vertical vineyard Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Hidden Ridge Vineyard

Winegrower Pushes Limits on Mayacamas Mountains to Accomplish Viticultural Feat
— An Interview with the Owners and Winemaker of Hidden Ridge Vineyard

With vine rows reaching gradiant slopes as steep as 55%, health Hidden Ridge Vineyard is, help without a doubt, an anomaly among grapegrowing properties in the United States.  The creative scheme and audacious endeavor of owners Lynn Hofacket and Casidy Ward, it also boasts some of the densest planting of grapevines found on any hillside site.  In pushing the envelope of agricultural development, the couple have gloriously succeeded in creating not only a visual spectacle but, more importantly, a superb source of mountain grown Cabernet Sauvignon whose production into quality-driven wine is overseen by their consulting winemaker, Marco DiGiulio.  I met with the three of them for a private tour of this stunning vineyard located on a ridge at the Napa/Sonoma border, and just as the dense morning fog began to lift, I was afforded the full impact of this viticultural feat, with breathtaking vistas as a backdrop.

Dovetailing with its striking aesthetics — one for which photographs can unfortunately do very little justice — Hidden Ridge also serves as a broad canvas in the context of winemaking.  On top of the typical advantages of mountainside vineyards in the production of high quality fruit, this particular site bears a unique soil structure and a dizzying array of blocks to choose from in the process of ultimately vinifying its winegrapes.  These qualities, in addition to the numerous clones of Cabernet Sauvignon that are cultivated here, provide for a diverse palette from which its winemaker chooses in creating what amounts to a super-premium wine of alluring complexity and bright fruit character.  All the more enlightening was to learn of the direct relationship between the wine's qualities and the vineyard's unique topography.

NM:  This is, far and away, the most stunning vineyard I have ever seen!  What's immediately striking is the terracing on these steep hillsides and the fact that the vines are planted to such a high density.

CW:  We looked at a lot of different terraced vineyards before we decided how to do our own terraces.  And so, we decided that we needed to get more vine density both vertically and horizontally, because some of the ones we saw were so sparsely planted that it didn't look like it would be economic to do ours in the same way.  So Lynn did a lot of research into it by talking to people and looking at vineyards, and then came up with a couple of things that were different.

LH:  The terraces are basically just roads alongside the mountain; shelf roads is what they are.  What the engineers wanted to do was to keep a 2:1 on the terrace faces, which in a lot of cases couldn't be done, so they would have ended up with 300-350 vines to the acre: "We'll only get a ton to the acre," they told me.  Well, that's no surprise — [with the way they wanted to plant] we wouldn't have had many vines!  But I figured we've got to have 1,000 vines to the acre, which is essentially very high density for a mountain vineyard.  And in the end, in some parts we got that and in others we didn't.  But our goal in developing this was to get as many vines in the ground as possible — whatever it took to get that!  I stood there during every part of the project and asked, "How can we get more vines into the ground?"  The engineers would come back and say, "You can't put the rows close together like that!"  And I would say, "Why can't I?!"  Job #1 was to get as many vines in the ground as possible, whatever it took to do that, and regardless of how steep it was.  In fact, some of these vine rows are steeper than you'll ever see anywhere up and down a hill, except for maybe the Mosel region.

Hidden Ridge TerracingNM:  Absolutely!  I've not visited many mountainside vineyards in Northern California, but I would hazard to guess that this one is, without a doubt, an absolute anomaly — until you get start comparing it to some old world vineyards.  The development here clearly required a tremendous amount of planning and creativity…

CW:  It took engineers — plus a lot of equipment, a lot of days, and a lot employees!

LH:  The consultants I brought here, well before that, said, "Well, this all might go well, if you can get it developed!"  And my attitude was, "Just do it.  What's the problem?"  Basically, we did one block, learned a little bit, then did another block, learned a little more, and continued that whole process until we finished.  If you were to do something [with this scale and complexity] now, you'd have a set of plans along with engineers out here at least a year beforehand, surveying and drawing it all up.  Of course, this was all planned — it had to be — but it was executed piece by piece.

