Page 3 of 6
NM: Speaking of gorgeous, you're using a style of training in some of your vineyards that I've never seen before in California. Tell me about that!
RR: That training system is known as Vertical Gobelet. It's very infrequently used mostly because people don't understand it. But given how infertile the soil is here, the benefits to this system on our mountain is that we get great balance between crop and canopy. The choice in using this type of training stems back from when our owner bought the property and was trying to figure out how best to trellis and which varieties to plant. Being from Europe (he's Swiss) and with a great affinity towards Burgundies and Bordeaux, he has a lot of French connections. One of those was a gentlemen by the name of Pierre Galet, a French viticultural expert, whom he flew over here to consult for him. Pierre said that this property very closely resembled the hills of the Rhône valley, and since Vertical Gobelet works so well in the Rhône, he suggested trying it here. And today we're quite happy with the quality that comes from these vines. It was all part of the original research that our owner had done on the property to decide how the vineyards should be trellised. In fact, there's a lot of different spacing on the property. Over on the Chevalier property, there are terraces that measure about 2 meters between the rows. Whereas these are 1x1 meter and planted very densely because the soil is shallow and not very fertile in this location — the roots don't grow out far and compete with one another as they do with deeper loam soil. So, using Vertical Gobelet, we make the most efficient use of our ground here and maximize our potential cropload.
NM: The choice to implement a viticultural practice like this, entirely outside the local norm, is remarkable! What else are you doing in the vineyards, which you feel is unconventional and contributes directly to the quality of the wines?
"We use insects almost entirely to control our vineyards pests."
RR: We've made a push towards growing 100% organically, and are in the process of getting certified Organic for our grape-growing. One of the things we're doing differently from a lot of other producers, at least here on Spring Mountain, is that we use insects almost entirely to control our vineyards pests. We release over a million predatory and parasitic insects a year here, and they do a tremendous job! I use predatory mites for mite problems, ladybugs as a general consumer for many different types of insects, and then a couple of parasitic wasps for vine mealy bug. One of the last insects that I was having problems controlling without using insecticides was the blue-green sharpshooter [a vector for Pierce's disease]. We discovered from talking with other folks that bluebirds do a great job in controlling sharpshooters. And so, we built over 650 bluebird houses and placed them throughout the vineyards. As a result, the bluebird population on the mountain has shot up tremendously — and the sharpshooter population has dropped off to almost nothing!
JC: We had great consulting help from UC Berkeley's Entomology Department. And we ultimately found that we get better results and more control than when we used chemicals.
RR: Plus we're building back the ecological balances of insects that had been wiped out over the years by the constant use of insecticides. Using those chemicals had eliminated a lot of the insects that were causing us problems, but it wiped out all the beneficial populations as well. So now we're rebuilding those beneficial populations so that the natural ecosystem is working by itself. Another thing is that we stopped using herbicides a few years ago, so we're building back the populations of soil microorganisms, earthworms, and the like, which were wiped out from years of herbicidal use. And I think it's all making a huge difference in our ability to naturally grow grapes, by having all those organisms back in the soil. Plus, we're using organic material for fertilizers, and basically moving our whole operation to an organic program that's going to be better in the future for all of us.
JC: It's better for the land, obviously. But it's still with a focus on growing better grapes. A lot of times the word 'struggle' comes up when discussing growing conditions. Struggling is fine. Unhealthy is not. Too many people have in their mind that a vine needs to be small and weak, and which might produce maybe two bunches. What you really want are healthy plants struggling in a difficult environment in order to produce intensely flavored grapes. You need biological athletes — plants that are in great shape, thriving in challenging conditions — in order to make wonderful fruit. If they're not in good shape, they produce imbalanced fruit that doesn't ripen properly. And so, Ron's aim is to grow healthy plants in struggling conditions.