Year in the Vineyard, Week #6
April 15-22, 2010
By Wes Hagen, VM/WM Clos Pepe
This week in the vineyard saw some challenges, some rebirth, some rainfall, some progress, and as always in April, some cold temperatures and some sips of Reposada tequila to keep me sane.
Last week was quiet enough to share an original draft of a (rejected) LA Times article, and this week I will again share another draft..the actual unedited draft that was accepted, edited, and finally printed in the April 4 Los Angeles Times Magazine. You may notice that the article is a little long than what was printed, and contains plenty of extra commentary and wordiness that was deftly edited out by my friends at the Times. And while it’s cool for a writer to complain and moan about what editors did to their work, I’m actually very happy with the final product that was published. And if you haven’t gone through Macduff Everton’s photos of a day of Clos Pepe harvest, do check them out.
(Go to: http://www.latimesmagazine.com/2010/04/transverse-transcendence.html and scroll your mouse at the small arrows next to the photos at the top.)
But let’s get back to the week in the vineyard. The El Nino has been reluctant to die down, and the period of wet weather has been extended into the normally dry month of April. How does the wetter weather impact the vintage? There’s not much of a downside really. Rainfall is always better for plants than ground water from irrigation. Rainwater is pure (generally) and free from the salts that accumulate in groundwater. While rainwater leaches salts out of the root zone of a grapevine, groundwater applied through a drip system (or any other method) actually adds salts to the soil profile. So without a good, deep soaking every few years (say 15 inches during the wet season, November through March), salts will get dense and crusty around the root systems of the vines and the olive trees and limit the plant’s ability to uptake water and nutrients.
We did some quick and dirty math a few years ago that turned up a fairly surprising result. Every inch of rain that can get to the roots of our vines saves us about $5000 in electricity that is normally consumed by driving our well and irrigation pumps. So, as you can see, rainfall is a wonderful water source for the vines and trees, it washes salts into the depths of the earth where they belong, and it helps us save energy. But of course there are a few things that late and heavy rainfall can do to slow down the farming of wine grapes.
First, we cannot get a tractor into a soaked field. In 1998 (a massive El Nino year that made this year look like a drought) we bogged one of our tractors down, and our neighbors were nice enough to bring a tractor over and try to drag us out of the mud. That tractor bogged down so we called another, more experienced neighbor. That grower sent over a tractor and we managed to free the other two tractors, but not without a close call–a cable snapped and the attached two pound metal hook brushed my forehead as it flew by at a deadly rate of speed. Two solid farming lessons were learned: don’t put your tractor into a swamp, and always use chains in between tractors when towing. Chains drop when they break, cables whip and try to kill you (sometimes seemingly on purpose).
Of course the more it rains, the more we have to spray for mildew and rot after the rain stops. Modern ag sprays are pretty rain-proof, but sulfur has to be warm enough to make vapors for it to retard sporulating mildew. Raindrops move the spores from shoot to shoot, leaf to leaf, vine to vine. They also will eventually wash off the materials, so they need to reapplied. We expect a little rain next week, so as soon as that ends I’ll have Cesar fire up the tractor and get spraying again. By Mother’s Day we’re expecting a bit of a heat wave, and warm weather means mildew gone wild (hey, it’s really sexy if you’re a mildew spore), so we should be in good shape for when the weather warms.
The soil will also begin to warm to the point where some major nutrients will be able to exchange into the vine’s roots, so it will be an excellent time to do some fertilization for full efficiency of uptake.
But enough about rain, what work have we been managing to finish between and during the fits of rain this week? It’s a bit early to start shoot positioning, as the shoots are still a bit short to get into the wires, so we need to wait on some more growth. The suckering I discussed last week should be finished as I write this, and then the crew will take some time to paint row numbers and producer’s names on the end posts. This will help our winemakers (who buy our fruit) to quickly identify their rows so they can more effectively bust my chops as the season progresses. It’s also nice to be able to quickly identify problems in the vineyard. “Wes, we have an irrigation leak in Siduri Block 2, east side of Row 12.”. Boom…fixed!
