Another Year in the Vineyard, Week #13 with Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe

WineMaker Magazine

(Another) Year in the Vineyard with Wes Hagen, Clos Pepe

Week #13, June 4-June 10, 2010

clos sign

On the Shoulders of Giants, Another AVA, All Things Green, Clustering and Clucking

Welcome back, dear bloggistas, to the late Spring at Clos Pepe Vineyards in the beautiful heart of the Santa Rita Hills of Northern Santa Barbara County.  We’ve chugged through a good chunk of the growing season thus far, discussing every aspect of our viticultural practices.  We discussed budbreak, you shared my anxiety during frost season, and my anxiety during a cold and windy flowering period—wait!  I thought wine was supposed to lessen anxiety!  I suppose because this is pinot noir, all bets are off.  One aspect of growing pinot that I’ve tried to bring home to the readers is that the best wines are grown on the razor’s edge, the periphery of madness, where danger lurks and only the brave dare to dwell.  Today we’ll back up a bit from the details of vineyard management and look at how the vintage is progressing and expressing itself, and also discuss my meeting one of viticulture’s greatest heroes:  Dr. Richard Smart, the most important influence on wine quality in the 20th Century (sorry Mr. Parker, you don’t even come close).

So we’ve had some challenges this year:  a bit of frost damage in the Chardonnay on a 26 degree morning on April 1st (no foolin’!),  a cold Spring full of wind and chilly temperatures, even four nights after Mother’s Day where the frost fans and sprinklers were turned on.  We’ve also had some wonderful moments of success: my first major publishing cred: a nice article on Pinot Noir in the LA Times Magazine, a wine dinner with Bradley Ogden at Root 246 in Solvang,  a chance to lecture to a few hundred winegrowers and winemakers in Stevenson, Washington, and now we’re seeing that the crop and weather in 2010 are lining up to produce another potentially great vintage of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the beautiful Santa Rita Hills.

wseek 13 cluster

To generalize the 2010 vintage, we had a very cold and fairly wet Spring.  During dormancy we had about 18 inches of rain, which is a spectacular amount for us—almost double normal, and fully charged our soil profile with the natural rainwater—a far superior wetness than irrigation water.  The first irrigation was applied in mid May with some fertilizer mixed in, and we’ve begun to give the vines a bit of water every other week, fine tuning the amount by how warm the weather is and how much water is evaporating due to climatic conditions and temperature.  The cold Spring has finally broken as the El Nino in the Pacific weakens, and we’ve seen a few periods of high pressure and warm temperatures.  The forecast is for the latter part of June to be warmer than historic norms.  Perfect weather for slow, methodical ripening in pinot noir and chardonnay—but also perfect temperatures for the sporulation of powdery mildew.  So we continue spraying fungicide on a tight schedule, especially important as the berries begin to swell to the point that the clusters ‘close’ as grapes swell to the point where they begin to touch.  Mildew or rot spores trapped within a cluster at closure can cause serious disease problems later.

Let’s talk about clusters, bunches, grapes—as all things will eventually come down to the fruit that we crush into the fermenters.  I’ve just taken a drive through the vineyard with our cool little beefed up golf cart, checking the work of the crew as they begin their second shoot positioning and leaf-removal pass in the vineyard.  The vines are still charging and our little vineyard that barely produced enough growth to ripen a crop in 2000 (but still produced a pretty serious wine), is now in a beautiful low/moderate vigor cycle, producing shoots from 4-5 feet, and keeping a leaf to cluster ration right in that 12-15: 1 sweet spot.  The leaves are perfectly sized and colored.  The yellowish ‘spring fever’ has disappeared in all but the coldest soil spots, and the leaves are all smaller than my splayed hand and the dusty, green color that shows a perfect (but not excessive) amount of nitrogen available to the vine.  We are looking to slow the vines’ vegetative growth over the next 6 weeks: which will be visible by a shortening of the tendrils as the vine decides its climbed enough and now needs to focus on ripening fruit now that the canopy and leaf area is ample to soak up the sun and turn it into sugar and yummy phenols in the berries.

Row at Clos Pepe weeek 13

I also continue my practice of giving the clusters a few sharp raps on the top while holding my hand beneath the cluster to see how many berries have ‘shattered’ and fallen off.  I saw a little more shatter in my rounds this morning.  Some clusters showed as many as 20-25 shattered berries.  While 5-15 berries shattering would make me happier, there’s plenty of fruit out there hanging this year, and letting the clusters open up with some gaps in the cluster architecture will allow more sun exposure and increased quality.  So we may see slightly lighter clusters this year, but plenty of them.  With the amount of cold and windy days we had at Clos Pepe this Spring, the fact that any berries fertilized is a bit of a miracle.  We likely had more than 25 days where winds topped 30 miles per hour.  Brrr…

So the crop looks good, growth looks good, the crew’s doing a bang-up job getting the shoots vertical, the extra shoots removed, the head of the vine cleaned up  and the leaves pulled to open the fruiting zone up to sun and wind.  An open canopy and sun-flecked (or bathed) fruit will produce more color, flavor, and minimize vegetal or herbaceous flavors.  Pulling the leaves on the morning side allows lots of the cooler morning sun to penetrate the canopy and improve fruit flavors, and a bit more of the leaf area on the afternoon side will protect the clusters from warm afternoon sunburn.  The natural canopy that the vines here at Clos Pepe produce has a very nice balance—it is very rare to see more than one leaf between the sun and any cluster, and about 7% of the ambient sunlight (photosynthetically active radiation measured in micro-Einsteins if you want to get really geeky) will pass through a grapevine leaf—so you never really want more than one leaf between a cluster and the open sky.