NM:  Obviously, aesthetically, this is breathtaking!  But it's all the more impressive, considering the conceptualization that went into this, plus the fact that we simply don't see this sort of vineyard development in Northern California.  I've never seen vines planted to this level of steepness in Northern California

MG:  In the 25+ years that I've been looking at vineyards with a critical eye, the only places I've seen approaching this sort of steepness have been in other countries.  There's nothing else on the North Coast like this that I'm aware of — and I can say with reasonable certainly that there won't be any more vineyards like this, with the way hillside ordinances are now…

LH:  This is the last of its kind.

MG:  …there's not going to be another vineyard like this.  And so, it's a pretty special place in that regard.  If you took this degree of steepness and put it on Mount Veeder or on Geyser Peak, it would be a different story.  It's all about this specific location, the fog pattern, the angle of the sun, etc.  Everything here has different exposure in different soils, so even though its a contiguous piece of property, from a winemaker's perspective it's not just one uniform block of fruit.  The reality is that in any given year we'll pick between seven and fourteen different lots of wine that we'll ferment separately each of which has a very distinct character — maybe not different as night and day, but certainly with variations on a theme: this slope gets the morning sun and that one gets the afternoon sun, the stuff down here sits in the fog a little longer than the stuff up there does, etc.  Those sorts of minor differences in the vineyard end up creating bigger differences in the wines as we produce them.

NM:  So, not surprisingly, there's a significant amount of variability in this vineyard  — the aspect, the soil composition, the meso- and micro-climates, and such.  But what's interesting is that you take all that directly into consideration when you harvest the grapes, doing so in a way that's really mapped against the effects of those variables.

MG:  Absolutely.  Lynn, Cassidy, and [fellow consulting winemaker] Tim [Milos], and I spend a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out how we divvy things up on the ranch in a way that makes sense logistically to be able to pick, makes sense in terms of having an appropriate fermenter size in the winery, and yet at the same time reflects a cohesive expression of the type of fruit that we think represents a certain part of the vineyard.  And so that's the challenge: putting the fruit from a parcel here together with that from a parcel on another block with the same basic elevation and aspect on the other side of the mountain.  Plus, if that amounts to less than five tons, then we'll pick from yet another part of the vineyard that's similar, because that's what we need to get into the right size of tank and piece it all together that way.Densely Spaced Vines

NM:  Because this was all fairly recently planted (different parts at slightly different points in time), am I correct in understanding that you had to do quite a bit of your own empirical research to really identify what the characteristic nuances were in the grapes, depending on their location in the vineyard?

MG:  Yes, and we're still doing that research.  That's the ongoing job of grape-growing and really what makes it all so interesting in the long run.  It takes many, many years to figure out what it all means — because you're never really dealing with a reproducible set of circumstances; every vintage is different.  Right when you think you've got something figured out, you get a different climatic pattern or whatnot, and things get flipped around.  That's just the nature of the beast.  But the thing is, you don't come up with an answer at the time you pick your grapes; after you pick them, you do your fermentations, you make the wine, you bottle it, and then it takes a certain amount of time for it to come together in the bottle before you can get a sense [of how the characteristics of the grapes from different parcels of the vineyard manifest themselves].  It's only now that I feel like I'm just getting a pretty good handle on the '04 vintage.  So, it's this constant, slow evolution.  And I think the challenge to good viticulture and winemaking is to maintain your focus and vigilance throughout that slow, steady process — because it's easy and tempting to let go and forget the details since that process isn't happening quickly.

NM:  You've been making wine for quite some time now, from other vineyards and for other producers.  With this particular site, what have you learned that has provided a real springboard for your own professional growth as a winemaker?  What has this site taught you that was significantly new and perhaps even forced you to rethink or re-evaluate prior knowledge or assumptions?

