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Stories in the Glass

Author: Bonnie Durrance
October, 2014 Issue

The story of North Bay wine is a tale of land, farming, community, science –and change.

 
Today, when you prepare to lift a glass of world-renowned Napa Valley Cabernet or Russian River Pinot Noir—or any of the other wines that have made this area famous—the image that comes to mind, while you stare at the glamorous label, probably isn’t that of a sweaty farmer with $20 in his pocket, holding a worried 4-year-old, pacing by the side of a broken down pick-up truck loaded with a ton of grapes, already late for his first big high-dollar sale of $125 for the lot.
 
Nor does your imagination likely conjure a vineyard owner working into the night, tearing out acres of vines to make way for an experimental new varietal his neighbors will laugh at. Nor might you picture a rumpled, 1890s pioneer proceeding through customs with a precious cargo of dry twigs from a famous vineyard in France. Even less would you be imagining a set of cells, bubbling around in a Petri dish. Yet all of these images are part of the story behind the 2014 harvest, which is a tale of land, farming, community, science—and change.
 

The preferred crop was prunes

“In the late 1960s, when I was six, seven, eight or 10 years old, there were children and families along this road,” says John Bacigalupi (the name means “kiss of the wolf,” in Italian). His vineyard, on Westside Road in Healdsburg, is a rich tapestry of vines curving over the hills and deep oak woods leading down to the Russian River. His father, Charles, bought the ranch in 1956 with money he made as a local dentist. They farmed a variety of things like apples and prunes, but the prime land went to the orchards; the vineyards were left to the hills. Grapes weren’t that important at the time. The hope was they’d pay for the property tax.
 
In the old days, says Bacigalupi, vineyard and winery practices were crude compared to today. “You’d be out there picking at two, three or four o’clock in the afternoon, sweat pouring down, the fruit hotter than hell, and dumping it into steel bins,” he remembers. He shakes his head imagining the acid of the grapes eating into the steel. “I used to go to Seghesio’s winery with my dad [to deliver grapes]. It was very social. You went around back and they had a big building on the left side filled with tanks and it was cool. They had a little table and some chairs, and a jug of white and jug of red, so if you had to wait, you could have a glass of wine. It took time, because everybody had to dump their boxes on that conveyor.”
 
On a rare mid-morning break, he is relaxing on his tasting room patio, gazing at the vines on the hillside, smiling at the memory. “Everything was all either steel or wood. And you’d just dump the grapes in. If you had reds on one truck they went into the red bin; whites all went into the white bin.” It all went to Gallo.
 

Quality calls

In 1959, when he returned from the Army, Joe Rochioli, Jr., joined his dad farming the land on Westside Road that his father had bought 1937. “We had vineyards on the hills, hops on the bottom. I used to help prune the vines,” he says.
 
When it came time to attend college, he chose Cal Poly, where he could “learn by doing” everything involved with farming. There, he became aware of the great French wines and how they were farmed for exclusiveness. Here, he remembers, everyone was going for volume. “I realized we couldn’t compete [in tonnage] with Sacramento Valley or San Joaquin Valley—they were getting 15 tons to the acre, and we were getting two. So I said, ‘If we’re going to survive in the grape industry, we have to go for quality.’”
 
In 1959, he took his father to UC Davis to study the experimental rows of Sauvignon Blanc. Rochioli’s dad liked them because they had a big crop and agreed to plant some. When Joe went back by himself to get the cuttings, the grapes were ripe; he tasted grapes from all 12 rows and found one that was outstanding: “They had a dried fig flavor. I didn’t know if it was good or bad, but I took all my cuttings from that one row.” He laughs thinking back.
 
“They’ve won us medals,” he says proudly. “Some of those vines are still in there.”
 

The dream of fine wines

In the mid-1960s, everything was still going to Gallo. But one harvest, Rochioli actually got a decent offer for his new French Columbard grapes from Carl Wente. “At that time, Gallo was paying $85 per ton and Wente offered me $125. So I said I’d sell him some.
 