I was a bit surprised to go to sleep with rain falling, and then received a call from the frost alarm at 3:15 am. Off I went into the field, started the wind machines after struggling with a few fuel lines not feeding gas to the engines. Then the golf cart crapped out at the pump station and the main pump wouldn’t turn on because of a short in our electrical during the storm yesterday. That meant I had to call Cesar at 3:30 am (after walking back to the small house on the Clos), and had him come out and reset the electrical system and start the sprinklers just in case it got very cold. Turns out the temp dropped only to 37, but I felt a bit better knowing all the equipment was on. As always, a few sips of Reposado helped me get back to bed with a better attitude, but three hours later I was up, sjowering and getting ready to head down to Goleta where I was the keynote speaker at Citrix Online’s Earth Day Celebration. I mentioned at the beginning of my speech that I would have preferred they furnished a ‘Go To My Keynote Speech’ software option so I could have given my speech from the Jacuzzi at Clos Pepe with a cocktail in hand. They said they’d work on it. Nice folks.
Four last tidbits:
1) I have been tapped to add a five-minute weekly segment for our local wine radio show: Grape Encounters, which airs 11:00-noon on Saturdays on 1410 and 1440 AM in the Santa Ynez Valley. I completed my first segment after 8 aborted tries. Listen in this weekend if you can, or go to http://grapeencountersradio.com/ and download the show after the weekend. The segment will be called: ‘Cuvee Corner’ unless my name for it gets vetoed.
2) I am working with a Cal Tech scientist (my wife’s favorite movie is Real Genius, which is loosely based on this uber-geek school) on a top-secret wine project. My original intent was to go public with it this week, but because of potential patent issues, I have been asked to button my lip for a while longer. Know that this could be a revolutionary project for the world’s wine business and could give an insanely powerful tool to winemakers worldwide for balancing ripeness and wine style. I swear I’ll spill the beans to you guys as soon as I can! Exciting stuff, guaranteed!
3) I tested for and received my Orange Belt in Shaolin Kung Fu, Young Forest Fist Law.
4) LAST few days for the NAME THE LAMBS contest on Wes Hagen’s and Clos Pepe Facebook pages. Name the lambs and win free wine!
And finally, for those with more time than sense, here’s the absolutely unedited version of the LA Times Magazine Article (edited and published April 4, 2010).
LA Times Magazine Article: The Passion and the Pinot
By Wes Hagen: Vineyard Manager/Winemaker: Clos Pepe Vineyards and Estate Wines,
Last Edited 10/8/09
Duke Philip the Bold, in the Burgundian Edict of 1395, declared all non-pinot noir vines that produced red wine in Burgundy to be ripped out under the threat of arrest, and possibly execution. Good Phil was saying, ‘We’re not drinking any fucking Gamay.’ Phillip was my hero for years, and I steeped myself in Burgundian wine mythology, committing to memory each Village that lay between Marsannay and Santenay. Burgundy was the Holy Land, and when I learned the proper incantations (‘Oh, Montrachet, Mother of Vines..’) I was fortunate enough to make my first pilgrimage in 1999. And like any proper religious journey, the truth I found was nearly opposite of what I expected. I chased the white stag into the forests above Nuits St. Georges, but the treasure I found there turned to dust as I boarded the 767 for Los Angeles , about the same time I was served the airplane lamb.
Some visitors to France are later haunted by the sideways glance of an impossibly beautiful woman in a Parisian café, but my epiphany arrived in a glass in a smoky bistro in Chambertin. Pinot noir wines sourced from the vineyards of Chambertin were the favorite of Napoleon Bonaparte, and he would
compel his troops to salute the vineyards while they marched through Burgundy. This was the first and only wine that brought me to tears: a 1972 Chapelle-Chambertin made by Domaine Trapet. But the afterglow of that wine was not what I had expected. Instead of wanting to replicate the wine
when I returned to Clos Pepe Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills to start my career as a pinot noir winemaker, I decided it was wiser to leave Burgundy in Burgundy, and focus on producing wines that represented our soil as well as that Chambertin represented hers. Like a script writer considering their craft after reading Chinatown, or a painter struck dumb by the genius of d’Orsay, the experience wasn’t about the desire to replicate the greatness I sensed, but my awakening wonder to the idea that the greatest art and craft is based on simplicity. Great wine, like great art, makes humanity and the creative act transparent, it taunts and lures us into the craft: ‘I could have made that.’