MG:  All of the talk that we always have as winemakers, about the importance of a site and the effects that its aspects (soil, exposure, elevation, etc.) have on grapevines — I see all that in a very clear way here on this vineyard.  I see it all here every year; it's such an extremely variegated vineyard that those differences are clear right here.  And that makes me re-evaluate more uniform vineyards, say, on the valley floor.  I'm realizing that I shouldn't just take for granted that any one of them is a single contiguous block — in fact, it's a rare vineyard that's truly uniform across the whole block.  So, what I've seen and learned here makes me want to look more closely at other vineyards that might seem more uniform to see if there are nuances within them.  It makes it a very clear imperative that doing so is potentially worth the effort — that is, of course, in the better quality vineyards that are managed with the aim of making better quality wine.  Certainly, there are plenty of wines you might make where you're not shooting for that high level, so it would be a waste of energy to manage their vineyards accordingly.  But if you're aiming to make a very good quality wine, then you've absolutely got to give it that level of thought and care.

Hidden Ridge Panorama

NM:  So, in a sense, the vineyard here at Hidden Ridge has presented you with a viticultural microcosm in many ways.

MG:  Yeah, that's right — a microcosm of what my job is as a winemaker, how I want to interact with a grapegrower, and how I want my work to evolve and represent what's out here in the vineyard.  This inspires me to want to try to bring out those differences.  Because I think it's exciting.  And for me to get excited about a vineyard at this point in my life, it's got to be a very special vineyard.  Not that I'm jaded, but it's just the reality that when you see a lot of vineyards, over time they start to fall into categories.  This one is really in its own category.  It's inspirational in that regard; it makes me want to try to bring those things out in a way that the general public can appreciate, understand, and enjoy it at the same level that I can.

NM:  Do you feel that the quality and extent of the learning that you've gained in working with this specific vineyard has forced you to re-evaluate at least some of the textbook knowledge that you learned academically early on?

MG:  Well, the reality is that I've so long ago buried that academic knowledge.  Perhaps it's a fault of mine, but I really don't take it back to that level very much.  A lot of this has become instinct.  And that's both good and bad.  It's good in the sense that it allows me to deal with a large number of different projects with far greater variety, because I don't have to give each one the academic thought that I might otherwise.  But on the other hand, sure, there might still be value in taking it back to that level.  Though, frankly, I wasn't that good a student.  {chuckling}

vine_vista_smallNM:  What has working with this vineyard taught you specifically about the Cabernet Sauvignon varietal?

MG:  I don't know if it's taught me so much as it has underscored the fact that [Cabernet Sauvignon] is a very versatile grape and can do a lot of wonderful things in a lot of different ways.  One of things I like working with it is that — unlike some other varieties that are a lot more site sensitive and simply don't work in such a wide range of locations  — Cabernet will manifest with differences in style depending on site, and you'll find people that will like each of those styles.  In fact, you'll hear very spirited debates about which is better or worse.  Of course, I'd already known that about Cabernet but this vineyard really highlights that fact.  The other thing, and something that I feel very strongly about, is that good Cabernet, if you grow it in the right place, doesn't need any other grape variety to go with it.  Good Cabernet stands on its own, the same way good Pinot Noir or good Chardonnay does.  You don't need to blend Cabernet Franc or Merlot into it.  I like that this property shows me a pretty broad range of Cabernet Sauvignon expression, all at a high level of quality, and doesn't beg for me to go find something to try to blend with it.  From this vineyard, it's a complete wine, in and of itself.

NM:  This site, as small and as specialized as it is, technically doesn't fall into any specific sub-appellation — neither on the Napa or Sonoma side.  But based on the flavor profiles you're seeing in the fruit and again in the finished wine, which appellation would you say this site most resembles?

MG:  It just so happens that the county line crosses at the wrong place, but this is essentially Spring Mountain.  It's one of the unfortunate realities of appellations that they're not based purely on the wine and its attributes; it's every bit as much political, too.  But that's not a judgement; it's just what it is.  So, from a wine standpoint, Hidden Ridge really should be Spring Mountain Cabernet: it's red-fruit driven — red raspberry and cherry — and structured, but not in the same way as a Mount Veeder Cabernet where the tannins tend to be a lot more elevated.  The fruit here is moderate-to-late ripening, so I can let it hang perhaps a little longer here than I could, say, on Diamond Mountain.  So, the Cabernet from here is distinct.  Even so, within any appellation, you'll sometimes have vineyards that will produce unique characteristics in and of themselves.  But I'm not sure we've done wine here long enough to establish that in this case, though it could very well prove to be just that kind of vineyard.

