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NM: When you began this project with the intent of making wines for the Benovia brand, did you have a clear and articulated vision as to the direction you wanted to go in, or would you say it begin with a more exploratory slant?
MS: Some of this was really discovered. The [estate's] Cohn Vineyard [first planted in 1975] I knew of and had tasted the wines but hadn't yet personally made wines from that site. Even though you may be familiar with the perspective that another producer brought to the table, until you actually have your hands in it, you can't really project. Some of this has been exploratory from a brand standpoint — how to best express these sites; which rootstocks, clones, viticultural techniques are best adapted to the sites; and what will we ultimately see from all of this investment.
Getting to the Root of the Brand's Mission
NM: It sounds, then, like you've placed a heavy emphasis on understanding and developing things viticulturally in order to really guide the direction of the brand. What would you say you're doing in some of the vineyards that you feel is uncommon?
MS: One thing that's unique to the [estate's] Martaella site and to some of the things that we're doing is that we've embraced the high-density farming concept. As you walk down the vineyard rows, you're not going to be able to get an 8-foot tractor between them, and that's because the planting density is actually 4x4, or four foot vine rows and four feet between the vines. It's based on the concept of taking the European model and applying it domestically, which is a pretty new thing. And a lot of that has to do with equipment. Back in the '60s and '70s, we would plant 12-foot wide vinerows because the equipment at the time was much bigger. Eventually, we got to 8 feet, and now with some of this new equipment that we brought over, we're taken down to four feet or even in some places only a meter. It's been an interesting experience because there are some limitations from an equipment standpoint.
"We're beginning to see the results of using less input and focus on more of a sustainable process."
What were attempting to do — and we're beginning to see the results of it — is to use less input [of resources] and focus on more of a sustainable process. Rather than asking a vine to grow in a larger footprint, or one that requires a lot of water and fertilizer, what we're trying to do is to establish a small vine with a smaller footprint. As a result of that, each vine is going to produce less vegetative capacity and fewer [grape] clusters but with better intensity of flavor because of the smaller berry size. In the case of some of the more established vines that were already planted eight feet apart, in order to still reduce the amount of input (water and fertilizer), we've taken the cordon back. And we've found that at about four feet we were able to balance the vines, which translated pretty well to a higher density planting. Increasing the row density allowed the vines to establish a footprint with very little water.
Another thing we've done is that during the growing season we'll limit cropload based on individual shoot length. Then at veraison (when 85% of the red varietals have color) we'll go through and do a green drop to remove clusters that are lagging in ripeness. Ultimately, if you really water and fertilize a plant, you can really make a big vine, creating a large cropload and increasing your yields. But if you're looking for something that's more sustainable from an irrigation standpoint and even for going more organic, it means having a lower crop, smaller vines, and embracing a bit of a different aesthetic.
NM: And so, being such a young brand and planting anew some of your estate vineyard land clearly gives you considerable leeway to test out more progressive techniques.
MS: Oh, absolutely! Whenever you get a blank slate in terms of a site to plant, all bets are off. For example, it gives us the opportunity to play with clones. UC Davis is going through and selecting a lot of heirlooom clones that came over a hundred years ago but that had originally been virused and, through vegetative propagation, making them virus-free. There's a lot of progressive techniques that they're using to bring a new mix of clones and some more diversity to the table.