Soledad: Home Alone Again (Naturally)
I recently sold my vineyard in Soledad in the Salinas Valley. I didn’t really want to do it – it was arguably producing the most interesting grapes with which we were privileged to work. The AlbariÃ±o and Loureiro seemed to consistently produce wines that were elegant, true expressions of the grape (( Definitely a caveat or two in that assertion: I am more or less persuaded that if you grow virtually any white grape in a cool enough climate at an absurdly low yield level, you will consequently end up with a wine that is seemingly true to its “classic” form. (Expressing a quality of minerality – one of the earmarks of a wine’s “greatness” is another question.) But this doesn’t really address the fact that we had to take truly heroic measures to bring the Loureiro grape to anything approaching “ripeness,” as it is classically conceived. In the ’08 vintage for example, the vineyard was thinned twice. The second pass was done fairly late in the game – 2nd week in October, when it was obvious that the fruit had just too far to go. I instructed my colleague, Philippe, to drop half of the extant fruit on the ground. The fruit that remained on the vine managed to just barely limp to 21° Brix by the first week of November. But something truly extraordinary occurred. After picking the Loureiro, Philippe and I were walking through the vineyard and saw the fruit that was just sitting on the ground. We don’t disc the vineyard, mind you, so there was a fairly nice thatch of straw between the vine rows. Amazingly, the grapes – apart from the ones that had been inadvertently stepped on – were in remarkably good shape, slightly russeted, not particularly sunburned, with not a bit of rot or other damage. Very tentatively, I picked up a cluster and tasted a grape. Quite sweet – we measured them at maybe 26-27° Brix – but still shockingly tart. Looking very carefully, apart from the squished grapes, not a drop of rot. We decided to pick up these accidental vin de paille grapes, fermented them separately to dryness and ultimately decided to include them in the main lot of AlbariÃ±o. With the ’09 vintage, we just went ahead and thinned the hell out of the Loureiro to begin with. There are still bottles remaining of the ’09 “Vinho Grinho,” made for the DEWN club, which is made from mostly Loureiro with a little AlbariÃ±o added to soften the shrieking acidity. The wine is just stone brilliant, if you don’t mind me saying, but definitely a creature of a day, so you may (broad hint here), wish to act on this rather sooner than later.)) and the Moscato Giallo was lovely – elegant, balanced and haunting. (( To produce a haunting (which is to say a truly original) wine is perhaps the only real justification one can possibly offer for doing what one does in this business.)) Most unexpectedly, we were growing some breathtakingly original selections of Grenache that were just unlike anything I had ever tasted. (( Grenache – neither the wine nor the grape – probably doesn’t take one’s breath away in quite the same way that, say, a great Pinot Noir might. And yet, this Grenache came in with extraordinary, unheard of levels of acidity, even at what is sometimes called “physiological ripeness” – though owing to a minor cognitive deficit, I generally hear the term as “rifeness,” given the ubiquity of its usage, especially among practitioners of winemakers making wines (facetiously) par coeur.)), ((Grenache Village – that mythical place from whence derives most all Grenache is generally considered to be rather warm with a chance of occasional jamminess.)) And the Nebbiolo! ((The irony here is that as obsessed as I and virtually everyone else is with Pinot Noir, producing a great Nebbiolo seems to me to be an infinitely more difficult proposition. )) – I had almost forgotten about that. I’m certain that no one in my lifetime will ever figure out how to sell New World Nebbiolo at a price that will ever begin to cover the cost of producing such a difficult wine, but the fact that we were able to produce such a creditable effort in what is not exactly an obvious site for the grape, is nothing short of miraculous. (( It is not immediately obvious why Nebbiolo is such a difficult grape to produce, but it certainly seems to be a lot like Pinot Noir in its need for something like a homeostatic soil – one that that buffers the vine from extremes in water availability/water stress. The real issue with Nebbiolo seems to be finding a growing regime that greatly favors regularity of ripening, and maybe there is just no other way to achieve this apart from a tremendous amount of intervention in the vineyard to insure something like quasi-uniformity of ripening. Underripe Nebbiolo can be a horror – green and vegetal; overripe Neb is likewise unattractive – think stewed prunes and raisinettes, though in some instances (with enough acidity) this latter presentation may work reasonably well.))
Soledad, neither the vineyard site nor the town itself is really the most prepossessing of locales. If you look at the Santa Lucia range to the West and the Gabilan range to East, you do feel enclosed, protected; there is a real stark beauty to the place. But, the wind, the wind. If you are working out in the vineyard for any length of time, or living in the area, the wind may just drive you mad. I’m not quite sure why this should be the case; on a psychological basis, it does rather feel that the world (or at least its air) is just rushing by you; there is seemingly no place for repose. The other thing that just drove me crazy was the proximity of the vineyard to the prison. You could hear the public address announcements from the prison – it was not much more than a quarter of a mile away. And of course you were always hearing the sound of gunfire – target practice, one assumed. (( I was not present when this happened, but at least on one occasion, live rounds were fired into the vineyard, inducing Philippe and the other workers to run for cover, scaring the heck out of them.)) Hindsight is always twenty/twenty, but it seems that I might have had a little better intuition about the subtle (or not so subtle) Feng Shui aspects of the place before rushing in years ago to buy it. Maybe this was hubris, or just a certain kind of dissociation.