NM:  It sounds, then, that with this vineyard, you guys are still in the discovery and exploration phase.  How are you with that uncertainty, juxtaposed against the fact that this is a commercially viable wine?

"For me to get excited about a vineyard at this point in my life, it's got to be a very special vineyard."

MG:  Well, in the end, it's got to taste good!  {chuckling}  And I believe we've been doing a good job of that.  But the subtleties of how and why it tastes good, or whether it does so in the same way every year, are things that still need to work themselves out.  The bottom line, though, is that the wine tastes good.  That's what gives up hope, keeps us going, and makes us a success in the marketplace.  In the end, thankfully, it's more about the hedonistic reward that the consumer gets from a wine, as opposed to the academic reward of understanding how the wine got that way.

LH:  Another thing that's not often talked about is that over time, we discovered that when it comes to the top high-end winemakers, one place that you will never find them during harvest is at the winery.  Never!  At 6 o'clock in the morning, they're out in the vineyard tasting grapes until the sun goes down.  There's two extremely important decisions that a winemaker makes: first is choosing the vineyard to use, and second is when to pick the grapes.  One time, around harvest, when I came out to the vineyard to talk to Marco, I had brought a refractometer with me; I'd never done this before.  So he says, "Well, first of all, you can throw that damned thing away.  We don't use those."  {laughter}  And I said, "We don't?!  Well, how do we figure out when we're going to pick?"  He says, "We taste the grapes."

MG:  It's got to be that way.  And in a vineyard like this, it's even more important because there's so much variation.

NM:  That's potentially an entire topic of discussion, perhaps even debate!  Because what it really boils down to in winemaking is the qualitative vs. quantitative approach.  It sounds like your own take is one that's more intuitive and based in experience, rather than one that dismisses all that in favor of the objective measurement afforded by instruments.  Tell me about that.

hiddenridge_cabernetnew_smallMG:  The reason that I have such a high degree of confidence and certainty in [the subjective] being the right approach for us is the fact that I don't know anybody who's ever opened a bottle of wine and then used an instrument to decide whether they like it or not!  I don't even know what instrument that would be.  You open a bottle of wine, you smell it, you taste it, you drink it.  Of course, I didn't have this attitude right from the beginning.  Coming out of school, I thought of myself more as a scientist who had to measure everything.  It took me a while, but I finally had an epiphany where I realized, quite simply, that the wine's got to taste good!  If I get all the textbook numbers, but the fruit tastes green or chalky, then it's not going to translate into good wine, regardless of what those numbers say.  And it's got to taste good out here because I don't do anything in the winery that changes the basic nature of what comes off the vineyard.

LH:  After you've done it a while, the grapes will taste just like the wine.

MG:  There are characteristics that you learn to pick out.  But, of course, it takes time.  The real difficulty about doing this is that it doesn't just happen instantly.  We'll make a picking decision out here [in the vineyard] — but then you've got to go through the fermentation, you've got to barrel it down, you've got to age it, bottle it, and wait a couple of years for the bottle to come around.  And then finally, you take that wine and have to remember four years back to that one morning in October when you decided to pick the grapes.  That's the sort of connection you need to make; you need to be able to look back that far in order to piece it all together.  It's how you formulate a style and have the core character of a vineyard to come through year in and year out.  And while the variations that you taste in the different vintages are around that core, the core itself remains the same.

NM:  Do you feel that you're approaching, if not fairly certain, of what the core flavor profile is for this vineyard?

MG:  Yes.  We've seen it very consistently, with only one year, 2005, when we had a bit of an anomaly where it didn't have quite as much of that same character — still there, just to a lesser degree.  Basically, it's a core of very lush, juicy red fruit — from raspberries to an almost overripe black cherry (rather than the brighter red cherry you'd get off of Diamond Mountain).  And it has a weight and substance that doesn't come from bruising tannin, but rather from…

NM:  Acidity?

MG:  …well, certainly acidity.  The wines are always bright and I think that's what pushes the red fruit forward, the natural acidity that we retain up here.

