf. Relaxing doesn’t give me great pleasure – I get relaxation from working my ass off. To get out of bed in the morning, I need something complicated. I started a charitable foundation, but that wasn’t enough to keep me intrigued and focused. It took me a couple of years to figure out something else I could get excited about.”
In the course of this self-questioning, Bewley realized that he liked everyone he knew in the wine business. “In trading, business is a zero-sum game,” he says. “To win, somebody has to lose. Gallo was cutthroat [in that way], but Mondavi developed a different idea: If Mondavi makes the only good wine in a county that’s making cheap wine, it’s viewed as an aberration – but if Napa makes good wine, it raises the tide for everyone. It was brilliant, completely un-business thinking – a tectonic shift. It meant that you had to change a lot of things – like sharing research, for example. The wine business has adhered to it ever since, and it has a camaraderie that other businesses don’t have.”
With that in mind, Bewley decided “to go back into the wine business from the other end” – i.e., the high one. This raised an obvious question.
“If you’re going to make great wine, what do you have to do? Why are guys like Lafite and Romanee-Conti making those wines consistently, year in and year out? Why are no great wines made on the Napa Valley floor east of Highway 29? When some things go bad [with the weather], why is it worse for some than for others? There are a lot of complex details, but most things don’t require rocket science or brain surgery – the answer just falls out. So I spent two or three years figuring it out. I signed up for tons of seminars; I took a bunch of classes at U.C. Davis; I joined the Napa Viticultural Group; I read every magazine. I even read Australian magazines. And I traveled around and hired a bunch of consultants.”
Some of the advisors Bewley hired were winemaker Helen Turley (for “advice on what grapegrowers do wrong”); Lucien Guillame, who finished first in his winemaking class at the University of Montpellier; Lucy Martin, who translated a book on ampelography; John Caldwell, who, with Philippe Melka, had written a book about clones. “Caldwell and I went to France and went around to different vineyard sites. We found that, in a lot of places, soil chemistry is very similar – the variable component is drainage. Look at Burgundy: At the top of the hill in Beaune, nobody grows grapes – the soil is too thin. But the next level down is Grand Cru or Premier Cru, the bottom of the hill is the village wine, and the floor is vin ordinaire. It’s all about drainage: The top guy drains onto the next guy, who drains onto crap.
“I went to Bordeaux with Lucien in winter of 1991,” Bewley recounts. “Lafite is right next to Pichon Lalande, whose ’82 was phenomenal but whose ’78 was undrinkable – it tasted like green beans mixed with cut grass. Lafite’s ’78 is a lot better. Why? In the pouring rain it was obvious: Both have low, rolling hills, and the water runs off and sits in low spots. But Pichon Lalande’s vines sit underwater and the roots can’t breathe. Next door, Lafite has drains with grates that get water off the property. I saw another vineyard that was completely underwater, but when I suggested drainage to the grower, he asked me: ‘Why? I’m still a Fifth Growth.’ In other words, because some guy in 1865 said you make shitty wine, you always will. That’s what I love about California: Nobody decides for you – you decide what you want to do.”
As a result of this expedition, Bewley concluded (not unlike a few others) that “great wine is the result of great grapes. If you don’t have them, there’s nothing you can do.” Thus deciding to grow great grapes, he searched California for property that had not only the right weather and drainage but the right soil chemistry.
“Soil chemistry is incredibly complex. Ninety-nine percent of people in the wine industry don’t understand it – let me tell you, there’s minutiae. The most important thing is balance between nutrients – you can’t have too much or too little of any one or it will block the others from being taken up by the plant. Too much magnesium will block potassium; too much calcium will block iron; too much phosphorus will block zinc. Serpentine soil contains a combination of nickel, magnesium, and aluminum, which is toxic to plants and highly erodible; plant life is nature’s protection for soil, but very few plants grow on serpentine, so when rain hits it, it erodes into streams and floodplains like the Napa River. In hills you can avoid serpentine because you can see it, but in a valley it’s mixed with other soils, which is worse – it becomes highly plastic, so it won’t absorb water or allow plants to grow properly. That’s why there aren’t any good wines from the Napa Valley floor east of Highway 29.”
In search of an ideal spot, Bewley took a backhoe to “every piece of property for sale in Napa, Sonoma, Healdsburg, and the Sonoma Coast.” After a while, he says, “I found out I could look at a hillside and tell the drainage and chemistry of the soil from what grew there. I didn’t want grassland or white oak; grassland tends to be clay, which is much less permeable and hard to get roots through, and white oak will grow where other trees won’t, in soil that tends to be out of balance. I really didn’t want digger pine, which is one of the only things that will grow in serpentine.
“On the other hand,” Bewley says, “timber usually grows in better drained, deeper soils that have less clay. And manzanita, which is drought-tolerant, grows in very gravelly, well drained soils. So I was looking for Douglas fir, manzanita, madrone, black oak, tan oak… mixed conifers and hardwood. If I saw that, I felt it implied pretty good soil chemistry.”
Bewley already owned a ranch near Laytonville, where he was “dabbling” in timber production. This led him to look at another 6,000-acre property nearby. Called Alder Springs because of the emerald-colored pools that dotted the hilly, rocky, forested landscape, it varied in elevation from 1,500 feet to 2,700 feet. It had previously been used as a hunting ranch by its owners – the Trione family, which farms 700 acres of grapevines in Sonoma County.
“It was absolutely gorgeous,” Bewley says, “but they didn’t think you could grow grapes here, which tells you something. It was an hour from the nearest vineyard, and way more dangerous. It’s a short season, and colder than crap in the spring. It can be unforgiving.” On the other hand, “I was seeing all these plants I liked. On one ridge, which was all manzanita and decomposing sandstone, our backhoe went 15 feet deep. It never hit an impermeable layer – the soil goes down forever. It’s similar to Goldridge soil near the Russian River – it has a low cation exchange capacity, which allows it to give up nutrients more easily, but it’s rockier and better drained.”
Determining that the property had (1) great soil, (2) great drainage, (3) great (i.e., south- and east-facing) exposure, (4) good elevation (meaning “warmer days and cooler nights…. more diurnal variance, which gives you thicker skins. Wine is all about the skins”), (5) no coastal influence (hence no fog and attending disease pressure), and (6) prevailing north-south winds, which enable north-south row orientation (“There’s always a light, dry wind moving humidity out of the canopy…. the leaves transpire water like a swamp cooler”), Bewley bought the place in 1992. Working with eight different regulatory agencies, he cleared 120 acres and, in 1993 and 1994, planted 11 acres of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and pinot noir.
“We decided we’d grow a few grapes and not plant more till we made a good bottle of wine,” he says. “You don’t just do it the first year. There’s a lot to learn, and you’ll make a bunch of mistakes.” In addition to drainage and soil chemistry, he also had to master “genetics, rootstocks, clones, spacing, trellising…. and then, do you disk? Rototill? Chisel? Spray? Cover crop? We could talk all day just about plant diseases. It’s fascinating, but also frustrating – sometimes you’ll think you have the answer, but you don’t; so you reassess, do it different, and then you’re wrong again. Then you’re right; then it changes. Throw in the weather and the economy and Sideways when a lot of people decide, ‘Yeah, I don’t like merlot…’ Believe me, when I decided I wanted to get into something complicated, I succeeded well beyond my expectations.”
The Alder Springs vineyard now consists of 140 acres, divided into 85 blocks that grow 60 clones of 14 grape varieties on 13 rootstocks. As of this writing, the grapes are cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, counoise, grenache, malbec, marsanne, merlot, mourvedre, petite sirah, pinot noir, roussanne, syrah, and viognier. “We’re mostly getting rid of the Bordeaux varieties now,” Bewley says. “This has never been a great cabernet site, and we’re grafting nine or ten acres of merlot over to syrah and tannat – even though we grow merlot really well. Behrens & Hitchcock made one of the best five merlots in California from it, though you’d be hard pressed to name five. I think we definitely have an Alder Springs signature – a very earthy character of truffles, sandalwood, and forest floor. If you’re tasting a bunch of Patz & Hall chardonnays, you can tell which one is from here.”
Though notable chardonnay and pinot noir have come from Alder Springs, the vineyard might now be best known for syrah. In addition to the wineries mentioned above, its two dozen clients include such stellar names as Agharta, Arnot-Roberts, Bedrock, Caldwell, City Winery, MacPhail, Pax, and Rhys. In his quest for complexity, Bewley has already acquired a reputation for fastidious standards; in the course of one season, for example, the Alder Springs crew tends every one of 315,000 grapevines 13 times – each row is tagged to identify its variety, clone, and rootstock, and during harvest they’re all sampled once a week, providing winemakers – all of whom are based far away – with updates on Brix and pH.
“Stu is about as precise a farmer as I’ve ever seen,” says Bedrock’s Morgan Twain-Peterson. “If you asked him to go out and thin the grapes with a nail clipper, he’d probably do it. He has literally hundreds of variety-clone-and-rootstock combinations, and to sample them all separately – and weekly – throughout the harvest is nuts. To do it on a vast outcropping of decomposing sandstone in the extreme reaches of Mendocino County… well, it requires a different accounting of risk and reward.”
Bewley considers Alder Springs’ extremity both a blessing and a curse. “This site is different from every other site, which is both good and bad,” he says. “In general, if it’s happening in Napa and Sonoma, it’s not happening here. When they get a heat wave at the end of the season it drives them nuts, but we’re saying ‘Great!’ because we’re two or three weeks behind. If it’s 98 in Alexander Valley, at Alder Springs it might be 78. But on a cool day, Alexander Valley is 80, and we’re at 62 and not growing at all. Some days we’re cooler than the Russian River, but being far away, we’re not as well established. If you have ten tons of Russian River chardonnay to sell, people will say, ‘Okay, I’ll take it!’ – but here we can’t put ‘Russian River’ on the bottle, so it’s harder.” On the other hand, in the notoriously cold and rainy 2011vintage, most growers to the south were plagued by Botrytis rot, “but because of the wind going down our vine rows, for us it was low to nonexistent.”
Bewley also says that “because we’re so far away from everything, we have to build and invent all sorts of stuff. This is really like a research site.” Most of these innovations have to do with controlling erosion, not just for the sake of soil conservation but for the salmon streams that intersect the property.
“This ranch is an incredibly amazing habitat for fish and animals,” Bewley says. “The vineyard is only two percent of it, and we don’t want the tail wagging the dog. The whole concept of sustainability is that you can’t do things that end up hurting everything else.” For example, owing to the steepness of Alder Springs hillsides – and the relatively high winter rainfall of northern Mendocino County – Bewley has built “chevrons” within his vineyards: raised earthen berms running crosswise on hills, diverting water runoff. “It’s like skiing down a hill at an angle instead of in a straight line,” he says. “You don’t go as fast.” Runoff is also collected from access roads via an “inverted French drain”: Muddy water is channeled it into a ribbed plastic pipe perforated with 3/8-inch holes; the pipe runs downhill away from the road, but the ribbing slows the flow of the water and the runoff escapes through the holes, seeping into the ground. “By the time it reaches the stream,” he says, “it’s been filtered by the grass.”
