When the water in the east fork of the Russian River is running high, the whir of a hydropower generator can just be heard over the river’s turbulence. This generator provides electricity to much of the sparsely-populated Potter Valley, and is located on the edge of the Vecino Vineyard property. The guy who keeps the turbines in good working order is Vecino’s owner, Luke Miller, who formerly used his wrench-turning skills for ski lift maintenance (a.k.a. highly-skilled ski bumming) in Tahoe, and who purchased the Vecino Vineyard in 2003. Fortunately, the best parts of ski season don’t overlap too much with grape-growing season, during which Luke is almost single-mindedly committed to growing good wine.
The Vecino Vineyard is located near the northeast corner of Potter Valley, about 30 minutes’ drive outside of Ukiah in Mendocino County. The Sauvignon block, planted in the late 80’s, climbs a south-facing slope above the headwaters of the east fork of the Russian River. Potter Valley is known for sweltering hot days and piercingly cold nights. While these extremes present challenges, they’re ideal for keeping the grapes’ natural acidity intact through the ripening season, and they also mean disease pressure is low. The soils are alluvial plain deposits derived from the Franciscan Complex bedrock of the hills that ring the valley. At Vecino, it goes from sandy loam on the hillsides to clay-rich loam in lower areas.
“Conscientious” might be the best word to describe the farming at Vecino. Luke pays close attention and gives incredible care to his vineyard. This means keeping the soil healthy by avoiding any herbicides and by applying biodynamic practices. It also means intervention only when it’s really needed. Working this way in the favorable environment of Potter Valley means that Luke is able to get through many seasons without spraying a thing!
Restaurateur Adel Atallah bought his small hillside property outside Healdsburg back in the 1990’s. The attractions of the place are obvious – a beautiful view of the Dry Creek Valley, a seasonal creek, and a good supply of water among them. At the top of the property sits a fabulous house with broad palm trees lining the drive.
Adel is known in Sonoma County as a master of the greasy spoon breakfast, and along with generous helpings, his restaurants are known for great service and a connection to community. Back in 2001, when Adel was considering what to do with the land between the house and Dry Creek Road, this community spirit moved him to plant what made Dry Creek Valley famous: Zinfandel.
The soil at Adel’s is a brownish gravelly clay-loam, with numerous fist-size rocks that would make mechanical mowing a messy affair. Thus, the mostly native ground cover is managed entirely by weed eater. Though the vineyard has been farmed organically for the past 10 years, this was not the case early on. Since we took over farming the site, we have concentrated on the soil, re-invigorating with compost and tilth-improving cover crops, and by pruning back the vines to where the wood is healthy and free of disease. There are a few areas with weak or dying vines that we will try to rehabilitate or replant in the coming years.
When you’re driving through the little village of Talmage, a couple miles east of Ukiah, you get a sense of stepping back in time. The homes and storefronts are aging and modest, fresh paint jobs are few and far between. It’s always a bit of a shock when passing the old, mechanical pumps of the town’s one gas station to be confronted with a spectacular golden gate, beyond which lies the City of 10,000 Buddhas – one of the largest Buddhist communities in the western hemisphere. The City’s property covers hundreds of acres, and it includes the Talmage Ranch vineyard, which was already well established when the monastery acquired the property in 1974.
The Buddhist ethic of ahimsa is the rule here. Roughly summarized as “do no harm,” ahimsa requires that Tia and Troy Satterwhite of Rosewood Vineyards, who lease the Talmage Ranch from the Buddhists, must farm the ranch organically. Fortunately, the Satterwhites are practiced in organic grape farming, and the hot, dry climate keeps disease pressure to a minimum. Most of the weeds dry up early in the season, and the ones that endure exist humbly in the shade of vines whose trunks are as big as your thigh. The true physical limitation of the site is that there is no water available for irrigation. The giant old vines, which were planted in the 1940’s, couldn’t care less about this little inconvenience – they have equally giant root systems that tap into water reserves way down deep in the alluvial soils.
