Monday, July 28, 2008

Working for Paul Romero: Part 2

On Saturday I worked at the newly-planted Sesson Vineyard (Santa Clara Valley AVA), with Paul's vineyard construction manager, Millie. An electrician by trade, Millie is as practical and tough as the irrigation lines she showed me how to string. As we were stringing the beginnings of a 5-wire trellis, and attaching black drip-lines to the lowest wire, she waxed eloquent about the clay soil, irrigation, killing gophers, and canopy management, occasionally pausing for a puff on a cigarrette.

A bit past noon, we ran out of plastic ties - time for a Home Depot run! We got into her boxy black jeep ("A bit rough, but it gets the job done - like me!") and I recieved an impromptu seminar on the art of growing good grapes.

Growing mediocre grapes is easy, but to grow grapes with any semblance of flavor concentration means severely slashing yields, taking only the primary fruit, reducing the tonnage per acre. It's not the most intuitive business model. "You gotta be crazy to grow good grapes" she said, "and if you grow bad grapes, people know - you taste the grapes and you just know. There's no hiding." How much do good grapes cost in Santa Clara? A couple grand per ton. In Napa/Sonoma? You can pay $5k and get crap.

On our way back from Home Depot, we stopped by Sycamore Creek so I could see what head-trained vines looked like. They instantly called to mind photographs I'd seen of Graves, in Bordeaux - lonely looking, beautifully gnarled trees, like bonsai in a desert. Clearly well-cared for, pristine.

We tasted through their releases and I noted that all the wines had great balance and acidity. The pinot was light, flavorful, and earthy. The other reds were quite dry, and not overly alcoholic. All across the board, each wine had several different flavors that it communicated with clarity. They were enjoyable and interesting to taste through, and I wish I'd had more time there to really write down complete impressions.

Afterwards we checked out Uvas Creek vineyards - the best grapes in town, according to Millie. Bill is a dirt farmer, so he keeps his rows clean and tilled. As a result he has to do more pruning work than most to keep the vigor down. The vertically trained vines were simply gorgeous - every leaf seemed in its proper place, and the view down each long, perfect row was stunning. Sensing my awe, Millie commented "Bill himself is in the vineyards every day - he checks every grape and removes the bad ones" - sure enough, we met him on our way out.

Bill Holt seemed to me the iconic image of a California farmer - Large-framed, a simple straw hat shading a sun-creased face, with a grizzled white beard, an easy smile, and a bone-crushing handshake. He wore an impeccable collared shirt, sleeves rolled, and at the same time had the vineyard's dark clay soil under his fingernails. He spoke slowly, wryly, his imagery incredibly old-fashioned ("that juice from the petite verdot was black as your hair!"). And at the same time he spoke of complex lab tests, chromatography results- modern ways of quantifying flavor ripeness that, he made clear, are only to be used in conjunction with tasting the berries. Millie amicably berated him for not having enough grapes to give to Paul this vintage.

If there's one thing I learned today, it is that Paul Draper is right - wine is grown, not made. The French term for winemaker is vigneron, which means literally "one who grows vines." Great wine is made in the field, one berry at a time, and then the vintner tries not to mess it up during vinification.

Here are my specific notes:


The idea of reducing vigor is fundamental to winemaking. For example, hillside vineyards are prized because they add stress to the grapes by retaining less water, decreasing the vigor. Pruning to decrease vigor is crucial. Dropping fruit is crucial to reduce production - usually you only want the primary fruit. As I understand it, vigor refers to vine growth/shooting laterals, and production refers to grape growth. Old vines produce small quantities of small berries - low vigor and low production which leads to high flavor concentration.


The vines at Sesson had been newly plante (grafted?) a few months ago. We strung a wire low across each row, and then fastened the irrigation pipe to the wire with plastic ties. Millie thinks the owners made a mistake with irrigation as all the 20-odd rows are fed by one line. They should have run a separate line for every three rows, from the main water source. From a fluid mechanics point of view, I think they will have severe trouble with pressure drop at the end of the field. Irrigation, however, is not in Paul's/Millie's job description.


Over-watering causes lots of fruit production, with big, watery grapes, and lots of vigor ("the grapes look woolly"). A telltale sign is an abnormally large distance (maybe a foot instead of 4 inches) between laterals. After the Sesson vines are mature and grape-producing, they'll rarely be watered at all - instead, their roots should go deep enough to access the water table. Since Sesson is on agri-designated land, they'll get lots of cheap water that they can then use to water their lawn/garden, since the vines eventually won't need it.