On a plot where he’s experimenting with organic farming practices, subsurface irrigation has been installed. While most organic growers till the soil under the vines to prevent weeds, because of the erosion danger Bewley leaves a cover crop of “low-statured,” six-to-nine-inch-tall grasses. “The problem was that the grasses were pretty aggressive – they were getting all the water, so we put in irrigation tubes reaching underneath the roots of the grasses. It’s actually worked pretty well. We didn’t invent subsurface irrigation, but I don’t know if others have done it in combination with developing new organic practices.”
Bewley and his crew have also modified their rubber-treaded tractors for various hillside tasks. (“Nick Rico, my vineyard manager, is the most inventive mechanical genius you could ever ask for,” he says.) Finally, because of the site’s borderline climate, Bewley developed a proprietary – and organic – frost-protection system. “Most people use sprinklers or wind machines, but on the day before a major frost, we spray the vines with stylet oil and copper sulfide. The stylet oil acts as a spreader of the copper sulfide, which is an organic bactericide. I’ve gotten calls [for the formula] from all over the U.S. – it’s two gallons of stylet oil to five pounds of copper sulfide to a hundred gallons of water.”
Consistent with the collegiality he celebrates in the wine business, Bewley is known for sharing intelligence. “Whenever I’m considering a new idea – different trellis? Grafting a new clone? – or having a problem – what to do about syrah disorder? – calling Stu is my first thought,” says Joan Griffin of Griffin’s Lair, another vineyard in a cool growing region (the Petaluma Gap). “He has such extensive knowledge of clones and rootstocks, and so many ongoing experiments, that even if he doesn’t have ‘the’ answer – and usually the answer is complex – our conversation will bring me closer to knowing what to do.”
All of which brings us back to the thread that connects Bewley’s Alder Springs operation and California Cooler.
“I’m driven,” Bewley admits. “If we don’t get something right one season, we’ll get it right the next season. Whatever it takes is what we’ll do. I’m relentless at everything.” -David Darlington
The Bilbro Family
This is the story of a new kind of multigenerational California winemaking family.
In the late 1970s, a young baby-boomer father, while employed at Sonoma Valley Hospital, started making wine on the side and eventually fashioned it into a successful career, buying grapes from old vineyards and crafting popular, reasonably priced wines praised by Robert M. Parker, Jr. His sons thus grew up around barrels and vines, but as young men they determinedly left the nest, traveling the world and establishing independence from their roots. Eventually they came back and embraced the family livelihood but, not content to rest on their paternal laurels, branched off with their own small-production brand, supporting both enterprises by growing – not just vinifying – grapes. Nevertheless, like chips off the old block, they rejected cabernet-centric consciousness and focused on ancient vines of Mediterranean varieties. Today they’re making a name for themselves in their own right, attracting heavyweight critical attention, and creating a new model of an old tradition, extending the legacy of California wine backward into the future.
No, Morgan Twain-Peterson, not you! I’m talking about the Bilbro family.
The winery that Chris Bilbro started in 1978 – on Mill Creek Road in Dry Creek Valley – was Marietta, purveyor of Old Vine Red: a de facto field blend of zinfandel, carignan, petite sirah, and other “mixed blacks” from vineyards throughout Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Chris had a master’s degree in hospital administration, but didn’t like pushing paper – so, with a partner, he bought his uncle Rollo Bandiera’s winery in Cloverdale, an old-school Italian jug operation that purchased wine in bulk and aged it in barrel. Eventually Chris sold his interest in Bandiera to start Marietta, whose product Parker would eventually declare a California version of Chateauneuf-du-Pape (which, not unlike Old Vine Red, can contain up to 13 grape varieties).
Chris had four sons – Jake, Scot, Sam, and Lucas. “We didn’t have to work at the winery,” says the eldest, Jake, “unless you wanted an allowance. So we all participated.” When he was old enough to drive, Jake started delivering pizza and working construction – anything to separate himself from the family business. “When I graduated from high school,” he says, “like everybody, I thought I knew everything. I told my dad I would never work in the wine industry – I was going to go out to explore the world. To his credit, he patted me on the back and said, ‘Go get ‘em, Tiger!’ He never pushed us – there was never a lack of choice.”
Jake went to U.C. Santa Barbara, where he majored in philosophy and minored in religious studies. In college he played rugby and, after graduating, traveled to Aspen, Fiji, and New Zealand with a developmental club. But rugby isn’t a gentle sport: in New Zealand Jake blew his shoulder out, and after a few months (partly spent posing as an America’s Cup sailor to meet girls), he ran out of funds. “I had friends in Sun Valley, Idaho, who were working construction and fly fishing,” he says. “I was gonna go there and join them. But first I came home to work for Dad and save money.”
Returning to Sonoma County, Jake discovered that, after a half-dozen years away, “driving a tractor and working with our labor force – the Cisneros family has been with us for 30 years – felt really natural and good. After that, I had no incentive to look for new experiences – I put my focus on the wine business.”
At that point his brother Scot was on a path similar to Jake’s, playing soccer in Bolivia. “He started college in Colorado, but after a couple of years he told my dad, ‘I’m wasting my time and your money.’” Scot hitchhiked around the U.S. and, while working on a fishing boat in Alaska, made a list of things he wanted his life to include. “He wanted to be able to keep the window of his car rolled down, to have his dog with him at all times, to not have to dress up, and to not take shit from anybody,” says Jake. When he added up all the elements, Scot called to tell Chris that he wanted to make wine – after going back to school to master the technical mechanics.
Four years later, Scot graduated at the top of his class from the U.C. Davis department of viticulture and enology. “He went there for viticulture and fell in love with enology,” says Jake. “Scot is an incredible artist, but at Davis he developed an appreciation for the precision of science. So he thinks outside the box, but can back it up with logistical skills. There are a lot of people with creative ideas, but Scot can actually make them happen.”
When he came home, Scot moved into Jake’s tool shed. As boys the two had “fought like cats and dogs,” Jake says. “But after he came back, we spent many a night at John and Zeke’s Bar rebuilding our relationship. We actually took a personality test which found that we’re polar opposites. But there’s a strong creative chemistry between us – when we collaborate, we really cover all the bases, and we decided that we wanted to work together. After all, our dad had worked 18 hours a day to build a business that we could take to the next level.”
At the beginning of this transition, Marietta was making 45,000 cases a year. With Scot taking over as winemaker and Jake overseeing vineyards, sales, and marketing, they increased it to 100,000 over eight years – a trajectory that Jake says occurred “through the back door.”
“We never sought out ‘A’ markets or mainstream press,” he explains. “We have a bare-bones staff and no tasting room, but we have a long-term reputation for reliability in the circles we’ve developed. Our main product is a 12-dollar table wine, and all of it is allocated – we’re in 50 states with 70 distributors. And we’ve done it all ourselves, at the mom-and-pop level, by searching out and finding the smallest family-owned vineyards.”
One of those, near the Russian River south of Healdsburg, was the Sodini vineyard – one of Chris’s original sources of fruit for Marietta. In 2006, Jake noticed 12 acres for sale on the same road, Limerick Lane. “It had a burned-down house, a burned-down barn, and another house in complete disrepair,” he says. It also had an old walnut orchard, a massive mulberry tree, and some 96-year-old vines of Zinfandel and Alicante Bouschet, which had been neglected for so long that they were beyond rehabilitating. Having visited the place since he was a boy, Jake bought the property, razed the buildings, and replanted the vineyard exclusively to Zinfandel.
After a couple of years went by, he was approached by Mike Collins, owner of the Limerick Lane Winery across the street – a site of much success and distress. The winery had produced well-regarded Zinfandel, but in the early 90s, its fortunes had taken a tragic turn – first when Collins’ business partner committed suicide, then a year later when his father killed Mike’s brother before turning the gun on himself.
To Jake’s surprise, Collins – who had owned the property since the 1970s – asked if he was interested in buying the place. “I wanted to pass the winery on to friends,” Collins later told Winebusiness.com, “a family that would put their heart and soul into it.”
The Bilbros got Collins’ seal of approval. The 18-acre vineyard, first planted in 1910, mainly grew Zinfandel but also included Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Trousseau, Furmint, Peloursin, and Alicante Bouschet. After Jake and Scot took over, they increased the amount of compost in the vineyard, opened up the old vines, and exerted control over irrigation (many blocks are dry farmed). In the Bilbros’ neo-fraternal arrangement (“Scot and I are one and the same,” Jake now asserts), Jake makes the picking decisions at harvest while Scot makes the wine.
“I spend more time in the vineyard, so I know when the grapes are at their peak,” Jake says. “But maybe because of my religious-studies background, I try not to be too dogmatic. I’m more of a collaborator – and philosopher. And blabbermouth.” Another of their conferees is Steve Matthiason, the well-known Napa Valley vintner who also works with Araujo, Spottswoode, Hall, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. “We’re the only vineyard he consults for outside of Napa,” says Jake.
After the Bilbros bought Limerick Lane, they were contacted by Bedrock’s Morgan Twain-Peterson – partly because of his interest in old vines, partly because his father Joel (who founded Ravenswood while working at Sonoma Valley Hospital, just as Chris did when he started Marietta), had actually made Limerick Lane wines in the difficult period between 1994 and 1996. “Jake responded immediately,” says Morgan. “He generously gave me some wine from those vintages, which are still tasting pretty good. It’s a brilliant site for Zinfandel.”
“Morgan and I speak a common language,” says Jake. “When I met him, what got me really excited was to buy each other’s fruit and make vineyard designates from it. The one wine we make at Limerick Lane that’s not estate-grown is Bedrock Zinfandel, which we’ve done for two years now. In essence, we’re trading fruit – Morgan makes the call on to when to pick the grapes for us, and vice versa.”
Average yield in the Limerick Lane vineyard is 2.5 tons per acre, which – as opposed to the Bilbros’ 90,000-case Marietta blends – produces 3,000 cases of estate-grown wines. These always include a Zinfandel and a Rhone blend, supplemented by other bottlings (for example, a head-trained Syrah or a 1910-block Zin) as vintage conditions allow. According to Jake, the 100-year-old vines produce more “feminine” wine, whereas the “rocky knoll” block is more structured. “We’re on the edge between the Russian River fog and the sunnier region to the north,” he says. “A big issue for us across both brands [Limerick Lane and Marietta] is acidity – our 2011 wines, for example, are riper than most because it was a cool vintage and we were waiting for acid [to diminish]. The pHs are 3.3 to 3.5 pH, which for Zinfandel is very low.”
As the Bilbros have gone into grapegrowing, another chapter in their evolution opened when the McDowell ranch went on the market in southern Mendocino County. “If there was a weak point in the Marietta framework, it was that we bought all our fruit,” Jake says. “Dad always said McDowell was the best syrah he worked with, and I’d known (the owner) Billy Crawford since I was a little kid. I told him that if he sold the property to us, it wouldn’t have to go to a big corporation.”
It thus came to pass that, in 2012, the Bilbros added another 270 acres to their growing estate, bringing the total – stretching along the Russian River from Healdsburg to Hopland – to 450. “Basically we went from making grape payments to making mortgage payments,” Jake explains. “We’ve only bought land from growers who came to us wanting to sell, and we have no intention of building more. With McDowell now, the numbers work – Marietta can consistently produce at the level where it is, but mainly with estate-grown fruit. Factoring in economies of scale, it allows us to run a really efficient business.” Although the McDowell brand name was included in the deal, the Bilbros are keeping it in reserve, calling the vineyard Gibson Ranch after the property’s original homesteader.