“I had an old truck that I loaded with grapes and said I’d be in Livermore by 5:00. This was in 1962 or ’63, when my son was about three or four years old. So we took off, and I had $20 in my pocket.” When they got to Bayshore Highway in Berkeley, “Boom, we blew a tire. I had the jack and the spare, but the jack wouldn’t lift the truck. I looked across the fence and saw a Good Year tire place. So I climbed the eight-foot fence, asked if they could loan me a jack, and they said, ‘Oh no, we don’t know you from a bale of hay.’ I had to drive a mile down the freeway to the off-ramp and double back on a set of four dual rear tires—of which one was dead flat.”
 
He finally got to Wente, where they were mad because he was late. But 30 days later, they paid him $125 for the ton. He hauled eight tons in all to them that year.
 

Open contracts

The business model, at the time, was controlled by Gallo. This meant growers delivered grapes to wineries and then waited until the end of the year to discover what Gallo would pay for them. This was financially hard. One of the wineries Rochioli delivered to was Martini Prati Wines, a bulk operation owned by Elmo Martini, a friend of the Rochioli family. “One day, we were all sitting around talking and I said, ‘Elmo, you have six growers here—really upset, top growers—and we’re concerned that we’re hauling you all these grapes and we don’t have a clue what we’re getting for them.’
 
“And he says, ‘Joe, you know how Julio is, eh? That’s the way they do business!’ And I says, ‘OK, tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take 20 cases of your wine, bring it home and drink it. Then, when I get through, I’ll tell you how much I’m going to pay you.’ Elmo says, ‘Oh that’s different!’ And I says, ‘It’s not different! Call Julio and tell them who we are, and tell them we’re mad!”
 
Rochioli, a big, powerful man, made an imposing case.
 
“So Elmo calls Julio, and Julio says, ‘Well, maybe we’ll go $100 per ton this year—if the quality’s good.’” Rochioli was thinking to himself that if the crop was good, he should really be getting more, but Julio stuck to his word. “We had a beautiful crop of grapes, but we only got $100.”
 
In 1963, Rochioli helped form the Northcoast Grape Growers Association, encompassing Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, so growers could have a united voice against the monopoly of buyers. It took years to get the “open contracts” practice changed.
 
Rochioli didn’t plant Pinot Noir until his dad died, in 1966. For a few years, watching his gorgeous grapes get dumped into the “red” bin with all the rest pained him, and he understood why his dad had resisted. But he held tight to his vision. “I used to brag about how nice and beautiful the grapes were, and they’d say, ‘You’re crazy! Why are you planting that stuff?’ And I’d say, ‘Some day it’ll work out.’” He smiles. “I knew I had beautiful grapes.”
 

Before Napa Valley was Napa Valley

In Napa Valley’s awakening wine culture, Robert Mondavi was the pied piper of quality.
 
“He mentored me, he mentored everybody,” says Frank Farella, founder of Farella Vineyards in Coombsville and founding partner of Farella, Braun + Martel LLP, the San Francisco and Napa law firm that specializes in the wine business. “In ’76, it was much different,” he says. “Very family-oriented and fraternal. I remember when I started making wine first as a hobby. I could always find people like Mondavi or Phelps when I needed something, like topping wine; they’d give me a demijohn, or they would provide lab help to analyze the wine. It was a very generous place, largely inhabited with families working the vineyards and making their wines.
 
The owner landscape is changing, with many of the wine assets owned by public companies, lifestyle owners and a growing number of financial firms,” he continues. “It's become more similar to a business model. The wine business is no longer simple. It's challenging and economically demanding because of the capital requirements and the international character of the industry.”
 
