pinot noir

Feel Like Going Home

People often ask “Where are you from?”  This question makes me uncomfortable.  Not because I’m afraid to say, but rather I have to do a quick calculation on how much time we have for this part of the conversation.  I usually say “I’m originally from Santa Barbara” to keep it short, but if that person starts asking which high school I went to, I know my plan backfired, and I will now spend the next couple of minutes listing all the places I’ve lived- Santa Barbara, Vero Beach, Orlando, St. Louis, Davis, Portland, Los Angeles and even about a year in New Zealand.  I am invariably greeted by the blank stare of a person who realizes they have asked the wrong question.

I grew up in an airline family, so this made us more mobile than most.  I still get restless when I live in a place for more than three or four years.  I’ve lived in Los Angeles for four years now, so it’s clearly time to go.  I’m moving again, but that’s not the big news.  The big news is that this just might be the last time I ever move.  So, despite the fact that my book-packing skills will atrophy, and I’ll have to give away some furniture moving pads, I’m super stoked.

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Since even before we started Weatherborne in 2012, I have always wanted to have a small estate vineyard to tend.  I wanted to wake up where I would do my day’s work.  After being in LA, I am looking forward to not driving for days at a time.  We looked up and down the California coast, in famous wine regions and places with potential.   I felt like Goldilocks, as most places were too expensive, or too small, too close to a busy road or too far.  This place is just right.

Philo is a town in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County.  One-hundred miles as the crow flies north of San Francisco, this valley is around fifteen miles long, running northwest to the redwoods and then the coast.  Our spot is thirty-one acres of former apple orchard and pasture just off Highway 128.  There are two knolls on the top of the property perfect for vineyard with a southern exposure and soils that drain well.  Pinot does great in this area, showing wonderful tension and complexity.  Below this is an old apple orchard with three or four dozen Golden Delicious and Rome Beauty apple trees still remaining.  We hope to be able to plant some Pinot vines soon, and try our hand at hard cider and perry down the line.  It would be cool to grow some hops and maybe even some fiery chiles.  We will see.  There will be time for projects.   2016 is going to be fun.

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Drought and Winemaking

So, it's been hot.  Hot and dry. Hot and humid.  Hot.  It seems like winter is a forgotten dream of sometime in one's past when one actually wore pants and sweaters and, oh, jackets! I remember those!  Southern California has been in drought for over four years, and the last two calendar years have been the hottest on record.  Climate change is here, and its consequences will have drastic effects on how to make wine under this new dynamic.

Wine has a love affair with water.  Most vineyards in California thrive only because of irrigation.  All wineries use copious amounts of water to clean what is a sticky, messy process of getting grapes to give up their goodness.  With a decreased amount of rainfall, snowpack and available aquifers in the future, the battle between agriculture and urban/suburban areas for water will get worse.  This is not an if, but a when.  Since most people are pretty clueless as to where their food comes from, they don't understand that to grow food you need water, lots of water.  Most berries and veggies are literally tiny packets of sugar-water encased in cellulose and fibers.  Now, other industries use ridiculous amounts of water, including power plants- If you want to use less water, unplug your TV.  Regardless, farmland is being encroached upon at a steadily, increasing pace, so to be good neighbors, farmers and vineyard owners need to lower their water usage. Like ripping out your front lawn, it's a sign that you are, at the least, aware of the problem.

In places with a long history of grape-growing for wine, there is a consistent theme: the rich, fertile soils of the valley floors were reserved for food production and the poorer soils or rocky slopes above were left for the vines.  Not only is this a wise use of available space, but vines make better wine in places where vigor doesn't run rampant.  If you look at Burgundy you will see this model in action for the last millennium.  Burgundy, though, is not much like California.  It has a Continental climate and abundant rainfall scattered throughout the year.  Our Mediterranean-like climate has mild temps year-round and rain almost entirely in the winter months.  We face a different set of challenges.