NM:  I'm guessing that the most significant factor driving that acidity is probably the cooling effect you must get up here in the evenings and with the early morning fog.

hiddenridge_cabernet_smallMG:  Definitely so.  We get some pretty wide temperature swings up here, which keeps the acidity high and pH low, and allows us to push ripening out a little further than we would otherwise because the flavor profile can remain balanced.

NM:  Are you bigger fan, in general, of the fruit grown on mountainsides rather than the valley floor?

MG:  Yeah, I am.  I've found myself over the years gravitating more and more towards those wines.  It's not to say that I don't have favorite that are on the valley floor, too.  But it's more engaging, I think, in general, for winemakers.  There's more happening, more to think about, more to juggle, more to take into consideration.  It keeps it fresher and more challenging.

NM:  To some extent, you're making choices in the cellar based on what's going on out here in the vineyards, considering factors like topography, microclimates, overall terroir.  With this property and the wines that you're making from them, what are some of the practices that you feel that you absolutely must carry out and will not compromise?  Conversely, what are some of the practices on which you feel you have some leeway?

Winemaker Marco DiGiulioMG:  They're not too different, really, than what they are in a lot of other places.  Making sure we have the right amount cropload, first and foremost — and that doesn't mean the least amount of crop; it means the right amount, given the size of the vine and vigor of the area in which that vine is planted.  We spend a great deal of time and energy figuring out what that balance should be, because it changes from year to year.  And then, the biggest issue here and the thing that's harder to do here than in most vineyards in which I've worked, is to determine at harvest time when to pick the grapes, in what combination, and in which order?  This vineyard is sprawling, so it's complicated, even from just the standpoint of flavor development.  And it's all the more so by virtue of the logistics involved — things like getting the right numbers of workers and of bins that we need to harvest what we want, getting the tractors set up correctly, getting the fruit out at an early enough hour that we can process everything at the winery.  These are all things that may seem very mundane, but they have a huge impact on the quality of the wine!  So, we spend a great deal of time and energy putting these plans together.  And it's not like we can sit down only once [prior to harvest] and plan out what we're going to do; it's a constantly shifting, multi-variable equation.  At harvest time, I'll be out here early in the morning and then leave.  Then I'll come back to meet up with Lynn and Casidy later that day when the fruit is arriving at the winery.  And then all the opinions that I'll have been forming in my head about how we're going to progress over the next few days, I have to readjust based on unexpected news we might learn on the day of picking, especially with regard to tonnage.  The plan is in constant evolution, based on what nature ends up giving us.  It's hard enough to estimate tonnage in a flat vineyard where things are relatively uniform.  In the case of a vineyard like this with varied topography, there's no rhyme or reason at all to what you can expect your tonnage to be, and so you really have to be flexible.  That's the importance of working with professionals who really get it and aren't so fixated on the convenience of things happening in the way they might want, which can put a damper on what you're trying to achieve from a quality standpoint.

NM:  So, the market variability in the terrain here at Hidden Ridge makes for some real challenges in maintaining the vineyard and harvesting from it.  What are some of the other challenges with this site that are unique, as compared to other hillside vineyards you've worked with.  And on the flip side, what are some of the rewards?

MG:  It's such an extreme terrain that it just throws a unique set of variables into the mix that in many other cases you wouldn't have to worry about.  That, by far, is the biggest obstacle that this presents over other vineyards.  I would argue, though, that the benefits outweigh those challenges.  Because here you have, within one 50-odd contiguous vineyard, a level of variety and complexity comeing out in the fruit that's grown here that you simply wouldn't get in a comparably-sized vineyard anywhere else.  We have an elevation change that's huge…

LH:  It's about 1700 foot elevation up at the top, and then down at the bottom it's down to about 900 feet.

MG:  Whew, that is huge!  It's a big spread!  And the climate up at the top is going to be very different than it is down at the bottom.  And so here, you're not blending different vineyards; it's a single estate vineyard that has a level of complexity and variation that you just don't normally see.  It's unique in that regard.

NM:  And you're actually making crucial winemaking decisions based on that variability.  For example, how many different lots of fruit are you fermenting separately, on the average, and are they really based purely on unique characteristics of the vineyard blocks?