I met my wife, Chanda, when I returned from France in 1999. At the time I was vineyard manager of Clos Pepe Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills of Northern Santa Barbara County, and Steve Pepe (owner) and Cathy Hagen Pepe (my mother) agreed to launch a small, estate production of pinot noir and
chardonnay after 5 years of being strictly growers. Chanda and I shared a bottle of Beaujolais at our first meeting in Isla Vista (cue Philip the Bold rolling in his grave), made a date for the Santa Barbara Vintner’s Harvest Celebration the next week, and never separated again. We were married in September, 2000 and instead of taking a traditional honeymoon we launched into our first ‘Estate’ harvest. Instead of breaking a glass under our feet (L’Chaim!), we crushed pinot under our toes.
My fourteen years in the Santa Rita Hills have given me rich insight into the climate, soils and rhythm of the growing season. It certainly is one of the only ways a SoCal boy can feel connected to the passing seasons. Winter is mellow and quiet, Spring is spent on edge watching the frost alarm, Summer is a flurry of farming and canopy management and Fall provides an Old-World test of stamina and strength as we pick fruit all night and spend days in the winery crafting the vintage. And even though winemaking seems a magical life to many, there is enough anxiety to stretch any personality to the breaking point. Fortunately we have plenty to drink to remind ourselves that we love this life, and that the attempt to make a perfect pinot noir requires our full passion and effort.
Pinot noir suffers no fools. Grow it in the wrong soil or in a slightly inappropriate climate and the wine will be about as pleasant as a Princess who’s slept on a rocky mattress. Imagine the planet earth spinning, and as the continents roll by you place a colorful marker on the spots amenable to
growing world-class pinot. There are barely a dozen spots to mark: many in California (Central Coast, North Coast, Monterey County), the Willamette Valley of Oregon, New Zealand (include, if you must, parts of Australia and Tazmania), and of course in Europe: isolated exposures in Germany, Alsace,
Austria, Switzerland, and France (Champagne, Burgundy). Other locales may emerge, but for now pinot noir production is extremely limited by proper geography/geology. A perfect storm of climate and rarified dirt is required to make a palatable pinot, to make a profound bottle takes a miracle.
The miracle that allows the Santa Rita Hills to produce glorious pinot noir began about twenty million years ago under the Pacific Ocean. During a violent tectonic shift in the Miocene Era, the Pacific tectonic plate crashed against the North American plate, and mountains rose out of the ocean in a north-south orientation. As the plates rubbed and ground together, a good chunk of Northern Santa Barbara County (mostly adjacent to Point Conception, that elbow that sticks out of the Central Coast) literally broke off the Pacific plate and began turning clockwise up the coast. This ‘cookie’ of free-floating land continued to grind and turn over millions of years until the north-south mountain ranges pivoted ninety degrees, so the ranges now run east-west between Buellton and the Pacific Ocean, about 30 miles away. The grinding and turning of the plates continues, and the entire peninsula (and the Santa Rita Hills) are doomed to crumble into the Pacific sometime over the next 100,000 years. This is borrowed land-an area that happens to be in a serendipitous, yet transitory, state of pinot perfection.
Why does it matter to the average wine drinker that a pinot noir be grown in a cool, coastal climate? First: pinot noir is expensive by nature. Because the vines produce small clusters, small berries and small yields, it’s expensive to farm. If you plan to drop $50 on a bottle of pinot noir, be sure it was grown in a place that produces consistently delicious pinot. Second, there is a natural limit on how much good pinot noir can be produced in a vintage worldwide. Scarcity drives the price tag up. ‘Sideways’, by the by, didn’t help the scarcity problem. That clever little movie about men behaving badly under pinot’s Bacchic influence brought busloads of curious, young wine drinkers to the Santa Rita Hills. And even though neither of the movie’s pathetic characters got their come-uppance, the poetic descriptions of pinot drove the US wine market into a temporary frenzy for the grape. Demand soared and prices went up. Finally, the pinot grape is unlike any other in the sense that it perfectly transparent: it shows everything that was done to it in the vineyard, it shows (unmercifully at times) the vintage’s weather. Some may even say pinot noir is a time machine. Pay special attention to what you smell and taste in the glass and a fine pinot will take you somewhere, even back to the year when it was grown. In a cool year you may taste (imagine cool, Pacific breezes and foggy mornings) some bracing acidity and bright cherry, raspberry with hints of baking spices. In a warmer, riper year (imagine sunny mornings, warm afternoons and cold, starry nights) the wine may have blueberry, strawberry, blackberry and more masculine, even gamey aromas. But try to grow the grape in an inappropriate climate and it will show , dramatically, your mistake in planting.
