March 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

Clarksburg: Chenin Blanc makes a stand in the Delta

by Tim Patterson
Clarksburg: Chenin Blanc makes a stand in the Delta
The Old Sugar Mill is an ambitious development that combines custom crush and alternating proprietor services. Commercial development and housing are envisioned in the near future.
How's this for a strategy to make your region's mark in the California wine industry:

Step one: Plant your vines in a flood plain, and hope the levees hold. Step two: For your flagship variety, pick Chenin Blanc, which everyone else in the state has been ripping out as fast as they can.

That unlikely combination is what the Clarksburg AVA in the Sacramento River Delta has been pursuing for the last four decades, and amazingly enough, the strategy works. Clarksburg growers sell upwards of 40,000 tons of grapes in multiple markets, headed into everything from generic programs to boutique specialty bottlings. A number of small wineries have popped up in recent years alongside Bogle, the big dog in the area, and more are on the way. And in a conclusive sign that Clarksburg has truly arrived as a modern wine region, there's a simmering controversy over suburbanization and development in what was once purely agricultural territory.

Vineyard Islands

In visual terms, Clarksburg doesn't look like standard, postcard-perfect wine country. Driving up from the Bay Area on Highway 160 and River Rd., rolling past acres of pasture land, orchards and farmhouses--real, functional farmhouses, not vacation getaways--it's easy to forget that booming, sprawling Sacramento is just a few miles away. Then you notice you're driving along the levee, with nothing but water on one side, and fields spread out 10 feet below you on the other. In the middle of this maze of bridges and bayous, grapevines start showing up, when you might be expecting sugar cane. Bogle's vines, appropriately enough, occupy their very own island.

Without leaving the car, it's obvious that the soils aren't the ones that make wine writers wax poetic, either--no mounds of stones like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, no seams of chalk and limestone. The soils are a deep alluvial mix of clay and some sand, washed down the river and into the Delta from the mining frenzy a century and a half ago in the Sierra foothills. "We have vineyards here we've never needed to fertilize, because the soils are so rich," says Randy Baranek of Erhardt Estates, president of the Clarksburg Wine Growers and Vintners Association.

Like other growing areas, water management is crucial to fruit quality--but here, it's mostly what to do with the excess of water. "With all these rivers and all this water," Baranek says, "the mildew pressure is enormous." Most vineyards are at no more than 10 feet above sea level, and often lower. Drainage ditches are ubiquitous; in extreme cases, growers have resorted to building French drains through vineyard parcels, then pumping the collected water into raised ditches behind clay barriers. The pumps may run all summer. With the top few feet of soil so well drained, irrigation is then required to keep the feeder roots happy.

The combination of rich soils and ample water promotes high vigor and almost guarantees a large crop load per vine. Even with the devigorating rootstocks favored for most recent plantings, and with relatively severe pruning, Clarksburg growers generally opt out of the contemporary trend toward vertical shoot positioning. Bilateral and quadrilateral cordon trellising, able to ripen far more clusters per vine in a larger support structure, are the norm.

The key to making this somewhat unusual package of growing conditions come together is climate: Clarksburg is cooler than most people think it is. "We get a bad rap for being in the California interior," says Bogle winemaker Chris Smith, "but you can't really talk about it without understanding the maritime influence and the wind." All those bodies of water have a moderating effect, but the major maritime factor is the breeze blowing up the Delta through the Carquinez Strait.

According to Baranek, this makes the Clarksburg area not only cooler than Lodi to the south, but cooler than much of Napa. "When Sacramento is 102º," he says, "and Napa is at 100º, we're at 93º. We only had one day last year when the temperature went over 100º. It cools off down into the low 60s every night. In 2005, they were starting to harvest Cabernet in Napa before we got to our Merlot."

Clarksburg: Chenin Blanc makes a stand in the Delta
Chenin Blanc grapes from Clarksburg vineyards are the preferred source for fine wines from Napa and Sonoma, as well as Clarksburg's Bogle Vineyards.

