“What I stand for is what I stand on.”
Contemplations on Farming
By Will Bucklin
My stewardship of Old Hill Ranch follows in the footsteps of my stepfather Otto Teller, a renowned conservationist who started farming in Sonoma Valley in the late 1950s. Otto was an ardent organic farmer decades before the notion caught hold. A disciple of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Otto refused what he called the treadmill of agricultural chemicals. He believed in dry farming because he knew it produced better wine, but also because he was a fisherman who had fished the Sonoma Creeks. His lament: “All these goddamn vineyards are sucking up all our ground water!”
Otto, or “Mose” as we called him, was somebody I greatly admired. He instilled in me a passion for the value of conservation and the protection of land. I learned a lot from Otto, but he was no teacher. Instead, he would just give me the tools and expect me to figure things out. His idea of teaching me to fly fish was to buy me some hooks, feathers and a vice.
I think it fair to say that, as farmers go, both Otto and I are curmudgeonly, cantankerous contrarians who believe strongly in progressive agrarian principles. But the farming similarities stop there. Otto’s farming style was described by my brother Ted, who took over managing Old Hill in the late ‘90s, as “benign neglect.” It is no coincidence that under Otto’s system, Old Hill produced the most revered and positively reviewed Zinfandel out there; he was a great farmer, and he knew quality. But for Otto, Old Hill was more a source of pride than of income, and the vineyard was not very productive.
Robert Parker called Ravenswood Old Hill “the quintessential Zinfandel.” Of the sixteen vintages between 1984 and 2000, fourteen received ratings from Robert Parker of 90 or higher. The “Quarterly Review of Wine” rated the 1999 Ravenswood Old Hill as Best of Show out of 100 Zinfandels. Of the 10 vintages in the 1990s, half received ratings of above 90 points from Wine Spectator.
Otto, a self-described “country slicker,” lived on his other, much larger property, Oak Hill Farm, with many other pursuits in addition to Old Hill. In comparison, my livelihood is tied directly to Old Hill where I live with my wife and a community of other people who are all part and parcel to the ranch’s success.
Today, the farming ethos on Old Hill Ranch is to grow the best quality grapes we can using the most ecologically benign methods, while sustaining our community and maintaining the values that Otto instilled in us.
Dry farming: Growing grapes without irrigationEstimated reading time: 8 minutes
Dry farming: Growing grapes without irrigation
I am the dry farming curmudgeon, but dry farming did not come easily. When I arrived here in 2000 as a neophyte, the yields on the Ancient block were distressing, and it seemed irrigation was the obvious solution. However, the thought of Otto spinning in his grave made that impossible, so we stuck to our guns. Then something happened in July of 2006 that represented a sea change. An unusually fearsome heat wave swept the valley, and for three scorching days the thermometer hit 110º F.
The ancient dry-farmed vines responded to the heat by wilting, and the leaves resembled tissue paper, losing all turgor. I thought we were going to lose the crop. Distraught, I decamped to a friend’s near the coast to drink beer.
At the time, we also had our new bambino blocks under irrigation, and as I left the ranch my concern was only for the dry-farmed vines—I thought the irrigated vines would be fine.
But upon returning home I found something extraordinary. The young vines had lost. They had been fried, literally; the fruit was burnt and so was the foliage. The dry farmed vines recovered completely: their response had been to simply shut down and turn off, while the irrigated vines went into overdrive.
After the heat wave, I wanted to convert the entire ranch to dry farming. I envisioned a press release stating so, but it turns out that that idea was a little naïve. At the time only the 12-acre Ancient block was dry farmed, with an additional 10 acres of Bambino and 8 acres of Cabernet that were under a normal irrigation.
Simply stated, dry farming is the absence of irrigation, but it is really much more complex. The basic principles as outlined on the, California Ag Water Stewardship website are: 1) The soil must have good water-holding characteristics with appropriate depth; 2) Grape vines must be spaced so as not to compete with each other; 3) Vines must be planted on an appropriate rootstock; 4) The soil should be tilled to a fine “dust mulch” that creates an evaporative barrier between soil and atmosphere; 5) Tillage is continued at least once a month to break soil capillaries which (allegedly) reduces moisture’s upward soil migration and thus evaporation.
Some years ago we held a dry farming seminar here on Old Hill. In attendance were several local policy experts hoping to find ways to conserve water. Hopeful upon arrival, they left crestfallen when they heard about all the tillage. Their concern, of course, was all the dust that would be released into the air resulting from all that tillage. The dust bowl comes to mind.
