Get Real in the New World
Vitus vinifera and the Mysterious Heirloom
I’ve become a cynic. It’s hard not to be when marketing messages make it impossible to know what’s true… like the one from a soda pop company that says it’s “the real thing.” Maybe it was once made from cane sugar and natural ingredients (including a now illicit plant), but these days the ingredients range from corn syrup to artificial ingredients. What’s real about that other than its name as one of the first pops?
Two hundred and fifty years ago, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed “The further we remove from a natural mode of living the more we lose our natural tastes…” Have we come so far we can no longer identify what’s “natural?” And, if we want to pursue a more natural state as winegrowers, how do we draw the line as to what is “natural” or “real” versus manufactured?
Modern American winemakers work with hybridized rootstocks, clones developed in other countries and a technological toolbox that can fix just about any shortcoming, but in so doing have they lost touch with the concept of authenticity? Have we have lost our natural tastes? The self-imposed rules of the Natural Wine movement say “yes.” But this example of a valiant, yet knee-jerk, reaction to the homogeneity of commercial wine production has an underlying problem: no one can define what “natural” means because everything we do in farming and winemaking relies on human intervention. I guess if we were to find some native grapes, crush them by foot and ferment them in clay amphora buried in the ground, we might have a chance to make something close to a natural wine - as long as it didn’t turn into a natural vinegar.
Vitus vinifera, the species of grape that gave rise to all noble grape varieties like Pinot Noir, originated in Europe. Vitus vinifera didn’t exist in the New World until Thomas Jefferson tried unsuccessfully to cultivate it in Virginia and then later, when Agoston Haraszthy imported around 300 European varieties to California. Natural and human selection encouraged these clones of Vitus vinifera to adapt in their native European environments. But when they were brought to their new homes in Virginia and California, they couldn’t survive without human intervention - like the creation of hybridized rootstocks to resist phylloxera. There is nothing natural about growing Vitus vinifera in the New World. It is here because we want it here. However, once it was here, it underwent a selection process as winegrowers began to select and cultivate those clones that performed well in the various climes of the New World. This picking and choosing of selections continued from Haraszthy’s original plantings in the late 1800’s until the late 1980’s when phylloxera evolved into a biotype “B” and began to decimate American vineyards. At this same time in the late 1980’s, European clones became commercially available and the selection process that began in the day of Haraszthy was disrupted by catalog selections of European clones that produced well but were not always well adapted to their New World environment.
There is something noble in trying to develop a more natural state of farming combined with a less invasive method of winemaking. Each clone or grape selection has a predetermined ripening cycle. The goal of a winegrower is to find a selection that matches the climate of the local growing environment so that a grape achieves physiological (flavor) ripeness in sync with its sugar development, when matched with the appropriate rootstock and soil, to create a wine that is naturally balanced… one that does not need intervention to be whole.
Interestingly enough, we have found our original heirloom selections of Pinot Noir to be best adapted to the Carneros region. French clones can do well in the coolest of vintages, but these original heirlooms are well adapted to the climate with a late ripening cycle that allows a longer hang time with an ability to maintain natural acidity in even the warmest of vintages.
I like to fantasize that our heirloom selections came to us by way of one of Haraszthy’s merchant ships, a continuation of a natural selection process connecting us with the farmers of the past hundred and fifty years. All I know is these heirloom selections contribute to the uniqueness of our Pinot Noirs and help us stay in touch with our natural tastes.
Debby Does Dirt
Franc talk about soil by debby “zygie” zygielbaum
I’ve always been dirty; in fact, I love dirt. I fell in love at a young age, digging through rich humus, looking for worms. It didn’t go over so well when I brought home earth smudged cups full of wriggling life. I think my parents, being suburban-dwelling city folk, wondered if I’d been switched at birth - I think they may still be wondering.
No wonder I grew up to be a farmer; good farming is all about the soil. Good dirt, beyond making great “mud pies,” is quite literally the life of the place. It’s the soil, in play with rootstock and scion, that gives wine its character. Beyond that, soil that is alive gives a vine the resources it needs to consistently produce interesting, flavorful, high quality grapes season to season.
Healthy soil is active - alive with millions of tiny flora and fauna. Their living and dying activities are what break down minerals and make them available to the vines. Some organisms, like mycorrhizal fungi, have evolved specific symbiotic relationships. These fungi colonize roots, receiving some carbohydrates from photosynthesis and, in return, helping the plant absorb water and nutrients.
