Where to begin? Maybe all the way back to my great grand parents who started farming in Napa before the turn of the 20th century. Recalling my “Bisnonno” having what at the time I thought were gigantic barrels, in the basement, full of wine he made the previous season. Despite my parents admonishments, he would hand us kids a glass of half wine/half water and say “it will do you good and help you too”. Not that the wine was anything to remember, but somehow that experience was imprinted in my memory.
Fast forward about 55 years, after a very enjoyable career as a research scientist for our government’s space systems in Los Angeles, my wife Pam and I began to look for retirement options. Since neither one of us could hit a straight tee shot, golf was not on our list. We enjoyed being in the country, and especially the wine country. By this time Napa had changed so much as to be unrecognizable from my childhood memories, not to mention unaffordable. Living in LA, we would make trips to the Santa Barbara wine country. Then, long-time friends and official wine geeks asked us to go along for a weekend in Paso Robles. As an undergrad at UCSB in the 70’s, I would stop for gas in Paso on my way to school after breaks. That’s all I knew about the place. I didn’t even know it had a “downtown”. That weekend visit we drove the back roads to a number of wineries, and Pam and I fell in love with the place, especially the west side. The downtown area with its lovely park was so old-fashioned and quaint. No parking meters! We started looking for property with the idea of planting a small vineyard, ten acres at most. We tried to buy a few places with about 20 acres, but it was the height of the real estate boom, and we were out-bid. We decided to keep looking, but were a bit discouraged.
That’s just when the economy imploded and the great recession set in. Bad for many, lucky for us. We found a spectacular piece of property just off Adelaida Road, on the west side of town. At 160 acres it was a whole lot bigger than we were looking for, but the price had been cut in half, and it just felt right. It had three good wells and about 40 acres of plantable terrain. At one time, just after the First World War, it was owned by the famed Polish concert pianist and politician, Ignace Paderewski. He had purchased the property and named it Rancho Santa Helena, for his wife. By the time we arrived the almonds he had planted a hundred years before, had mostly been removed. We started with an empty slate and decided for a number of reasons, both good and bad, to establish a “dry farmed” vineyard. Fortunately we had enough sense to consult a few of the local experts on dry farming grapes, such as Dave Osgood and Tomas Mendoza, then jumped in and planted the first 12 acres as dry farmed red wine grapes. Dry farming depends upon rain for irrigation, no drip, drip, drip. That was in 2012. The last time for five years there would be rain in California. We were sure we had caused the drought, so perfect the timing. Talk about a steep learning curve! Having the grapes survive such tough times inspired us to plant an additional 20 acres of grapes in 2016. One might well question the sanity of such a move. Clearly the triumph of hope over experience. That said, the vineyard, and owners are doing well.
On a 160-acre property, the vineyard consists of approximately 35 acres of vines located atop a southwest facing ridge, 1850 feet above sea level. The first 12 acres was planted in 2012 to five red grape varieties, Garnacha Tinta, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Primitivo. In 2016 we expanded the vineyard to 22 acres and added another red variety, Syrah. Finally, in 2018 we added another 13 acres of vines, this time to three white varieties, Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, and of all things, Riesling. About three quarters of the plants are grafted onto 1103P rootstock. The remaining quarter are on their own roots.
The site consists of all hillsides, ranging from gentle to quite steep. Several factors make the vineyard a unique and special place on which to farm ultra-premium wine grapes. First is the soil, composed of ancient seabed, uplifted millions of years ago by tectonic forces. A plethora of chalky limestone and fossilized whale bones provides a highly alkaline soil capable of retaining significant winter rain moisture throughout the hot summer. And in a “normal” winter we get a reasonable amount of rain, something like 12-20 inches. This allows us to not irrigate the vines. The vineyard is completely “dry-farmed”. Unlike a drip irrigated vineyard, where the vine roots remain close to the surface awaiting their next drink like a pup looking for a treat, dry-farmed grapes send roots searching for residual moisture and nutrients trapped deep in the rocks and soil. If one believes, and I do, that the dirt matters to the taste of the wine, that terroir exists, then these deep roots endow the fruit and more importantly the wine with the most complete and honest template of the place in which they are grown. The alkaline soil, ironically, also allows the grapes to retain their natural acidity. In more neutral and acidic soils, potassium is taken up by the roots during fruit development which is then exchanged for hydrogen ions in the grapes, lowering the acidity of the juice. The high calcium concentration in our soils inhibits the potassium uptake. It is the acidity which imbues the wines with a crisp freshness, not allowing them to get too heavy or flabby.
The weather of course is the main driver of terroir. The vineyard, since it is high, has somewhat moderated temperatures compared to the valleys. It is generally a bit cooler on hot days and warmer on cold nights. Nevertheless, we still see diurnal (day/night) temperature swings of 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the growing season. This in addition to the soils allows the grapes to retain acidity and freshness.
The vineyard is farmed in as Earth friendly a way as possible. We don’t irrigate, saving precious ground water. We use no herbicides, insecticides, or fertilizers. All of which can harm the ecosystem, not to mention ending up in the wine. Each fall we plant a cover crop of beans, peas, and oats that helps prevent soil erosion during the winter and provides organic material for soil health and nitrogen from nitrogen fixing legumes. We farm this way not because it’s the most economically viable path; it’s not. But because we believe it’s the best path for the future health of the vineyard, its surroundings, and luckily, makes the best wine.