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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Vineyard Manager Carlos Mendez

NM:  At its most rudimentary, winemaking occurs in two very different contexts, each of which has its own constellation of variables that you can influence or change: the vineyard and the cellar.  What is your take on doing things out in the vineyard versus doing them in the cellar, as a way to really coax the wines to where you want them to go?

ST:  We make the wines in the vineyard; that's really our focus.  The less we need to do in the cellar, the better.  Sometimes we have to do stuff in the cellar to get the most of what we want.  But making the wine is all about growing the grapes.  You do your job first in the vineyard, and what you do in the winery is to layer on top of the success you already have from the vineyard.

RC:  I think winemaking begins at budbreak.  What Stephen brings, which I think is really great, is his viticulture background.  There hasn't always been a good interface between the vineyards and the winery, so I stepped back into the process around five years ago and started working directly with Carlos Mendez [our vineyard manager] to specify what we needed to do with the vines in order to make better wines.  And he really bought into the process — he invites Stephen and Keith out to the vineyards to provide direct input and advise on what we can do to make the very best wine.  Carlos is much happier now because he feels that he's integrated into the whole process and taking responsibility for the wines' quality.

NM:  Speaking of vineyard management, what have you learned in all this time that has challenged and even changed some prior assumptions about farming, be it specific methods or overall philosophy?

"We make the wines in the vineyard; that's really our focus. The less we need to do in the cellar, the better. You do your job first in the vineyard."

RC:  It's interesting, when I first got into this some time ago, the big thing was leaf-to-berry ratio.  When the move for tighter spacing [in the vineyards] came about, the emphasis turned to more vertical training [of the vines], so everybody started doing it.  And we got caught up in that for a period of time.  But then we started to rethink whether it was really a good idea — because the more vertical training you have, the more leaves need to be removed, which then exposes the fruit to more direct sunlight.  We discovered that what we really wanted was not direct but filtered sunlight, especially on 100+ degree days.  And so we realized that what we'd been doing long ago had actually been better for the fruit.  So we installed cross-arms and tried to spread out the canopy and give the fruit more protection from the sunlight.

ST:  Which means the vineyards don't look as tidy, with a lot less of that perfectly linear and upright appearance.  There had been a big move away from the 'California sprawl,' or big-bush shape from the old days, towards the concept of the vertical shoot position, which was very neat and tidy.  Everyone loved the way it looked.  But what we're finding — and not just us but this is really the latest thinking in viticulture in general, some of which was driven by the temperature events we've had over the last several vintages where some of the fruit was sunburned — is that some shading on the fruit is really beneficial.  That said, there are some areas where the vertical training works beautifully, but that has to evaluated on a site-by-site basis.  If you're growing Chardonnay on the coast, you need those vines opened up [to maximize air flow and minimize fungal growth]; but if you're growing Cabernet up on a mountain, you don't need that!

Focusing on the Future

NM:  Witnessing these sorts of changes in the thinking and practice of viticulture and winemaking, what is your sense of the direction that the overall industry in Napa has come thus far?  And what are your thoughts about where it might be going in the future?

Pym Rae Vineyard on Mount Veeder

RC:  I think that wines coming out of the Napa Valley have improved remarkably over the years.  When I first started, there were a lot of wines that really weren't all that good.  But that can't be done anymore; at a certain price point, there's an expectation that a wine is going to have great fruit expression and wonderful texture, and that makes it all very competitive.  That's why all of us here have to keep tweaking the wines — we want to stay among the top group of wines from Napa.



 

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