To paraphrase Sarah Palin who famously wanted to “drill, baby, drill,” the dogma around dry farming is to “till, baby, till.” Epitomized in Aesop’s A farmer and his sons, tillage has been around since the dawn of agriculture.
To create a dust mulch, you pulverize the top layer of soil into dust particles that are so fine that they create a physical barrier, preventing the moisture from evaporating. If you can imagine walking through a vineyard and your boots become submerged, you are walking through a dust mulch.
Another reason for all the tillage was explained to me by a dry farmer who said his vines “perked up” every time he ran his harrow (till) through the vineyard. Somehow the act of tillage was bringing water to the vines. The theory goes that water moves upward in the soil via capillary action and somehow tillage increases the rate. I can’t argue with his observations, only to say it has not been my experience.
I believe dry farmed vines make better, more intense wine, and I believe the vines tend to be healthier and longer-lived than their irrigated brethren. I believe that the character of dry-farmed wines is more reflective of the place from which they come and that the wines contain more mineral elements from the soil. I would not be so invested in dry farming if I did not believe.
As noted in the New York Times, “If you doubt the existence of terroir in the United States or scoff at the whole notion of terroir, you owe it to yourself to try several of the Old Hill zins…”
Dry farmed vines have to dig deep for water – some vines have been recorded with roots 30- or 40-feet deep. Deeper roots mean more contact with the earth, and if you want a wine to reflect the place it comes from, the roots need to have significant contact with the soil. Establishing these roots takes time, usually adding an extra year to the development of a vineyard. Banks are probably a dry farmer’s worst enemy. Irrigation allows a quick return on investment (at the expense of longevity, in my opinion.)
Today, Old Hill Ranch is predominantly dry farmed. It took ten years to wean the Bambino blocks off of water. It was just good fortune that we had planted them on the right rootstock while also maintaining the spacing we were accustomed to (10’x5’) in the ancient block. What I learned pretty quickly during this transition is that roots only go deep if they need to. We employed a slow process of withholding water—cold turkey and the vines would have collapsed.
The 8-acre Cabernet block is another matter. We inherited this vineyard from our neighbor who had leased it from Otto back in 1982. They planted it on AXR rootstock. Unfortunately, AXR is susceptible to phylloxera, an insect that feeds on the roots and is generally considered a “death sentence” for the vine. The neighbor gave up the lease willingly in 2005, thinking the vines were on their last legs. My early management of these vines consisted of lots of water, believing the compromised roots needed the extra moisture. But as I watched the vines succumb, I started to realize that all the water promoted shallow roots, which is where the root louse lives. My management strategy now is to do long, deep waterings twice annually.
Thirteen years later and the Cab block is still surviving. It bears mentioning that this block is planted on a hillside where water drains quickly and the soil depth is shallow between two and three feet deep. The entire block is underlain with a solid layer of volcanic tuff below the shallow soil. According to the first principle of dry farming, this is hardly an ideal site for the practice.
So of course, that is exactly what we are doing as we replace the Cab. We planted a dry-farmed field blend we are calling “Otto’s Grenache.” Otto believed that hillsides were the best choice for grapes, thereby saving the more desirable farmland for growing food.
Another rationale for dry farming is to enhance the intensity of the wine. The argument goes that the added drought stress limits the size of the berries, while irrigation plumps up berries and makes them larger. Smaller berries have greater skin-to-juice ratio, and skin is where the color and character are. Of course, this does not hold true in every site or climate, but it does on Otto’s block.
The berries on Otto’s Grenache are tiny even compared to the ancient vine Grenache. The wine is intense, too, and very colorful and delicious, I might add. Average yields are just over a ton. I hope Otto would be proud.
Back in my early days here when we were irrigating our Bambino blocks, our normal irrigation regime consisted of about 4 gallons of water per vine per week, starting at August veraison and running through October. This represents over a half-million gallons of water per year for just 8 acres. Using all that water, year after year, water that had been in the ground for hundreds, if not thousands of years, is by definition not “sustainable.”
If I were to distill dry farming down to one simple principle, it would be: slow water down. Slow water permeates the aquifer and charges the soil.
Before William McPherson Hill arrived in Sonoma, there was a string of marshes running from Kenwood to Glen Ellen along the valley floor. The road between the two towns went along the hillsides to prevent getting stuck in bog.
