Quality Wine Grapes in the Sierra Foothills

Vintners and grapegrowers map the path to quality at Foothill Grape Day 2013

by Jon Tourney
foothill grape day
Foothill Grape Day grower and winemaker panelists (from left) Steve Collum, Jonathan Lachs, Kris Mapes, Carol Laubach, Bill Naylor and Scott Klann discussed quality collaborations.
Shingle Springs, Calif.—“Quality Collaborations: Teaming Together to Improve Foothill Wines” was the theme of Foothill Grape Day 2013, held June 6 in El Dorado County at Cielo Estate winery in Shingle Springs. The University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Central Sierra office organizes the annual educational meeting for growers and vintners in the four Sierra Foothill counties of El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne.

During her opening remarks, UCCE viticulture farm advisor Lynn Wunderlich set the tone for the program, saying, “What I work on as a farm advisor here in the Foothills is to target quality. We don’t have the large vineyard acreages found in other regions where yield improvement can be an issue, so we need to focus our winegrowing on quality production, and we can do this by collaborating with growers and wineries locally to improve production practices.”

Wunderlich is working collaboratively on four research projects with Foothill growers, who provide vineyard sites for the research, and with other UC specialists who provide expertise in project development and management: early leaf pulling for Botrytis management, the installation of four weather stations in Amador County to enable growers to use the Gubler-Thomas powdery mildew risk-assessment index, evapotranspiration (ET) slope measurements for irrigation management and soil survey decision support tools for Foothill soils.

Grower/winemaker quality collaborations
A panel composed of vineyard and winery collaborators representing three Foothill counties presented case studies and tips for working together to achieve mutually beneficial goals and to produce better quality wines.

El Dorado County was represented by Bill Naylor of Naylor Vineyards, who owns, leases, or manages a total of 200 acres in the Fair Play AVA, where he has been farming for 25 years; and Jonathan Lachs, co-owner and winemaker at Cedarville Vineyard, a 20-acre property acquired in 1995 that has 15 acres of vineyards and a winery. Naylor said he started as a “grapegrower,” but with experience, and working with winemakers such as Lachs, he transitioned to “wine grape grower,” and finally to “wine grower.”

Naylor and Lachs described their work together to improve fruit quality from a 4-acre block of Petit Sirah over the course of 10 vintages. Lachs sought improved grape ripeness from the vineyard and to produce less acidic wines. Previously, Naylor harvested the entire block at the same time, but the block doesn’t ripen evenly. While working together, they adjusted cultural practices to manage crop levels and obtain the ripeness Lachs sought, and they segregated part of the block to pick at a different time from the other vines.

Lachs said, “With the lower crop load, we had to deal with another issue that arose,” which Naylor described in one word: money. Rather than paying simply based on grape tonnage as in the past, a payment arrangement was worked out agreeable to both parties. Lachs summarized the outcome: “Our first vintage from this block was 2001. With our recently released 2009 vintage, I think we’ve nailed it. Now this vineyard is a jewel and a pleasure to work with.” Describing the transition from his standpoint, Naylor said, “Since our changes, the vineyard’s remaining fruit is now being picked up by another winery that liked what we’re doing, and we worked out a similar deal. I think this shows how we’ve moved to becoming a wine grower.”

The Amador County collaborators were Carol Laubach, an Amador vineyard manager since 1995 with Lauzere Vineyard Services; and Kristopher Mapes, grower relations rep for Trinchero Family Estates, who works with growers in the Foothills, Lodi and Clarksburg. Mapes sources established head-trained Zinfandel from 25 Amador growers. “I’m trying to bring the best quality grapes to my winemakers and make sure the growers I work with can do the things they need to do to be successful long-term and be profitable,” Mapes said. Emphasizing communication, he said, “We maintain regular dialogue throughout the season to ensure our quality objectives are addressed with an emphasis on pruning and canopy management.” Mapes visits vineyards during pruning season, does some pruning himself and will critique crews’ work after they prune a section of vines.

Laubach has worked with Mapes and Trinchero for six years and noted, “We need to ensure we’re growing the fruit that fits the winery’s different programs, and we need to know what prices we need to do that profitably.” She explained, “I want to work with a winery that shares the same goals. I’m meticulous, and I work with wineries who want high quality.”

Laubach respects what Mapes and Trinchero can offer as part of the team. She said, “We need outside input. Kris sees vineyards in other regions, and we can find out how seasonal issues, crop development and labor availability may impact our operations here.” She discussed working to improve vineyards with variable quality. She advised, “To improve quality you need to increase input at each step. Build a team. Work with the winery, work with your crew and your PCA.” She said she took over management of one vineyard a few years ago, and through quality improvements has increased the fruit price by 50%. She also advised, “Respect the area you’re growing in, and work together to give the region a good reputation.”

Steve Collum of Vineyard Concepts has developed, managed and consulted for vineyards in Calaveras County for 12 years and has a current portfolio of 300 acres. Scott Klann, winemaker for his own label Newsome-Harlow Wines in Murphys, Calif., and the winemaker for Twisted Oak Winery in Calaveras County, has worked with Collum on several projects for both wineries.

Collum said, “Scott comes up with concept ideas, he looks into the future, and he shows me what he envisions in the bottle.” Collum said he’s game for planting almost any variety, and they’ve started a few projects from ground level to produce Rhone blends and Spanish blend wines. They’ve also worked to improve vineyards, such as switching a 2-acre block of Sauvignon Blanc to cane pruning, which increased yield and quality. Another recent project of mutual interest was obtaining organic certification for a vineyard where Klann sources grapes.

They work closely to understand each other’s needs and goals. They meet during the growing season to walk vineyard blocks and discuss seasonal issues and adjustments, and they also meet in the winery to taste sample wines. Collum said, “When the grape sugars start going up, we start tasting grapes together in the different blocks to get our targeted flavor profiles on the same wavelength.”

Good communication and knowledge about each other’s work is also important when it comes to price negotiations. Collum said, “Scott realizes what it takes in the field to produce quality grapes, and I believe the grape price should be based in relation to the price of the bottled wine. I’ll also give input on what I think the bottle price should be.” Klann said, “I have no problem paying for good fruit that I know I’ll have a hard time messing up.”

Klann summarized, “It’s important for both parties to have quality-oriented goals, mutual respect, and to be prepared when we get together to discuss what needs to be done at each point in time.”

Other Grape Day sessions included an update about grapevine red blotch disease from Dr. Mysore Sudarshana of the USDA Agricultural Research Service at UC Davis, and a presentation about choosing rootstocks for Foothill vineyards by Dr. Andy Walker of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology.

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