NorthBay biz Wine
Wine and Waves
October, 2015 Issue
“Both winemakers and surfers chase perfection.” —Oded Shakked, Longboard Vineyards
As you walk into the tasting room of Longboard Vineyards in Healdsburg and see surfboards lining the walls and hanging from the ceiling, it becomes readily apparent why the winery’s slogan is, “Wine, Waves and Soul.” Part tasting room, part surf museum, Longboard prides itself on its comfy and welcoming atmosphere, which encourages visitors to stay a while and relax. As its website suggests, “No one should drink good wine in a hurry.” Guests are invited to hang out at the Longboard bar, unwind on the leather sofa or arm chairs, and enjoy surf movies on the plasma TV.
While surfing and winemaking may seem like two completely different endeavors, the individuals who do both aren’t only equally passionate about both activities, but also they a lot see of similarities between the two.
In pursuit of perfection
“Both winemakers and surfers chase perfection,” says Oded Shakked, owner and winemaker for Healdsburg-based Longboard Vineyards
. “We’re never satisfied; we’re always chasing that perfect wave, that perfect grape, the perfect wine. When you do both things long enough, you realize deep inside that nature is bigger than you, and your job is to translate it when it’s right. We don’t make wine—nature makes wine—but we translate it into a dance on the palate. In surfing, we don’t catch waves, we put ourselves into the position to let the waves catch us and we translate that energy into a dance on the water. I see a lot of parallels between the two.”
Shakked, who grew up 100 yards from the beach in Israel, started surfing at age 11, becoming one of the area’s first surfers, and has continued ever since. His first career was building surfboards, a job that let him work nine months out of the year and surf the other three. While searching for the closest big waves in France, Spain and Portugal, he fell in love with wine and realized he could pursue both passions by moving to California. He studied winemaking at UC Davis, and ended up working 18 years at J Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg. After dabbling in winemaking himself by exchanging production space for a raise, he started a hobby brand that quickly took off. Longboard Vineyards was born with its first official release in 2001, and the tasting room opened in 2005.
Today, Longboard makes between 6,000 and 7,500 cases per year of a variety of wines, including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, sparkling and Cabernet Sauvignon. While the wines appeal to a broad demographic (not just surfers), Longboard customers do tend to share an understanding of the importance of nature and buying products that were made sustainably, locally and in connection with the land.
“That’s who I market to: anybody who wants something real,” says Shakked. “Just like the people who take an extra step to buy at their local farmer’s market because they know it’s real food, not something that was concocted in a lab somewhere. I’d say that’s my customer. Even though everything is becoming hugely incorporated, I think there are enough people who appreciate that. I really try to market to people who ‘get it,’ understand it’s important to support people who work the land and make a product that’s true—not adulterated or played with.”
Shakked’s mindset strikes a parallel with one of his favorite things about surfing: the feeling of community with like-minded people.
“My favorite thing about surfing is the camaraderie,” he says. “Both men and women, paddling together. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, or how good you are, it’s a really great feeling of a community—of people who share something deep. There’s that sense that you belong to a tribe of people who appreciate the ocean. A lot of us have given up careers and wealth just to keep on doing what we love to do. There’s a strong bond between people in the surfing community, and it’s the same in the wine industry. You go into the wine industry and you take a vow of poverty; you’re not going to make tons of money in the wine business, but you’re going to have a hell of a lifestyle and enjoy who you work with and be proud of what you make.”
Connecting to nature
For Paul Sloan of Sebastopol-based Small Vines Wines
, who calls himself a “vigneron” (a French word meaning a person who cultivates grapes for winemaking), both surfing and winemaking fuel his desire to connect with nature in a meaningful way. A surfer since his teens, Sloan got hooked on the sport when a high school friend invited him along. He’s been surfing ever since, even after starting his family, planting his first vines in 1999 and eventually purchasing his own property in 2007.
“When you go surfing, the ocean is different every single day, so your experience is different every time,” he says. “It takes a lot of intuition to read the ocean and understand what’s happening, like following currents. There’s a lot of connectedness to nature. In my line of work, I’m a farmer and a winemaker. I made these choices because this is the only way that I know how to live my life. Getting that connection to nature is important to me.”
With the wind, waves and weather for surfing being best in winter, and the winery being the busiest in late spring to early fall, balancing the two passions in Sloan’s life is made easier by focusing on each seasonally. His connection to the land is so acute, he says, that he actually feels when the seasons start pulling him in another direction.
