How I Farm Artisanal Grapes

As the 2010 growing season kicks off I have been thinking a lot about the choices we make in our approach to farming, and how our vineyard philosophy fits into the wider gestalt of artisanal wine production.

These days the fad du jour (or the 800-lb. gorilla) is biodynamics. OK I think the movement is probably just so twenty-aughts, but bio-D still gets outsized media attention in relation to its actual penetration in the industry. Like the vast majority of grape growers out there, I don’t do bio-D and I have no plans to.

This is not a reactionary position. First and foremost, I have tasted plenty of wine made from bio-D grapes, and the reality is that they are generally less palate-friendly than wines made from the same grapes farmed more traditionally. I don’t know why this is, but I have tasted it over and over. My wines are already out at the edge of the mainstream consumer palate — I have no deisre to push them further out by adopting bio-D.

Second, I am a trained research scientist with all the personality traits that implies. I find the New Age mysticism explicit in the bio-D approach to be personally repellent. That said, I have read Steiner and found concepts there that have merit in what I consider to be my rationally-grounded weltansicht.

The most important of Steiner’s principles I have incorporated into our farming is the idea that the vineyard is a whole ecosystem. I started to develop this idea on my own back in 1992; reading Steiner reinforced it, and a day talking with soil microbiologist Claude Bourguinon and Anne-Claude Leflaive in Batard Montrachet cemented it.

Simply, we are not just farming grapes — we are farming everything from the soil and sub-soil flora and fauna, to the permanent cover crop, the plants and trees growing at the vineyard periphery, and all the way up to the top predators at the site. The health and well-being of every one of these factors equally into every management decision we make.

I also pursue the principle of minimizing farming inputs, particularly chemical inputs. As with bio-D we are not pursuing “organic” certification, but the concept of avoiding the use of petro-chemicals is deeply seated in our farming. The truth is that, in general, employing petro-chemicals may help with one farming problem but often creates others that can only be solved by using more petro-chemicals. Excuse me, but that’s just stupid.

Really, there are just two over-arching elements guiding my farming philosophy. First, I realize that I am just a steward of the land and it is my responsibility to leave it healthier than I found it. Second, I have always wanted to farm in such a way that I would have no fears of my kids running around on site, getting dirty and putting things in their mouths. I am satisfied that we are achieving both of these goals.

Here are some of the particulars: Westwood’s Annadel Estate Vineyard is located in a relatively cool region, planted on well-drained cobbly soils. The land was fallow for at least three decades before we planted it. We cross-ripped it to a depth of 3 feet in preparation for vines, but did not make any of the customary soil amendments nor use any herbicides.

We have Dijon clones of Pinot Noir planted in the coolest, downslope portions of the site. Our Rhône varieties are planted on the shallower soils of the upper, south-facing slopes. I sourced half of our Syrah and all of our Grenache, Mourvedre and Counoise budwood from Tablas Creek Vineyard’s registered nursery back in 2001. Most of our vineyard is planted at 6’x5′ spacing and trained to cordon, with a vertical trellis.

I noted that we didn’t prep the ground with any amendments before planting; this includes nitrogen and potassium. In fact we didn’t apply any fertilizers at all to the vineyard until after our first crop year — 2005. Since then we have applied a very limited amount of fertilizer every winter, using rates for N and K calculated from the prior harvest’s juice compositions and grape yields.

In years of normal winter rainfall there is ample sub-surface water moving through the site; we usually do not need to irrigate until after flowering. However during the dry late-spring and summer months the available moisture in the soil decreases to the point that the vines would wilt permanently without irrigation.

We drip-irrigate the vineyard infrequently (but deeply) before veraison, to maintain water deficits of 30%-40%. This deficit limits canopy growth and berry expansion. After veraison the vines shift from growing to accumulating sugar in the berries; at this point we increase the frequency of irrigation (at reduced durations) to maintain water deficits of 10%-20%. This smaller deficit assures that our fruit ripens normally, without dehydration. I have zero interest in making wine out of raisined grapes.

