seeing green Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Seeing Green

Dry Creek Valley Winery Spearheads Enviable "Green Initiative"
— Spotlight on Michel-Schlumberger Winery

"They're over there in those condos," he said with a proud, boyish smile as he pointed to some stacks of small, shallow wooden boxes a short distance away. Jay Kell, the manager of wine education and guest services at Sonoma's Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate was referring to the fairly sizable colony of bees that the winery maintains on the property. I had just arrived with my partner whom I had insisted join me on this visit, given his background in horticulture and keen interest in sustainability. Our purpose here was to embark on what the winery markets as its Green Tour, a privately escorted excursion of the vineyards, provided as way to increase customer awareness of its dedication to a myriad of biodynamic practices. One of those is the nurturing of bees, done in an effort to facilitate the pollination of other plant life supportive to the vines themselves. I soon learned that this overall philosophy, so deeply respectful of nature and its inherent ecological balance, permeates just about everything done at Michel-Schlumberger — not only in the production of the fine wines for which it's known, but also in its dedication to give back to the environment from which came the very grapes to make them.

Located on the far western edge of Dry Creek Valley, in an area marked by benchland and steep hillsides, the vineyards are farmed with a focus on the concept of terroir — a philosophy of making wines from fruit as an expression, even a manifestation, of the land from which it grows. It's a pattern tightly woven into the fabric of old world winemaking, but is something that newer regions are only beginning to explore, if at all. Firm in his belief that the land has a message and those who plant it are its envoy, the impassioned winemaker Michael Brunson has established terroir-driven winemaking as a core value of Michel-Schlumberger. As we made our way from the small organic garden just outside the main building and towards the dusty paths that wind around the vineyards, I listened to that very message, as my hosts told what amounted to a history of the estate.

Although the soil on which it resides had been under vine for some years now, the winery in its current form is the brainchild of president Jacques Schlumberger. In the early '90s, he took the helm of an already tightly run ship and began to steer it in a direction that, at the time, had been relatively unchartered. Inspired by his personal vision for making estate-grown wines, he established what's now become an ongoing flow of dialogue with the land, convinced that the tales it would tell would undoubtedly lead him and his team to elevate fruit that would in turn impart a rich sense of time and place to those willing to experience it. The winery's interchange with nature has grown even more fluid over the years. This has resulted in a unique character of fruit, leading to an unmistakable "house style" that spans the entire portfolio of its wines. Each vintage of those wines turns out to be an artful assemblage of a subset of the fourteen different varietals raised on the property. That's an uncommonly high number of varietals, given the small acreage. But because of the painstaking process whereby they're matched to specific vineyard sites, the grapes ultimately succeed in expressing their distinctive personalities.

Quite recently, and in further alignment with Jacques' vision, the winery has thrust itself with vigor in a direction beyond mere site-specific planting, to one that is nothing short of environmentally sustainable and ecologically symbiotic. Spearheading its "Green Initiative," winemaker Mike has led an entire team of vineyard workers and cellar staff in taking the estate through its second year of certification by the California Certified Organic Farmers, with the ultimate goal of being officially granted an even more rigorous biodynamic status. Even with pest management being an issue of grave concern in the raising of vines, the vineyard team at Michel-Schlumberger remains dedicated in its collaboration with the local ecosystem by eschewing herbicides altogether, in favor of only organically approved spraying. To address the otherwise destructive burrowing of gophers underneath the vines, nature herself is made to shoulder the burden through the implementation of one technique that, as a city dweller, I found unexpected and fascinating: tall landing posts strategically distributed throughout the vineyards, from which predatory birds readily swoop down on the pesky rodents. No fuss, no muss. And even when such practices fall short of their intent, rather than impulsively reverting to mainstream, tried and true — but environmentally destabilizing — methods, Mike and his team seize those opportunities to more finely tweak their sustainable practices, with continued patience and greater determination, never losing sight of their pledge to the environment.

"I'm not sure we can make a big, fat, juicy gumball without compromising the style of what grows naturally here."

As we descended from the steep hills on which the seemingly countless rows of vines held firm, we headed along the last of the winding trails back to the winery. Mike and Jay invited us inside for what turned out to be a relaxed wine tasting on a secluded corner of the cool, tiled terrace behind the main tasting room. There, waiting for us, were bottles from the currently released portfolio: the Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Chardonnay, along with the proprietary Deux Terres, the reserve Cabernet. As we all sat down together, I tasted the wines one by one, while listening to our winemaker share his experiences as the cellar master of Michel-Schlumberger. What immediately struck me, in tasting these wines, was evidence of an old world influence in the winemaking. Among the reds, I found an unexpected restraint of fruit that tended towards the soft and feminine, almost demure, but which was counterbalanced with a prominent backdrop of bright acidity and ripe tannin. This was coupled with aromas and flavors that were unmistakably meaty and earthy — qualities we rarely find in the wines of California, let alone in Sonoma. At a time when hugely extracted, high alcohol, palate-fatiguing wines are consistently rewarded with high marks in the press for their flamboyance of fruit, it was a pleasure to taste ones that were decidedly atypical in their food-friendliness. "I'm not sure we can make a big, fat, juicy gumball without compromising the style of what grows naturally here," Mike said in response to my observations. It was a testament to the winery's dedication of staying true to its role as steward of the land, and acting as our liaison for the rich story it has to tell. And how inspiring it was to lay witness firsthand to the fruitful interconnection of it all. Needless to say, the visit left a long, lingering finish on my palate.

To have a taste of the Michel-Schlumberger experience yourself, contact C. Milan Communications or visit Michel-Schlumberger online. In addition to its Green Tour, the winery offers to the public a number of other personalized tasting and touring options, all by appointment.