Like many residents in the valley, Farella is disturbed about the announcements of many huge new incoming wineries. “Water shortages, the push to expand winery infrastructure and the need to protect our agricultural character are great concerns. The traffic situation in the valley has made us victims of our own success. As my mother said, ‘There's something good and not-so-good in everything that happens.’”
 

Farming for distinction and health

If you should be so fortunate as to find yourself in Carneros, in a Polaris Ranger 4x4, bouncing through the Hyde Vineyards with grower Larry Hyde, you may find that what looks to the untrained eye like a sea of green is really a complex quilt of distinctive blocks of deliberately laid out vines, all with different pedigrees, planted in different years, with different preferences for sun and exposure, and all with different outcomes in the glass.
 
Hyde, who’s been farming his 200 gently hilly Carneros acres since 1979, has a story for each row—about its genetic identity, when it was planted, why the row was laid in a particular direction, why the plants are spaced the way they are. He’ll point out which rows are planted with the vines too far apart, which are too close together, and which are just right. He’ll tell you this makes a difference in the vines and therefore the grapes. “When you run the vines with the road, you have maximal solar exposure,” he says. “When the vines are laid east-west, you have minimal exposure to the afternoon sun. In Carneros, you want the maximum heat exposure to ripen the Cabernet. For Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, you want something in between.” He motors his way through the rows and stops.
 
“This block, planted in 2000, was planted with climate change in mind,” he says. “So you see smaller vines and more solar exposure in the center of the vine. The row is planted compass north-south, which gives morning and afternoon sun evenly. The vines are smaller and closer together, which gives more solar exposure in the center of the vine.”
 
He says he’s been experimenting with spacing and direction since 1999, and it takes about 10 years to see if what he did is good. You might wonder what kind of personality it takes to work that long-term. “It takes a lot of patience,” he says, barely audibly, over the sound of the motor, with ever so slight a smile.
 
He says he fights pests, like the European Grapevine Moth, which showed up in Napa County in 2009, by introducing parasitic wasps and other beneficial insects. And he points to flowers, planted in between every fourth row, which are there to help the bees. He’s curious to see which flowers give the best tasting honey.
 
Driving through the rows, he suddenly stops, scrutinizes a row of vines, and then fumbles through his stacks of dusty vineyard maps for his iPhone. He dials while his two German shepherds race on after real or imaginary hares and tells his foreman these vines look thirsty. “How do you know?” I ask, thinking they look just fine. “They’re not putting out little shoots,” he says. Ah. Of course.
 
He stops again at a new, clean row of Chardonnay. He says he gave all his favorite selections to UC Davis to “clean up,” and get rid of the viruses. He says they use a method called Meriston-tip culture. Early in the year, they take a few cells from the tip, which is growing faster than the virus travels, and culture the clean cells in a Petri dish. Then they propagate the cells and the cells become a plant and they grow the virus-free plant—which is identical to the plant from which the tip was taken.
 
A virus called Red Blotch is currently forcing many growers to destroy whole blocks of vines. This is an expensive and onerous proposition, so Hyde and many growers and wineries from throughout California call on Sebastopol viticulturist Dr. James Stamp to examine their vineyards and ensure any new plantings are disease-free.
 

New focus on viruses

“In the ’70s, there was much more diversity,” says Stamp, “which was advantageous in reducing problems. So instead of acres and acres of grapevines, Sonoma County, for example, grew plums and hops in addition to grapevines.” There was less density, which helped, too. “In those days, it was more like 1,000 vines per acre,” he says. “Today, the average density of vines in Napa and Sonoma averages closer to 2,000 vines per acre.”
 
In the late 1990s, growers were concerned with a fungal pathogen called Young Vine Decline. However, since then, it’s become apparent that the presence of economically important viruses in grapevine planting stock has contributed significantly to premature decline of newly planted vineyards. In studies undertaken from 2000 to 2010 (and first reported in Wine Business Monthly, August 2010), Stamp found that 26 percent of CDFA certified stock—which is supposed to be virus-free—was in fact, contaminated with economically important viruses.
 
