Calaveras Vineyards Reflect Diversity

Tour highlights production challenges, quality improvement

by Jon Tourney
calaveras county vineyards
Calaveras vineyard tour participants view the 55-acre Canterbury Vineyards, which produce grapes for Renner Winery and other winemakers.
Murphys, Calif.—A vineyard tour presented July 19 by the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance (CWA) and the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Central Sierra office featured vineyards ranging from the smallest to the largest in Calaveras County. The tour highlighted how the county has attracted a diverse group of vineyard owners and managers in recent years who are taking on the challenge to explore and develop diverse sites for winegrowing.

Calaveras County has the third-largest winegrape production of any county in the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area with about 900 acres of vineyards that range in elevation from 200 feet to 3,300 feet. In addition to the area’s historic Zinfandel vines, vineyards here are planted to a wide range of French, Italian and Spanish varieties. While some grape production is sold and sent to wineries outside the county, a significant portion remains locally processed and sold. The number of local wineries and labels has expanded during the past 20 years, and the historic Gold Rush town of Murphys has become a wine-tasting destination featuring more than 20 tasting rooms, most within a half-mile stretch along Main Street.

The annual CWA Vineyard Tour is attended by local grapegrowers, ag officials and individuals interested in learning more about growing grapes in the county as well as the diverse vineyard sites and varieties in production. Tour leaders included CWA member Mark Skenfield of Vinescapes, a vineyard development and management consultant who manages several Calaveras vineyards, UCCE Central Sierra farm advisor Lynn Wunderlich and Sonoma County viticulture advisor Rhonda Smith.

Peninsula vineyards benefit from lake effect
The Vallecito area at the southern end of the county has seen new vineyards developed along Airola Road during the past 15 years, with hillside vineyards on a peninsula of New Melones Reservoir that ranges in elevation from about 1,200 to 2,000 feet.

Medical doctors Ian and Elena Renner began planting Canterbury Vineyards here in 1995 and now have 55 acres producing Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Zinfandel and Viognier. A native of New Zealand, Ian Renner spent time in Australia’s Barossa Valley, where he developed a love for Syrah. His property reminds him of Barossa, and he planted 25 acres of Syrah as his main variety, but now he feels Malbec will also be a strong variety at this site.

In 2012 Canterbury produced 150 tons, a majority of it sold to other wineries. The owners started Renner Winery with the 2006 vintage and used about 45 tons of estate fruit in 2012. A small winery is located on the property, and a tasting room is located in nearby Murphys. Renner recently hired winemaker Jarred Pearce, who produces his own label AJ Pearce Wines in Napa, Calif. Renner Winery expects to produce 2,400 cases of the 2013 vintage.

The nearby New Melones Reservoir provides a “lake-effect” for vineyards on this peninsula to moderate climate and temperatures with higher low temperatures in spring that make frost damage less of an issue and help kick-off the growing season earlier than at other Calaveras vineyards. In summer, afternoon winds come off the reservoir and flow up the Stanislaus River Canyon to moderate seasonal heat. Veraison and harvest occur here earlier than other locations in the county.

On the opposite side of Airola Road from Canterbury is the 12-acre Villa Vallecito Vineyards, owned by G. Sanchez-Hagedorn and her husband Alan, who began planting vineyards in 2001. Sanchez-Hagedorn, president and on-site manager, proudly announced, ”I’m a daughter of migrant farmworkers who worked in Texas, Arizona and California. Our wines and our property are a tribute to my parents and my Hispanic roots.” She comes from a family of 14 and was born in Healdsburg when her parents were working Sonoma County vineyards in the 1950s.

Varieties in production at Villa Vallecito Vineyards are Barbera, Viognier, Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. More recent plantings include Chardonnay, to provide another white wine, and Sagrantino, an Italian red that could be produced as a varietal wine or used to enhance the Cabernet. Originally, grapes were sold to other wineries, but Villa Vallecito began wine production in 2010 and now uses all its estate fruit. Estate production was 2,000 cases in 2012 and is expected to top out at 3,500 cases.

The Hagedorns had successful careers in the tech industry, enabling them to purchase and develop the property and begin a second career in the wine business. The property includes a hilltop villa with views of New Melones Reservoir and is a venue for weddings and wine club events. The building houses winemaking facilities, and winemaker Nathan Vader lives on the property. Villa Vallecito has a public tasting room is in Murphys.

