Friday, February 20, 2009

Chien offer view of other coast's assets

I've been lucky enough to make acquaintance with Mark Chien, Pennsylvania's wine grape educator, and receive his monthly updates. This month's, as usual, had a variety of information that would make more sense to people in the industry. Still, there's always something in his e-mails that's worth sharing with everyone, and that's the case this month, too.

Chien wrote that "in the East, wine growers are often so busy battling the elements that they do not have time to be serious viticulture innovators. I have always found it helpful to go to other wine regions, in particular Europe and California, to find information and practices that might help us to be better wine growers. These areas simply have the critical mass to support research and innovation that we lack. I recently traveled to California to attend the Unified Symposium, a National Grape and Wine Initiative board meeting and visit vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Barbara County. The trip was enlightening for me and I’ll share some of the highlights."

Those highlights include this edited assessment of growing grapes in Santa Barbara County:

"After visiting Santa Barbara County (SBC) and its vineyards it is necessary to wonder why anyone who wants to grow wine would do it anywhere else. This is as close to wine paradise as I have experienced. The region has just emerged during the past decade and one of its greatest proponents is Jeff Newton. I have known Jeff since we were grad students studying viticulture at UC-Davis. We followed different career paths – he went on to become one of the best viticulturists in California, well, most of you know what happened to me. I am not being frivolous with this accolade. In the preface of his most recent wine tome, Robert Parker, Jr. mentioned just two viticulturists in his broad view of the wine world, David Abreu and Jeff. His name is now popping up everywhere.

Jeff started Coastal Vineyard Care (CVCA) as a one-man consulting business 25 years ago and now it is a multi-million dollar company managing over 2500 acres in Santa Barbara County. The business itself is remarkable to behold, a lean and mean planting and management machine that farms medium to ultra-premium wine grapes that have achieved 95+ Parker scores. I have to keep reminding myself that this is the guy who used to grow broccoli in the central valley.

Jeff no longer works alone. He has three partners in the business who help to oversee the 30 or so ranches they farm. Below them is an incredibly integrated and efficient hierarchy of managers and foremen who monitor every last minute detail of work. They manage 2500 acres as well as any five acre vineyard in Pennsylvania. The company has its own accounting department, pest control advisor, and farm safety officer. CVCA draws talent from the excellent program at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and many of those working at CVCA have diverse and very accomplished backgrounds in other fields. There are viticulturists to look after the detail work such a irrigation scheduling. CVCA also relies on expert consultants to help them do a better job of farming, including Tom Prentice of Crop Care. It is truly a team approach to wine growing.

I got to ride shotgun with Jeff for two days as he made the rounds around his ranches. It was an amazing experience. First of all… the weather. It was perfect. The temperature in Lancaster hasn’t crept much out of the 30s all winter and here we were, 60 degrees, blue sky, shimmering sunlight. Amazing. Maybe too amazing as a drought lingers and an early bud break brings the threat of frost.

Vineyard development: Clients usually approach CVCA with a property and ask them to evaluate it. It then goes through the suite of testing, primarily soil and water testing. Soils can be very high in magnesium which affects structure and nutrient availability. Salinity in the water can be a major problem. The initial walk over is important to determine the quality of the site and how vineyard blocks, varieties and rootstocks will be assigned. The soil work and determination of total available water will guide decisions, particularly rootstocks.
Depending on the AVA location relative to the ocean, varieties are selected. In the cool Santa Rita AVA it is mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Further east into the Los Alamos AVA Syrah, Sangiovese, Grenache excel. The furthest east region is Happy Canyon where Cabernet Sauvignon has taken hold. Jeff has a good sense in each area what varieties will do best. The topography is highly variable, from some flat land on the valley floors to Mosel-steep hillsides but almost always with rolling hills defining the vineyards and adding complex slope, aspect and elevation qualities to the wines.

The vibrating winged plow has been used to rip in soil preparation. This is a wing on the end of a shank that glides through the ground at a depth of 2-3’ and lifts the soil and gently lays it back down. They rip on each vine row adding uniformity to the soil structure. There is an applicator that can drill soil amendments deep directly behind the winged plow shank. Gypsum is often used to help improve soil structure and to neutralize active aluminum. Gypsum is much more soluble than lime so it can move deeper into the soil.

Row direction in warmer areas is established more by terrain contour than a strict N-S or NE-SW preference, although they try to achieve optimal orientation. In cooler Santa Rita, N-S becomes more important.

Development costs can be high, upwards of $40,000 an acre for the ultra-premium, high density vineyards. Farming costs can also be steep, pushing $10,000 per acre for the best vineyards but most are in the $6-8K range and as low as $3500. Labor is the major expense.

Soils: Mostly clay loams with some sandy soils. They care about soils but not to the extent that Europeans value the soil for wine quality. Here soil is a medium to irrigate and hold water long enough to get the vine to the next irrigation set. But one premium vineyard was on very sandy soils and the expectation may have been for lighter, fruitier wines but the strength of viticulture applied to the vineyard allows it to produce big, juicy Parker wines. It demonstrates the Thunevin method of taking a medium site and raising it to a top site through maniacal viticulture."

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