From their 1700′ elevation, the vines of Waterhorse Ridge have quite a view – rugged, redwood-covered terrain, a view of the Pacific and its unearthly coastal fog, many of the Sonoma Coast’s most famous Pinot Noir vineyards. Some would say it’s no place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. Thanks to the vineyard’s owners, Patricia and Jesus, we beg to differ.
Patricia Greer and her husband Jesus Velasquez bought their land in the 1990’s with the goal of starting a family, growing diverse crops and raising a few animals. They planted 2-acres to vines in 1997, the same year their first child Jesus (“Jesusito” around the ranch) was born. At that time, the Sonoma Coast was still something of a new frontier to grape growers, but most of the area’s new growers were betting on Pinot Noir. Jesus and Patricia figured that a mix of thicker-skinned Bordeaux varieties (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon) would better withstand the coastal moisture, and would also have the “little black dress” sort of versatility to carry through the fickle turns of the wine market.
Waterhorse Ridge enjoys a cool coastal climate, but gets plenty of hot days due to its high perch on Stewart Ridge. The soil is rocky, well-drained loam derived from uplifted ocean floor sediments and basalts. Jesus and Jesusito farm the vineyard meticulously, managing the vines’ canopy by hand and keeping any other inputs to a minimum. In all but the hardest years, they’ve been able to limit spraying to one or two sulfur applications in a season. The old horse and the burro grazing in the vineyard keep the cover crop (mostly clover) maintained during the winters; a Jack Russell and a small army of cats keep the gophers in check. Other than limited irrigations in recent drought seasons, the vineyard has been dry-farmed for many years.
Patricia’s Waterhorse Ridge preserves, salsas, and other goodies can be found at some of Sonoma County’s best grocery stores and farmers markets: http://waterhorseridge.com
The Gianoli family immigrated from Prata, Italy in 1882 and soon after planted 20 acres of Zinfandel. The old winery and tavern they built is still onsite, and in the early days locals could enjoy Gianoli wines for 40 cents a gallon. The ranch hosted both overnight ranch guests and passing locals in its tavern, where there are names carved into the bar and walls with dates as far back as the 1900’s. Current owners Mike and Jenny Kelly spend their summers at the ranch, and grow enough food in their garden to feed an army.
With soils derived from broken-down sandstone, phylloxera never came to Gianoli, and the old vines made it past the 100-year mark before being replaced in 1993. The replacement cuttings came from the Pronsolino vineyard (now DuPratt), another historic Mendocino Ridge site, boasting the only virus-free old vine Zinfandel in California.
The sandy soils are nutrient-poor but deep, and the vines are own-rooted and mostly dry farmed. Vine vigor is low, and production is modest at best. Vineyard manager Steve Alden grew up in the area, and has been farming grapes on the Mendocino Ridge’s “islands in the fog” for decades. We pitch in and help Steve and his crew with winter composting and pruning, and try to help out when we can through the rest of the season.
“Mendocino Ridge” is the name given to the rugged range of mountains that’s bordered on the east by Anderson Valley, and on the west by Mendocino’s Pacific coast. Defined by elevation and mostly still untamed, the Mendocino Ridge AVA exists as something of an archipelago – a discontinuous series of peaks and ridge tops that are often the only land exposed above a sea of Pacific fog. Alongside the usual challenges of growing grapes in the coastal environment, farmers here often face losing a few vines’ worth of ripening fruit in night-time raids by the local bears.
Early settlers to the area made something of a living by harvesting tan oak bark, which they collected and shipped off to tanneries across the country. Hailing from places like Lombardy, Italy, these immigrant farmers planted chestnuts and grapes on the same ridge tops where they found enough flat space to build their homes and enough sunshine to grow food.
In 1951, the Alden family bought a 2,000-acre ranch on Mendocino Ridge that includes historic vineyard sites. It also includes the 2,000-foot-elevation “Potato Patch”, a reasonably flat field of richer soil where several settler families once grew their spuds. Steve Alden, the current owner, chose low-yielding selections of Chardonnay from both California and Burgundy and planted his vines in the old potato patch. Steve and his long-time crew (they have been working together for over 15 years now) are careful farmers, often doing by hand work that’s done by tractors in most California vineyards.