Admittedly, Jake says, the McDowell acquisition has made their business more complicated: “We’re now a farming company as well as a winemaking company. When you own 35 acres, you have a tractor and a sprayer, but when you own 450, you have a fleet. But we grew up with a rented winery and purchased fruit, so we grow grapes from a winemaking perspective – and now we can take Gibson and farm it like the jewel that it is, purely for quality. If we were primarily growers, it might be different.”
They can also sell fruit to a few select wineries. “After we bought McDowell, we invited Morgan and Joel up to look at the old vines,” Jake says. “My dad is really happy and proud of what we’ve been doing, and it’s equally gratifying for us to show it to someone like Joel. The parallels between our dads puts the relationship between me and Morgan in a different light; there’s a common thread between us, so we’re not selling him fruit just for money, but for the collaboration and association.” As a result, besides making a vineyard-designate from Limerick Lane, Bedrock is also making old-vine Syrah and Grenache Gris from Gibson Ranch – and in perhaps the most touching transition of all, leasing and farming the old Sodini vineyard, which Marietta no longer needs. “It’s an extension that feels really right,” says Jake.
The most recent phase in the Bilbros’ transition took place in late 2012, when Chris, spurred by a bout with cancer, transferred ownership of Marietta to his sons. Through that and other developments, the family’s local legacy continues to cohere. Although Jake and Scot’s youngest brother, Lucas, still hasn’t joined the wine industry – he’s a member of the first ballet company of the North Carolina Dance Theater – their other brother Sam is, with his wife Jessica, proprietor of the Idlewild winery in Healdsburg. “Scot likes to be in the vineyard, the cellar, even to hand-label the bottles,” says Jake. “And their children are right there with them. Sam has two; Scot has one; my wife Alexis [a former professional triathlete] and I have four. All our biological kids are under five years old. And we all live in Healdsburg.”
It thus appears Bilbro history is poised to repeat itself. “My son Cruz wasn’t interested in arithmetic until I asked him to read me the barrel and tank codes in the winery and count rows in the vineyard to make passes with a tractor,” says Jake. “He knows the colors of the different kinds of tractors, and has a green John Deere lunchbox. The winery doesn’t mean anything to my younger son Toby, but Cruz defines himself by it – he invites his friends to the winery, not to the house. And he loves rosé and pinot noir.”
You never know what kids will do when they grow up. Cruz could always spend some time on a developmental hockey club in Canada, but the odds still seem good that eventually the Bilbros will eventually be a three-, not just a two-generation winemaking family. -David Darlington
On a cool, overcast summer day in the Carneros district, Lee Hudson walks his Henry Road vineyard with his pair of pet lurchers – European “gypsy” dogs that resemble a cross between grey- and wolfhounds. Inspecting the vines while speaking to his field foreman, Andreas Urenas, in both Spanish and English, Hudson says, “A lot of this is all right, but we can de-wing and de-bunch. Let’s drop the west wire; then we’re gonna green-fruit-thin.” Green-fruit-thinning, he explains to a visitor, is getting rid of grape bunches that are 75 percent green when the surrounding vineyard is 75 percent red. “You drop the clusters that are much greener than others to decrease the envelope of maturity of the fruit. It’s subjective; you might drop one cluster per vine, or you might drop five or six. It could be when the entire crop is 80 percent black, or when it’s 90 percent black. Essentially you’re getting rid of the outliers. The nice thing about it is that the vine is telling you that its cropload is delaying ripening.”
Hudson thinks the trellis supports on the west side of the row are too high, elevating the leaf canopy and exposing the grapes to sunburn in late-afternoon heat. According to his instructions, the wires in some places are being lowered so that the leaves shade the fruit. “Some people would call that bad viticulture,” Hudson says of the vines’ hangdog aspect. “I say it’s what we’ve got to do.”
Crossing to a different block, Hudson says, “This looks really good.” The clusters aren’t crowding each other, even though they haven’t been thinned. The winemaker pays Hudson by the ton, and the grapes go into inexpensive wine. “If he wanted me to drop fruit, I’d say, ‘Pay me by the acre,’” Hudson says. “‘Pay me to say, “Yes”.’ Is that the same as being a whore?”
Few would apply that term hereabouts, but Hudson offers an alternative. “This,” he says, “is what separates the grapegrower from the winegrower.”
Lee Hudson is one of the least promiscuous winegrowers not only in Carneros – and not only in Napa – but in California. His reputation for commitment goes back to the 1980s, when he was one of the first to cultivate idiosyncratic versions of popular grape clones, pinpointing individual vines that performed according to his quality standards and selectively propagating their offspring. Consistent with such attention to detail, he pioneered the practice of selling fruit by the acre instead of by the ton, allowing him to lavish as much attention on vines as winemakers wanted. Think of any innovation that has helped transform California winegrowing over the past 30 years – vertical trellising, crop thinning, head suckering, night harvesting – and the chances are that Hudson was one of the first to practice it. The bottom line (resulting in a notably successful business, some of whose proceeds Hudson donates to local hospice and rehab centers) is delicious, distinctive, highly sought-after grapes.
“With Lee you always get exactly what you ask for,” says Bedrock’s Morgan Twain-Peterson. “You’d be surprised at how rare that is. He personally walks every block with his clients after he’s already walked everything a few times before that. He’s able to adjust his farming because his crew is so well trained, and because he loves wine and understands the stylistic preferences of the people he works with.”
In light of his grapegrowing stature, Hudson’s life began in ways that one might and might not anticipate. For example, he was born in Texas, which wouldn’t lead you to expect that he then spent his first five years in France. His mother, Cecil Emilia, lived part-time in Europe, facilitated by the fact that her father co-founded the Humble oil company (and sold it to Standard Oil of New Jersey). “My mother had great joie de vivre,” Hudson says. “She was an energetic, outgoing character who brought people together. She loved stirring the pot – she was the first person in the state of Texas to wear a bikini.”
Cecil Emilia (nickname: “Titi”) had an “on-again, off-again relationship” with Lee’s father, Edward, a chemical engineer. “He wasn’t much on social stuff,” Lee says. “He was competitive and hardworking, but he also loved reading and growing things.” Edward had a side business selling roses and orchids, and later bought a cattle ranch. “I loved working there,” Lee remembers. “I was inspired by the long hours and the physicality of it. I liked the process-oriented component – you’d start something and you’d get it done. I love problems because I love solutions.”
Ultimately his parents divorced. When Lee was 16, he went back to France as an exchange student, living with a family north of Avignon. There he planted his first garden, and when he went to college, he majored in horticulture at the University of Arizona. By his junior year, though, he was feeling “anxious” about what to do with his degree – a condition that resolved itself on a trip to northern California.
“My former wife had spent six years in Inverness [near Point Reyes in Marin County] growing up,” Hudson says. As he was getting ready to accompany her on a visit there, his new stepmother – a Texas wine importer and member of the Confrérie des Chevalier du Tastevin – gave him the phone number of Maynard Amerine, the revered U.C. Davis professor credited with reviving the California wine industry after Prohibition. Amerine advised Hudson to visit Napa Valley, and while there, Lee and his girlfriend took the tram to Sterling Vineyards. The view changed their lives. “I was shocked at the pastoral ideal of the place,” he says. “It was like an agrarian Yosemite.”
He also saw that wine epitomized the “transformative relationship between growing and processing, from the ground to the table. Lots [of types of farming] do that – rice to sake, milk to cheese, soybeans to soy sauce – but the sheer number of wines in the world, and the fact that alcohol is a mind-altering substance, makes it the single most transfiguring form of agriculture.”
Thus inspired, Hudson returned to France as soon as he graduated from college. “Friends gave me introductions in Bordeaux, but nobody was home,” he says. “Everybody was out.” He was actually offered a job in Alsace, but it “didn’t really appeal to me.” Finally, his trusty stepmother contacted the Chevalier du Tastevin executive director, who gave him a list of ten names in Burgundy.
“Most were not very receptive to giving a job to an American,” Hudson says. “Burgundy is a very closed society.” The tenth person he contacted, however, was Jacques Sesses of 2,500-case Domaine Dujac, whose wife happened to be giving birth. “Two days later he said, ‘Yep, I’ve got a spot for ya,” Hudson says of the apparently down-home Frenchman. “Jacques was a great and generous mentor. I worked there almost from harvest to harvest, and all the employees did everything – pruned, picked, racked, and bottled.”
From this experience, Hudson says, he “learned to appreciate terroir, which really applies there. [Dujac] had eight pieces of vineyard in distinctly different places, which showed their complexities and differences. And he was friends with the most important winemakers in Burgundy, so we’d go and taste with them on Saturdays, pulling corks on bottles that were 30 and 40 and 50 years old.”
When Hudson returned to the U.S., he re-consulted Amerine, who advised him to make a formal study of enology. Lee duly enrolled at Davis, though he never wrote a thesis nor got a degree. “I just wanted to do a winery,” he says. “I took all the prerequisites and spent 15 hours a day in the library, but school for me is really hard and Davis is very difficult and demanding. It’s also very rewarding – the biochemistry classes changed my life, opening up whole world that you can’t see.”
After two years at Davis, Hudson left to look for land. Perhaps influenced by the school’s wine judging system, Hudson had a “scorecard” for evaluating potential vineyard property, applying such criteria as availability of water, percentage of plantable land, proximity to civilization (schools, stores, etc.), and existing infrastructure (roads, buildings, fences, utilities). Thanks to an oil well he’d inherited from his father, he had a million dollars at his disposal. Thanks to his time in Burgundy, he wanted to grow pinot noir – a challenging prospect.
“There was a consensus among a lot of people in the early and mid-Seventies that pinot noir was not well suited to California,” Hudson says. “The only places making great pinot were Chalone and Calera in the Gavilan Mountains. Jacques Seysses knew Dick Graff [of Chalone], and even he thought it was too remote.” As a result, Hudson tried moving to Oregon, but like Alsace, the place “didn’t click” for him.
In 1981, he looked at a 1,300-acre property in far southwestern Napa County near the shore of San Pablo Bay: heart of the Carneros district. “It got 14 out of 20,” he reports. “There was nothing [built] here, and only a hundred [potential] vineyard acres.” It was, however, next door to Winery Lake, where René di Rosa had been raising chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot, and riesling since the 1960s.
“Carneros was major winegrowing region in 1840s and 1860s, before phylloxera and the bank failure of 1891,” Hudson says. “It had never really recovered after Prohibition, but people like di Rosa and Ira Lee and Martini had started to redevelop little pieces of it, and in the early Seventies Domaine Chandon did a big planting for sparkling wine. I think [André] Tchelistcheff [of Beaulieu Vineyards] said Carneros was the place to grow pinot noir – it’s comparable to western Sonoma County, five to seven degrees cooler than Napa.”