Dry Farming, what is this?  Well, like it sounds, certain crops may produce their bounty without additional irrigation.  Oftentimes, the berries themselves are smaller, with more color and flavor concentration, but a smaller crop overall.  Variation from year-to-year is accentuated and there is no insurance available from having drip or flood irrigation.  There are many factors to consider and one needs to plan on dry-farming at establishment of the vineyard, not later.  Winegrapes for the most part are grown on American rootstocks, with a Eurasian scion grafted to the top.  This protects the vine from native pests and diseases while still making use of the varieties of grapes that have proven to make the best wines.  Rootstocks are varied and each has its own inherent vigor, and strengths and weaknesses.  Rootstocks for dry-farming, in general, are more vigorous with deeper root systems, able to look for subterranean water.  Common rootstocks for Pinot Noir suitable for dry-farming would be 110R, 1103P, 140Ru and even St. George, good old Vitis rupestris.  Of course, rootstock selection is quite subjective and depends on the site and preferred methods of cultivation.  Is one going to rely upon a cover crop to control vigor and stabilize the soil?  What's the planting density going to be?  Organic farming or conventional?

The main reason why people don't dry-farm is economics.  One's crop size can go way up or down depending on the amount and timing of rainfall.  Some vineyards that don't use irrigation cropped at around 0.3-0.5 tons per acre this year, well below the 2-4 tons per acre that irrigated vineyards received.  This is difficult to swallow when one just spent $25-$40k an acre establishing a vineyard after purchasing the land.  Wine would have to be proportionally much more expensive to take this sort of hit, year after year.  Basically, the way it's set up now, water is cheap.  Too cheap and relatively abundant to force growers into more efficient methods.

Wineries themselves use tremendous amounts of water cleaning the facility, much, much less than breweries, but still lots of water.  Most managers have out-dated and lazy views on cleaning protocols and are unwilling to spend money to improve the facility and make water usage reduced.  You will still see many people hosing down concrete pads rather than getting a broom out.  Again, water is too cheap.  Make it expensive and then all the CFOs will start buying brooms and checking the production team on water usage.

To conclude, dry-farming will become more commonplace as aquifers go dry, like many have in the Central Valley and in Paso Robles.  Water will become more expensive to buy and then, and only then, will the majority of people start to care about conservation.  Vineyards in Southern California will have a harder time adapting to new climate conditions, as average rainfall is less and getting smaller with the passing years.  New technologies will help save water, but really it's taking the small steps now and planning for a drier, hotter future.  Grab your broom and let's get started cleaning up this mess.

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It's always darkest before the dawn

It’s always hard to tell how a harvest will turn out.  2012 was fresh and lively from the start, immediately likeable, yet still leaving you wanting to come back for more; its depth and weight, put on gracefully over the year in barrel.  2013 raced away, a horse scared by a crack of thunder, fleshier, yet more reticent. This wine is pretty now, but still angular, like a teenager growing into their body.  2014 was hot.  We had no winter and across Southern California the heat of July and August was remorseless, rain was but a bitter memory.  Across the Santa Ynez Valley, winemakers were prepping for harvest, fingers itchy on the trigger.

We bottled all 440 cases on August 22nd, with an improved label and our custom logo on the screwcap.  No rest for the wicked though, as I brought in the first of 2014’s fruit on the 25th, a full month earlier than 2012, weeks before 2013.  Drought conditions caused all of the Pinot vineyards in the area to go from under-ripe to very-ripe in a few days.  Many picked early, giving up flavor for bracing acidity, eager to brag about it, like the kid who raises their hand too much in class.  Many more picked too late, making super intense, extracted Pinots, like it was 2004.  Despite my worries, things turned out great, bringing all of my fruit in at modest sugars, good acidity and nice, clean ferments.  The weather gave us good stem lignification, bringing the whole-cluster component up to 33% this year, adding spice and structure.

So, for now, the wines are resting in their barrels, calming down after a hot and busy harvest, and full of potential.  I am back at work in LA, planning big things and waiting for my life to go upside-down with our first baby at Christmas.  In the meantime, I will be pounding the streets, searching for a home for this Weatherborne wine, hopefully on a shelf or table near you.

Los Angeles Times features Weatherborne

Wines to try from Southern California garagistes
By S. Irene Virbila

"For his first Pinot, winemaker Cris Carter sourced grapes from John Sebastiano and Melville Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills. Bright and lively with lots of sweet fruit, it is cool and clean, with an intriguing darker undertow."

See also:
RISE OF THE CALIFORNIA GARAGISTES, FROM BASEMENTS TO BARRELS TO FESTS