Growing & Winemaking


A Conversation with Jim Barbour

March 2017
by Laurie Daniel

Jim Barbour, one of the Napa Valley’s leading viticulturists, grew up on his family’s Rutherford vineyard. The Barbours grew Gamay, Mondeuse and Petit Bouschet that E. & J. Gallo Winery harvested for its jug wine program. They also farmed stone fruit and walnuts, but the future of the valley was wine grapes, so that became the Barbours’ focus.

The young viticulturist’s childhood chores focused on the farm, so when he went to college, he planned to try something new: being a parole officer. He quickly decided that wasn’t the career for him, however, so he went back to what he knew. He transferred to the University of California, Davis, and graduated in 1975 with a degree in plant science. While he was at Davis, Barbour would return home on weekends to drive a tractor for prominent viticulturist Frank “Laurie” Wood at Frank Wood & Sons. After graduating, he went to work for the company full time until Wood’s retirement in 1990. Barbour then started his own management company, Barbour Vineyards. In his 40-year career, Barbour has planted and managed some of the valley’s best and best-known vineyards and has worked with winemakers such as Celia Welch, Heidi Barrett, Philippe Melka, Aaron Pott, Thomas Brown and Martha McClellan. He currently manages about 500 acres of vineyards for various clients including Hundred Acre, Revanna, Jones Family, Checkerboard, Tietjen, Keever and Alejandro Bulgheroni.

In 1995, Barbour launched his own Barbour Vineyards wine brand, for which Welch is the current winemaker. The label produces 300 cases of dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon from Barbour’s 4-acre vineyard in southern St. Helena. Barbour is also a partner with Barrett and John Schwartz in Au Sommet, a project on Atlas Peak.

Q: What new vineyard technologies are you most excited about?
Jim Barbour: In terms of technology, we’re excited about potential new in-field testing kits for virus detection. Currently, we have to drop off or ship samples to be tested, and although the turnaround is just a few days, it would be nice if we could do a comprehensive test in the vineyard and get immediate information. Field tests would allow us to test more vines, too, and better understand whether the virus is spreading. Most vineyards are pulled due to virus, and most vines are rogued (pulling individual diseased vines) due to virus. The University of California system has put a lot of energy into providing nurseries with clean plant material, and nurseries are doing their best to provide growers with clean material. An in-field test would allow growers to take virus and disease control to the next level, which would ultimately extend the life of our vineyards.

Currently we use NDVIs (normalized difference vegetation index) from a service called VineView to help pinpoint virused vines and to detect strong and weak areas in vineyards. These are helpful to view over time. We can do a less technical and more immediate version of this with a drone, so we’re experimenting with this. I’m learning to fly my DJI Phantom 3 now and, thankfully, no living creatures are aboard my test flights. I’ve purchased a lot of extra blades the past few months. The drone can also look for things like irrigation leaks, pest or disease pockets and water stress.

Q: Water is likely to continue to be a huge issue in California. How are you managing water use in the vineyards you farm?
Barbour: Our farming clients are producing wines for the ultra-premium and luxury markets, so irrigations are always intentional and far less than someone who’s trying to set 6 tons to the acre, for example. We’ll continue to tightly manage water for all our clients and help them put into place any new regulations, which we expect to see in the coming months and years.

We use several tools to trigger an irrigation. One is to measure water stress by looking at the leaf water potential. Another is analyzing weekly neutron probe reports. We’ve experimented with sap flow sensors and evapotranspiration sensors. At the end of the day, our most valuable tool is walking the vineyard and irrigating at the right time during the growing season. The timing of rain periods plays a huge role in canopy growth and development. If we receive all our rain in December, we may start irrigating two months earlier than if we have a wet March.

We’ve also gotten better at identifying areas within the vineyard blocks that might need more or less water than others and setting irrigation requirements for each. With the installation of secondary drip lines, we can fine-tune irrigation for individual rows and sections within rows. This greatly improves grape quality and also helps reduce water usage.

We can also use more drought-tolerant rootstocks, such as 110R and 1103P. We’ve successfully planted these in vineyards that are really rocky or where we don’t have a lot of water.

Overall, we don’t want to over-irrigate, because we don’t want overly vigorous vines—not only to conserve water, but also to improve fruit quality. For example, from berry set to a few weeks before véraison is a critical time to control vine vigor. This is the stage in berry development where cell division occurs and determines berry size down the road. This is also when undesired green flavors such as methoxypyrazines can be controlled.