Hudson pulled the trigger, built a house and a reservoir, planted chardonnay and pinot noir, and started selling it to Davis classmates like John Kongsgaard (then of Newton), Tony Soter (then of Etude), and David Graves of Saintsbury. “In the Eighties, Carneros was on fire with pinot noir,” Hudson says. “Acacia, Saintsbury, Etude… it was a time of great ferment.”
Amid this transfiguration, the notion of starting his own winery receded. “My friends in the wine business seemed to be traveling all the time,” Hudson explains. “I couldn’t be on the road and take care of the vineyard.” Instead he pursued the concept of custom farming for individual winemakers: “I wanted to find winery owners who had fewer grapes than they needed for their business, so they’d be as dependent on me as I was on them.”
Hudson remembers himself from that time as “educated but underlearned. “When we started, everything was California sprawl on cordon,” he says of the prevailing old-school viticulture. “We didn’t crop-thin, head-sucker, shoot-position, leaf, or hedge; we put in about 30 hours [of labor per year] per acre. But the winemakers I sold to brought in viticultural consultants like Richard Smart (of Australia) and Michel Rolland (of France), and in the Eighties we started VSP [vertical shoot positioning]. Today we put in 250 hours per acre.”
Over time, Hudson planted other varieties: merlot in 1986 after he tasted good ones from Gundlach-Bundschu and Winery Lake; syrah in 1989 when he liked one made by Edmunds St. John from the Durell vineyard; grenache as a companion to the syrah and – on a rocky, relatively warm half acre – cabernet franc as a companion to the merlot. The first-ever Carneros-designed syrah (and one of the first cool-climate examples of the variety in California) was made from Hudson’s grapes by Michael Havens in 1991.
“Hudson’s syrah is utterly distinct,” says Morgan Twain-Peterson, who makes two Bedrock versions from the property. “It’s the brooding, feral, savory, darkly fruit-inflected, kind of syrah that I love. Probably because of the lighter soils and moderating influence of the bay, the fruit from the front ranch, off Carneros Highway, is a bit more feminine – like a female silverback gorilla. The fruit from the back ranch is more like the male paramour of the female silverback.”
Morgan’s anthropoid analysis addresses the fact that, in 1993, Hudson acquired an additional 500 acres adjoining his first property, bordering Henry Road to the north, beyond the more maritime orientation of the first range of hills. “In retrospect, I would have scored this property a 17,” he says of the original estate. “Henry Road would be even higher.”
Hudson calls his soil “tough.” Drainage is good in the sandstone-based Henry Road area and predominantly volcanic hills, but the flatter sections facing the bay are much less permeable, sedimentary clay. Still, he says, “One of the great things about Carneros is that the soils are naturally restrictive – they’re relatively shallow, with low nutrient capacity. I pride myself on small clusters and berries, and low yields. And large vegetables.”
As early as 1984, during Hudson’s second harvest, he’d noticed that his big-clustered U.C. Davis chardonnay clones were susceptible to rot in the Carneros climate. In search of smaller, looser bunches, he found a grower named Dale Goode at the Alexander Valley Vineyard Company. “He was in a wheelchair, but he said, ‘Go look at this and this and this’,” Hudson remembers. “I liked what I saw, so I asked him for nine acres’ worth of wood.”
The result was the Hudson selection of the so-called shot-berry Wente clone, which “matures earlier, at lower natural pHs, lower sugars, higher total acidities, lower yields, higher concentrations, and higher phenolics. It has a strong citrus and mineral component, rather than banana and pineapple. You don’t usually think about phenolics for white wine, but it’s important in chardonnay.” Most of the esteemed winemakers – e.g., Hall, Kistler, Neyers, Ramey, Turley (to name a few) – who have since bought the fruit would agree.
Today Hudson calls the grapegrowing business “revolutionarily different” from what it was when he started. Where there used to be three available rootstocks, of which he used only one, “now there are twenty, and we use eight. We now have twelve selections of chardonnay, and six of syrah.” Some of these are field selections that Hudson chose from mother vines, grafted onto certified rootstocks, and observed for five years before establishing new blocks. “There’s a skill set to each variety and to each site,” he notes. “That’s why all the great vineyards of the world have been farmed for more than one generation.”
Somewhat surprisingly – in terms of both Hudson’s original mission and the contemporary market – pinot noir no longer ranks among his most favored varieties. “Our pinot noir is really good, and I really know how to grow it,” he acknowledges. “But the yields have to be so low [for high-quality wine] that it’s hard to make money.”
Hudson explains that, after accounting for direct costs, administrative costs, taxes, debt service, and depreciation, it costs him $10,000 to $12,000 to grow an acre of grapes. “With as much capital and risk as is required, it starts to feel like you’re in the wrong business if you’re not grossing $15,000 to $17,000 an acre,” he says. “If you can get $5,000 a ton and four tons an acre, great, but the average price and cropload in Carneros is lower than that. The average yield on our ranch is three tons per acre; we have a difficult time grossing $10,000 to $12,000 on pinot noir, and some years we might get only two tons an acre at $3,500 a ton. That’s a painful gap. You’ve got to do so well in good years that you can store money. In 2008, for example, we had the worst frosts we’ve had in thirty years. It was a horror story – we lost 25% of our crop in one morning, and averaged less than two tons an acre on whole ranch. But we had to farm it all year.”
Hudson sells grapes to 35 wineries, 13 of which make vineyard designates licensed to say “Hudson Vineyard” on the label. Sixty percent of his clients buy fruit by the ton, though Hudson says that “if the yields are low and it’s a longterm relationship, I prefer it by the acre. In my own [winemaking] program, I insist on very low yields; I have contracts with Hudson Vineyards, and they’re all by the acre.”
Hudson’s own 800-case winery has existed only since 2004. “I make wine for myself,” he says. “It’s a challenge that keeps me vital and interested. We sell it in only five states – California, Texas, New York, Louisiana, and Florida. It’s really for the longtime sustainability of the ranch.” Asked to elaborate, he explains, “I don’t know that I’ve fully developed this piece of capital, this great opportunity I’ve been given. The part of the business that has the greatest return hasn’t been fully utilized – we sell 90 percent of our grapes wholesale, and only five percent retail. But my grapegrowing skill set has gotten better since I started making wine, and the better we utilize the resource, the more sustainable things are.”
Sustainability – environmental as well as financial – looms large on Hudson’s radar. As early as 1991, he joined the Huishica Creek Stewardship – a community-driven volunteer group made up of local landowners, formed to restore a watershed that had been suffering from overgrazing, soil erosion, and loss of native vegetation. “All of a sudden I focused away from the vineyard and toward the watershed,” Hudson says. With his fellow members, he began planting native oaks, establishing a cover of native grasses, reconfiguring vineyard borders farther from creeks, and getting rid of invasive plants that harbor harmful insects. “We do everything we can to reduce inputs and minimize impacts,” he says, with the result that sediment flows have declined, stream flows and wildlife have increased, and pesticide use has diminished. “We have two salmon streams here now,” Hudson says. “When I first came here, we didn’t.”
This reveals another “revolutionary” change in the grapegrowing business. “There have been incredible advances in IPM [integrated pest management],” Hudson says. “Disease models today are based on environmental concerns, climatic factors, experiences of the past, and economic thresholds of damage you can live with. The key is to know everything you can about your pest. The good news [in Carneros] is that we have very few insect pests, and most of them we can deal with using very benign materials. Our biggest problem is high powdery-mildew pressure – we do eleven different applications for it, using a variety of materials and switching them up to avoid resistance. Our goal is not to apply anything, and always to reduce the input.”
Nevertheless, Hudson doesn’t adhere to a rote organic regimen. “I used to grow organic,” he says. “John Williams [of Frog’s Leap] and I really worked at developing organic viticulture in Napa, and many things we still do are organic. But I don’t think they’re always right, or any more thoughtful than using best [conventional] practices – soft products pinpointed at a target and used at very low rates. There’s a perception that if you’re not organic you’re spraying noxious things, which is just not true. It’s also not true that organic people don’t use pesticides – anything you don’t want is a pest, and anything you use to get rid of it is a pesticide. A shovel is a pesticide, and there are organic chemicals that are noxious.
“When people ask me if we’re organic,” Hudson goes on, “I say, ‘No, I have a different compass: How big is your footprint?’ For example, if something takes three more passes of a tractor [than it would when using chemicals], I have to calculate in the BTU factor. I see a lot of [organic] people using weed whips all day long. I would never ask anybody to spend all day on a weedwhacker – that’s cruel and unusual punishment, like using a short- handled hoe. I don’t like government regulation and all this stuff, but I do feel a responsibility for people who work on honest day’s labor.”
Clearly, this is a subject to which Hudson has devoted considerable thought over the past 30 years. “There’s a tenet, which I think came out of Rodale in the Forties, that if it’s manmade it’s not good,” he says. “I don’t think that’s a premise I’d want to use to organize my life. I think it’s good that people are more aware of [organic standards]; it gives consumers some sense they have a third-party ceritification that this is a safe product, which is a legitimate concern. Fresh and local is important, and I’d want to know if a business I’m buying shoes from is socially responsible. But [organic certification] is really just a P.R. thing, and I’m not interested in P.R. I think we do things that are really safe for consumers, the workforce, and the environment. That’s what’s important to me – not if it’s manmade or not, but the whole social, environmental, consumer-quality, worker-safety picture.”
Hudson Vineyards has a year-round staff of 28 workers who receive health benefits and subsidized housing. “A lot of places now are using contract labor,” Hudson says. “Our average employee has been here 15 years.” Hudson’s foreman, Andreas Urena – the second employee he ever hired – has been with him for 29, and Andreas’s brother Leonardo has been on the ranch for 27. “Last year Leonardo grew the largest pumpkin ever in the state of California,” Hudson says (betraying his pride in “large vegetables”). “It weighted 1,704 pounds. He won $25,000, was flown first-class to New York City, and stayed at the Ritz.”
The 60 varieties of produce that Hudson Ranch grows in a two-acre garden are sold to local restaurants and to individuals through a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, at Oxbow Market in Napa, and Sunshine Foods in St. Helena. (“My life is so much more complicated now than it used to be,” Hudson says.) Then there’s Titi’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil (named for his mother), as well as a flock of free-range chickens, cattle, sheep, and heritage-breed hogs. “They never see cement,” Hudson says of the latter. “Instead they get to swim in our lake – hogs are jungle animals, they love water. They live a great life here, and then we ask the ultimate sacrifice: They’re recycled. And they’re really tasty.”
In this light, it comes as another surprise that, until he was 28, Lee Hudson was a yoga-practicing vegetarian. What effected the change?
“Like most things, it was a woman,” Hudson admits. “I came to feel that pulling a radish out of the ground was no different from slitting a hog’s throat. But really, it just ran its course. Now laughing is my yoga – laughing as loud as I can.” -David Darlington
You might expect that, in a 130-year-old vineyard, stability would be the rule. After all, grapevines that survived phylloxera, Prohibition, “California burgundy,” the white-zin craze, and the revival of zinfandel as a premium wine have pretty much seen it all. But at Sonoma Valley’s venerable Pagani Ranch, change is in the air.