Sesson is too exposed for rabbits - the birds of prey will eat them. When the vines are bigger, the rabbits will have shelter from eagles/hawks, but by then the trunks will be so thick that the rabbits will only be able to eat the suckers - which actually saves work. Deer don't seem to be a problem in this particular area, but there are many ways of dealing with them - fences, strong-smelling wards, etc.


Gophers tunnel around and poke holes up for air. They eat roots, killing the vines. One way to combat them is to poke around with a re-bar until you find the tunnel (the bar sinks easily into the ground), dig up the tunnel system and put poison there, covering the hole with a brick. The gopher will try to re-dig the airhole, and in doing so will eat the poison. This is not a good idea if you have cats/dogs, as they could eat the poisoned gopher. Alternatively, you can trap it - but this is only possible if you are around the vineyard often, as you need to kill the gopher once trapped. The simplest method is to find a hole and flood it out, then hit it on the head with a shovel.

Canopy management:

In vertical training, the main stem splits into two laterals that go along the lowest trellis wire (above the irrigation wire). These produce the "primary fruit." At each junction on these laterals, 2 vines shoot upwards, bearing secondary fruit, which should be dropped. These secondary laterals are used just for photosynthesis and shade control. The region between the second and third wires above the ground is called the "fruit zone." For ease in tucking, the upper wires can be slackened until the vines grow well past the fruit zone, then tightened, saving time and effort in tucking stray shoots.

In head training, the main stem splits into several secondary stems, growing upwards like a small tree against a single vertical trellis. Until the main stem is sturdy enough to support the whole plant, a single vertical post is used as a trellis, and the secondary stems are tied to the top of the post. This is known as "basket training." Head training is more work than vertical training, and requires careful pruning. It is said to be good for Zinfandel, as it keeps the vigor/production down - the plant naturally scales back production to avoid collapsing from excess fruit. Head training is widely used in the Rhone valley.

We stopped by Sycamore Creek so I could see what head-trained vines looked like - they instantly reminded me of some photographs I'd seen of Graves - lonely looking, beautifully gnarled trees, like bonsai in a desert. Clearly well-cared for, pristine. The earth at Sycamore creek was light brown and dusty/crumbly. Not black and hard like the clay at sesson. Chaine d'Or seemed to have similar earth. The vineyard topography was flat.

In both types of training, a delicate balance must be found. Leaving too few leaves limits the nutrients to the grapes, and hence the flavor development suffers. Leaving too many leaves can make the bunches susceptible to mildew, as they don't get enough sun and air.


There are two schools of thought: Bill Holt, of the dirt farmer mentality, tills the ground in between the vines. He has to work extra hard to keep down the vigor. Millie and Paul believe in letting some weeds and some specially chosen ground cover aid in keeping the vigor low.

Grape pricing in different AVA's:

Santa Clara Valley AVA grapes go for a couple thousand dollars per ton. Santa Cruz would be a thousand more, perhaps $3500. Napa/Sonoma goes around $5000 at the low end, and they might not even be good, you have to taste them and find out how the vines were cared for.

Meeting Bill:

Bill Holt grows the best grapes in town, according to Millie. Paul made a very successful cabernet from Uvas Creek in '05, but didn't get any grapes this year. Bill tastes his grapes but also sends them to a lab to measure anthocyanins, tannins, and other species to quantify ripeness. He also grows Petit Verdot, which seems to be in high demand recently. He said the anthocyanins (which are factors in color, flavor, and mouthfeel) were so high that the petite verdot grapes were almost black during press.

One of the wines I tasted at Sycamore Creek was an '05 Cab made from Bill's Uvas Creek grapes - the same harvest that Paul at Stefania used for his well-recieved '05 Uvas Creek Cabernet, though Paul used 50:50 Clone 4 and Clone 337, and Sycamore Creek used 100% Clone 4. In the mouth the wine was light, yet intense in flavor, with a medium-soft tannic grip that was very smooth, even plush in texture. There was a little earth on the nose, with good fruit and hints of tobacco. The balance and acidity were excellent. I don't know how representative this winery is of the area, but I liked the wines a lot. They were not too fruit-forward, sweet, and oaky, which Millie says can be a problem in Napa wines. I can't wait to try Paul's wine from the same grapes!