Our vineyard practice is designed to moderate the yields — we have not put the vines on steroids, as it were. In addition to restricted irrigation and fertilization, we practice a rigorous green thinning on all the vines. Generally we make one pass through the Pinot, two passes through the Syrah and 3-4 passes through the late-ripening Grenache, Mourvedre and Counoise (the third pass is for color, and the fourth is to remove Botrytis, if necessary).

Our target yields are 2.5-2.75 tons/acre for the Pinot and 3.75-4.0 tons/acre for the Rhône varieties. If we were in Burgundy, the Pinot yield would translate to just slightly more than the requirement for grand cru designation. Our target yield for the Rhône varieties is between the 37 hL/ha and 52 hL/ha average yields for village-named and regional appellation wines from the Côtes du Rhône. In actual practice, the average yields we have realized between 2005 and 2009 are 1.87 tons/acre and 4.02 tons/acre, respectively (25 hL/ha and 54 hL/ha).

It is personally satisfying that we are achieving these yields with minimal inputs to control disease: a dormant application of lime sulfur/copper and as few applications of elemental sulfur as necessary to control mildew, and the rare application of a Botrycide in the Grenache only, to control late-season rots in this thin-skinned variety, usually the last to ripen at our site in early November.

I am very concerned about the effects of the sticker-spreader generally used in farming, both on the health of the ecosystem (including my workers!) and on the health of the yeast fermenting our grapes. I insist that these materials be used at less than the minimum recommended rates, and generally handled as though they were poison (though they are not listed as such).

The results of our farming approach are evident to me in our wines. The wines I make from the Annadel Estate have a vibrant minerality. Ferments of these grapes are healthy, with the result that they can achieve alcohols over 14% without any evidence of heat on the palate. Fruit typically comes off at harvest with good acids and low juice potassium levels, requiring little in the way of tartaric addition. And our wines never show jammy, raisiny, over-ripe flavors. This is altogether very satisfying to me, and I hope to those who try our wines.

5 thoughts on “How I Farm Artisanal Grapes

  1. SaraLouise

    Hi John – thanks for dropping by Le Petit Village.
    I don’t know much about anything you’ve written in this post, but I do love your farming philosophy, and this… “I realize that I am just a steward of the land and it is my responsibility to leave it healthier than I found it” is nicely said.
    And if Argentina doesn’t get you, and you do become neighbor, it could get interesting… with you being an Aggie and me being a Longhorn, Provence may not be big enough for the both of us 😉

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Thanks, Sara Louise! I warn readers in the header that it’s going to get geeky and wonky. I guess I deliver. Hey some of my best friends are Longhorns – including my brother-in-law. If we were to be neighbors I can just see it now – some nice wine, something made from sanglie, and a certain American college football game on the telly around the end of November. Can you imaging the looks on our French friends faces?

  2. Mark's Wine Club

    John, Enjoyed your comments over at Fermentation in regard to the forced labeling of Sonoma County on bottles. I think you were well ahead of your time in treating the entire vineyard as an ecosystem.

    One thing I can grasp, you’re not the usual Aggie within the wine industry (UC Davis is also the Aggies if memory serves)

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Thanks Mark. I may have been ahead of MY time but I don’t think I was ahead of THE times. For centuries many Italian vineyards were intensively-farmed, interplanted with fruit trees and annual crops. When I first read about this I started to think of the vineyard ecology. Then I had a great talk with an entomologist who was coming up with his own ideas for an ecosystem approach to agricultural pest management, which got me thinking further. When I began to research the literature on the subject I came across Steiner, well before I had ever heard anyone mention “biodynamics” in a vineyard context. I think Steiner was a total nut job, but I think the “agriculture-as-ecosystem” concepts he articulated are valid, and based on sound received pre-industrial farming wisdom.

      Yeah I am an Aggie twice over: TAMU and UCD both. “[N]ot the usual Aggie”? I’ll take that as a compliment 🙂 No, perhaps I’m not. My college and post-graduate educations and affiliations were just the springboard…

  3. Pingback: Wine Grapes & Pesticides in Sonoma « notes from the winemaker

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