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eastern exposure Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Flowering (Photo Credit: Avis Mandel Pictures)The interesting thing about the Saunders fruit, the [old vine] fruit on top of the hill, is that until I started buying more and more of it and equalizing the pricing, he got more money for his Petit Verdot than his Cabernet Franc, and more money for his Cabernet Franc than his Cabernet [Sauvignon].  That's how good that fruit source is.  So what I did was move everybody to the same price as the Petit Verdot.  And the object of all of this was to let everybody make more money on their farming and be the owner of a project where, instead of just selling our fruit to other people and being at their whim, everybody [here] has a say in what we do and how we do it.  I manage it, but twice a year we all sit down, taste wine, and talk about farming.

Dynamics and Biodynamics

NM:  Speaking of farming, tell me a bit more about the choices there.  You mentioned that you've been instrumental in taking all the growers in a biodynamic direction.  What's gone into that decision, and how has it affected the expression of the wine's terroir?

ES:  Well, I'm not sure after less than one year that we've seen much of a change yet — except in attitude.  One of my growers for many years used Round Up on weeds.  This year, he used none of it and all of the sprays are organic.  All of the things we'll do for the foreseeable future will be organic and biodyamic in nature; that's what it's all about.  And it's all really to get the soil to where it can grab its own nitrogen.  Now, one thing we can't do, because of the rocks, is to plow — even with a horse, we could not do that.  So, we've had to be ingenious with some of the things we've been doing, like getting a roto-tiller.  And because our ground gets so hard from the sun baking it, when it does start to rain, it will run into this place where we've been able to put in these troughs, and then the water will sink down from there.  But the real key, on this side of the hill, is that there's water pooled underneath the rocks as deep as you can go.  So, the longer we work in biodynamic farming, the further down our rootstocks will go to where they'll actually be able to access more water, which will make the plant much healthier.  And from that, we'll also get better fruit.

"The longer we work in biodynamic farming, the further down our rootstocks will go to where they'll actually be able to access more water, which will make the plant much healthier."

Here's a funny story.  During our [growers] meeting in December, Philippe Armenier was talking about biodynamic farming.  For people who haven't seen it in action, it can elicit a reaction like, "How could you believe that?"  We got to the point where Philippe had me get the bag of manure compound that had just arrived, and then pass it around.  Well, it sort of smells!… but, okay.  So, it gets to Mrs. Buselli — who's from Italy and owns the vineyard next to mine — and she opens up the plastic bag, smells the manure-based compound, and goes, "This smells just like my childhood in Italy!"  And that just broke the ice!  The more we all talked about Biodynamic farming, the more we all realized that there is absolutely no downside but there's a huge upside.  Because there's nothing you do in biodynamic farming that can hurt anything.  Whether you believe it helps or not, that's up to you.  I believe it does because not only have I seen the great vineyards of the world practicing it, but last year I saw the difference with my own eyes in Martinborough [New Zealand].  They had two test rows that were being farmed with Round Up and all the other chemicals as a way to compare the effects to the rest of their vineyard that was biodynamically farmed.  I stood right between the two areas of vines, which still had the fruit hanging on them — one that was biodynamically farmed and other that wasn't, a meter and a half apart.  In the inorganic area, the only thing you could see growing between the vine rows were weeds.  One step to the right, in the biodynamic area, all you had between the rows were flowers and clovers.  And so I was sold!  That crystallized fifteen years of learning into action.  I came back [to the U.S.] and then had to convince the five other growers to do it.  But now we're all doing it.

Waltzing with the Winemaker

NM:  Having convinced them to adopt very different practices than they were used to, it sounds like you have a fairly close relationship with the other growers.  How about with your winemaker?  Tell me a little about Sara Gott and how the two of you have worked together.