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soil of serpentine Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Serpentine RockKK:  Well, first let me tell you about the process we went through before we settled on Blue Rock.  Initially, my wife and I — the francophiles that we are — went through names like Clos this and Clos that, and the like.  But none of it really stuck.  When we bought the property, we bought it in foreclosure in 1987.  And there was a number of reasons it was in foreclosure.  First of all, the stock market had just crashed and there was, at least temporarily, a major recession.  Also, Alexander Valley itself wasn't very well known and so there weren't any notable wineries in the area.  We're adjacent to Silver Oak Winery, but at the time even they weren't well known.  As a result, Alexander Valley fruit was not selling for very much.  But the third reason that the property was in financial straits was that the land had a lot of serpentine rock [which is distinctly blue in color].  The neighboring farmers know that serpentine is high in magnesium and therefore very difficult to farm — you end up getting naturally very low tonnage from very wimpy vines that are really having to struggle.  So, basically when this property was being sold at foreclosure, nobody showed up except me!  And I was wild about the place, so absolutely in love with its beauty, that I had to contain myself from bidding against myself!  {laughing} But seriously, no one else wanted the property!

"What we get is relatively low tonnages of very intensely-perfumed fruit that has a really distinctive personality — it has black fruits, it has blue fruits, it has a mint quality — it really has a signature of its own."

Anyway, [the reason for the serpentine rock's significance is that], as it turns out, the business model in 1987 was different from it is today.  Back then, with its low market rates per ton of fruit, if you didn't produce five, six, seven tons per acre in Alexander Valley, then you just couldn't make any money.  And that's why this place was in foreclosure.  Fortunately for me, though — and this was not by design, it was simply by good luck — the business model changed some years later, in that all of a sudden it became about quality, not quantity: a vineyard became valuable only if it was distinctive and if it produced something with power, finesse, balance, aromatics, and all the other things that people look for in upscale wines.  It was now all about producing great wines.  And you do that from properties that have a natural balance between the vigor of the vines and the amount of fruit that's produced.  It's all about Goldilocks, really.  Ideally, you want to have enough water because you have to be able to grow the canopy to ripen the fruit, but not too much water that would result in big canopies with vines that look like trees and grow fruit with vegetative flavors.  Similarly, you have to have enough nutrition, but you don't want to have deep, rich soils with too much nutrition because that grows too big of a crop with, again, too much canopy.  The great vineyards of the world are exactly what Goldilocks would have wanted, with their perfect balance.  When those vines produce the right amount of canopy, they basically just stop growing because they've exhausted the nutrition and the moisture in the soil, so there's nothing in excess.  So, now, one of the things that serpentine rock does, being very high in magnesium, is that it de-vigorates the vines.  In fact, there are even areas where there's actually too much serpentine and nothing will grow.  But most of the vineyard, fortunately, has just the right amount of magnesium so that the vines can have just the perfect amount of growth without too much nutrition.  What we get is relatively low tonnages of very intensely-perfumed fruit that has a really distinctive personality — it has black fruits, it has blue fruits, it has a mint quality — it really has a signature of its own.

NM:  Yes, when I first tried your wines, I found them to be very fragrant.  And that struck me because it's not something I've found in own my experience to be typical with Bordeaux varietals, especially from this general region.  I'm guessing that the aromatic signature of the wines comes from a cooling effect on the vineyard at night and in the early morning.

KK:  I'm speculating with this, but I think it's actually two things.  Number one, it's the soil; a lot of that perfumed quality comes again from the serpentine soils.  And the other thing is that 45 degree [Fahrenheit] swing: at the peak of the day, it's so hot that you'll want to come into the house where it's cool because of the stone walls, but then at night you're wearing a sweater.  It gets so cold at night, the vines just shut down.  And terroir, which gives the wines their quality, is really all of those things combined: the amount of moisture, the aspect or angle to the sun, the temperature swings, the soil composition, etc.

NM:  On the subject of terroir, it sounds like you believe that there's a potential here in Alexander Valley that's fully attainable and comparable to some of the best sites elsewhere that have earned reputations and continue to garner accolades.  Granted, that's already happening, to some extent, with a few of your neighbors.  But you feel it can be taken a lot further.