“We feel that coastal influence every single day where we live and where we grow our grapes. I can feel when the wind shifts offshore in the fall. There’s this trigger in me that says, ‘OK, get that last fermenter in barrel and then it’s time to start surfing!’ Mid-October, when that last fermentation lot goes into barrel, that’s generally when I start surfing a little more.”
While it isn’t always easy to balance work, hobby and family, he makes it work by leaving home at 5:30 a.m. to surf—usually at one of his favorite spots like the chain of coves along Goat Rock, Salmon Creek or Point Arena—so he can be back by 8:30 to focus on work and family. The peace and mental solace he experiences on the waves makes the drive and early mornings worth it.
Sloan’s connection to nature has helped his winemaking business by making him realize how much the land, weather and topography affects the grapes and subsequent flavors of the wine. When he and his family were looking to purchase property, the site was carefully chosen based on just the right climate: the perfect combination of cooling coastal influences, well-drained, low-vigor soil and top of a ridge-line location.
“I really started seeing a connection between the land, the site on which grapes were grown and how that turned into the most meaningful expression of a wine,” explains Sloan. “I look very closely at the places where we’re growing and want to make wines that express those cool coastal sites, rather than what I as a winemaker can do to the wine. It’s more about the place and the year the fruit was grown than about the person tending to it after it was harvested.”
After studying wine and winemaking, traveling to Europe several times and tasting a variety of exceptional wines primarily from the Burgundy region of France, Sloan has been dedicated to growing only the highest-quality winegrapes, which he achieves by encouraging smaller yields (less fruit per vine) from higher-density, European-style spacing of the vines. He’s even gone so far as to purchase specialty equipment from Europe that’s unavailable in the United States. It took years of planting and farming vineyards-for-hire, as a vineyard development and management company, to save enough money to eventually lease back one of the first high-density vineyards he planted. In 2005, the Sloans were able to craft a tiny batch of wine, which immediately received critical acclaim and sold out.
“My love for nature is so strong that, in my style of winemaking, I really wanted no additives,” says Sloan. “I wanted them to be as pure an expression as possible of the place they were grown. Through my research and ultimately studying the Burgundy region of France quite in-depth, I felt that by bringing the vine rows closer together we could achieve several things, the end result being that I wanted to grow the best wine I possibly could. My decisions for organic farming, high-density planting, and for having only one or two pounds of grapes per vine really gives concentration and structure to the wines.”
By bringing the vine rows close together the vines at Small Vines Wines also get less direct sunlight on the fruit, which maintains better acidity. Unlike many winemakers, Sloan’s Old World, traditional methods mean he doesn’t have to add any acid to his wine.
For Sloan, surfing and winemaking are closely linked in more ways than one, and it’s the feeling of never knowing exactly what’s going to happen that he loves most.
“There’s a certain unpredictability to both endeavors,” he says. “You’re responding or reacting to what Mother Nature is sending your way. She’s really in control of what happens in the ocean and what happens in the vineyards. Both are quite unpredictable—I think that’s what I love most about it. I’m really living with nature, and I can feel that connection in both my hobby and career.”
Striking a balance
Growing up in Southern California during the surf craze heydays of the 1960s, it was only natural that Bill Hawley, surfer and (now) owner of Random Ridge Winery
, got into the sport during his youth. Before the time of wetsuits and surfboard leashes, Hawley was catching waves, mastering the art and skills of surfing, eventually even surfing competitively and winning competitions from high school age up through the mid-1990s, when he won the Brotherhood Board Shop surfing competition at Moat Creek Beach in California.
After graduating from Sonoma State University with a degree in poetry in 1974, Hawley found work pruning vineyards, which gave him time to surf on his days off. After experimenting with making his own wine, Random Ridge, located on top of Mount Vedeer on the ridge between Sonoma and Napa counties, was officially born with its first commercial release in 1988. Today, the winery makes about 3,000 cases per year of several different wines including Old Vine Zinfandel (aptly named “Old Wave”), Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese.
Being as passionate about winemaking as he is about surfing (and vice versa), Hawley has learned to balance his two loves. “Surfing and wine compliment one another,” he says. “The seasonality of looking after the vineyard and making wine give me the opportunity to travel in the summer pre-harvest and in the winter post-harvest.”
Today, once his wines are safely in the barrel, he often combines surf and wine travel, including trips to Europe, New Zealand and Australia, South America and Japan.