But this is all in a healthy soil. A soil sterilized by conventional farming practices is inert; the vine left to search alone, without symbiotic partners, for the nutrients it needs to grow. Without the support mechanism of an active soil, we are forced to provide the vine with everything it needs. But synthetic fertilizers are poor substitutes for the rich buffet of a living soil.
So, I farm soil. And not just any soil, but a particular species of dirt found in the southern part of Napa known as the Carneros. These soils, mostly just bay bottom mud, are young and lean and unforgiving. Cultivating with heavy machinery at the wrong time, when the soil is too wet or with the wrong implement, can destroy ten years’ work in a single pass, squeezing out oxygen pockets and killing soil organisms. In the winter, the roots of cover crops create channels to allow water and air into the soil. Sheep graze and spread nutrients, feeding the hungry hordes of soil fauna below. Springtime means alternate row spading or simply mowing the cover crop on hilly sites. We are growing soil, making deposits in the resource bank account (as winemaker Jeff Virnig is known to say), rather than annually withdrawing until it collapses under a negative balance.
This healthy soil allows for difference, contributes to character, due to slight variations in the composition of the soil bank account. Thus, not only is each vineyard site different, but each individual vineyard block is unique. Clone and rootstock mine the rich soil, creating a particular harmony in conjunction with the steepness of the slope and how the land turns its face to the sun, translating into subtle differences in the finished wine. One parcel might show more red fruit and tannin, while another more tea and earth. Vineyard blocks ten feet apart can be amazingly distinct, providing a melody of uniqueness to aid in the composition of an elegant wine.
The Vandal Vineyard sits like a jewel on a hill, a swell on the rise toward the glittering cloak of Mount Veeder. It’s a breathtaking vista, but the real action is below ground as a cacophonic jumble of Carneros clay meets the red volcanic earth of the Mayacamas. It’s a crazy world down there, but it makes for some really interesting Cabernet Franc. Two clones are planted in four different vineyard blocks - two on the Carneros clay gumbo and two on the mountainous red volcanic ash. The clay blocks are lean and fruity while the volcanic blocks are rich and red. Blended, these make for a well-rounded, single vineyard wine. It all comes back to the dirt, vibrant, living dirt - healthy soil for healthy vines to make yummy and delicious wines, from the ground up!
The Perfect Circle is RSV’s philosophy of working with nature to close the loop, going beyond the quick fix to find natural, holistic methods that sever dependency on, and the quick fix mentality of, chemical farming.
A Perfect Circle is about striking a deal with Nature. If you take, you must give back. It’s that simple!
Herbicides Kill …above and below the ground, robbing the vine of nutrients.
A number does nothing to reveal a wine’s character or integrity.
Perfect Circle gives back 5% to educate young people about organic farming.
Cover crops, compost, sheep and Biodynamic preps give the soil life, so worms and microbes can do their jobs.
1% organic material in the soil when we started is now 3%. A Perfect Circle means you leave the farm in a better state than you found it.
Great wines come from great vineyards… but a great vineyard can be destroyed by inattentive farming.
Less is More… Getting Better All the Time!
Just when you think you know it all, it’s time to go back and figure it out all over again. The nineties were heady times for a Merlot producer. Anything labeled Merlot was hot. It didn’t matter where it was grown or even how good it was, the name Merlot worked magic with the knowledgeable and novice wine drinker alike.
Merlot vines were still relatively rare in the early days of the rush, but as those with a financial bent realized its growing popularity, they chased the demand by planting many acres of vines - quite a few in marginal areas - to increase production. The grapes from these less than optimal vineyards altered the perception of Merlot from a supple and elegant alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon to a symbol of mediocrity. Once that happened, the variety was destined to fall out of fashion.
Merlot was on odd grape to have attained such popularity in the first place. Though it had two things going for it, an easily pronounceable name and drinkability from diverse regions, its popularity was not sustainable because good, as opposed to drinkable, Merlot is an expensive wine to produce. Corners can and were cut, but shortcuts don’t result in a wine we would want to make, or drink.
Achieving consistent yields from Merlot can be difficult. In three out of the last six years, this fickle variety flowered during late spring rains, resulting in smaller than average crops. The rain exacerbated Merlot’s natural tendency to “shatter” as some of the flowers failed to set and grapes failed to form, causing open and light clusters that further reduced tonnage.