Vietnam to Viticulture: The Origin of Santa Rita Hills Wine Culture
The story of pinot noir in the Santa Rita Hills starts on a destroyer in Vietnam. Richard Sanford graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965 with a degree in geology, was drafted and sent off to war as a Navy navigator for two tours of duty. Discharged from the Navy in the Phillipines, Sanford “returned the long way through Nepal, India, the Mideast and Europe.” His ‘spirit quest’ convinced him that the war was a futile effort, and when he returned to the States he sought a path to ground himself in something authentic. Needing an ‘earth connection’, Sanford decided to embrace agriculture. Thinking back to a bottle of Volnay (Burgundian pinot noir) that he tasted with a shipmate in the war, he began a period of intense viticultural study, preparing himself for the task of finding a perfect climate for the grape and planting his first vines.
“Remembering that fine Volnay, I decided Pinot Noir growing in California (which often had a pruney, overripe character) was being grown in too warm of a climate. I collected 100 years of climate data from Burgundy and from all over California. I soon became aware of a remarkable geographic anomaly: the Transverse Mountain Range. The unique east-west orientation of the mountains allowed the cool, maritime onshore winds to moderate the growing climate in these coastal valleys. After considering Edna Valley, Santa Maria and Los Alamos, my first choice was a beautiful old ranch with well drained soils in the Santa Rita District of the Santa Ynez River Valley—the most perfect transverse range on the entire Pacific Coast. I made an offer to the owner, gathered some investors, and with partner Michael Benedict, planted the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard from cuttings from the Nielsen Vineyard in Santa Maria.”
“Living and working on the land made me aware of the natural environment and coalesced perfectly with my own spiritual philosophy. I began to study and practice Tai Chi and today consider myself a Spiritual Taoist. I married my wife Thekla on the vineyard in 1976, started Sanford Winery in 1980, and after a dispute over organic farming with our marketing partner caused us to leave our namesake winery, we dedicated ourselves to our new project: Alma Rosa winery and Vineyards, a brand focused on Organic Farming and sustainable and fair business practices.”
The story of coming to winegrowing as a healing process is not new. Whether a new vineyard owner became disenchanted with Wall Street, the Rat Race, or a difficult war, the archetype of the Gentleman/Gentlewoman farmer persists. Coming back to the earth heals something within us. The simplicity and hope that arise from putting a vine into the ground is profound. There is a purity and quietude to walking the rows, positioning shoots, pulling leaves, snipping lustrous, black pinot clusters that quiets the mind and resets the human experience back to its most simple moment: we become Gatherers again, everything disappears except the vine, the fruit, and the hope for a new vintage. We create something concrete and authentic. And when we share it, people become happy.
Perhaps this is the power of wine in a modern American culture. A few glasses can cause our overworked and over-stressed brains to kick into neutral for a few hours. Paperwork and needy clients fade into the background of our consciousness, and just for a few hours we become engrossed with one of the last meaningful rituals left in American society: sitting at a table with friends, family, food and wine and losing ourselves in flavor, friendship, passionate discussion.
