Berger on wine: The vine whisperers in Sonoma County and beyond

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Wine has been compared to alchemy because it is the result of a transmogrification of humble grape juice that, chrysalis-like, elevates a mundane liquid into a sublime elixir. It is a synthesis of science, agriculture and artistry. But it also entails winemakers’ intuition and their ability to hear what their grapevines are telling them.

Many who ply this trade know it’s hard work squeezed into hundreds of tasks demanding thousands of human-hours where every second counts. The amount of time left for contemplation is approximately zero.

During this frantic period for hundreds of wineries — which is simply called “crush” — many winemakers work with little time for normal activities, like shaving or coiffing. But the work that precedes crush is at least as important to quality as anything that happens in the making of it.

At most smaller wineries, the greatest task is making sure the fruit is as good as it can be. So tending vines is vital. This usually means almost year-around walking the vineyards and talking to the vines, listening for what they can tell the winemaker.

Dozens of winemakers have told me that vine-walking and listening is a regular activity.

Rob Davis at Jordan vineyards and Dan Goldfield of Dutton-Goldfield are just two of many winemakers who are also avid bicyclists. Both are often away from the winery in mid-year, traversing far-flung properties looking at new or undiscovered vines. And checking on their own vines.

Davis says he’s taken back roads to places he has never seen searching for additional sources of quality fruit. “Sometimes I look like a trespasser,” he said. He often isn’t following well-marked trails. With no distinguishing landmarks, he has to rely on a good sense of direction and assistance from cell-phone GPS apps.

Most of Goldfield’s wines are made from fruit on the fabulous and sprawling (about 1,000 acres) vineyards of the highly regarded Dutton family. But Goldfield’s cycling skills allow him to see pioneering and remote grape-growing efforts like those in the rugged outback of western Marin County, now the source of his sensational syrah.

Many winemakers say their wines are like children — each with distinct personalities. And those who walk the vineyards often tell me they get to know the idiosyncratic nature of many thousands of vines.

During an early spring morning walk in a particularly old Sonoma Valley vineyard years ago (a vineyard noted for its eclectic inter-mix of varieties), the grower and I halted in front of one wild, unkempt vine that looked different from its nearby cousins.

“This old guy,” he said pointing to the tall, scraggly arms, “always surprises me. He buds out early, he grows like a weed, and he always produces a lot of fruit. I always think the flavors are going to be thin, but they‘re always great.”

Twenty-plus years ago, a Napa Valley vineyard owner had a decades-long handshake-agreement for his cabernet grapes with a well-known iconic local winery. After the winery’s owner died, his successor asked the grower for grapes that had 26 percent sugar before being harvested.

“I told him my vines never make it above 24,” the grower said. “Maybe 20 vines ever get to 24. [They] stop making sugar at 23.5.

“I hired two consultants and both of them tried different stuff, but the vines just kept saying ‘no.’ After 23 (percent of sugar), the only ‘sugar’ I get comes from desiccation,” he said. “I think grapes know how they want to grow. All I do is let ‘em do their thing.”

Two years later we were having lunch, and I asked about his sugar story. “I lost the contract,” he said. “You have to listen to what the grapes are telling you.”

That vineyard’s fruit is now being used by a winemaker who appreciates it as is. It’s a substantial part of his Napa Valley cab blend, which sells for $125 a bottle.

In the early 1970s, iconic winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff was told by the new owner of his Beaulieu Vineyard that he was banned from walking the vines to make growing and harvest decisions. We have a vineyard manager who makes those decisions, he was told.

“Great wine is made in the vineyards,” Tchelistcheff reportedly said in his letter of resignation — after more than 30 years at the helm.

Discovery of the Week: 2014 Huia Pinot Noir, Marlborough ($25) — It seems like every other question I get from readers is about pinot noir and especially great, low-priced ones. These days really fine quality pinots start at about $35 a bottle. Below that price you’ll find some interesting, tasty wines I would not describe as great. Neither is this New Zealand gem that meets all the criteria as a solid bargain. Its aroma is dark cherry and plums, the mid-palate has ample richness, and the finish is based on a beautiful harmony between fruit and acidity. Decant for an hour before enjoying cool.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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