As the Sta. Rita Hills celebrated their over 55 vineyards with 2600 hundred acres planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and 18 other wine grape varieties at the annual Wine and Fire weekend, a panel entitled “The Dirty Truth” discussed their perspectives on growing grapes and vineyard management.
“It’s about how it got there, it’s not just about the taste,” began Josh Raynolds of Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar who moderated a panel that included Jeff Newton of Coastal Vineyard Care, Kathy Joseph of Fiddlehead Cellars, Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe, Aaron Walker of Pali Wine Company and Joey Gummere of Transcendence. It was a special opportunity to listen to these winemakers discuss and debate their beliefs. As Josh said, “Santa Barbara is one of the only places in the world where the winemakers are so involved in the vineyard.”
Jeff Newton has spent 30 years in the area. He discussed the three styles of farming – sustainable, organic and biodynamic versus the conventional farming of the 50’s and 60’s, which was dominated by chemicals. By the 1970’s, IPM (Integrated Pest Management) was incorporated. Today IPM has morphed into sustainable farming, which also incorporates the soil health and reduces synthetic pesticides. Sustainable farming is the most common practice today in Santa Barbara. But, there are also producers who are organic, who use only organic pesticides and follow the mantra “feed the soil”, and biodynamic in which farming is linked to nature, utilizing homeopathic properties. “In the end, it’s about wine and we want to do things in the vineyard to allow the grapes to express themselves,” explained Newton. He continued, “the grapes vines communicate and the best growers listen well and adjust.”
Following Jeff Newton, the winemakers on the panel proceeded to discuss their ideas about vineyard practices.
Kathy Joseph made her first vintage of Fiddlehead in 1989. As a winemaker, Kathy feels that it is important to spend time in the vineyard. “You can’t separate farming from winemaking from enjoyment.” Over the last 25 years, she has witnessed a more personalized participation in growing. As there has been a shift from buying grapes by the ton to buying them by the acre, the purchaser had more say about the quality of the grapes in their allocated rows.
As a vineyard owner, she witnesses the direction and transition of her vines everyday. “It is very personal and individualized. I want the place to shine through.” In addition to making wine, Kathy also sells fruit to 15 winemakers. This makes the specific vineyard a special place because it allows different people to make their own interpretations.
Joey Gummere started in 1997 and finds winemaking to be a rewarding and humbling experience as a career. “It is a year round process that takes discipline as it is constantly evolving and changing,” he explained. “The expression of the wine will be an expression of the place.”
Wes Hagen, who has 25 acres of Pinot Noir and 4 acres of Chardonnay planted since 1994, was focused more on organic production when he first started. But, now his goal is to “grow the most kick-ass wine.” To Wes, we must remove ourselves from the idea that there is fundamentally only one way to make wines.
In the end, there is no one “right” way to manage your vineyards or make wine. But, a lively discussion on vineyard practices reminds us that these winemakers are passionate about what they do and are seeking to make the best wines that they possibly can.