This 55-acre vineyard – a classic California field blend of zinfandel, petite sirah, carignane, mourvedre, alicante bouschet, gran noir, lenoir, golden chasselas, and sauvignon vert – is owned by eight descendants of Felice Pagani, who immigrated from the Lake Como area of Italy at the turn of the 20th century. Felice ultimately turned the duties over to his son Louis, but by 1973, when Louis needed more help, he prevailed upon his niece Norma to move up from Point Richmond with her family.
“I didn’t want to go,” remembers Norma’s now 53-year-old son Dino, then a 14-year-old baseball pitching ace at Richmond High School. “It was a big adjustment – but I took a liking to vineyard work. I worked with Uncle Louis hand-hoeing and pruning and suckering, and I couldn’t wait to get home from school and drive the tractor. A lot of what he taught me about farming is still in my mind every day.”
When Dino finished high school, he “took all of Rich Thomas’s classes” in viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. “When I figured out I couldn’t make a living here [on the ranch],” he says, he went to work for the St. Francis Winery in nearby Kenwood, eventually becoming its vineyard manager and director of grower relations.
The St. Francis field crew tended the Pagani vines, whose fruit was sold to various wineries. Located in the northernmost part of Sonoma Valley – which receives a moderate marine influence from the Santa Rosa plains, often inspiring spring frosts – the vineyard is typically pruned in late winter, necessitating an October harvest. Wineries that picked the grapes early got them only moderately ripe, frequently dispensing them into vast blends of “California burgundy” jug wine or generic white zinfandel.
The Pagani fruit came into its own in 1990, when Ridge Vineyards starting buying it. Ridge’s second Pagani zinfandel was named the tenth best wine in the world by Wine Spectator, instantly awarding the vineyard iconic status. St. Francis started buying some of the red grapes too, and over the next 15 years, Ridge and St. Francis produced dueling Pagani zins.
That era came to an end in 2008. Amid an economic recession, St. Francis – which, during Dino’s tenure, had grown from 8,000 to 250,000 cases and been purchased by the Kopf family (which owns Kobrand Wine & Spirits) – decided that it couldn’t afford to keep him on. Moreover, it proposed to pay less for (and buy fewer of) the Pagani grapes. Having had to deliver such news to other growers in the past, Dino now found himself on the other side of the equation – but there was a silver lining.
“I had Plan B in place,” Dino says – with the result that now, in addition to Ridge, Pagani sells its fruit to Bedrock, Biale, Carlisle, and Seghesio Vineyards.
“I always wanted to sell grapes to those wineries,” Dino says. “They’re small, they all make rocket juice, and they sell their wine direct, with no middle man taking a cut. It’s the best thing that ever happened to us.”
Exiting the corporate environment was also a welcome change. “I didn’t know how much pressure I was under [at St. Francis] until I got out of it,” Dino says. “Even when things turn out to cost less than planned, you’re still under the gun. It was great experience – I learned how to deal with budgets, spread sheets, and work plans. But I spent all my time in meetings, explaining farming to people who had no idea what I was talking about to begin with.”
On the other hand, Dino says, “Morgan [Twain-Peterson of Bedrock] has a vineyard of his own – and when someone’s a grower, not just a winemaker, they can walk the walk, not just talk the talk. They know how to pull leaves, sucker, and shoot-thin; if a big rain is coming and the grapes are at 24.5 [degrees Brix], they won’t say they aren’t ready. Dealing with Morgan, Mike (Officer of Carlisle), Pete (Seghesio), and Robert (Biale) is a dream – I just wish I had more fruit for them.”
This touches on the other big change that’s now afoot at Pagani: its first new planting of grapes in 90 years. “Some of our vines were planted in 1884,” says Dino. “Some blocks have vines missing, and as far as tonnage is concerned, the old ones are going downhill. A vineyard is like a baseball team – if an old player has bad knees, you need new players coming up. After all, we’re talking about a piece of wood that’s been out in the weather for 100 years.”
For Dino, the new planting represents the fulfillment of another long-held dream. “I’ve been begging my family to do this since 1976. The problem is that we’re all still living on what my great grandfather did – he came from Italy and somehow got the money to plant 55 acres of grapes, providing income for people who weren’t even born yet. But we can’t keep living off his legacy. Family members get a little income here sometimes, but at the price it costs per acre to farm, we usually just break even. We need to do a few things for ourselves – but for anything to happen, a winery had to force the family’s hand.”
Thus, Ridge and Seghesio – the two biggest players in Pagani’s stable – recently wrote a letter to the family “insisting that we plant new vines because they need a consistent supply of grapes down the road.” As a result, in May 2012, twelve and a half acres of zinfandel, primitivo, and petite sirah were planted along Highway 12 between Glen Ellen and Kenwood – in Dino’s view, “the most beautiful virgin sacred ground that God ever created.”
Like the old vines, the new ones will be head-trained in the old-school “goblet” style with arms radiating out from a central trunk. “It would be a shame to have trellises here,” Dino says. “I just can’t see wires on this ranch. We could grow really good cabernet, sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, and merlot; maybe someday, who knows? But our heart and soul is mixed blacks and zinfandel – this has always been a zinfandel ranch, and it always will be a zinfandel ranch.”
Accompanying the brand-new vines is a brand-new well, and, to combat frost, the vineyard also contains five wind machines. None of this comes cheap, but the planting was financed completely by the family with Dino’s 75-year-old mother, Norma, contributing six figures.
“It would have been my inheritance,” Dino says. “But I would have just put it in the ground anyway. It’s a shame we haven’t been doing five acres at a time every couple of years – we could easily plant another fifty acres here. Now I’m trying to get the family to plant another twelve and a half. Twenty-five acres of new vines, producing four tons of grapes per acre, would put us in good financial shape for the future. The ranch could support itself.”
Looking toward that time, Dino’s 24-year-old son Greg is now employed as a vineyard mechanic for Chateau St. Jean nearby. His other son, Richard (22), is taking viticulture classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, just as his father did at the same age. “For a family to work in the wine business, you need to be like the Sangiacomos,” Dino says, referring to Sonoma’s well-known grapegrowing clan. “They all have their roles, and they all get along – there’s no infighting. That’s something to be proud of. When a whole family pulls together with the same goal, it’s awesome. It’s a team that can’t be beat.”
In the meantime, Dino now works for Cook Vineyard Management, which oversees vineyards throughout Sonoma County. “It’s a better fit for me,” he says. “It’s medium-sized, family-owned, out of the corporate world. I manage thirty-five vineyards – some big, some small. The farthest away is Annapolis, out by the coast. The company has real good field workers. Pagani Ranch is a client.”
Which is to say that, whenever Dino has agreed to manage vineyards for someone else, “part of the deal is always that I still work here. This ranch is my passion. It gets in your blood. That’s another reason I begged my family to plant more acreage – so I can stay on the ranch. My heart has always been right here.” -David Darlington
In 1996, Jim Dolinsek was riding his Nishiki ten-speed on Laguna Road, just northwest of Santa Rosa and southeast of the Russian River, when he noticed a new “For Sale” sign in front of a rundown house with an old vineyard. Dolinsek stopped, took a flyer from the kiosk, and, when he saw the price – $260,000 for 10.5 acres, planted to grapes and apples – he pulled out the sign and threw it into the grass beside the road.
Within an hour, he returned to the scene with his wife Kathleen. “I’d been looking for a place like this for twenty years,” Dolinsek says.
It says a lot about wine-country real estate that, despite the length of his search, Dolinsek was ideally positioned to perform it. A property manager and construction superintendent in southern Sonoma and northern Marin counties, his family goes back to the nineteenth century in the region around this same ranch. “When I called my father to tell him about it, he said he used to pick cherries near here in the Thirties,” Dolinsek says. “He knew the seller, Al Frati, who ran a horse sled picking hops on Slusser Road. This area was known for Italian families from Lucca – the Fratis, the Patellis, the Martinis, the Favas, the Paperas, the Fanucchis. My dad worked alongside all of them.”
The Frati family had nine siblings. The eldest and last onsite resident, Angelo, had recently died without a will or trust, so the court appointed his brother Alvin to execute the estate. “He tried to sell it to Gallo and K.J., but they didn’t want it because it was too small,” Dolinsek says.
If anything, it was too big for Dolinsek. “I’d always wanted two or three acres to grow fruit and have animals,” he says. “But the main thing was the old-vine zinfandel.”
For the previous ten years, Dolinsek and his friend Giuseppe Colombana had made wine themselves from the nearby Jovinetti Ranch. “We got the grapes for free in exchange for a couple of barrels of wine. It was old, field-blend zinfandel – the Italians shared all their budwood, so in bad years they could get deep color from petite sirah and alicante bouschet.”
The Frati vineyard, planted on the north side of a steep hill, contained all the above grapes plus teraldago, tempranillo, golden chasselas, black muscat, and mourvedre. For years the fruit had been sold to Joseph Swan, whose winery was just down the road. “I knew Swan wines were supposed to be something special,” Dolinsek says. “I’m not a wine expert; my wife and I drank Ravenswood and Topolos, and we got Williams-Selyem zin from my painter’s son – Nicolai Stetz, who owns Woodenhead now – but we didn’t know we should appreciate and savor it.” More important was the Dolinseks’ desire to “live the good life” – specifically, “drink Sonoma County zinfandel with homemade sausage and salami.”
It didn’t take long for Jim to win Al Frati over. While other potential buyers managed (despite Dolinsek’s efforts at sign excavation) to find out that the place was for sale, he says, “Alvin wanted us to have it because we wouldn’t tear the house down. Angelo was a packrat – the basement was full of garbage, and the well water was bad because the tank had dead rats in it. But I’d built a lot of homes, and I knew the roof was straight and the windows were plumb. Everybody else wanted to level it and make it all vineyards.”
According to probate law, the property still had to be offered at auction, with the proceeds divided equally among all the heirs. No bank would loan on the dilapidated house, so Dolinsek approached his boss about financing the sale. “He called my wife and asked if she wanted it too. She said, ‘This is Jim’s dream – if he wants it, I want it.’” When the day of the auction arrived and Dolinsek’s competitors realized that he was ready to go the distance, they dropped out and his dream came true.
In addition to plumb windows, the property came equipped with a 1953 John Deere crawler tractor, which had tracks (instead of wheels) for working hills. Dolinsek pulled out 450 apple trees and, studying viticulture with Rich Thomas at Santa Rosa Junior College, planted three acres of four zinfandel clones (as well as nine rows of syrah “because the nursery ran out of the zinfandel clone we wanted”). Since the property is situated in the so-called Golden Triangle, “Everybody tried to talk me into pinot noir. All the new growers said it was ‘correct’ for the Russian River Valley, but Kathleen asked, ‘Why should we plant pinot noir when we drink zinfandel? Do you want to make a lot of money, or do you want to do something special?’”
In that spirit, they kept the 4.5 acres of wizened, stumplike, dry-farmed, head-trained red vines, which, planted in 1910, produce only half a ton per acre. “They’re just running on Mother Nature,” Dolinsek says. “But half a bucket here and half a bucket there, and you’ve got a ton.”
