July 17-24, 2016
Avignon – Lyon
Aboard the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s New Ship: The S.S. Catherine
Prices start at $4,274 per person, all inclusive
I recently sold my vineyard in Soledad in the Salinas Valley. I didn’t really want to do it – it was arguably producing the most interesting grapes with which we were privileged to work. The AlbariÃ±o and Loureiro seemed to consistently produce wines that were elegant, true expressions of the grape1 and the Moscato Giallo was lovely – elegant, balanced and haunting.2 Most unexpectedly, we were growing some breathtakingly original selections of Grenache that were just unlike anything I had ever tasted.3,4 And the Nebbiolo!5 – I had almost forgotten about that. I’m certain that no one in my lifetime will ever figure out how to sell New World Nebbiolo at a price that will ever begin to cover the cost of producing such a difficult wine, but the fact that we were able to produce such a creditable effort in what is not exactly an obvious site for the grape, is nothing short of miraculous.6
Soledad, neither the vineyard site nor the town itself is really the most prepossessing of locales. If you look at the Santa Lucia range to the West and the Gabilan range to East, you do feel enclosed, protected; there is a real stark beauty to the place. But, the wind, the wind. If you are working out in the vineyard for any length of time, or living in the area, the wind may just drive you mad. I’m not quite sure why this should be the case; on a psychological basis, it does rather feel that the world (or at least its air) is just rushing by you; there is seemingly no place for repose. The other thing that just drove me crazy was the proximity of the vineyard to the prison. You could hear the public address announcements from the prison – it was not much more than a quarter of a mile away. And of course you were always hearing the sound of gunfire – target practice, one assumed.7 Hindsight is always twenty/twenty, but it seems that I might have had a little better intuition about the subtle (or not so subtle) Feng Shui aspects of the place before rushing in years ago to buy it. Maybe this was hubris, or just a certain kind of dissociation.
So, I sold it because I needed to – no need to air the dirty laundry of tawdry financial matters – and the deed is doon. Maybe I’m currently going through a period of rationalization, telling myself why this just had to happen.8 I think back to my motivations for planting the vineyard in the first place. At the time the Estate vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the eponymous Bonny Doon, had recently begun to show symptoms of what we would soon learn was Pierce’s Disease.9 I tend to confound chronology in my mind, and imagine that I acquired the Soledad vineyard after the demise of the Bonny Doon Estate, but the two were actually occurring concurrently. I bought the property in Soledad because it was rather inexpensive (or so it seemed at the time) and I imagined that I could plant it to cool Piemontese grapes for Big House Red.10 The only minor problems were: a) It turned out to be almost orders of magnitude more expensive to farm the vineyard, especially organically, as was originally conceived, than I could ever imagine; b) Yields had to be greatly restricted (2 tons/acre vs. 4-5) to even begin to get the grapes to approach maturity, which exacerbated issue of point a); c) All of these varieties yielded grapes with shriekingly high levels of acidity, most especially the Barbera. Unless one added a non-trivial amount of potassium carbonate to the wine to de-acidulate the wine, the resulting blend was just too tart for human consumption. Now, if I had only just thought of making it as a red sparkling wine…11
One big issue with the Soledad vineyard, indeed with almost any vineyard in the Salinas Valley was the infernal wind, which would typically begin in the late morning and not conclude until late afternoon, offering a photosynthetic window that could be measured in picoseconds. We attempted all sorts of strategies to overcome this issue – from the planting of casurina trees as windbreaks,12 to maintaining tall cover-crops between the rows, to re-heading the vines closer to ground level. Ultimately, we decided to just take our lumps – after removing the casurinas – between the untilled cover crop and the vines headed lower, it seemed that we were making some headway on the headwind.
The other intractable issues with the vineyard were two; they are linked and they were major. It just doesn’t rain much in the Salinas Valley. On a very wet year you might see ten to twelve inches of rain, on a dry year it might just be three or four. It is just really too dry to farm without supplemental irrigation. Virtually the entirely civilized wine world knows (or should know) my views on drip irrigation – it mortally cripples the potential expression of terroir by virtue of limiting the root-zone of the plant. There were solid-set sprinklers at the vineyard in Soledad, indeed they were there when I bought the place, but we found that we couldn’t really use them after the vines had leafed out, because they tended to cause a slight case of salt-burn, as the water evaporated from the leaves (damn wind again).
You see, there is a reason why the valley is called Salinas. The water that comes from the underground Salinas River is slightly saline. When you irrigate with saline water you are generally gradually diminishing the fertility and arability of your soil. The more salt that accumulates in the soil, the more difficult it becomes for plants to extract water; there is a further tendency toward soil compaction, greatly restricting root development.13
So, it is unfortunate that I had to sell when I did, but like it or not, the universe seems to be giving me instruction in how my actions might be more congruent with my stated beliefs/values. I originally bought the vineyard with the (mistaken) notion that I could grow good, inexpensive grapes there. With enough iteration and investment, we found that certain varieties did in fact reasonably well, indeed were rather brilliant. And yet, the whole proposition of growing grapes in the Salinas Valley is, I would maintain, not really sustainable. You cannot continue to irrigate a vineyard with slightly salty water and expect it to magically regenerate its fertility, as if in a fairy tale.14
It is a bitter – maybe more accurately, salty pill to swallow,15 but my viticultural life has become slightly more simplified. Our winemaking range will gradually shrink in the next year or two, but rather than going wide, we’re going deep.16