Over the last 15 years, he’s been able to document the difference between high-quality and poor-quality vines and the relationship between fungal, viral and bacterial pathogens, and the end result in terms of physical quality. This knowledge continues to help increase the standard of plant material.
 
“So originally, a client would call and say, ‘James, I have 10,000 vines coming in, come and take a look at them and tell me what you think. And I’d do that.’ Whereas today, the client will call and say, ‘James, we want to order 10,000 vines. Please place the order for us and do whatever testing is required to make sure we get the very best plants possible.’ I think my involvement has elevated the standard of plant material. Nurseries know there’s someone out there with the qualification to make a judgment whether a plant is good or bad.”
 

Tightening up the business

Contractual documents are far more sophisticated now than they were in the ’70s,” says Farella. “We have clients who've been small growers and small wineries since the early days, and a lot of them had ‘handshake’ grape purchase agreements. Now it’s far more complex and formal—but necessarily so.
 
Hyde says he still enjoys doing it the old way, when he can. “One of our most fun contracts is with Dave Ramey,” who was described in an article in International Wine Review Blog, as “one of a small tribe of scholar-winemakers who systematically research and experiment how to make better wine.” Hyde’s relationship with Ramey goes way back. “I’ve been selling him grapes since he was the winemaker at Simi, in the early ’80s,” says Hyde. We have a ‘forever’ contract with him. We sit down every year and taste the last year’s wines and talk about how much we want to stay in business with each other, and we come to an agreement. Advantage can cut either way. I like that.”
 

Keeping the brand

Is it possible to keep the sense of the family vineyards and wineries—like all of the multi-generation family-run businesses in this article—intact?
 
“It definitely is,” says Farella, “as there are still many family-owned properties and large winery owners dedicated to the preservation of the agricultural soul of Napa and Sonoma. You come to our family vineyard and winery by appointment, and my son, Tom, the winemaker, will take you first into the vineyard. People love his stories and his passion for the vines and the wines. The Napa Valley Vintners and the Napa and Sonoma grapegrowers have done a great job in preserving their appellations and some of nature's treasures.”
 
 

Clones and Rootstock

Clones are cuttings from a mother vine, grafted onto a root stock, which results in a new plant with the identical traits as the mother plant. There are thousands of varieties of grapevines selected, named and cultivated in this way.
 
Source: UC Davis
 
 

Masters of Clones

Two vineyards in Livermore, Wente and Concannon, both founded in 1833, supplied clones from France to Napa and Sonoma growers. Wente supplied Chardonnay and Concannon supplied Cabernet Sauvignon. The Wente Chardonnay clone formed the basis of the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the 1973 Paris Tasting, and a block of it stil grows in the Bacigalupe vineyards in Healdsburg.
 
The Concannon clone is a mainstay in Cabernet planting. According to Professor M. Andrew Walker, Louis P. Martini Endowed Chair in Viticulture, “There are now more than 86,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in California and the three forms of the ‘Concannon clone’ are likely to be the most widely planted.”
 
 

Bazillionaire Buys Napa Property for Winery

No, this isn’t a story from today’s news about “big money” threatening Napa Valley’s character. This is how the venerable Chateau Montelena, which put Napa Valley on the world’s wine map via the 1976 Judgment at Paris tasting, came to be.
 
“It was built by a tycoon,” laughs Bo Barrett, with twinkling blue eyes, whose family has owned and operated the chateau since the early ’70s.
 
“Alfred Tubbs was a rope magnate in San Francisco. He was the guy from outside of Napa Valley. He didn’t know anything about growing grapes or making wine. He put in all these fancy vineyards, got a fancy winemaker and he built this fancy pants winery. That was 1882.”
 
Barrett shrugs and asks, rhetorically, how he can criticize new money coming in when that’s what built Chateau Montelena, more than 100 years ago.

 

 

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Wine and Weather

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