By 2009, Dolinsek was selling his fruit to the Mara Wine Group. One day that spring, after he’d been working in the vineyard, a young, muscular, sandy-haired man approached the house. “I thought, ‘What does this guy want? He’s probably looking for work’,” Dolinsek remembers. “He asked about the grapes, and I told him they were under contract for another two years. He asked what they were, and I told him they were mixed. He said, ‘Mind if I look around?’ He said his winery was called Bedrock; he didn’t even have a card, but his friend Chris did. Morgan [Twain-Peterson] wrote his number on the back.”
As fate would have it, within a couple of months the Mara group asked to be excused from its contract. “We had a good feeling about Morgan,” Dolinsek says in retrospect. “He had enough chutzpah to come talk to us, and he seemed like he had a lot of passion. So we gave him first dibs.” That year Bedrock made an “heirloom” wine from the old vineyard – rich and concentrated but, true to form for Russian River field blends, beautifully balanced by the cool climate, varietal diversity, and deep-rooted vines.
The following year, 2010, was the vineyard’s centennial anniversary, for which Dolinsek planned a special commemorative bottling. “We’d been waiting for it,” he says. “Then we got three days of 108-degree heat. The vines got cooked – there was not a single cluster. It still makes me cry right now.”
2011 was another potential disaster – a cool one this time. “If you pick grapes too green in the Russian River Valley, they’ll taste green,” Dolinsek says. “Our fruit was looking nice, but in October a big front was coming in from Alaska. I didn’t think the fruit was going to last, so I told Morgan, ‘It’s up to you, but I think it will be fine if you pick it now.’ He picked it all in one day, and later said it was the best wine he made in 2011. Other people lost half their fruit.”
Dolinsek’s young vines (now 12-15 years old) go into Bedrock’s “Papa’s Mixed Blacks” blend, as well as Woodenhead syrah and Portalupi zinfandel. Portalupi also buys an acre of – say wha? – pinot noir, planted in 2000 by a former tenant who pulled out an old white field blend. “Almost everybody around here is a pinot guy here except me,” Dolinsek says. “Swan, Kistler, Guy Davis Family, Donelan syrah from Walker Vine Hill. Kathleen and I have some nice pinots now; as you become part of a community, you can’t be just one way – we need to appreciate all the varietals in our area. In my opinion, the Russian River is number one for pinot noir and Anderson Valley is number two. For zinfandel, Russian River is number one and Dry Creek is number two. The zinfandel here is different from Dry Creek – they have more pepper and spice; we have more earthy, mushroomy, black-raspberry-framboise flavors.” Napa? “Cabernet and car parts. Not zinfandel.”
Dolinsek is now a member of the Vine Hill chapter of Druids Hall, which raises money for scholarships for local kids. When he joined, its president was Alvin Frati, who died in 2007. “All the people I met when we first got this place have passed away,” Jim says.
In an interesting sense, Dolinsek is thus carrying on an Italian tradition that his own family was never part of. “We’re maintaining a heritage that was left to us,” he agrees. “We don’t do it for the money. It’s about the land – we grow grapes so that somebody can make a good glass of old-vine Russian River zinfandel. You can’t recreate a hundred years of struggling. These vines have weathered Prohibition, deer, skunks, gophers… it’s amazing that a vine can produce wine after a hundred years. And it’s great when a young guy like Morgan can make a wonderful wine from it.” -David Darlington
Joan and Jim Griffin
It’s hard to say which is more amazing about Joan and Jim Griffin: the fact that they’re still married after being high-school sweethearts in the 1960s, or that, in possession of no grapegrowing experience a dozen years ago, today they manage their own vineyard, selling grapes to some of the best wineries in California from one of the edgiest sectors of the Sonoma Coast appellation.
Griffin’s Lair was one of the first of the “renaissance” vineyards to be planted in the Petaluma Gap, the wind-sheared channel between Bodega and San Pablo Bays – a source of bracingly structured, increasingly sought-after cool-climate wine. “When we came here, there was just starting to be a lot of interest in the area,” says Joan. “I still wouldn’t have called it a resurgence of interest.”
The Griffins have lived in California since the early 1970s, but they met at Towson High School in Maryland. Jim later went on to work for Warner Electric, a company that makes linear actuators (robotics for machines that need to be moved and positioned). In 1973 he was transferred to the Bay Area, which the couple immediately embraced. “Jim had been a sailor on Chesapeake Bay, so he felt right at home here,” says Joan. “I’m more of a fair-weather sailor. San Francisco Bay is very rough and cold – but it’s the most gorgeous spot in the world.”
Jim later founded his own company, Industrial Devices. Joan, meanwhile, went to work as an editor for Presidio Press, a publisher of books on military history. “It wasn’t necessarily the subject matter I would have chosen, but it turned out to be fascinating,” she says. “There were lots of memoirs from World War Two, Korea, and Vietnam, which blew away my preconceived notions about military people. I thought they’d all be snake eaters, but someone like John Trotti, a fighter pilot who went to Stanford, was a very good and intelligent writer.”
The Griffins didn’t arrive in the Bay Area as enophiles. “In college we were into disgusting jug wine,” Joan says. “We found out what wine really was after we moved here. Napa was still a small town – you could knock on people’s doors.” Over the course of 25 years, however, not only Napa but their home of San Rafael got busier and more crowded. Joan, who is fond of horses and dogs (particularly border collies, sheepherders “still bred for intelligence and working instincts, not looks like showdogs”), fantasized about a place with more room.
In 1995, a friend of the Griffins told them about a 35-acre property for sale just across the Sonoma County line. Located on Old Lakeville Road near the Petaluma River, it was close to Joan’s workplace in Novato and also had a distant view of San Pablo Bay. “It was across the street from a fourth-generation dairy farm,” Joan says. “We discovered it by accident, and moved here on a whim.”
At the time, there was only one vineyard in the area, planted in 1990 for sparkling wine by Domaine Chandon, in partnership with the venerable Sangiacomo family. “Angelo Sangiacomo had commissioned a viticultural history and found that there were two wineries here before Prohibition,” says Joan. “There were more acres of grapes than you see today – back then, there were no bridges, so boats came up the river from San Francisco and loaded wine and produce in Petaluma.”
By then full-fledged wine lovers, Joan and Jim started to think about planting grapes themselves. “I was a gardener, but a commercial vineyard is something else entirely,” she says. Thus, she followed a well-worn path to Santa Rosa Junior College, where she enrolled in viticulture courses taught by Rich Thomas. “Half the students were young people wanting to get into the wine industry, and half were retirees who wanted to grow grapes. We visited a different vineyard every week, and the owners and managers would talk about what worked and what didn’t. Rich Thomas said a couple could manage five acres themselves, but above that you need help.” But luckily for the Griffins, “Everybody in this industry helps everybody else.”
Joan proceeded to solicit advice from professionals throughout the Carneros region: the Sangiacomo family; Lee Hudson in Napa; Byron Kosuge at Saintsbury; Dave Lattin at Kuleto. “At first we thought it would be for sparkling wine, but Angelo was starting to use the grapes for still wine,” she says. “People said there was no reason we couldn’t ripen pinot noir.” After hiring a vineyard manager from Napa Valley, in 2000 the Griffins planted 22 acres – almost three-quarters of them to pinot noir. “We love pinot because it’s so food-friendly. We also wanted another varietal, but we didn’t drink much white wine, and didn’t want chardonnay.”
It was Karen Culler, the Griffins’ first winemaking client, who suggested syrah. “Before we grew it, syrah didn’t appeal to me at all,” Joan remembers. “I thought its gamey/animal, smoked-meat, beef-blood quality was too intense. But Karen gave us some good cool-climate syrah from Al Rago’s vineyard in Occidental to drink, and that smokiness and leather was really good with grilled foods. By the time we harvested our first crop, I was a convert.”
Bear in mind that this was in 2000, when syrah was the most popular varietal being planted in California. Since then, it’s taken a notorious nosedive in the marketplace. “After Sideways, a lot of people starting making pinot noir,” Joan says. “Syrah is more of a niche market. People think it’s like Australian Shiraz, but cool-climate syrah isn’t that at all. And this spot turned out to be wonderful for syrah.”
To a large degree, the Griffins’ spot consists of fog and wind. “The wind follows the valley from Bodega Bay, hits Sonoma Mountain and barrels south. Pinot wasn’t a good choice for the windy [west] side of the hill – it’s more vulnerable, thinner-skinned. But syrah is sturdier – it gets hammered in the afternoon, but it’s a vigorous varietal, and the wind shuts the vines down and moderates their growth.”
Today the Griffins grow four clones of syrah (plus a small amount of viognier for cofermentation purposes) on five of their northwest-facing acres. “The reason we have so many clones on such a small plot is I wanted it to be special,” Joan says. “I wanted to have a toybox for winemakers to play with. The grapes go to five different wineries, each of which gets designated rows of each clone. They’re all very passionate and particular, so it has the potential for being a nightmare. But it hasn’t been, because of the personalities involved – they’re very considerate, and they all know each other, so they confer. Nobody insists on getting their grapes that day.”
Griffin’s clients are a high-quality clique: Arnot-Roberts, Bedrock, Kosta-Browne, Longfellow, Loxton, Renteria, Spottswoode, Wind Gap. Five of them also get pinot noir, but it’s spread over 15 acres, so there are fewer potential bottlenecks. Still, as Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock testifies, the main reason for the lack of drama is that “Joan is wonderful to work with. She’s diligent, passionate, and has a great eye for viticultural detail. She’s willing to do whatever’s necessary to ensure that the best fruit comes off the vineyard.”
“It isn’t formula farming,” Joan acknowledges. “We have to consider how the winemakers want their grapes grown – some want different amounts of irrigation, some want more sun. Morgan wants to the site to express something different about the wine. We respond to that.”
All of which is to say that, since 2006, Joan has been her own vineyard manager. “It took me a couple of years to gain the confidence,” she reports, “though our first few years were as close to perfect as the wine country has ever seen. ’01, ’02, ’03 were very easy years to grow grapes, with no big heat spells and fog every morning. I said, ‘I don’t know why people say this is so difficult’ – but since then, we’ve learned that nature throws something different at you every year. In 2010 we had mildew, and in 2011 we had Botrytis, neither of which we’d ever had before. So that’s what makes grapegrowing difficult, but endlessly fascinating.”
If Joan is the vineyard manager, Jim is the CEO – chief equipment operator, applying his engineering know-how to their fleet of tractors, mowers, sprayers, and pumps. For their first few years, the Griffins had a bubble full of premixed, synthetic chemicals brought in, injecting pesticides and fertilizers via drip irrigation; but as Joan gradually came to realize, “The vineyard advisors work for the companies that sell the products. What’s wrong with that picture?”
Two of Griffin’s first clients – Pax Mahle of Wind Gap and Duncan Meyers of Arnot-Roberts – lobbied her to farm organically, and today Joan admits that she’s “drunk the Kool-Aid.” She belongs to the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission’s Organic Producers Group, and her syrah plot has been organic for five years. “I believe the quality of the organic fruit is better,” she says. “I have no quantifiable way of proving that, but if you have healthy soil, the vines are going to be healthy. You can see the difference – the cover crop is lusher, the soil has more earthworms, and the vineyard corridors are teeming with beneficial insects. The Roundup [-treated] soil is like a moonscape – just bare dirt. We still fertigate, but now we use a wide range of organic products like liquid fish and molasses. As opposed to synthetic chemicals that have no smell at all, it’s a vile, stinky mix. We’ve gotten used to it now, but the first time we did it was hilarious. It was actually on Halloween – double bubble, toil and trouble! I thought it should have eye of newt.”