My own 4-acre vineyard is dry-farmed. I initially developed it as a dry-farmed project because water is pretty scarce on the West Rutherford Bench in south St. Helena. I hand-irrigated when the vines were planted to establish them and now only water if there’s a significant weather event, such as multiple days in a row of 100° F heat. We don’t have any drip irrigation installed, so watering needs to be done by hand. It takes a long time, so I only water if absolutely necessary.

Celia Welch, my winemaker for Barbour Vineyards, and I really like the character of the dry-farmed fruit from our site. My vineyard is Clone 7 Cabernet, and we ’ve tasted other Clone 7 wine lots from the same area, and it’s just not the same.

Q: Are there aspects of viticulture where your thinking has changed over the past 10 or 15 years? For example, how have you changed your approach to sun exposure on the clusters? What about yields?
Barbour: Like every business, we learn more every year, and there’s been lots of new thinking around some simple but impactful things like row direction. Ideally, we want our rows to run 36° to 38° east of north, and this helps us get an equal amount of sun on both sides of the vine.

We also use things like shade cloth in vineyards with poor row direction or on hillsides baking in the afternoon heat. When using shade cloth as a tool to protect the fruit zone and sometimes the canopy, we take several things into consideration to match the needs of the site, such as covering just the fruit zone, partial canopy, full canopy, one or both sides, etc. Sometimes it’s also helpful to install cross arms in more closely spaced vineyards to add more shade.

Misters are another great tool to help protect the grapes from over-exposure and rapid ripening. Above-canopy misters seem to provide the greatest benefit because they reduce the ambient air temperature for the canopy, keeping the leaves from shutting down and preventing berry dehydration. Misters don’t take much water, and we can also use them in combination with the weather station. Once we start them up and see the ambient temperature starting to drop, we can pulsate them to conserve even more water.

We’ve made some simple changes in canopy management, too. We used to routinely pull the leaves on the morning side but now pull internal leaves and leave the external leaves for protection. You used to drive down the road and see all the leaves stripped from the fruit zone, but that’s a technique we don’t use anymore unless we’re in a cold year and need one last push to help reach ripeness.

Basically, our goal is to keep the vineyard in balance including soils, sun exposure and crop yield. We used to routinely thin to 2 or 2.5 tons per acre, but some sites can set 4 tons an acre and deliver exceptional fruit quality, while others really need to be thinned to 2-3 tons or even less. And then the winemaker sometimes just has a preference on number of clusters per vine based on their observations of wine quality.

The other change is the relationship with the winemaker in the vineyard. When I first started my company in 1990, winemakers would leave all the decisions to me, including clone and rootstock selection, pruning, crop-thinning and other farming decisions that basically now are made in partnership with the winemaker. At the end of the year, we sit down and taste the wines together and discuss whether any vineyard tweaks are needed. It’s more collaborative now, and I’m able to connect all the dots by seeing what effect a tweak may or may not have had on wine quality.

Using all these tools and putting in place these subtle changes, we’re really now able to essentially farm by vine. That’s making sure that each vine gets the attention needed, whether it’s water or nutrients. The secondary drip lines have especially helped in executing this concept. It’s pretty common to find numerous soil types within a single vineyard here in Napa Valley, so if you think about it, farming a vineyard as one piece doesn’t make too much sense.

Q: Labor shortages are likely to get worse over the coming years. What are you seeing, and how are you planning for the future?
There’s a couple of interesting things happening both good and bad on the labor front. First, Napa Valley is likely a little different than some other areas of California. Our labor pool is less transient and employed full-time and nearly year-round. We need more skilled labor because the expectations and requirements are so much higher when you’re charging more for a bottle of wine. So, while we are seeing a shortage, we have a more experienced labor pool that tends to be with you year after year because they’re better paid.

Maybe the labor shortage is a good thing and will help us to continue the evolution from an industry reliant on transient labor to one that offers a living wage to what is now really a vineyard professional—someone choosing to farm for a living.

Mechanization is something that undoubtedly will come into play, but I’m not quite sure yet how. Part of the problem is our requirement to deliver perfect grapes. Machinery can’t replace that and doesn’t do the job of a skilled vineyard professional. Then you also have areas such as hillsides where operating a piece of machinery would be too dangerous. The vineyard-management companies servicing large vineyards like those out in the Central Valley will likely turn more to machinery because they rely more on transient labor and can get a return on the investment in the equipment.

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