Furthermore, Merlot grown in an appropriate climate is not the easy drinking wine marketers led us to believe. Some of the best wines in the world are made of Merlot and they can take years to evolve before they become enjoyable. Merlot grown in a suitable location like the Carneros has a tight, yet elegant structure of good acidity and supple tannin with dark cherry and herbed fruit, but needs to barrel and bottle age longer to open up and express its true character. All of this makes Merlot more expensive to produce and, as mediocre Merlot’s spectacular fall from grace attests, unsustainable as a commodity wine.
Twenty-eight years of winegrowing has taught RSV that you need to be just as selective of vineyard site with Merlot as with Pinot Noir. We constantly reassess our sites as they relate to quality and variety and have replaced several less exciting blocks of Merlot with other, more site appropriate varieties like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.
Merlot needs to be frickin’ great or no one will give a hoot. All of us at RSV want to make the best wines we possibly can from each site we farm; unfortunately, that means Merlot is becoming more rare in the RSV portfolio. We have three wines that utilize our Merlot: Marcien, POV and Merlot. As we zero in on the optimum terroir for Merlot, these wines keep getting better and better. Less is more!
Life Out of Balance! And Finding it Again on an Integrated Farm…
I received a complaint the other day. One of our Glutton and Gourmand wine club members expressed concern that Maria’s monthly recipes were too meat-centric*, suggesting we not support such a resource intensive branch of agriculture. My knee jerk reaction was to agree with her… until I thought about it.
Animals played a vital role on the integrated farm until the mid-20th century. With the aid of technology, agribusiness created an industrial farm model that changed the agrarian landscape by concentrating large numbers of animals in warehouses. With such large numbers, the land no longer could support the animals’ nutritional needs or absorb their waste.
In nature, there is no waste. Animals graze, hunt, nurture their young and increase and decrease in numbers based on the resources available. Their being is part of an ecosystem that makes use of their excess and waste.
A successful integrated farm models itself on nature. It finds the right number of animals to balance the resources within a closed-loop, sustainable system. Animals take the place of tractors for mowing, plowing and other heavy work. The animals’ waste feeds the land, that grows the grass, that feeds the cow, that sustains the farmer.
Meat production, in itself, is not the issue. The problem is the factory farm and the consumer who unintentionally supports thoughtless meat producers. Our free capitalist society (some argue that the farm bill is not a good example of free capitalism, but I will save that topic for another day) carries with it a responsibility and a burden borne by each citizen. Every time we spend a dollar, we deposit a vote in the ballot box that determines our future. When we buy cheap, factory raised meat, we support the type of industrialized, wasteful farming required to provide such produce. What seems cheap at the cash register becomes dearly expensive as the real costs of pollution, energy waste and squandered natural resources exact their toll.
A few years ago, I hosted a Slow Foods dinner in Boulder, Colorado and sat next to a pig farmer. He told me a “life out of balance” story, describing his transformation from small hog farmer to big industrial pork producer. He explained how he was slowly seduced by the promise of return on investment made possible by the professed ability of science and industry to overcome the problems of high density pig farming. He borrowed money and became dependent on outside suppliers for the health and well-being of his warehoused pigs. They required supplements to grow fast and antibiotics to survive the constant threat disease posed to their inbred immune systems. Excessive waste required mechanized, fossil fuel based solutions to disperse the toxic slurry. His health declined under the stress to meet his mortgage. He grew dissatisfied with a sedentary lifestyle rife with administrative tasks and the decline in the quality of his pork made him downright angry. The coup de grâce came when processing companies paid him so little for his meat that he had to pay to have his hogs slaughtered.
Facing bankruptcy, he had an epiphany. He reversed course, sold all his industrial equipment and returned to the life of a farmer with a small drove of heirloom, free-range pigs. He now sells his premium pork direct to consumers and restaurants, and makes a better living than when he had eleven hundred commercial pigs.
Yes, his pork is more expensive than the commercial fare, but it is also more flavorful and interesting. When we buy his pork, we support a way of life that has mostly disappeared from this country. We support a farm in balance with its environment and we preserve heirloom breeds. If it is more expensive, maybe we eat less, but we eat, and live, better.
*Maria usually, but not always, offers a vegetarian option when meat is used as an ingredient in her recipes.