From Pears To Grapes To Wine

Clarksburg has been ag country for well over a century--many families go back several generations--and it still produces its share of pears, alfalfa, row crops and dairy cattle. In 1960, John Baranek, Randy's father, tried test plots of a couple dozen grape varieties, and made some trial batches of wine from the 1963 vintage--Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Petite Syrah, Merlot--at Fresno State. They turned out to be tasty, and an enologist at Fresno put the Baraneks in touch with Brother Timothy at Christian Brothers. Soon they were selling grapes to Napa at respectable prices. "People thought we were nuts when we first planted grapes," Randy Baranek says. "But the first year we sold grapes, everybody on the ranch got new trucks, and the neighbors noticed."

Today Clarksburg has 10,000 acres under vine and just under a dozen wineries. The 16-by-8 mile AVA was officially recognized in 1984, and the Clarksburg Wine Growers Association was founded in 1987, expanding its name recently to include "and Vintners." This is still primarily a grape-exporting region; roughly 90% of the harvest gets made into wine somewhere else. The largest amount of acreage is under contract to the usual major players--Constellation, Gallo, The Wine Group, Sutter Home. While at least 20 varieties are planted, Chardonnay and Merlot dominate. Cabernet Sauvignon sometimes has trouble developing good color in Clarksburg, so its role is modest; the red Zinfandel market has mostly been ceded to the warmer climes of Lodi. The new wrinkle in the area is Pinot Noir, mainly for Gallo. There's no reason the area's climate can't support serviceable Pinot, but no one is so far claiming Clarksburg will be the next Carneros.

Besides the vineyards geared for production, there is a second track of growers (or programs within grower enterprises) focused on grape quality and on raising the visibility of the area as a source of premium fruit. Bogle pumps out 600,000 cases a year, much of it from local grapes, and has developed a solid reputation for value-priced wines in the $10 to $15 range. Wilson Farms and the Herzog Company (the vineyard side of Erhardt Estates) have cultivated clients around the state, including some prominent Napa and Sonoma names. Raising the bar--as well as raising the flag--is one of the impulses behind the recent debut of several small wine labels in the area, often making use of leased facilities to produce limited quantities of wine to showcase the area's potential.

In the works is a major development project at The Old Sugar Mill, a former Spreckels sugar beet refinery. Besides offering custom crush and alternating proprietor services, the ultimate plan--assuming it gets past the final permitting and environmental review hurdles--will include both a broader commercial component and 30 acres of cottages, townhouses and other residences. The venture has raised a number of land use and environmental issues, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's lessons about the fragility of levee systems. Meanwhile, the Old Sugar Mill's winemaking operation, the Clarksburg Wine Company, has two crushes under its belt and is actively expanding.

Chenin And Petite Sirah

Clarksburg's strongest claim as a source of distinctive fruit lies in its track record with Chenin Blanc. A once-proud California variety now in almost total eclipse--"Chenin went out when disco came in," Baranek says--Chenin thrives and persists against all odds in this unglamorous corner of the Delta. Some Chenin is grown in other parts of the state, but Clarksburg has emerged as the variety's Rutherford Bench.

Exactly why Chenin works so well here is a matter of speculation. The warm day/cool night climate seems just right, and clay-rich soils are also a prominent feature of Vouvray and the other Chenin-producing sections of France's Loire Valley, the variety's benchmark habitat. Even if the natural conditions are favorable, growing Chenin in Clarksburg is not without its trials and tribulations. Both the variety and the area are prone to Eutypa infection at the wound points where vines are pruned, which has led to changing the timing of pruning to delay the inevitable. To combat the threat of mildew, the Baranek family pioneered the use of gibberellic acid treatments to lengthen and loosen clusters, allowing for more air flow.