“It’s been really cool, because a lot of the surf spots that I’ve gone to have been because of the wine and the surf,” says Hawley. “Western Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Spain, Portugal and France—all of those destinations I dovetailed in surf and wine at the same time—sort of a double dip, if you will!”
Is there anywhere still on his bucket list after literally having traveled the world? He hopes to one day follow one of his son’s footsteps in visiting South Africa, for both the great surfing and the excellent wine.
In short, Hawley sees his legacy in his vineyards, wine, poetry and sons. “Random Ridge is my life’s work,” he says. “Surfing keeps me inspired. Sharing a bottle of wine with friends is precious, like sharing waves on a clean, clear day. Some days, I’m lucky enough to do both.”
“When I get in the water, the rest of my world disappears. The opportunity of being engulfed and taken over by something bigger than I am? That’s it for me.”
So says Sam Spencer, co-owner (with Bill Price) of Sonoma-based Head High Wines, when asked what he loves best about surfing. Head High, which derived its name from the surfing term that refers to waves that perfectly match the height of the rider, launched in 2015 and today produces more than 8,000 cases of 2013 Pinot Noir and a 2014 Rosé from the Sonoma Coast, and a 2013 Red Blend from the North Coast.
“No matter how prepared you are to get in the water—how fit you are, or how mentally prepared—you’re really responding to something,” says Spencer. “It’s not you making the waves or you making the play. There’s something that’s pitched to you, and it was pitched to you from thousands of miles away, in some cases. It’s really an amazing, humbling thing when you start to really grasp it.”
In the same way surfers learn how to read a swell, how to feel the impulse and the rhythm of the sea on any particular day and how to let the waves take them where they want to go, winemakers learn how to feel the land and let go to create the best wine.
“There’s a vast number of variables that make that energy rise up to something you can ride,” says Spencer. “Likewise, in the vineyard, you’re responding to the inputs that were put in place years in advance. You interpret what it wants to be, get out of your own way and let the vineyard express itself without you imposing yourself on it. When you’re sensitive and open and let that landscape and the particulars of microclimate and terrain impose themselves on you instead of the other way around, that’s when you really start making interesting wine.”
From the very beginning of forming the business, Head High Wines sought to operate as sustainable and responsible stewards of the ecosystem and give back to make an impact in its community and beyond. The winery’s nonprofit efforts represent a two-pronged approach to support both the community of people who grow and make the wines, and the power and beauty of the natural world and its resources as a whole.
“[Giving back] seemed like a natural thing we ought to be doing,” explains Sam Spencer, co-owner. “Philanthropy is something that’s a core value to our company. Given the ‘non-essential’ nature of these two pursuits [surfing and winemaking], we thought if we built a business model that had basically unlimited potential for philanthropy as we grow, what a cool business that would be—to be able to be profitable and philanthropic out of the gate, and to commit that money upfront rather than say ‘this will be a percentage of profit,’ which is a very nebulous thing to say. We wanted it to be locked and loaded into our business plan and into our strategic plan.”
To that end, $1 for every two bottles of wine purchased supports social and environmental organizations, including the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation
and Sustainable Surf
, a nonprofit aiming to address environmental impacts that threaten the “surfing habitat” such as ocean acidification, sea level rise and coastal erosion, via environmental campaigns that educate surfers about the lifestyle choices they can take to lower their impact on the ocean environment. The program’s efforts include developing more sustainable surfboard options, Styrofoam waste recycling and promoting healthier lifestyle choices. It hopes to ultimately help resolve negative impacts related to climate change, marine plastic pollution and water quality issues that threaten the health of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches.
Besides giving money to both of these very deserving and influential organizations, Head High has recently begun an initiative with Sustainable Surf to recycle corks used in the wine industry and put them into the hands of ReCORK, a cork recycling initiative that gives new life to used wine corks through products like yoga blocks. It’s in the midst of developing a track pad (a pad on the back of a surfboard to give the rear foot more grip, or traction, on the board) out of cork, versus the commonly used Neoprene.
“We’re going to reach out to Sonoma County and Napa Valley vintners, and anyone else who’s willing to participate in an effort to collect cork,” explains Spencer. “Though that wasn’t our idea—that’s ReCORK and Sustainable Surf’s idea—I thought it would be a really cool way to merge the interests of the two industries and get a pathway to having some real impact.”