What’s the Buzz About?: Defining an Emerging Pinot Noir Region
The American wine intelligentsia is eager to define the typical style of a Santa Rita Hills pinot noir, while those with a broader and more historical understanding of wine understand style is never static; it changes with every vintage, with every craftsperson involved and is inevitably influenced by what is selling in the market. Between the Burgundian-styled wines made from grapes with less sugar and more natural acidity to the ripe, fleshy masculine wines of darker flavor and color, there is a wine and a style produced for every palate in the Santa Rita Hills. In interviews on the subject of style and ripeness in the Santa Rita Hills, two facts emerged from all those concerned: every winemaker has a different take on style in pinot noir, but none insisted that their philosophy is clearly superior. The first noble truth of being a Baptized Pinotphile is the revelation that pinot noir shows every aspect of farming and production, and the second noble truth is that no two pinot noirs, even from the same vineyard, will be exactly similar. Some like elegant, jazzy wines, and others like rich, dark, masculine monsters that demand attention. The diversity of styles in the Santa Rita Hills foments spirited discussions on style and ripeness, but the wise Epicurean always know that loving pinot noir means we will constantly be surprised by what we find in the glass. Every taste is a journey into fog, wind, soil, sunshine, vintage, craft and a winemaker’s passion.
In September, 2008, the King of American Wine Critics, Robert Parker, wrote: “The explosion in quality and diversity of wines in various parts of the United States […] includes Pinot Noirs from the Santa Rita Hills.” Steve Heimoff of the Wine Enthusiast adds: “”Today, I think it’s safe to say that the SRH stands as one of the greatest places in the New World to grow Pinot Noir. And they got there on their own — not with fancy marketing packages and press kits and events with celebrity auctioneers. Not with spin and hype. Not by luring in big spenders with resorts and great restaurants and golf courses. They did it the old-fashioned way: They earned it.”
Ken Byron Brown, one of the Fathers of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, formerly of Byron Winery and now making small lot wines under his own label, explains: “The most remarkable aspect of the Santa Rita Hills is how good our Pinot Noirs are from relatively young vineyards that, for the most part, are less than 15 years old. I know of no other Pinot Noir region in the world that shows such outstanding quality from vineyards that, by world standards, are still in their adolescence. If you think it is good now, just wait.”
Adam Lee is co-winemaker of Siduri Wines with his wife Dianna. Siduri makes Pinot Noirs grown from the 34th parallel (latitude of Santa Rita Hills), all the way up to the 45th parallel in Oregon. Because they make pinot noirs from all over the West Coast, they have an enviable ability to pick out the subtle differences in flavor, structure and character from different viticultural regions.
Santa Rita Hills fruit in particular, Adam explains, makes pinots that show “darker color, concentrated fruits…usually darker fruits…not light cherries but more blackberry and some noticeable tannins.” Pinot noir usually has a lighter color due to the finest tannin molecules of any red wine—so the unusually dark, rich style produced in some pinots in the Santa Rita Hills has not gone unnoticed.
“Profound aromas of dark fruit such as wild blackberry, dark plum and occasionally blue berries with a thread of minerality are often traits of SRH Pinot Noir,” Ken Brown explains. “The aromatics are seldom dominated by earthy complexities which allows the distinctive dark fruit character to dominate with earth tones as background notes. A full structure on the palate is characteristic of SRH Pinot Noirs allowing the wines to age gracefully for many years often similar to our old world counterparts.”
The diversity of soils, farming techniques and the differing orientations of the vine rows in each of the 52 vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills make for an impressive diversity of wine styles. If pinot noir is the perfect vehicle for channeling place via flavor in the glass, then this region will keep wine lovers busy for decades in their attempts to taste, define and understand how the myriad of mesoclimates (and farming philosophies) influences flavor, aroma and how long these wines can lay down in the cellar.
But is there a growing controversy concerning wine style in the Santa Rita Hills? The wines of the Santa Rita Hills are stylistically diverse, ranging from transparent, restrained and ethereal to powerful, viscous and opaque. There are winemakers championing each style: the light and ephemeral (some say Burgundian-styled), the middle-ground of ripe but not overripe, and those that believe ripeness is achieved with extended hang time on the vine. Pinot certainly brings out the passion in winemakers, and style is a touchy subject for some. Victor Gallegos of Sea Smoke Cellars discusses his view on style: “Sea Smoke’s goal is to achieve world-class balance, elegance and ageability – within the context of local terroir. We avoid vain (and naive) attempts to mimic Burgundian terroir”.