In a radical departure from the current California norm, most of Clarksburg's Chenin is harvested at around 19º or 20º Brix, yielding wines with alcohol around 11%. No, these numbers are not typos. Chenin is perfectly capable of developing its typical pear and melot flavors at such modest sugar levels, and the low-alcohol result is perfect for preserving the delicacy and aromatic charms of the variety. Some producers aiming for a richer style may hold off until a whopping 23º Brix--a point at which most Chardonnay growers are still not thinking about harvest.

The best testimonials for Clarksburg Chenin come from wineries in higher-rent parts of the state. David Stare picked up a taste for light, fruity wines in Germany in the late 1960s, and a dry Chenin Blanc was the first wine he made when he founded Dry Creek Vineyard in 1972. He initially used the fruit from 10 acres of Sonoma grapes, but when that became an impractical use of increasingly valuable land in the mid-1980s, he switched to a Clarksburg source, grower Perry Clark. Dry Creek now gets its fruit from Wilson Farms to make 11,000 cases of its Dry Chenin Blanc, and puts the Clarksburg appellation on the label. "It sells like hotcakes," says Dry Creek communications director Bill Smart.

At Pine Ridge in Napa's Stags Leap District, it's a similar story. Pine Ridge started making Chenin from Napa grapes in 1979, and has gotten fruit from Wilson Farms for the last 10 years. As with other producers, the winemaking is minimalist: cold fermentation, all stainless, no malolactic, get it into the bottle before Christmas.

"I remember bottling it once before Thanksgiving," says winemaker Stacy Clark. Pine Ridge's twist is the addition of about 20% Viognier (also from Wilson in Clarksburg), aiming for more floral aromas, more grapefruit, and more viscosity. Known mainly for its reds, Pine Ridge has no trouble selling 15,000 cases of its Clarksburg Chenin Blanc-Viognier.

Local Clarksburg production of bottled Chenin is more modest, but, judging from a recent chance to taste several side by side with the Dry Creek and Pine Ridge entries, the hometown wines hold their own. Bogle makes about 3,000 cases in a slightly off-dry style. "It's such a versatile grape, I love it; we're just waiting for the resurgence," says winemaker Smith. Wilson Farms makes a small amount under its Wilson Vineyards label, and the Baraneks, who sell most of their Chenin to the Baron Herzog winery, took an armload of honors at the 2005 California State Fair competition for their Erhardt Estates Chenin Blanc.

Tasting through a table full of Chenin Blancs, all from Clarksburg, in a range of styles from bone dry to off-dry to late harvest, was a most refreshing way to spend an afternoon. Coming from several winemakers and three vintages, all the wines were refreshing, clean, exuberant and interesting--a fair demonstration that there's something right about the underlying fruit.

Clarksburg's other over-performing variety is Petite Sirah, which occupies a much larger (and more rapidly growing) niche than Chenin. At 130,000 cases a year, using a combination of Clarksburg and Lodi grapes, Bogle claims to be the industry's biggest producer of Petite. A wholly informal round of tasting confirmed that the variety does well here. Maybe it's those famous cooling breezes from the Carquinez Strait, but Clarksburg Petites seem to have a distinctive, bright snappiness to them, a definite plus in a wine that can be short on verve.

If The Creek Don't Rise

Hitching your wagon to an up-and-coming second-tier variety (Petite Sirah) and a fading third-tier longshot (Chenin Blanc), however scrumptious, can be a tough road to hoe. On the other hand, growing for tonnage on break-even contracts--or no contract at all--has only a limited future. Dreaming about becoming "the next Napa" is a great way to pass the time in the dormant season. It's not easy being Clarksburg.

But new wineries are opening their doors. There is talk of creating a "wine trail" now that more tasting rooms are sprouting. There are more wine drinkers in Sacramento, five miles away, than you can count. Because so much of it has been ripped out, Chenin Blanc prices are creeping up. In a global market, the future of any wine region depends on its ability to deliver quality grapes and wine at competitive value prices, and Clarksburg has all of the ingredients to do just that.

As long as the good Lord is willing and the levees hold.
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