Draining these wetlands was easy and quick, leaving rich, arable farmland. The system of ditches still exists, and when it rains the water moves quickly; there is no other place for it to go. The fast water scours the creeks, which lowers the creek beds and over time creates a self-reinforcing loop. Faster water and lower creek beds leads to faster water. According to my neighbor, Butler Creek—the ephemeral creek that dissects Old Hill Ranch—used to flow through the summer.
We have a wonderful well on Old Hill that produces 60 gallons per minute of crystal-clear blue water. Every morning during the summer we have vineyard crews stopping by our well to fill up their water carboys to enjoy during the day’s work. It is really good water.
Soil health and the three Cs: carbon, cover crops and compostEstimated reading time: 6 minutes
Soil health and the three Cs: carbon, cover crops and compost
Carbon in the soil, by another name, is called organic matter. And anyone with a green thumb knows the benefits of increasing organic matter in the soil. Plants love it.
The NRCS states that soil organic matter holds up to 90% of its weight in water, which is 100% available to the plant. Another way to look at it is that a 1% increase in soil organic matter increases the water holding capacity of one acre by 25,000 gallons.
However, when soil is cultivated or tilled, soil organic matter is oxidized and released back into the atmosphere as CO2. In fact, it is estimated that tillage alone can account for 20% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. In other words, our farming practices have reduced the amount of organic matter in our soils.
It may seem that simply increasing organic matter while moving away from tillage would solve our dry farming dilemma. But it turns out that getting organic matter in soil, especially in dry climates such as ours, is very difficult.
Cover crops, sometimes called “green manure,” are simply plants grown in the vine rows during the dormant period. Their benefits are many, from sequestering carbon and nitrogen to attracting beneficial insects, reducing erosion, and increasing water infiltration, to name only a few. Today plenty of vineyards use cover crops, but back in Otto’s day he was the only one doing it.
When I arrived here, our cover crops seemed pretty paltry, barely growing above my ankles and not particularly dense either. That was a sign that something was amiss. Or to put it another way, 150 years of farming on Old Hill had taken its toll, and the soil was depleted.
The most obvious thing to address soil fertility in an organic system is to add soil organic matter, also known as compost. But of course I couldn’t just go and buy compost; I had to go down the compost rabbit hole instead. It started innocently enough: a neighboring winery was paying to take their spent grapes to the landfill and another neighbor was stockpiling their horse stall bedding, which was rich in poop and wood chips. It seemed simple enough: trucks started showing up and dumping the waste, and I happily sat on my tractor and mixed and watered the ever-growing hot, stinky, fly-infested piles. Then it started raining and it turned to muck.
Someone I had come to admire while in Oregon was Elaine Ingham, soil biologist at Oregon State. I remembered she had had some pretty strong opinions about compost, and I was able to attend one of her five-day seminars. What I learned was that compost comes in many flavors, it is very difficult to make great compost, and most of it is quite literally shit.
I have used it all and found what I believe is the best source. But I am still not satisfied and continue to research alternatives. One of my favorites is made from San Francisco’s waste steam. It is perhaps not the best quality, but it feels good to be truly recycling. We add three to five tons per acre every year. It may sound like a lot, but it is really just a sprinkling. It is an expensive proposition, and eventually I hope to back off to where we rely almost solely on cover crops.
Perhaps the most insidious issue we faced early on that was impacting (haha) our soil fertility was soil compaction. Soil – or at least unhealthy soil – gets compacted over time by the fall of human and animal feet, or by the wheels of a tractor. Compacted soil makes it difficult for roots to migrate, and it limits the amount of moisture or oxygen soil can contain. It is insidious because you can’t really see it, and it is very hard to get rid of.
Sometime around 2006, I rented an excavator and dug some 12-foot-deep pits in the vineyard. We dug 12 feet because compaction can happen at various depths, and in some cases in multiple horizons. We put a ladder down and surveyed the profiles, and we could see there was some evidence of compaction, but it was pretty hard to tell, so in the end I just decided that after 150 years of farming, the soils must be compacted.
Removing compaction sounds simple enough: get a big tractor and pull a deep ripper through the soil. Unfortunately, it is pretty hard to find equipment that can fit in the constraints of a vineyard (God knows I have tried.) And another thing we learned from digging the pits is how diffuse the vine roots were. I did not really want to rip too deeply and compromise the vine roots.