Big, ripe wines may prove perfectly suited for the way Americans drink wine: young. They are full of youthful richness and their flavors are as bold, sunny and unapologetic as California herself. The more elegant wines may be preferred by the initiated food and wine enthusiast: they may not get the same attention in the major wine publications, require a bit more patience in the cellar, but integrate more deftly at table. Brian Loring (Loring Wine Company) and Joe Davis (Arcadian Wines) offered a spirited debate over ripeness and style on Grape Radio, which still can be accessed at their website: www.graperadio.com, search for ‘The Pinot Showdown’, and hold on to your seat. One thing I’ve learned about pinot noir is that it defies preconceptions: as soon as you develop a fast rule, the next wine you drink may well change your mind. The controversy over style may be more sound than fury, as all styles of pinot noir from the Santa Rita Hills continue to sell very well even in a tough economy.
Pinot Noir in a Post-Sideways world.
When Rex Pickett wrote the novel ‘Sideways’, no one could guess that his semi-autobiographical tale of two characters split from his own personality (the self-depracating, struggling alcoholic writer and the smooth, womanizing ‘stud’ with no apparent morality) would impact the wine world with an authority and influence far beyond the scope of the book’s clunky yet hedonistic prose. Clearly the story of boys behaving badly under the influence of profound wines struck a chord with the common man, and infected drinkers with an almost viral affectation for the complex and mysterious pinot noir grape. Merlot sales plummeted, the Hitching Post restaurant hosted a reservation book like the French Laundry, and buses, limos and Jettas flocked to Santa Barbara with thirsty Gen X’ers clamoring for the vaunted taste of Santa Rita Hills pinot noir. The movie was released in 2004, the greatest impact on wine tourism was felt in 2005 and 2006, and by 2007 the hype had dwindled, much to the relief of many locals (and even vintners) who believed the movie was bringing young, uncouth tasters who drank more than they bought. In 2006 the oak tree that claimed Miles’ Saab was removed in order to finish a mixed-use housing and retail project in Buellton.
And even though I like to say that Sideways did for Santa Rita Hills pinot noir what the Soviet Union did for Socialism (moving from Feudalism to a free -for -all a bit too rapidly to be sustainable), the end product has been thoroughly positive. The ‘Sideways Crowd’ has disappeared, and in their stead the stalwart and progressive oenophile has taken their place. We want Los Angeles to support their wine country the way San Francisco supports theirs—and we’re getting closer with every tasty vintage. Wine lovers who are aware of the craft and passion evident in these coastal hillsides have reclaimed the wineries, tasting rooms and vintages as their own private pinot palaces. Santa Rita Hills winemakers and vineyard owners have special relationships with their customers—many help with bottling, harvest and winemaking to complete their understanding of the region and the wines.
This is the audience that we hoped for during those early days of quietude and the busy Sideways-days of babysitting: those that would be content to lodge in a Holiday Inn in Lompoc, drive to their pinot noir appointments during the day, and out to Bradley Ogden’s new Root 246 in Solvang for dinner, where we may see them at the bar and finish the day with one last drink together. This is the Wild West of Pinot Winemaking. We’re not working the Manhattan market, because we’re too busy running headlong into harvest with guns blazing and eyes glazed from lack of sleep and a penchant for long evenings at table and persistent product testing.
The Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County is a young wine growing area, one free from stuffy convention, ripe with youthful exuberance and passion. Still, for those more interested in quality wines than Rolex-set amenities, Lompoc and Buellton offer a comfortable and affordable hub from which to explore the west side of the 101—where Pinot reigns supreme. This is Sonoma in the 1970’s—empty roads, only a few dozen tasting rooms, winemakers and their families greeting customers at a barn door. The charm is not painted on like a Disneyland façade, and the time it takes to make a few appointments is readily repaid by a rare and intimate view of a budding wine culture. Whether it’s a Bacchanalian dinner with Bruno D’Alfonso and his wife Kris Curran, or a walk through the organic vineyards with the gentlemanly Taoist Richard Sanford, the area bubbles with passion, thoughtful stewardship and an agrarian authenticity borne from pursuing the most challenging of the wine world’s crops. With only three hours separating Angelinos from Pinot Paradise, it is only a matter of time before Highway 246 and Santa Rosa Road will be busy wine thoroughfares. We hope you’ll come for a visit while we’re still down to earth.