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the magic of montemaggiore Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Montemaggiore SyrahIt had also been conventionally farmed [with chemicals], whereas now we're not only organic but biodynamic.  The former owners had really sprayed the heck out of the vineyard floor, so it was always devoid of life.  And then they had pumped in the steroids with the fertilizers.  That little vineyard up there {pointing to 2.5 acre patch on hillside} was planted in 1994, and in '97 yielded 16 tons out of just that small area — which is just outrageous!  We get maybe 2 tons if we're lucky.  Back then, [the former owner] didn't really care what the quality of the grapes was; he was selling to get his investment back.  But when we moved here in 2001, we knew we wanted to be organic — after all, we were going to live on the property, with our dog, two cats and our son all running around on it.  We never liked the idea of putting all these harsh chemicals in a vineyard that people are going to breathe!  It's ridiculous!  And I don't know if you've heard this, but the latest thing is that there's a [legislative] bill that's been proposed against organic farming!  Somehow the chemical companies have put this bill on the agenda of Congress to prevent not only farmers but also private citizens from growing organically, because somehow they've convinced people that [by virtue of using organic methods] we're poisoning the food system!!  What has this world come to?!  What are these people thinking?!  {laughing}  As you can see, I don't have many opinions…

NM:  {laughing} No, I love hearing strong opinions!  They're necessary to have in order to exact change in the world.  And in your case, it sounds as if, because of your connection and affinity with the environment, your position is one that values the principles behind organic and, apparently, biodynamic farming — all in an effort to bring the land and its environment back into harmony after the imbalancing effects of more invasive farming practices.

LC:  Yes, and Demeter is coming later this month to officially certify us [as biodynamic].  But we really began with organic farming simply to eliminate chemical use.  Because roaming the property we've got animals — not only the dog and cats, but the six sheep that mow our vineyards — and also our drinking water, the very water you're drinking, comes from our property.  You don't want all these wacky chemicals floating around!  Plus, we've learned that you have to work with nature, instead of against it.  Whether it's vine spacing, deficit irrigation, aggressive pruning, or whatever, you want to have the vine take care of itself so it doesn't produce lots of canopy to shade the grapes or tons of bunches that you're just going to end up green harvesting in the end.

"We never liked the idea of putting all these harsh chemicals in a vineyard that people are going to breathe!"

For example, as veraison occurs (as the grapes turn from green to red) typically what most people do in the case of an ultra-premium wine is to go through and do what's called a green harvest, or gathering those bunches that are slightly behind in ripening.  Because, ideally, when you make a wine you want every single grape to be at the same degree of ripeness — otherwise you might end up with a wine that has has overripe and underripe flavors.  So, you try to narrow the range of ripeness as much as possible, and the best time to do that is at veraison since that's the only time you can do non-destructive testing, where you can actually look at a bunch and determine where it is in terms of ripeness.  Otherwise, you have to destroy it by picking a berry and squeezing it to find out how ripe it is.  And sure, you could do sampling, but overall veraison is just a really easy time to go through [the vineyard] and get all your bunches within that narrow range of ripeness.

NM:  Plus, in dropping fruit at that early stage, I imagine that you're maximizing the efficiency in the plant's expenditure of energy — as opposed to dropping that fruit after the vine has already spent energy to ripen it.

LC:  Yes!  But you also don't want to do it too early.  Otherwise, the vine would ultimately figure out that it doesn't have as much fruit as it should and then put out more bunches later on — you'd get what's called a second crop.  So, dropping fruit at veraison strikes that balance in time, where it's not too early and not too late.  It's a perfect window.   But [we learned all this later, because] when we first came [to this property], we didn't really know how to do things.  During one of our first years, we dropped probably about 30% of our Syrah crop— which, if you're just a grower, makes you want to cry, because that's money you're throwing away.  Of course, we're also a producer and that was consistent with what we wanted in terms of increasing the quality of our fruit.  But still, it was a lot of work to drop all that fruit!