So, I sold it because I needed to – no need to air the dirty laundry of tawdry financial matters – and the deed is doon. Maybe I’m currently going through a period of rationalization, telling myself why this just had to happen. (( From a financial standpoint, it seemed that it absolutely did have to happen, and maybe acceptance of external necessity is (God forbid) one of the hallmarks of maturity.)) I think back to my motivations for planting the vineyard in the first place. At the time the Estate vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the eponymous Bonny Doon, had recently begun to show symptoms of what we would soon learn was Pierce’s Disease. (( I had feared for a short while, that what it had was “Grahm’s Disease,” and as yet unobserved vineyard pathology. “It was believed that until the onset of Grahm’s Disease in the late 20th century, there was a vibrant grape growing industry in California.)) I tend to confound chronology in my mind, and imagine that I acquired the Soledad vineyard after the demise of the Bonny Doon Estate, but the two were actually occurring concurrently. I bought the property in Soledad because it was rather inexpensive (or so it seemed at the time) and I imagined that I could plant it to cool Piemontese grapes for Big House Red. (( On the face of it, this was not necessarily a dreadful idea. Big House was originally conceived as a pan-Piemontese blend – Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera and Freisa. The only problem, apart from the appalling cost of growing the grapes, was the palate-destroying acidity of the grapes as an ensemble.)) The only minor problems were: a) It turned out to be almost orders of magnitude more expensive to farm the vineyard, especially organically, as was originally conceived, than I could ever imagine; b) Yields had to be greatly restricted (2 tons/acre vs. 4-5) to even begin to get the grapes to approach maturity, which exacerbated issue of point a); c) All of these varieties yielded grapes with shriekingly high levels of acidity, most especially the Barbera. Unless one added a non-trivial amount of potassium carbonate to the wine to de-acidulate the wine, the resulting blend was just too tart for human consumption. Now, if I had only just thought of making it as a red sparkling wine… (( I found that I could buy grapes for Big House, viz. old vine Carignane, that were far cheaper and better than the grapes that I was growing. This underscores the essential existential paradox of planting vineyards. Be very certain of what you are doing (but how can you?) lest you end up with the Curse of the Home Ranch Fruit.))
One big issue with the Soledad vineyard, indeed with almost any vineyard in the Salinas Valley was the infernal wind, which would typically begin in the late morning and not conclude until late afternoon, offering a photosynthetic window that could be measured in picoseconds. We attempted all sorts of strategies to overcome this issue – from the planting of casurina trees as windbreaks, (( All of these strategies worked to a certain extent, but all had unintended consequences that were in some instances quite unfavorable. The casurinas in particular were quite disastrous. Partially through nutrient and water competition, partially through aleopathy, they seemed to kill off the four or five rows of vines proximal to them.)) to maintaining tall cover-crops between the rows, to re-heading the vines closer to ground level. Ultimately, we decided to just take our lumps – after removing the casurinas – between the untilled cover crop and the vines headed lower, it seemed that we were making some headway on the headwind.
The other intractable issues with the vineyard were two; they are linked and they were major. It just doesn’t rain much in the Salinas Valley. On a very wet year you might see ten to twelve inches of rain, on a dry year it might just be three or four. It is just really too dry to farm without supplemental irrigation. Virtually the entirely civilized wine world knows (or should know) my views on drip irrigation – it mortally cripples the potential expression of terroir by virtue of limiting the root-zone of the plant. There were solid-set sprinklers at the vineyard in Soledad, indeed they were there when I bought the place, but we found that we couldn’t really use them after the vines had leafed out, because they tended to cause a slight case of salt-burn, as the water evaporated from the leaves (damn wind again).
You see, there is a reason why the valley is called Salinas. The water that comes from the underground Salinas River is slightly saline. When you irrigate with saline water you are generally gradually diminishing the fertility and arability of your soil. The more salt that accumulates in the soil, the more difficult it becomes for plants to extract water; there is a further tendency toward soil compaction, greatly restricting root development. (( This is really bad news on so many fronts – not the least of which is that vines with limited root systems (especially those subject to periodic water stress) are much more prone to sun-burn, as well as to what I call the “accordion-effect” – rapid expansion and contraction of the berries, leading to a fair bit of tearing of the cell walls and incursion of all manner of bacterial/fungal creepie-crawlies. But most worrisome is the lack of roots equates to a certain deficit in minerals; somehow (maybe it was the Biodynamic® practice?) we seemed to still express a fair degree of minerality in the wines, but I am certain that with less compacted soils, we might have done much better. Had we retained the vineyard, the next step would have been to have gone back and ripped the soil well with a rather neat Australian implement called the Vibro-plow.))
So, it is unfortunate that I had to sell when I did, but like it or not, the universe seems to be giving me instruction in how my actions might be more congruent with my stated beliefs/values. I originally bought the vineyard with the (mistaken) notion that I could grow good, inexpensive grapes there. With enough iteration and investment, we found that certain varieties did in fact reasonably well, indeed were rather brilliant. And yet, the whole proposition of growing grapes in the Salinas Valley is, I would maintain, not really sustainable. You cannot continue to irrigate a vineyard with slightly salty water and expect it to magically regenerate its fertility, as if in a fairy tale. (( I sometimes imagine that agricultural enterprises are ineluctably linked to magical thinking, rather like Jack and the Beanstalk.))
It is a bitter – maybe more accurately, salty pill to swallow, (( In a certain sense, the idea of planting the vineyard in the first place was a bit of an act of hubris. On whatever fantasy level, I had perhaps (unconsciously) imagined a vast Bonny Doon empire, with its centerpiece being Big House, an ultra-cool blend of Piemontese grapes. While making the world safe for Freisa, Dolcetto, etc. may be incredibly laudable, my slight dissociation from the actual feasibility of the proposition ended up with slightly tragic consequences.)) but my viticultural life has become slightly more simplified. Our winemaking range will gradually shrink in the next year or two, but rather than going wide, we’re going deep. (( The new vineyard in San Juan Bautista will be planted in such a way to very explicitly encourage deep rooting and wide-ranging vines, and if the gods smile, will be dry-farmed.))