Griffin also brings in 80 tons of compost each year. To augment the cover crop, she collects things like wild carrot seed from along local roadsides. “It’s the same as Queen Anne’s Lace. It blooms in August and September. Now I’m trying to get subterranean clover established, because it spreads underground via rhizomes, as opposed to seeding above ground. I want something blooming all year round for beneficial insects – they keep the leafhoppers down. If nothing is blooming, they tend to leave the vineyard and look for flowers elsewhere.”
Transitioning to organic viticulture is lengthy and expensive. “It takes years to get organic material into the soil, and there’s a lot of trial and error,” Joan says. Her soil consultant, Bob Shaffer, takes core samples every other year, identifying deficiencies or imbalances in nutrients and recommending the requisite additions. In organic vineyards, Joan acknowledges, “Weed control is a huge problem. There are lots of organic methods – mowing, cultivating, flaming, organic herbicides – but they’re all expensive, and organic products not always benign. There’s only one organic insecticide that I know of, and it kills beneficial insects as well. One of the ironies is that some synthetic, non-organic pesticides are very targeted, which is one reason I’m reluctant to be certified organic – I want to be able to reach in my toolbox if I need to. But we use very soft products, with very little impact on beneficial insects and nothing systemic that goes into the tissue of the vine.”
By the end of 2012, Griffin’s Lair will be certified as sustainable. “We plan to transition a few more rows of pinot noir to organic every year,” Joan says. “It’s more difficult to farm pinot this way – it has small, tight clusters like hand grenades, and it’s very fussy, more susceptible to mildew and Botrytis. Syrah is looser and more open, so we have fewer problems with syrah.
“But really,” Griffin concludes, “if you’re growing for the high end, all grapes are difficult.” -David Darlington
If the common cliché about organic farming is that it practitioners are hippies, Phil Coturri doesn’t do much to dispel that image. For starters there are his beard and ponytail, sartorially supplemented by his printed T-shirts. There are the Grateful Dead posters on his office walls, flanked by photos of Jimi Hendrix and Buddhist/environmental poet Gary Snyder. Then there are the things that Coturri says. For example, explaining how he got into organic gardening when he graduated from Sonoma State in 1975, Coturri admits: “I wanted to be a hippie. What did hippies do? All that weird s**t.”
Today Coturri is Sonoma’s foremost organic grapegrower, though he takes issue with that description. “It’s like what [rock promoter] Bill Graham said about the Dead,” he clarifies. “They’re not the best at what they do; they’re the only ones who do what they do. Nobody else in Sonoma Valley farms only unconventionally on the scale that I do. I don’t even know how to farm conventionally – I’ve never done it.”
Coturri’s countercultural M.O. was facilitated by growing up in San Francisco. Though farming didn’t play much of a role in his family background, wine did: Both of his grandfathers – one German, one Italian – were barrel coopers. “The one from Italy’s first job in the city was working for the German one,” Coturri says. “He got fired.” Coturri’s own father, Harry (nickname: “Red”), owned a janitorial-supplies store in the city and made wine at home with friends, including the local parish priest. “They knew the winemaker at Inglenook, and they got their grapes from Italian Swiss Colony in Asti.”
When Phil was eight, his family bought property on Sonoma Mountain near Glen Ellen. “It was every Italian’s dream to have a country house,” he explains. “My father had a horse and loved to hunt. During the week my mom would cook frozen vegetables, but on weekends we’d come up here and my father would cook.”
Also: “They wanted me out of the city on weekends and summers so I wouldn’t get in trouble.” This had a higher-than-normal degree of probability in San Francisco in the Sixties. During his first two years at Sacred Heart High School, Coturri was on the football team, which practiced at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park, adjacent to the Haight-Ashbury district and Fillmore Auditorium. Not coincidentally, Phil quit football his junior year “to smoke dope and run for student-body president.” He lost, though did win election as senior class president.
Around the time he graduated from high school, Coturri’s parents planted zinfandel vines on their Glen Ellen property. Phil had occasionally helped out in the nearby Ballinger vineyard, where he learned how to prune vines from Joe Miami, manager of the fabled Monte Rosso. “Joe taught me a lot of basic philosophy,” he says. “One time when I was hoeing vines – which I hated – I took a break and leaned on my shovel. He kicked it right out from under me.”
Coturri started college at St. Mary’s in the East Bay, but after two years, wanting to be nearer his family’s place in the country, he transferred to Sonoma State, where he majored in American literature (studying “Beat” writers like Snyder and Kerouac, whose adventures he followed during high school via The Dharma Bums). To make extra money, he pruned vineyards around Santa Rosa. “I made 20 cents per vine,” he remembers.
Upon graduating from college, Phil and his brother Tony started making wine at home from their parents’ vineyard, bartering it for things like carpentry help. Phil planted a half-acre garden, in which he was advised to avoid pesticides by a retired army colonel who lived nearby. “He gave me my first copy of Organic Gardening Magazine,” Coturri says. “I’d never really thought about it, but I had used [the insecticide] Paraquat when I was younger, and every time did it I got a sore throat. The food revolution was in its infancy then, but a perfect storm was happening in the Bay Area – health-food stores selling wheat germ and sprouts, the back-to-the-earth movement. Snyder talked about ‘watershed politics,’ saying that the area you need to pay attention to is where a drop of rainfall hits and drains – that you should be responsible for your runoff and pay attention to what you’re doing to your own body. Alice Waters came out of this same movement, saying that the way to get the best flavors is to respect the earth. All of that had a big influence on my philosophy: If you’re gonna do something, do it the best and most socially responsible way you can.”
Phil’s brother Tony had a master’s degree in special education (he started the Learning Center school in Marin County), but after they got bit by the wine bug, the two decided to start a winery with Tony as winemaker and Phil as vineyard manager. Phil also managed a few other small vineyards, one of whose owners told him, “‘You’re growing your vegetables organically. I want you to do that with my grapes.”
“I had somebody who would pay me to do something unique,” Coturri says gratefully in retrospect. “In that sense, [organic viticulture] was an easy transition. On other hand, it was scary to go from a half-acre garden to a five-acre vineyard. The biggest thing was not spraying for weeds –hoeing and using hand labor increased costs right away. But to quote Dylan: Don’t look back.”
Today Coturri’s company, Enterprise Vineyards, manages 550 acres of grapes for 32 clients. With 30 years of experience behind him, he still thinks proper pruning is one of the most important factors in grapegrowing. “The majority of people have no concept of how to prune a grapevine. They don’t know how to keep the plant in balance – they ask it to do more than it can.” By contrast, “Joe Miami talked about how to make the plant better. With a cut I’m making now, for example, I’m thinking about what it’s gonna do to the plant two years down the road. With proper pruning and enlivening the soil, you can turn a vineyard around in one to two years.”
Enlivening the soil is where Coturri’s other crucial “culture” – cover cropping – comes in. “Grapes are a monoculture,” he explains. “Monocultures suck – it’s the worst form of agriculture you can have.”
Why? “They’re boring.” Even more importantly, “Monocultures brought on the Dust Bowl. When you have an infestation, there’s nothing to break it – if there’s a grape pest in Carneros, in five years in will be in Calistoga. Because grapes are a perennial plant, you can’t rotate vineyard crops– but you can rotate crops within a vineyard. So my philosophy is: From April 1 to November 1, I grow grapes. From November 1 to April 1, I grow a cover crop.”
Cover-crop composition varies from site to site, depending on the type of rock and vigor of the soil. “I might have ten different plants in a single vineyard,” Coturri says. “Every year, a different plant becomes the star – one year you might have an incredible mustard crop, or bell beans, or cereal grains, each one reacting to the timing of the rains and the environmental influence at the time it was seeded. Because you’re adding more plants, you’re adding complexity to the soil. Soil health is paramount because soil is the medium that we grow the plants in – with stripped soil and no other life, there’s nothing supporting the grapevine. It’s the understory that helps a redwood tree survive; it might have been manzanita or bay trees providing the compost and nutrients that led to the climax forest. I create an understory in a vineyard through cover crops – a polyculture of plants enriching the soil and attracting beneficial insects. I don’t fertilize my plants; I enhance the environment in which they grow.”
Coturri bristles at the belief that organic farming essentially constitutes benign neglect. “It’s the exact opposite. We have an intensity of inputs: fertility inputs, plant-manipulation inputs, crop-manipulation inputs – all striving for balance. Just like with wine, I can look at a vineyard and say whether it’s in balance.
“Did you ever see the movie El Topo?” Coturri asks. “There was a sculpture so fragile that it would collapse if a normal person held it, but one of the characters had so much control of his strength that he could hold it without crushing it. It’s a paradox a lot like grapegrowing – exerting the same pressure from inside and out. Equilibrium keeps a vineyard afloat. In chemical farming, if you’re using using systemics and you just nuke a problem, you’re not addressing why it’s there or figuring out how to fix it. If a vine is in balance, it will have strong tissues that can battle things like pests and mildew.”
The Coturri winery is well known for making organic wine – not just using pesticide-free grapes, but eschewing sulfur dioxide as a preservative. Today Phil and Tony have divided the company, with Phil running Enterprise Vineyards as a separate business. “I’m fortunate that in my company I get to deal with some of the best winemakers in the world,” he says. “Every one has a different definition or perception of ripeness. I really like walking vineyards with them because they have an exactness that helps me understand what they’re going for. A winemaker is like a chef who only has to make a meal once a year; a good chef designs a menu from ingredients, and if they can articulate that, the wines show it.
“I approach everything I do because I love to drink really good wines,” Coturri says. “I’m in demand because of my organic practices, but also because people love the fruit. I want to grow highest quality grapes for winemakers.”
This, perhaps, is where the hippie image begins to fall away. Coturri charges $7,000 an acre to manage head-trained vines, $9,000 to $10,000 for trellis-grown cabernet. “I’m really expensive,” he admits. “Growing grapes to make great wine is expensive, even if it’s not organic. It’s not hard to be organic; it’s hard to grow grapes properly, period. A banker once told me that, for the amount of decisions made on a daily basis, wine is the most complicated business there is. It’s not a poor man’s game, so it’s nice to have the resources to do things properly. Our viticultural practices have improved tremendously in the 40 years I’ve been in this business – we have better trellising, more rootstock choices, different clones…. globalization has been a real plus. It’s wonderful to be able to apply today’s technology to something as traditional as winemaking.
“Still,” Coturri muses, “to this day, I can remember a ’58 Martini barbera that was just spectacular. And even now, when I make a cut on a vine, I have to wait a year to see if I did it properly – a sapmeter won’t help me. I try to think like Buckminster Fuller, in terms of applied technology – using technology to better the world without separating it from the past.”