In the end we settled on a program that seems to be working. The first prong was to stop compacting the soil, which meant that we committed to not driving a wheel tractor on the vineyard when the soil is moist. So we bought a vineyard crawler, basically a machine with tracks instead of wheels. The amount of surface area where the tracks visit the ground is much greater than with wheels and thus the displacement of weight is much better. It may seem an easy solution, but if you spent a day driving a crawler, I think I could convince you otherwise. Not to mention the crawler is twice as expensive to purchase and maintain.
The next prong was to find a device that would slowly, and inexorably, punch through the compaction zone, and then, after completing its mission, it would desiccate and leave the hole, allowing for rain water infiltration. This device is called the daikon radish, and it seems to have worked really well. Other cover crop plants work too, especially the mustard which also has a long tap root, albeit has much less girth. Additionally, we plant legume such as favas, clovers and peas, which have the ability to take nitrogen out of the atmosphere and fix it in the soil, not to mention CO2.
Today the cover crops are a robust part of the vineyard’s health, sometimes growing six feet tall and cloaking the landscape in verdant greens, reds and purples. And with the crops comes a flurry of wildlife: insects, birds, squirrels and deer. This “cacophony of life” rises, and then falls, when the crops are eventually cut down and tilled back into the soil – a cycle that returns carbon to the earth.
Plant Biome, Soil biology and plant MicrofloraEstimated reading time: 6 minutes
Plant Biome, Soil biology and plant Microflora
If I was a young man headed to college, I would study Soil Biology. Soil is teeming with life and the degree of microbial diversity within it is difficult to comprehend. Ninety percent of all terrestrial organisms live underground with up to 50,000 species in a handful of soil. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci said, "We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot." This still holds true today.
For the most part, soil organisms support plant health, decompose organic matter, cycle nutrients, enhance soil structure, limit pests, produce hormones, sequester carbon, and stimulate the plant immune system, along with who all knows what else.
I remember the “aha” moment when I learned that up to 1/3 of carbohydrates that a plant produces are exuded into the soil through their roots. We all know that energy is precious, and so why would the plant simply inject sugar syrup into the soil? Isn’t the biological imperative to procreate, to make seed? The answer is, of course, that the plant is feeding the biology in the soil.
This just blew my mind! If the plants are feeding the biology, then what is the biology doing for the plant? And what are we doing as farmers to help or hinder the plant harness the biology?
In many ways, farming is precisely the wrong way to go about farming – the most biological soils in the world are those that are least disturbed, such as forests. Forest soils tend to have the most biodiversity and contain the most carbon. No agricultural soils will likely approach the diversity and health of such a complex ecosystem, but we can improve.
There has been no herbicide use on Old Hill Ranch since Otto purchased it in 1980. Sometimes I look longingly at those long shiny strips of bare, baked, herbicided earth underneath the vine rows of so many vineyards. It is a ton of work to manually do what herbicide does. While we can argue its merits and the impact herbicide has on our health, it is well established that it disrupts and transforms soil biology. And I believe its use bears great cost to the plant in terms of longevity and health.
Forgoing herbicides, adding compost and forgoing tillage are among the best ways I know of to enhance soil biology. The latter is my hobgoblin, and I strive to reduce, if not stop, tillage, but it is not simple or easy.
Perhaps someone will read this overly long-winded diatribe on our farming, but buried in it is something I wish I knew when I started to think about these questions. It is this: we can add all the carbon we want to the soils, but it does not necessarily increase soil organic matter in any meaningful way? When we add compost or green manure, we also stimulate the biology, which in turn just eats up the carbon and spits it back out as CO2. Yes, it benefits the plant, but how do we get carbon to stay in the soil? This question is the basis for everything we do.
Tillage is particularly destructive to fungus, and I really want the right fungus in our soils. Mycorrhizal fungi, for instance, colonize the roots of plant where it penetrates the root cells, while the fungus hyphae weave among soil particles. The mycelium serves as an auxiliary root system that’s in contact with soil at several thousand times greater surface area than what the plant can reach alone. Getting back to that root-exuded sugar syrup, the plant is feeding the fungus sugar, and the fungus is feeding the plant minerals. If that is not cool enough, sometimes the fungus feeds us mushrooms too.