As in the rest of the area, water is a concern at most Calaveras vineyards. Vineyards are drip irrigated from wells and from storage in holding ponds. Renner said, “We have water, but it’s marginal at times.” Villa Vallecito has seven wells and one lined pond for irrigation, but Sanchez-Hagedorn said, “We have to be really conservative with water on our property.”

The peninsula area’s schist and shale geology differs from the nearby limestone formations and soils characteristic of the county, providing vineyards with well-drained but shallow soils that need nutritional supplement. Skenfield, who manages the vineyards at Canterbury and Villa Vallecito, said, “These shallow soils can have high levels of magnesium and tend to be low in nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K), so we need a plan to amend soils with lime and other nutrients.” At Canterbury, nutrition is monitored with petiole samples, and fertigation applications of N-P-K are made three times per year: at pre-bloom, post-bloom and post-harvest.

Small and large vineyards improve with age
The tour included the boutique 1.5-acre Rasmussen Vineyard on rangeland west of Vallecito, planted by Skenfield with Cabernet Sauvignon in 1999 for owners Clayton and Ginger Rasmussen. Clayton Rasmussen and Skenfield discussed the vineyard’s challenges, such as damage from a May frost the first year of planting, and adjustments in canopy management and fertigation to improve grape quality over time.

Production was sold to several different local wineries over the years; then, in 2012, veteran Calaveras winemaker Chuck Hovey (longtime winemaker at Stevenot Winery) purchased the grapes for his own Hovey Wine label. Hovey said that growing good Cabernet can be challenging in the Foothills. It is sometimes planted in the wrong locations, and people don’t always give it enough water, or enough shade on the clusters. In 2012, the vineyard produced 3.7 tons and was picked at 24.9° Brix and 3.3 pH. Hovey poured barrel samples for tasting by tour participants. He expects to bottle and release the wine in spring 2014.

The final tour stop, Gerber Vineyards, considered the largest vineyard in Calaveras County at 93 acres, had its largest production vintage in 2012 with 567 tons, according to vineyard manager Jose Aguilar. Aguilar has worked in vineyard management since 1974, with the past 10 years at Gerber.

Gerber Vineyards was planted in 1988 by owners David Gerber, a Hollywood TV producer, and his wife, actress Laraine Stephens. They started Laraine Winery in 1998 and opened a tasting room on the property in an historic ranch house. After David Gerber died in 2010, Stephens sold the winery, but she still owns Gerber Vineyards. The winery was sold to its winemaker, John Gibson, and his wife Ann, who produce the wines in Napa and are now partners with tasting room general manager David Webster and his wife Helen. The new owners changed the winery name to Four Winds Cellars in October 2012 and continue operating the tasting room on the property.

Four Winds uses about 35 tons of the Gerber Vineyards production, including the small amounts of Sangiovese and Zinfandel grown there. The main Gerber wine grape cultivars are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Cabernet Franc, with the bulk of production contracted to Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma County. Yields range from 3 to 8.5 tons/acre. Unlike other Calaveras vineyards, Gerber has a good water supply with a well flow of 300 gallons per minute year-round. Aguilar maintains a regular irrigation schedule throughout the vineyard and irrigates to achieve vine balance.

Aguilar and four workers are in the vineyard daily to monitor vines for stress, powdery mildew and other problems. Since coming to Gerber, Aguilar has made improvements such as grafting underperforming varieties to Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon, and he began night harvesting and night transport of grapes to maintain fruit quality for the trip to Sonoma County. He takes grape Brix and chemistry in a small lab onsite and reports to the winery during harvest. Aguilar said winery reps from Rodney Strong visit twice a year, but they pretty much leave management decisions to him. “The winery is getting the quality and quantity they want,” he observed.

Addressing challenges in the Foothills
Each stop on the tour included technical information such as rootstock selection, canopy management, soils, vine stress and powdery mildew control. Central Sierra farm advisor Wunderlich said she is working with growers throughout the Sierra Foothills to establish more weather stations and build a powdery mildew risk model network. She hopes to include weather data from Calaveras County in the future. However, she observed, “It’s tough to do this in the Foothills, because we have so many different elevations, aspects and microclimates.”

Observing the dry, warm growing seasons in Calaveras, Sonoma County advisor Smith told growers, “You can’t allow too much stress early in the life of the vine. The first five years are very important for vine development, and the No. 1 goal should be to establish the permanent parts of the vine structure.” She also advised caution regarding excess leaf pulling and improper canopy management in relation to grape cluster exposure, a problem she sometimes observes in Sonoma County. “Sunburn protection is critical for proper cluster development and grape quality,” Smith said.

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