Grapegrower Interview: Kent Waliser
Farming boutique-style in Washington with 900 acres
Waliser, who has been with Sagemoor since 2002, has a background in growing tree fruit—both in his own farming business and as manager of northwest operations for Dole Foods. (He also manages Sagemoor’s 400-acre tree fruit business.) A 1976 graduate of Oregon State University with a degree in horticulture, Waliser is vice chair of the Washington State Wine Commission.
Wines & Vines: You’ve described your operation as an “oversized boutique vineyard.” What do you mean?
Kent Waliser: The Sagemoor Group is comprised of four companies with vineyards: Sagemoor, Bacchus, Dionysus and Weinbau make up the group. Bacchus and Dionysus are adjacent properties with 350 acres overlooking the Columbia River on a west-facing slope in the Columbia Valley AVA. These vineyards were located by Walter Clore in the early ’70s, and planting began in 1972. We still produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and White Riesling from those original plantings.
Our challenge with these sites is the lack of uniformity of soils, which creates challenges and opportunities at the same time. Most of the blocks in these vineyards cannot be farmed for tonnage contracts with large wineries due to the soil inconsistencies. We manage the inconsistency by variable-rate ¬irrigation and fertilization. We sell the fruit on acreage contracts to boutique wineries. This allows us essentially to make blocks of 10 to 20 acres into smaller management units, and within those areas we can customize crop yield, canopy management and harvest to meet our wineries’ needs.
Our Weinbau Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope AVA is about 450 acres and about 50-50 white and red varieties. Original plantings of Chardonnay and Riesling from 1981 are largely farmed for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. We also have sizable acreages of Cabernet, Merlot and Cab Franc. The soil at Weinbau is very consistent and allows us to satisfy large customers and small, boutique customers—the best of both worlds.
The Sagemoor Vineyard of 110 acres is in the Columbia Valley on a southwest-facing slope overlooking the Columbia River and the Tri-Cities. We raise mainly Chardonnay and Cabernet but also some Sangiovese, Malbec, Barbera, Roussanne, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc in small-acreage units to take advantage of the variations in site and soils.
Our approach is much like that of a barista serving customers exactly how they want their coffee, except this is “How do you want your grapes today?” Our complexity in management revolves around our approach to Cabernet, Merlot and Cab Franc. We have three tiers of farming that involve slightly different viticulture. The tiers revolve around a matrix that includes wine style, tons per acre, price-point of the wine and grapes.
We are able to offer a customer the option of several sites, thereby bringing complexity of flavor and consistency year after year. Wines made from Weinbau fruit tend to be more tannic and structured if the winery chooses to make that style, while wines made from Bacchus, Dionysus and Sagemoor offer a more elegant style.
Own-rooted vines hardy in a freeze
Most vines in Washington are own-rooted, because phylloxera has never established itself there. That’s at least in part because of the sandy soils and Washington’s extreme winters.
Those winters cause other problems for the vines: A severe freeze at the wrong time can kill the above-ground part of the plant. Luckily, a vine on its own roots can come back. “If this happens, we remove the top to the ground and regrow the top, getting back into production one year later,” Waliser says. “Using own-rooted vines might not work in many parts of the world, but for now we think it is an advantage.”
Waliser also thinks a vine grown on its own roots yields “true varietal character without rootstock influence.”
Sagemoor Vineyards has some Barbera vines on rootstock, Waliser adds, because that variety wasn’t readily available in Washington. He had to get the vines from California, and they were already grafted.
He notes that some wineries are experimenting with rootstock for drought tolerance or vigor control. “There is some interest in rootstocks in Washington, but it is limited at this time,” Waliser says.
W&V: Your website, sagemoorfarms.com, includes a lot of information for your clients, such as current and historical data for your vineyard blocks. Why do you provide that information online?
Waliser: When you serve 75-plus customers, there is a lot of communication needed before and during harvest. One way we have helped serve all those customers was to develop our website. We sample Brix, pH and TA for each block twice per week and post the data on our site. This allows us to do our job of data collection and let the site do the communication.
Our customers can access the information anytime after 4 p.m. at their convenience. They use trend lines to determine when they have to come to the vineyard to do more extensive sampling and tasting. We are in the center of the state, but we have customers from Walla Walla, Spokane, Woodinville and other places, which is a problem for travel and time. If the winemaker can get accurate information and save some trips to the vineyard, it then becomes a more valuable service.
We have data going back to 2000, which helps winemakers plan and understand our grapes from a historical basis. We aren’t worried about other people seeing the data—rather, I would encourage it. It is a commitment to transparency. This is a small industry, and being open with this type of data is an asset to our program.
W&V: You farm some Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling vines that are close to 40 years old. What sort of challenges do the older vines present?
Waliser: Older vines, especially Cabernet, are a real asset if the fruit is great. Our challenges with old blocks can be several. With plant spacing of 8 feet by 10 feet, the cordons are big when they fill the space. Large cordons require a different style of pruning to get the clusters away from the cordon to prevent shading. Tonnages for these old vines usually are 3-4 tons per acre for red grapes. So you are compelled to make the fruit good and sell to wineries making higher-end wine, because yields are a limiting factor. You can do better with whites, but it is still a challenge.
Older blocks can also have leafroll virus, which can hamper ripening. If this becomes a problem, you have no choice but to pull out the block and start over. So management has to be very good with old vines. Pruning, crop load and canopy management are all more difficult to get right. We have filled in missing spaces with a layering program. The market has really embraced Washington Cabernet Sauvignon, and some of the best comes from old vines. So since these old blocks are paid for, why not take advantage of the great wines they still produce, even with low tonnages? Wines made from these blocks typically score in the 90s with critics.
W&V: You’ve been using a horticultural product called Extenday that reflects light back up into the canopy from the ground. Why did you decide to use it, and what have the results been?
Waliser: We have a 10-acre block of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1972, planted at 8 feet by 10 feet, 545 plants per acre. At this spacing, and by producing a balanced crop, we have found it difficult to grow more than 4 tons per acre. It works out better to target 3-3.5 tons per acre, charge more for the fruit and make sure it is of very high quality. We have undertaken two procedures to make this possible on a yearly basis, even with different growing seasons.
Derek Way, the vineyard manager, has changed the pruning, canopy management and crop-thinning procedure to expose the fruit as much as possible without negative effects. We also started using a white reflective material called Extenday. On this site, our typical ripening date for Cabernet might be Oct. 20 to Nov. 5. This presents a challenge if it freezes like it did on Oct. 11, 2009. So with Extenday, we can advance maturity by one to two weeks. We have measured this over three years with treated and non-treated sampling. We have one winery working with both treated and non-treated fruit to validate what we see with advanced Brix measurement.
We almost replanted this block before we changed our viticulture practices and added the Extenday. So far, it is the only block where we use Extenday. The material is expensive—$2,500 per acre, although it should last six to seven years—so you really have to have a good reason to try it. Growers should experiment with the material before assuming it is going to make a huge change in the vineyard. I got the idea from using it in sweet cherries and advancing maturity in cherries by three to four days in a 70-day season.
A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006. To contact her or comment on this article, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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