That ’58 barbera was probably grown by Joe Miami at Monte Rosso, on the eastern flank of the Mayacamas Mountains – the same watershed where Coturri now lives, and which contains most of the acreage he manages. Recently, with his sons Sam and Max, he started producing syrah and zinfandel under the “Sixteen 600” label (named for his own address, “to evoke a sense of place like Snyder talked about in his poetry”). Fifteen years ago, “to break the monoculture of grapes” on his property, Coturri planted olives, from which he and his wife Arden Kremer make oil. Meanwhile, he’s still farming the first vineyard that ever hired him to grow grapes organically, and a couple of years ago he took over the site where he first pruned vines with Miami – now part of the celebrated Laurel Glen property on Sonoma Mountain.
All of which seems to indicate that, however expensive, sought after, globally connected, and technologically advanced Phil Coturri may have become, he’s still a Sonoma County hippie at heart. -David Darlington
From our Winter 2014 Newsletter: Unfortunately, Joe Mengali, with his soft eyes, worn hands and huge laugh left us a few weeks ago after a long battle with cancer. The affliction, which the VA attributes to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, took him at the age of 67. Both Chris and I cherish the couple of years we got with Joe and look forward to a continued close relationship with Joe’s family. In 2015 Bedrock Wine Co. reached an agreement with the Nervo family for a long term lease of the vineyard and, taken over the farming duties, with the help of John Grace. It is an honor and privilege to continue the Mengali family’s legacy of caring for this incredible vineyard.
Among the many California grapegrowers embracing organic farming today, few are old-school Italians in their 60s. Fewer still are doing it because of their experiences in Vietnam.
Driving into the wooded hills west of Geyserville, you know you’re getting near Joe Mengali’s place when ancient tractors begin to appear along the road. The first one dates to 1925; the second 1945; the third 1936. Altogether Mengali has about 60, half of which are still usable.
Most of them are Cletracs. Asked why he’s partial to this brand, Mengali shrugs. “Why are people partial to a Packard?” Pressed for more detail, he says that Cletrac – the first diesel tractor to employ an electronic starter – was ahead of its time.
“We farmed with all crawl tractors,” Mengali says, referring to those that have tanklike treads. “They don’t compact the ground like wheel tractors do.” One sample in his collection, “The Cleveland,” was the first crawl tractor ever used in a Sonoma County vineyard. “It belonged to Louis Foppiano Sr., who bought it new in 1917. My youngest is from 1961 – it’s the one with a picture of me on it.”
The photo in question is one of several framed pictures of tractors inside Mengali’s house. One – a black-and-white magazine ad for H.G. Equipment in Cotati – shows a teenage boy at the controls; it reads: “‘Low profile lets me get my Oliver OC-4 under low trees – she’s got more power than I need for any job on the ranch – the coil spring suspension gives a real smooth ride – good fuel economy too – she’ll run all day on 10 gallons of gas,’ says Joe Mengali (age 14, and does all the farming on his father’s 25 acre farm near Geyserville).”
Like the Nervo vineyard that he’s been farming for half his life, Mengali’s Geyserville roots go deep. Born in 1947 behind what is now the Trione winery (“Our ranch was the only knoll between the river and the railroad tracks”), his family’s agricultural heritage goes back even further: The Mengalis have been growing grapes and olives in Tuscany since the 1400s.
“My father and his mother were the only two [family members] who came here,” says Joe, who has visited the Mengali homeland – Ripafratta between Lucca and Pisa – more than a dozen times. He didn’t speak English until he started school in Geyserville. In fact, on his first day of kindergarten he walked home early because he couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. Besides, all the other kids did was play and take naps.
“My dad didn’t like anybody to be idle,” he explains. In addition to repairing tractors for a Cletrac agency in Santa Rosa, the elder Mengali farmed various fruits in Alexander Valley, which at the time grew mainly prunes. “They had prune-blossom tours in May, when the whole valley was white,” Joe says. “Trione was Nervo then.”
Growing up, Joe worked for almost everyone around Geyserville. The Nervo family, which came from Vicenza, bought its property in 1908 from another pair of Italians, paying for it with gold. In 1895, the previous owners (names of Anariotta and Monaco) had planted a 12-acre vineyard on a hill of decomposed shale in front of their winery, directly across present-day U.S. 101. As a boy Joe worked there shoveling pumice from tanks and loading bulk wine onto railroad cars behind the building.
When he was late teens, however, the Vietnam War intruded. “I had a pre-induction physical, and when I told my mother I was going to get drafted, she started crying: ‘They’re going to kill you!’” His sister said that if he joined the Air Force he wouldn’t go to Vietnam – so Joe volunteered and was sent to Texas and Oklahoma for basic training. He was subsequently (and unsurprisingly) assigned to the heavy-equipment corps, at which point “I got a letter from my sister saying she heard they were sending heavy-equipment operators to Vietnam.”
Noting Mengali’s language skills, a personnel officer recommended him for officer-aid duty in Italy. He was accepted by a general in Naples, but says, “You’ve got to shine their shoes and cook for them. I wasn’t that type.” Changing his mind, he withdrew his application; a week later his orders came down for Vietnam.
Mengali soon found himself at Ben Hoa AFB, 12 miles north of Saigon. He didn’t see combat – “just dodged rockets. A bunch of us were running bulldozers, filling in rice paddies so that planes could land.” While they were doing this, a different kind of bombardment rained down on them when U.S. planes flew overhead spraying a chemical mist. “We didn’t know what the hell this stuff was, but it felt refreshing because it was cool. We worked with our shirts off – it was hotter than Hades there, and none of the tractors had canopies.” Unfortunately the chemical was Agent Orange, the infamous dioxin-based herbicide that the U.S. military used to defoliate the Vietnamese landscape.
After a year in Vietnam, Mengali was transferred to Aviano AFB in Italy north of Venice. “I did a lot of work building soccer fields with civilians. You got the best of everything when you worked off base – big lunches with wine, coffee, and grappa… I had a girlfriend, and every other weekend I went to see my Uncle Amato in Tuscany, helping him in the vineyards. I guess my parents thought I was having too good a time.”
Hence, after three years and three months in the Air Force, Mengali returned home. “My folks were getting old,” he says. “They wanted to move into town, so in ’75 they sold the ranch to the Capners and I went out on my own.”
For the next ten years, Joe had a business repairing tractors and bulldozers. “I didn’t farm from ’75 to ’86. But I couldn’t stay away from goddamn grapevines – I love to see things grow, and farming just pulled me back in.”
How, exactly? In 1985 Mengali noticed that the (then) 90-year-old Nervo vineyard hadn’t been getting much care. “It was damn near dead,” he says. “It looked abandoned, so I asked Ed Nervo, ‘How about leasing it to me?’ He said sure, and we brought it back – rebuilding the deer fence, planting a cover crop, replanting the vines that were too far gone and pruning back the ones that were still alive. We managed to save quite a bit of it.”
Thus lured back into growing things, Mengali leased more ranches, at one time farming 100 acres in Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys – not just grapes but apples, pears, and, yes, prunes. Throughout most of the 1990s he sold Nervo grapes to Ridge Vineyards, whose famed Geyserville vineyard (owned by the Trentadue family) is right next door. In 2007, however, with several new plantings coming online, Ridge stopped buying the fruit; Mengali sold it for a few years to another company, but as harvest was approaching in June 2013, the winery told him it couldn’t take the grapes.
“I called David Gates [of Ridge], who happened to be in a meeting with Joel Peterson,” Mengali says. Unbeknownst to Joe, Nervo had been a favorite wine of Peterson’s parents – Joel remembered visiting the property as a boy in the 1950s, when, unbeknownst to him, Joe was shoveling pumice.
“A few days went by, and Joel’s son Morgan called and said he wanted to come look at it,” says Mengali. “He walked the old blocks, identifying the grapes and reeling off names I’d never even heard of, and said, ‘I’ll buy it.’”
Morgan considers the Nervo vineyard one of the “most impressive” in Alexander Valley. “The old stuff is really mixed,” he says (using his synonym for “irresistible”). “One block is almost 50 percent Negrette, along with Grenache, Trousseau Noir, Semillon, Petite Sirah, Alicante, Grand Noir, and some of the best-tasting Sauvignon Blanc I’ve tasted. Joe is a really good farmer – he loves his cover crops, doesn’t ask the vines to do too much, and when it came to do the final thinning pass last year, he wanted me there to make sure it was done to my liking. Most growers don’t want to do a final pass, much less have the winemaker around. The wines are probably the most claret-like in our winery, with great structure, perfume, and color.”
Around the time when Mengali’s client base was shifting, a friend told him about a bulletin he’d seen from the Veterans Administration – “a list of diseases caused by Agent Orange.” Since Joe’s time in Vietnam, the herbicide had been linked to increased rates of cancer, heart disease, and nerve, skin, and respiratory disorders. After he left the Air Force, Joe developed white blotches (“like leprosy”) on his back; his skin itched and eventually he contracted ischemic heart disease, one of the ailments on the Agent Orange-related roster. “I went to a clinic on Airport Road and they took a picture of my heart and lungs,” he says. “Then they did a CT scan and a PT scan. They found eight spots.”
The spots were prostate cancer that had spread to his spine. “You might say the V.A. saved my life,” says Mengali, who has since been on the anti-cancer drugs densunab, degalrelix, and enzalutamide – which, if not for government subsidies, would cost $10,000 per month. He also takes an array of natural supplements, which he credits for the fact that “I’m still around today.”
Nevertheless, Mengali has had to back off on growing things. He now limits his farming to the Nervo vineyard and his own 700-foot-high property overlooking Alexander Valley – a “microclimate” where he grows warm-weather fruits like cherries, peaches, olives, prunes, and avocados. He also grows Zinfandel in long, winding, terraced rows with exposures in all directions.
As for the Nervo vineyard – which today is owned by Ed’s children Greg and Susan – Mengali says, “I’ll never let go of it. The Nervos are like my family – I was born next door to ’em, and Mrs. Nervo took care of me when I was little.”
But changes are afoot. “After I found out I got sick from Agent Orange, all this stuff we’ve been using in the vineyard scared the crap out of me,” Mengali says. “I’m in the condition I’m in now because of an herbicide. My father was opposed to chemicals; he was a farmer in Italy, and when commercial fertilizer salesmen first came around, his father said, ‘This year you use it; next year you need a little more of it; the year after that you need a little more, and eventually it don’t do no good no more.’ My dad wouldn’t go for it. We never used chemicals on our ranch – we’d plow and cross-cultivate to take care of weeds. Then came trellises and irrigation, which is when we started [herbicides] because you couldn’t cross-cultivate. Nowadays these guys plant vines, pump a lot of fertilizer into ’em, and replant in 15 years.”
Joe and his wife Kathy have three children: Mario, 40, Joseph Jr., 36, and Theresa, 32. “Mario is in the plowing business and Joe has a business called Sonoma Organics,” Mengali says. “He sells [compost] tea and all that, and a couple of years ago he said to me, ‘We’ve got to go organic.’ It’s the right thing to do – we’ve got to get back to nature and away from these chemicals. After you spray, where does it go? Into the ground where it gets into the water and we drink it and bathe in it. We can’t continue on this path. It’s no good. It’s killing us. It’s easy, but it’s not sustainable. There are other ways.”
Some of these ways involve crawl tractors. Mengali is well positioned to put them into action. -David Darlington