Canopy management is a term that you can’t escape using in every paragraph when discussing viticulture.  And the Worldwide Father of Canopy Management, the guy who first really focused in on how light and wind can positively impact wine quality in wine growing, has to be Dr. Richard Smart, who popularized and spread the gospel of some of his early teachers worldwide in a seminal book published in 1991: Sunlight Into Wine.  I had the rare privilege of meeting Dr. Smart yesterday at a fully day seminar on winegrowing and pinot noir production at the Alan Hancock College campus in Santa Maria, California.  Thanks and kudos to Alfredo Koch and all the staff at Alan Hancock for putting on this amazing and important lecture.

Wes at the Smart lecture

I basically begged Alfredo, an amazingly gentle and knowledgeable Argentinean PhD in viticulture, to allow me to introduce Dr. Smart.  Introducing one of your heroes is always a nerve-wracking exercise, as you want to be respectful but also persuasive in the way you explain the profound influence the person’s work has had on your professional career.  I suggested that his research and writing on viticulture can be tasted in every wine that is produced in the world today, that it was his work that revolutionized what we consider varietal character in wine.  He gave the wine world an almost omnipotent tool—a focus on canopy management that gave clusters light and wind, improved fruit character, reduced vegetal and herbaceous character and allowed the New World to first revolutionize their own wines, and as a result challenged the Old World to step up and compete.  Nearly all of the viticultural practices and wisdom that I share in this blog can be traced back to Dr. Richard Smart.  I also called Dr. Smart the most important scientist in wine since Louis Pasteur, and that seemed to humble and excite him.  After the introduction he invited me (tongue in cheek of course) to follow him on his travels and introduce him at all of his seminars.  Obviously, I made the impact I was hoping to.

Dr Richard Smart

Dr. Smart taught me some important lessons over the next four hours that I heard him speak.  He taught me that Darwin spent a good deal of his career studying grapevines, and that he called grapevines one of the ‘greatest examples of evolution in nature’.  This was because they could alternately produce clusters of fruit or climbing tendrils from the same nodes, depending on if the vine needed to climb higher in a tree for more sunlight, or if it had reached a level of elevation that the sun was ample to ripen a crop.  Because the focus of his seminar was improving the quality of Central Coast Pinot Noir, he spent a good hour or so showing regions of California, Oregon, Washington and (gasp) Nevada that had similar weather patterns to Burgundy, France.  After this session he called for questions, and I couldn’t resist.  I asked:  ‘Why did you choose Burgundian climate patterns as the template for Pinot Noir production when their quality is so variable?’  He told me that was a very good question, and I could see that perhaps he had never been challenged on this issue.  It seems to me, and I did defend my position, that a longer, cooler growing season (which not surprisingly exists in Santa Barbara County) with a longer hangtime for more developed phenolic ripeness would be a better template.   Also, the fact that the delicate aromas and character in pinot noir can become ‘cooked’ and degraded at temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit seems to suggest that a Continental climate with hot summers would actually reduce quality, and lessen hangtime.  In the end we all agreed that Burgundy was the ‘home court’ of Pinot Noir, and when another region shared its history and reputation, we could look for a new model.  I was comfortable with that answer.  The rest of the seminar was a combination of review and enlightenment for me, and I did have Dr. Smart sign my copy of Sunlight Into Wine, and gave him a bottle of our Axis Mundi Syrah, 2008 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard.


Earlier in the week we were able to take half a day to drive south and pick up 6 cute chicks in Santa Barbara, and sequester them here at the Clos to feed our lust….for tasty breakfasts!  On Monday I took a small crew of workers, Chanda and myself down to Goleta to pick up a very large chicken coop and roosting ‘house’ combo to start our new adventure as chicken farmers!  After struggling to lift a 300 lb 14’ x 7’ enclosure over the back wall of a Goleta back yard (and straining my hip in the process), we managed to get the whole enclosure loaded up on a trailer and in the back of my truck, got the 6 young hens loaded into a large dog crate and secured in the bed of the pickup truck, and took the Cachuma Pass back into the Santa Ynez Valley so we didn’t have to take the huge enclosure through the notoriously windy Gaviota Pass.  Within a few hours we had the new chicken coop set up and dialed in, and Chanda added her special and perfectionist aspects of comfort and husbandry.  She’s gone through about 500 pages of Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, and now knows more than anyone I know about the pros and cons of poultry.  The hens are surprisingly quiet and well behaved, and we hope that Gaius the livestock protection mastiff remembers that he grew up with chickens in Wisconsin, and is supposed to ward off potential threats to both our woolly and feathered employees.

Gaius, week 13

The chickens will roam the vineyard at some point, once we understand their needs and safety, eating insects, leaving fertilizer and looking cute.  They will also provide about 3 dozen eggs per week once they begin laying in a few months, so we’ll be looking forward to some delicious breakfasts with deep, orange yolks.  We will also compost their droppings to add some more goodness to our compost piles, and we’re using our cross-cut shredded office papers and coffee chaff as their bedding.  More fodder for our ‘sustainable’ branding!

The blog’s running a bit long this week, but it was a busy week and I have but one last bit of info to share.  This Sunday we will get together with the winegrowers in the Ballard Canyon area of the santa Ynez Valley to begin work on the Petition to Establish Ballard Canyon American Viticultural Area.  Yes, you heard it here first.  My last petition to establish the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA is the last AVA in the US to be approved, and we’re already moving forward with this important region, which I believe will represent the future of the best Rhone varietal vineyards on the Central Coast.  More on this next week, and until then remember:  the wine business needs your help.  A bottle per household per day is all we ask.  It will make you feel better improve your love life, and according to every study I’ve ever read, will help you live longer.  Stop reading, push your chair back from the computer and go start popping some corks.  Cheers and thanks!