The Mycorrhizal hyphae are coated in a sticky protein called glomalin. As much as 40% of the glomalin molecule is carbon, and glomalin may account for as much as one-third of the world's soil carbon. The soil contains more carbon than all plants and the atmosphere combined, so the crux of this biscuit is getting our vines and cover crops to associate with fungus. This seems the best way, if not the only way, for Old Hill to sequester carbon into our soils.
The grape vines’ microbial community extends above ground, too, and while not well understood, it bears mentioning in terms of winemaking and plant health. This above-ground biome is called the phyllosphere, and this ecosystem has been shown to play a role in protecting plants from diseases and impacting agricultural productivity, too.
There are thousands of different plant diseases caused by fungi and bacteria, and a healthy above-ground plant biome has shown the ability to protect the plant from infection. The two most notable diseases that we suffer on Old Hill are powdery mildew and botrytis, both fungal in nature.
Treatment for powdery mildew is mandatory, or should I say, I do not know of anyone who does not have some type of management system that involves some type of chemical to deal with it. Treatments vary, some more benign than others. We use elemental sulfur, which I am not particularly fond of, but it is the easiest to apply and it is of course OMRI approved. During the months of June and July when the grape leaves are most vulnerable, the valley takes on the acrid aroma of sulfur; it permeates everything.
Paul Wertz, a local 3rd generation vegetable farmer, once told me, “a farmer’s footsteps are the best fertilizer.” In other words, our best farming tool is our eyeballs, and I have found this particularly helpful in managing mildew. Being in the vineyard daily, if not twice daily walking the dogs, I look for signs of mildew. Knowing which varieties are most sensitive, our canaries in the coal mine, if you will, I can reduce the inputs if I pay attention. Generally, we use five to seven pounds-per-acre of sulfur dust four to five times per year. I am told by others that that is not very much sulfur, comparatively.
I do not have any data that indicates that the application of sulfur interferes with the biome of the vines, but I suspect it does, which is largely why I want to minimize its use. A healthy biome would include Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which has been shown to reduce the occurrence and impact of botrytis rot. We know Saccharomyces cerevisiae as the yeast that does all the work. It eats sugar, burps CO2 and shits alcohol.
The inference is that if we encourage a healthy phyllosphere, we are protecting the plant from disease and encouraging our indigenous fermentations after harvest. To the extent that this is true, then the quantity and persistence of these populations is influenced by our farming practices.
Wildlife on the vineyardEstimated reading time: 3 minutes
Wildlife on the vineyard
A place that is alive and beautiful is essential to the ethos of Old Hill. There is an ebb and flow, with dramatic seasonal changes, where life and natural beauty are important farming details. When it feels alive, it is a much more pleasant place to be.
Many years ago Joel Peterson, Ravenswood founder and longtime buyer of Old Hill fruit, was frustrated with Otto because he wouldn’t fix the deer fence and the deer were eating all the grapes. Otto’s reply was, “deer gotta eat, too.”
“Deer gotta eat, too” has become a family joke. We say it when we don’t want to do something, like fix a fence, for example. But Otto had a point, and although there are more deer in Sonoma Valley now than in any time before, there is much we can do to create habitats and coexist.
Spider mites represent an allegory that Otto often told to illustrate the negative impact of pesticide use. One mite feeds on chlorophyll, which can be particularly damaging to the grape leaves. The other mite feeds on the mite that feeds on the chlorophyll. Mites are tiny and are easy to treat (kill); soap, among other organic pesticides, will work well. But if you kill the prey, you kill the predator and disrupt the relationship, which takes generations to recover. This is what Otto called the treadmill of chemicals. Once the predator/prey relationship is disrupted, one must rely on the chemicals.
Gophers are my allegory. Barn owls are known to feed on up to seven gophers a day when fledging a nest. Gophers take their toll on our vines, but without gophers, the barn owls surely won’t be hanging around. Both Barn Owls and Horned Owls are a constant presence on the ranch. It gives us great pleasure to lay about the vines at night and listen to them hunt. It seems worth the price.
Ground squirrels are abundant on Old Hill. They eat the shoots and the bark of the vines. There is no love for ground squirrels here, but we leave them be. One day I was walking the vineyard and I noticed my dog was stopping and rolling in the dirt every so often. Upon closer investigation I saw she was finding squirrel carcasses; a bobcat had been busy.
