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NM: So, you're a newcomer to the world of wine with an admittedly solid foundation of wine knowledge under your belt. But a significant number of the major decisions you've made not only in establishing the vineyard and building the winery, but in producing the VinRoc brand, have been borne of hunch and intuition, peppered with occasionally solicited advice. And this is all in the context of making what really amounts to a super premium Napa Cabernet from limited grape tonnage harvested and fermented using very costly practices. It sounds to me like you're quite the risk-taker!
MP: Mmm, hmm. I think that's definitely true. The only thing I have to say, though, as far as the risk-taking is concerned: that's really more my wife, Kiky, than I. I think it goes back to her background being successful in real estate development, where there's always risk. That's her background, whereas I tend to be a little more conservative. Now, as far as some of the other things, over and above the initial idea to pull the trigger — which is hers; she's more the one to say 'let's do it' — that's where I come in. I'm the one to say that if we're going to do then this is how I think we ought to do it. But I might otherwise have been hesitant to go ahead and do it if it weren't for her and her confidence. She's very confident, she believes in me, she believes in what we're doing, and I might not have been quite as aggressive about doing without her support and her wanting to see it happen. And as I said earlier, everything we've done has seemed to be the right decision. And that's not bragging; it's not because I'm smart — I just think we were guided. And she also feels very much that way. When we bought the property, everything seemed to fall into place for us to be where we are now, and we think it's going to continue as we make what I think, in years to come, one of the best cult wines in Napa Valley.
NM: Is that your goal?
MP: Oh, sure. Yeah. I mean, it's never going to be big. That's why I said, if we can't be big, we've got to be the best. I hate to be mediocre. I hate to be in the middle. If I'm going to do something and can't be big, I want to be the best. And that's our goal. I want people to think of us as one of the ultimate examples of high-end, Napa-made cult Cabernets.
NM: What are the challenges you face planting and harvesting grapes and making wine from those grapes specifically here on this patch of Atlas Peak? And I mean challenges that you know other appellations don't struggle with.
MP: Certainly compared to the valley floor and most of the other well-known areas in Napa, with the soil here you wouldn't think of growing any other agricultural crop on the piece of land where we have our vineyard. It's rocky and there's really not even a lot of soil to work with, to begin with. And we've got all kinds of issues around soil nutrients. From that point of view, it's very challenging especially to get the vintage started. And then every year, we face some kind of issue where we really have to watch the water — we obviously have to irrigate. We do what they call petiole sampling every year, where we look at the uptake of nutrients in the vine — Kiky is always joking that we worry more about our vines' nutrition than our own. So, the challenge has been just growing grapes. Early on, I hadn't even understood how growing up here [at this aspect and elevation] was different from the valley floor; I had to really research it. Though, as I said earlier, we now know that the combination is great: rocky and nutrient-deficient soil, but the climate is perfect for it.
"With the soil here you wouldn't think of growing any other agricultural crop on the piece of land where we have our vineyard."
But it's Mother Nature you're dealing with! We got hit with a frost about this time last year, and we'd never had frost quite like that. In fact, I talked to some very experienced people about the damage that we all sustained, and found that no one had ever experienced it that before. Sure, we've have had frost this time of year, but it got so cold that it did more damage than most people had ever seen! Typically on the hillsides, even though we're cooler, we don't get frost damage because the cold air moves down [towards the valley floor]. But it wasn't that kind of frost damage; it didn't pool — typically, the cold air pools, so if there is any damage in our vineyard, it's down at the bottom of the hill. In that case, the pooling didn't happen. It got so cold that it actually froze the vine tissue, not just the buds. Then we found — and almost everybody who experienced the frost damage in 2008 — that even the yields came in much lower than we projected and the berry weights themselves were off. We're all realizing now that it was all because of the frost. It's very likely a cumulative type of thing. And then on the flip side, we have heat spikes, where you things might be going along great during the season, and then all of a sudden you have a number of 100+ ºF days in a row. In a case like that, we might irrigate that much extra to keep the vines from over-stressing.