It’s been a few days now since my return from Spring Mountain… but I just can’t stop thinking about my short time there. It was actually more idyllic than I imagined it could be. Rolling vineyards, clear afternoon skies that relentlessly pushed past the contemplative morning fog, a slight breeze to raise the hair on my arm and remind me it was real. Incredible this was all just a quick plane ride away. No jumping across ponds and walking with a French translation handbook. I could ask whatever I wanted and be answered in Fahrenheit, acres and tons.
Thankfully, every hour of our day was pretty well planned out, or I y have curled up on the nearest hammock and become compost in a few months time. That second day—really my first ‘in the field’—began with a seminar atCain Vineyards with the entire group. The vineyard managers at both Cain and Spring Mountain Vineyard were there to discuss the history, climate and general viticulture of the AVA.
It was a very chilly morning, but already I sensed the sunny, warm forecast would pull through. My caffeine-free host dug through a few now probably petrified pieces of meat at the base of his freezer to retrieve some forlorn beans (thank God!), and I could fulfill my wish of having a cup in hand while my warm breath cut through the morning air.
We heard again what we had already heard so many times since arriving to this mountain: 2011 has been a cool, rainy season since the start, and the grapes just aren’t where they typically should be at this point. Many Cabs are barely breaking 21 brix, and they have several weeks, maybe even months until they can achieve their desired sugars and phenolic ripeness. And it only gets rainier as we exit summer in Cali.
Rain in June during budbreak. Rain in the past couple weeks. The two times that rain is the last thing you wish for: the beginning during fruit set and harvest. Alas, the theme of the week: Mother Nature has her own plan. All you can do is work with her and hope for the best.
So what is a farmer to do?
These were not your average farmers. That’s one thing I learned real fast. They made a cognitive decision to move up the road from the Napa Valley floor—a place that grows world class fruit just by spitting out a seed—up to the hills. A place that has much shallower soils ( a few feet vs nearly 40 feet on the floor), twice as much rain (60 vs 30 inches), erosion, mildew, not to mention lower yields due to problems at budbreak and harvest. Paloma, for example, loses half their crop every 2-3 years to shatter—a problem that occurs when a vine is not self-pollinating and blossoming when it should be due to rain or other stress.
Spring Mountain may be a terrific environment for grapes to grow…but it’s not the easiest to place to be a grower. In order to get the grapes to where you want them to be, you have to understand a lot more than just giving the plant some water and praying that the sun shines. You must learn how to manipulate the canopy, when to drop fruit (in order to concentrate more energy on the still hanging clusters), how to deal with lethal pests without highly toxic chemicals, how to taste a grape’s ‘doneness’, how to keep the soil not too wet and not too dry, but also sometimes the most important? How to leave it all alone. Sure, this is something any quality winegrower must know. But some places are just more challenging than others…consistently.
After discussing all the ways they different in management, they did manage to come together on one thing: organic farming. Though Spring Mountain Vineyards is less likely to take it all the way to certification (though they could), Cain is well underway. Both feel they have gleaned more ‘terroir’ through highly sustainable methods and their grapes and soils seem healthier and happier than ever.
Pests are a problem in any garden, and certainly no exception here. Dealing with it organically was fascinating to learn about. My favorite was hearing about how they have dealt with mealy bugs by unleashing another similar looking pest to lay larvae in the female mealy bug. Before long, the eggs hatch inside her, and she is eaten by her own offspring. Lovely. They have also been combating sharpshooters with bluebirds! Spring Mountain Vineyards have specifically tackled this problem head on by building over 800 boxes in the past couple years due the dramatic decrease they have witnessed.
Organic and responsible sustainable farming demands patience, money and a commitment, for sure, but rarely do growers go back when he or she sees the results of being a good steward to the land, as both vineyard managers agreed.
My next stop was the impressive Vineyards 7 & 8—a very stunning winey with a polished, modern tasting room. After entering the grand doors, I was immediately in an open room complete with a wrap-around panoramic window overlooking the valley. A long wooden table with nearly 25 chairs sat in the center with a path of water stones traveling up the middle. We clanked our glasses of Pierre Morlet Champagne (a distant relative of Luc Morlet—their winemaker at 7& 8), threw on some rain boots and headed to the vineyards. We learned how to taste the grapes for ripeness (Chardonnay was possibly harvested the day after I left!), and we actually pulled grape samples for the lab. When we got to the lab, we learned how to test the pH and brix levels.
We then toured the caves and barrel sampled. It was really interesting to try the same clones of Cab from the same plot of land treated in different barrels. I could finally wrap my head around the influence of barrel toasts. Medium toast allowed more fruit, floral and pepper to come through while heavier toasts provoked a smoky, chewy, cedary side.
We then ended our day at Paloma, where we learned about the history of this hard-working estate that has made it now for almost 30 years on not much more than a few people. For a long time, it was just Barbera Richards tending 6,000 vines alone from January through October, while her husband Jim made sure to keep his day job and pay the bills back in Texas. I wanted to meet her so much, but I didn’t get the chance. Understandably, she had a lot going on with harvest, visitors, the ’09 release, shipments, etc. After all, it’s still a two-person show for the most part.
In their second vintage, they were at the top of Wine Spectator’s annual top 100 list—their 2001 Merlot was Wine of the Year. An incredible feat to say the least. They pick in small lots and make wine in small lots, a detail that is palpable on the palate. They don’t mess around much with the formula, as each vintage shows notable consistency, even in mediocre years. In the vineyards, my group gets a good look at Paloma’s unique way of trellising—a Geneva Double Curtain that has been revised 4 times over the years in order to get it right. While the majority of his neighbors stick mainly to Vertical Shoot Positioning, this is what works at Paloma. So, as Sheldon points out, why mess with it? I couldn’t agree more with this down to earth operation.
We headed back and made some dinner with a few other participants. Sheldon is a terrific cook and has clearly passed it on to his son who is climbing fast up the ladder in Canada as an aspiring chef. We had smoked chicken, roasted squash with egg and parmesan, bacon wrapped green onions and watermelon salad. Along with this delicious meal, we enjoyed 4 vintages of Paloma Merlot (2006-2009). Right now, my favorite is 2008—so open and eager to engage with my taste buds. It had finesse, minerality and a very integrated, supple mouthfeel. Though 2007 may have shown the most promise from its heralded vintage, it was still quite buttoned up even after a long decant. That puppy is for ageing. 2006 showed wet leaves, mustiness, ripe plums and a savory note. I loved the nose. And as for the 2009, it was just a baby—promising but just too young to get it to say much more than ‘I have a lot of potential, I swear!’
And so, I ramble on… This was such a loaded trip, and I hope to get one more out to summarize my final day there in the next week. It was phenomenal. Every estate tasted so damn different from the next. I just couldn’t believe it. Phenomenal. Stay tuned, and I will do my best to wrap this up!