Old Hill Ranch is located in a beautiful and wild spot on the Sonoma Valley floor, sandwiched between the Sonoma and Mayacamas Mountains. It is part of a relatively undeveloped narrow strip of land that traverses the valley, called the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, a band of habitat that provides animals with a bridge between the two mountain ranges.
The Audubon Canyon Ranch has been using radio collars to track the local population of mountain lions that traverse the corridor. It turns out Old Hill Ranch is ground zero, and mountain lions gotta eat too! Two years ago I came across a pile of green mush. At first I thought it was bear poop. Upon closer investigation, I could make out that it was Petite Sirah grape leaves, a deer’s favorite food! The mush had been the contents of a deer stomach that had been eviscerated by a Mountain Lion. That was the last deer I saw on Old Hill that year!
Coexisting with deer in the vineyard is more about fencing than it is about deer. Deer fencing is more accurately called “wildlife fencing,” and the reason I allow deer into the vineyard is to remove the barrier to the other wildlife. We have settled on a modified fence, with openings all around the ranch, and we use effective deer repellants during the sensitive months, especially on the Petite Sirah. Over the years we have learned their habits and seem to have come to a reasonable balance. If at the end of the year, we make a bank deposit, the system worked.
Head TrainingEstimated reading time: 2 minutes
During high school, a friend of mine made a rubberstamp that said, “symmetry is the preoccupation of small minds.” He stamped all the desks in our geometry class. I recognize how much I enjoy symmetry and the linear nature of vineyards. I love the way vine rows hug the contours of the hillsides and how weed-free understory gives a sense of organization and cleanliness. But that is not how nature works. Allowing for randomness is difficult.
Head training is the “trellis” system we use to support and manage the vines’ growing habit. Similar to how dry farming came to me, so did head training: it was already what we were doing, and I did not think about it much.
The more modern trellis systems with wires and tall canopies are superior in many ways. The advantages include increased air flow, sun exposure and uniformity. The system also allows for much easier use of mechanization, from leaf removal to pruning and even harvesting.
Head training is a three-dimensional system where each vine unfurls like an umbrella. Wildlife prefers three dimensions. From the perspective of a bunny or quail, head trained vines provide shade and cover. From the perspective of a raptor or an owl, all the wires on a conventional trellis are an impediment to hunting.
Intuitively I had developed a sense for what advantage a head trained system has in terms of growing grapes, but it was not until I heard it articulated by Morgan Twain-Peterson that I was able to see it clearly. He said, “with trellising you prune to a system, and with head training you prune to the vine.” In other words, the trellis demands uniformity, which is something field blends do not have. With head training, each vine can have its own personality, age, variety or vigor, and we manage it as an individual, allowing each vine to express.
The romance of field blendingEstimated reading time: 3 minutes
The romance of field blending
The concept of field blending is simple enough: the grapes are blended in the vineyard. For example, the Ancient block on Old Hill consists of over 30 grape varieties growing promiscuously, side by side. And they aren’t just grown together, they’re harvested and fermented together (foot note, there is caveat to everything) too. Think of it as a ménage à thirty.
In the early years of selling Old Hill, I found it difficult to convey the considerable impact that field blending had on our wines. While “old vine,” on the other hand, simply took a photo to illustrate. I was sure the blend was very relevant to the wine, but even I did not know the breadth of grape varieties we were dealing with.
That is when I had the idea for the “Anatomy of a Field Blend” map. I could show the mosaic that is Old Hill Ranch. While the map itself was pretty easy to make, the difficulty lay in learning the identity of the grape varieties. Looking back, it is hard for me to imagine managing this vineyard without this knowledge.
In the late 19th Century, field blending in California was as common as cobblestone. The practice is still alive and well in Europe, with perhaps the most famous region being Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe.
Morgan Twain Peterson, in his report titled “Old Vine Field Blends,” states that producers in Europe point to the added complexity and color that result from co-fermentation (fermenting different varieties together). I concur, and it is established science, too.
Then there are reasons from a farming perspective. It is called hedging your bets—farmers are gamblers, after all. The idea is that with a diverse field, if one of the varieties fails, then there is still opportunity for the others to succeed. And while many have asked if there is an advantage to the added biodiversity, that advantage would be subtle at best.
Another reason (a reason which is also stated for why not to field blend) may be the most compelling. It is the blending of varieties at different ripeness levels. Take Zinfandel and Grenache as an example. Comparatively, Zinfandel is the early ripener, and while it is notoriously very sweet, it can lose acid. But when picked and fermented together with Grenache, a later ripener which would have relatively more acid, the overall blend would have better acid balance.
