he the area's next cult winemaker? Greg Brewer, winemaker at Melville
Winery and for his own label, Brewer-Clifton, has gotten rave reviews
for both his Pinot Noir and his Chardonnay."
- From "The Next Napa" Expedia Travels Magazine, May/June
in darkness, you reach for a flashlight to help shed light on your surroundings.
As you initially twist the lens, you get a general sense of the area around
you, yet you still don't have a precise view of anything in particular.
Only upon twisting it further do you arrive at a more precise picture
of the object of your search.
The approach to
a wine grape vine at its highest, yet most fundamental level is much the
same as manipulation of a flashlight in the dark. A bulb will prevent
you from falling, but you are not likely to find that for which you are
looking. Similarly a planted grape vine will bear fruit that is perhaps
suitable for wine production, but is not likely to produce a memorable
beverage representative of its site and provenance. In that regard, we
are consistently pushing ourselves and our vines by continually "twisting
the lens" of our light trying to eliminate any element of the vineyard
which is either unnecessary or excessive. As such, we can harness the
energy of the plant into a small quantity of fruit that will be the sole
recipient of its soil and photosynthesis.
In all of our writing
and correspondence, we refer to our vineyard yields in terms of pounds
per plant as opposed to the more common tons per acre. The more archaic
system (tons/acre) has become completely irrelevant as more densely planted
vineyards such as our own are coming into production throughout the premium
growing areas of the state. Traditional vineyard plantings in California
using twelve foot rows and eight foot spacing between vines would end
up with approximately 500 vines per acre. Our estate, which is planted
eight feet by three feet gives us over 1800 vines per acre. While the
majority of ultra-premium wine grape growers would find themselves content
with three to four tons per acre at 500 vines per acre, we push our field
to produce the same, but with quadruple the number of vines. By farming
for about three to four pounds per plant, we are confident that our flashlight
beam will be as focused as possible allowing our vineyard site to express
itself to its full and most pure capacity.
Wine is Made in the Vineyard
When you reach the
highest levels of any field or profession, it is not unusual fo find concepts
and issues that you have in common with other milieu that you may have
previously found to be completely dissimilar. At some of their more profound
levels, literature study can become more and more mathematical, and mathematical
research finds itself increasingly rooted in philosophical reasoning.
Wine production is
no different from those areas mentioned above, as it maintains more kinship
with the culinary world as both reach for the highest levels of their
respective expression. Initially when discussing wine production, conversations
revolve around such banalities as type of barrel, time in barrel, yeast
and malo-lactic fermentation. While important, these elements should only
be seen as techniques employed to create a palatable bottle of wine. Similarly
in food, knife aptitude, types and amounts of seasoning and temperatures
play important roles, yet only simply address general protocol in the
production of a dish.
Once those fundamentals
have been honed and perfected, it is necessary to look elsewhere to reach
the next level. At that point, provenance of raw materials plays the most
important role and is by far the most pivotal differentiating element
between good and great. Coincidentally, as one succeeds in finding such
ingredients, the technical side plays a lesser and lesser role. We see
a very common example of this in sushi production. When working with the
most coveted bell of ahi tuna (toro) it is most likely that the chef will
simply opt to slice it and plate it alone void of any other ingredients
or components. Conversely, when faced with fish that might fall somewhat
shy of perfection, he or she may reach for green onions and ponzu sauce
to compensate for the shortcomings of the raw materials.
This tenacity towards
provenance importance is also illustrated in a recent discussion with
Alain Ducasse who is universally thought to be the greatest chef of our
time. At the end of the interview, Ducasse was asked what would be his
ultimate meal. Upon some short reflection, he simply answered, "Rouget.
(A fish called red mullet found in the Mediterranean). The whole fish,
quickly grilled on both sides with no salt or other seasonings...plated
as a whole fish with no garnish." Faced with the simplicity of his response,
the interviewer seemed surprised and caught off guard. While grasping
for other closing remarks, Ducasse politely interrupted with a small smile,
"but it has to be caught from where it swims arounds rocks, not sand...it
makes a difference."
In both of the abovementioned
circumstances, technical proficiency plays a role, but is really secondary
in importance to the raw ingredients used. A sushi chef will always maintain
a perfect workstation, and an ample arsenal of razor sharp cutlery. Similarly,
the grill referred to by Ducasse was undoubtedly at an ideal temperature
with the cooking time executed at just the right second. At the winery
as well, there are reasons why our tanks are on five foot stands, we only
use short hoses and control the flow rate of liquid through them and why
we only bottle by gravity during the waning cycle of the moon. Those practices
should only be seen as secondary or tertiary in importance, however, to
the work that is carried out all year long in the vineyard.
It is only through
the careful selection of our vineyard properties, and the isolation and
study of our vineyard blocks that we can seek to arrive at their full
potential. Calculated composting, complex cover cropping practice and
deficit irrigation, matched with a tremendous amount of crop reduction
and canopy management are the critical components to our strength as wine
growers. That strength will ultimately set us apart from the others in
the school, who will be content in their habitat surrounded by sand.