Rob Sinskey discusses growing Bordeaux varieties grown in Robert Sinskey Vineyards certified organic and Demeter Certified Biodynamic Vineyards. Also, sustainability, an all electric ATV and a solar powered winery.
Funny expression, “dirt farmer.” Until recently, I never really gave its meaning much thought. I grew up in a cow town where most people engaged in one form of agriculture or another. Back then, I though “dirt farmer” was a derogatory expression squarely aimed at the hicks in the sticks. You know, the ones who struggled to make a meager living off livestock and crops… the less fortunate ones, whose kids were always dirty and hungry, with that far away look in their eye.
These past two decades, I’ve made my home in Napa - four letters that conjure images of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” The irony is that now I know the real meaning of dirt farmer.
Precious little in agriculture is controllable. We select a piece of land and hope. We choose what we think will grow well on the site, but at best, it is an educated guess. We have an idea of the climate, but we can’t control the weather. We can only hope that the root louse, glassy winged sharpshooter, vine mealybug or other form of pestilence will leave us alone for another season.
What we can control is the dirt. At RSV, we believe that how we treat our dirt directly corresponds to the quality of the wine in the bottle.
We’re dirt farmers. We spend most of our energies managing the earth that bears our crops. If we can encourage a healthy, natural soil, one that is both structurally sound and rich in the type of nutrients that supply a vine what it needs, when it needs it, then it will reward us with high quality fruit.
Once agriculture moved from supplying the individual or family to commercial production, “dirt farmer” became a dirty epithet and farming little more than a mining operation. The land was depleted of its nutrients, used up and discarded. Little energy was expended to ensure the health of the soil and even less to understand the relationship of the soil to the quality of the crop. A premium was placed on commercial viability that predicated a lower cost-to-market strategy.
Healthy soil is full of life. In fact, it is a model for life itself. It parallels two other life rich models: the ocean and the atmosphere. There is a zone in each where life can thrive. In the atmosphere, life thrives, with some exceptions, from sea level to the tree line. In the ocean, life thrives where the sun can penetrate, down to about 200 meters. Though the richest, the soil’s life zone is also the narrowest, varying from as tiny as a fraction of an inch to several inches. Within this life zone, also called a “ZOI” or “zone of influence,” occurs some of the richest densities of microorganisms on the planet - up to a billion or so per gram of soil. Incredibly, ninety-percent of that life occurs within less thay ten-percent of the soil’s volume.
Now think about what happens to that life when tract homes, a factory or strip mine is developed on what was once open land. For most species below and above the ground, life is severely altered, if not decimated. Diversity, soil structure and symbiotic relationships are destroyed. What is left often becomes dependent on humans for its survival.
The ocean is more resilient, but alter its balance through pollution, overfishing, temperature change or just too much ocean traffic and the same thing happens, less diversity, less life. Same with the atmosphere.
The soil is the poor lost life zone. We humans can’t relate to it and, if we think about it at all, we are repulsed by the bugs, worms, bacteria and fungus that call it home. Industrial farmers don’t hesitate in reshaping it, ripping through it, spraying chemicals on it and generally treating it, well… like dirt. An unfortunate situation since this neglected dirt, this rich earth, brings forth our food and wine.
We’re dirt farmers because we spend a few months out of every year raising grapes and the rest of the year raising dirt. We raise our dirt with cover crops, compost and by grazing animals. We protect our dirt by controlling erosion with strategies to increase percolation of water into the soil profile. We let nature’s relationships thrive underground by not disrupting the structure of the soil and letting the symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi carry nutrients to the vine. Oh, and of course, we practice some esoteric byodynamic rituals that help us understand the ebb and flow of nature, capturing and energizing the natural forces at work everyday; however, we also let our left brain have some fun with real science to inform and guide our methods. Yes, we live in the modern age and use computers to track everything, including irrigation. We employ soil analysis so that we know if we are on track with our natural methods and if we need more, or less, of a good thing.
We’re dirt farmers. We know our soil is in a better state than when we found it. We can see it in the earthworms that wiggle in a shovelful of spring soil, inhale its rich, sweet aroma come summer, see it in our lovely, dark, luscious little grape berries at harvest, and in the winter, taste it in our barrels of Pinot Noir. When you pop the cork, you too will be in on our dirty little secret… some of the best damn Pinot on Terra Firma.