This idea of blending varieties as a way to ameliorate the wine is of particular interest to me as we are trying to make the least-interventionist wines we can. The idea also represents an area of potential research: finding which varieties work best together.
The empirical reasons for field blending pale in comparison to the indefinable je ne sais quoi reasons. It is wholly unique, unpredictable and unknowable. It is where the romance and the artistry of winemaking exist. It is the mystery that occurs within the fermentation!
WinemakingEstimated reading time: 2 minutes
After graduating from UC Davis in 1986, I interned at Château Lafite Rothschild. Ostensibly, I was hired to do lab analysis on the grapes, but much to my surprise, they had no lab.
Their winemaking system was simply to grow good, healthy grapes. What followed after harvest was cookbook winemaking based on generations of experience. No additives were made to the grapes besides sulfur dioxide. There was no sanitation or any of the tools we winemakers use today.
Healthy, well-grown grapes are predisposed to becoming wine. They are coated in natural yeasts, full of minerals and sugar that ferment without the need for nutrient additives, and they are not over-ripe from excessive “hang time” that would require dilution or acid additions.
During the 10 years I had worked in Oregon, I was exposed to William Albrecht, professor emeritus and chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri. Albrecht studied the relation of soil fertility to human health and the link between soil quality and food quality. Simply stated, his work showed that a mineral-balanced soil produces healthy crops and those health benefits are passed on.
The “Albrecht Method”, as it is called, measures and amends over a dozen minerals in the soil. His method exemplifies the idea of healthy soil, healthy plant, healthy fermentation. Put another way, farm the soil and the rest will follow.
This is not to say that we do not do our share of winemaking in the winery. Low intervention winemaking, I have learned, has its risks, and sometimes ends up requiring more intervention. We do not add nutrients to the fermentations, for example. Seventeen out of eighteen years we have not had any issues, but when we do, it requires some big guns to salvage the wine.
Generally speaking, and by that I mean almost always, we limit the additions we make to wine to three things: water, if the grapes are too sweet; tartaric acid in hot years when the natural acidity is low; and sulfur dioxide at very minimal levels to eliminate oxidation.
We are trying to make wine in the vineyard.
Looking to the futureEstimated reading time: 3 minutes
Looking to the future
The future is informed by the past, but the only certainty I know is that the current farming paradigm will change. The antagonistic relationship between tillage and carbon sequestration is the most difficult question we face. Looking forward, I have two ideas where I am excited to experiment.
If, as stated by Wikipedia, no-till agricultural increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil, increases the soil's retention of organic matter, increases the amount and variety of life in the soil, while improving soil biological fertility, then it would seem a slam dunk that we would employ the practice.
Starting in 2012, we did an experiment in a small block among the Ancient vines whereby we left alternate rows as no-till going on five years. During those five years, we sustained the wettest and driest years on record. We also lost an extraordinary amount of vines in this small block during that period, and although I cannot say exactly why, it did not instill confidence in the no-till practice.
It is my experience that no-till does not sequester moisture as well as tillage and is therefore, as currently practiced, is antagonistic to dry farming. Last year I borrowed a tractor implement called a “roller crimper.” Instead of mowing the cover crop and then incorporating the mowings into the soil, the roller crimper simply lays the cover crop down on the soil and there it lies, dead, but still attached and won’t blow away. Because it is mostly unscathed, it does not break down and thus acts as a mulch on top of the soil.
I did this trial in one of the blocks that we had previously converted to dry farming, but where the irrigation infrastructure still existed. The vines received one long watering post veraison to compensate for the lack of tillage, and they were grateful. The idea of course is to maintain these rows with compost and no-till for several years to see if we can increase the carbon content of the soils and move to a productive, healthy, no-till dry farming paradigm. I will expand this trial going forward.
Another area of interest comes to me from Dr. David C. Johnson, molecular biologist and research scientist at the University of New Mexico. He has developed a composting system that is showing great promise for building fungal communities in soil. His system consists of small reactors that we build and fill with the all the carbon we received in the form of wood chips from the dead trees that died in the recent fires. It takes up to 12 months for the product to mature, and if Dr. Johnson’s results are indicative, we will have a potential to inoculate the soils with healthy fungal communities.
Our little ranch is a Petri dish, and we will keep striving.