MG:  We've had as few as six, and as many as twelve, fermentations from a single harvest.  And those are based on parts of blocks that we feel ripen at similar times, rather than the discrete blocks themselves, because with elevation and aspect being so extreme here, the top of any given block will ripen differently from the bottom of that same block.  So the fermentation lots are chosen not as much by pure geography as they are by relative degrees of ripeness and evolution of fruit character, based on what I want to see systemwide coming off the vineyard.

NM:  And so what that strongly suggests to me, is that you're formulating a cuvée every single vintage, making what amounts to a 'recipe' based on 'ingredients' that come in the form of individual lots of fruit with slight variations in character.  What is that experience like, how is it advantageous, and how do you manage the inevitable variation in the recipe from vintage to vintage?

vines_elevation_smallMG:  Well, it's an absolute joy from a winemaker's perspective, because I'm able to work with a number of lots that are all good — not one of them is mediocre.  Any single one of them would stand alone as a great wine.  In fact, the hardest thing to do is to figure out if there's a way to carve a certain amount of it to do a separate bottling, perhaps to represent a specific style or part of the vineyard, and do so in a way that won't take away from the core character that I'm trying to manifest across the wine as a brand.  But that's not a bad thing; it's a wonderful dilemma to have in dealing with an embarrassment of riches!

NM:  Exactly!  Because you are wanting to stay true to whatever the Hidden Ridge character is, and yet you've got this leeway, this room to play with.

MG:  Part of it, too, is my philosophy that I want the vineyard to be the star of the show.  I want the bottle to be representative of the vineyard, not of what I do.  And I think that view comes with being a consultant for a number of different projects: I'm very sensitive to the fact that I don't want all of my clients' wines to end up showing a single 'Marco' style.  That wouldn't be doing any of them a service, but would be hurting them [and their brands] in the end…

NM:  So you're not aspiring to be another Michel Rolland?  {laughter}

MG:  I might aspire to have his bank account!  {laughter}

NM:  Well, the only reason I make that comment, as irreverent as it may sound, is that there are many who have argued that what a consultant like Rolland is doing is actually duplicating a single formula (albet a complex one) for whomever his clients might be.  So it begs the question: is this about a vineyard and its terroir, or is it about a man and the ratings he helps to garner?

"If we don't have to spin our product to sound romantic, it's a wonderful luxury and something that lends a level of credence to what we do that many producers simply don't have."

MG:  Yes, I think it's definitely a problem in our industry, that whole idea of the cult of personality.  It's not the people who should be highlighted here; it's nature, it's the vineyards!  Because how many products do we have in our world where the raw material as it comes from the ground is what could potentially separate it from all the others?  There aren't many things in the world like that, given the way that products are manufactured and manipulated.  There are fewer and fewer things about which you can say, "Whenever I taste this, I think of that place."  Thankfully, there's a resurgence of that whole mentality around food, where a little more care is being taken to bring that to the consumer.  And we have a unique opportunity, and a bit of a responsibility, to be true to whom we are and what we're doing.  Otherwise, we might as well just go make wine out of the Central Valley on a big scale, while cutting our costs down and getting it out at a very low price.  Now, there's nothing wrong with that; there's definitely a place and a need for it.  But that's not what we're doing here.

NM:  I imagine, though, it's still a challenge to decide on what degree to allow the vineyard to really express itself, and to decide on how much to intervene in order to make that all happen.  How do you strike that balance?

MG:  It's one of the interesting enigmas of our business.  The better things are, the less I actually need to intervene.  In many respects, the best vintage out of the best vineyard from which I make wine, is the one to which I have to do the least.  That's the wine that I can just forget about, because the vines are perfectly balanced, we nailed the picking date at just the right time, we didn't have any unforeseen problems in the winery, and so my job is done.  On the other hand, it's always the vintages when it rained when we didn't want it to; or had a frost that damaged a bunch of fruit; or the wind blew all the leaves off before we were ready to pick — those are the times when I do need to start manipulating in the winery to get from a position of being relatively out of balance into something that hopefully captures at least a little bit of what the vineyard should give us.  Those instances [even with my corrective efforts], I know deep down were missed opportunities.  Sure, we had no control over them because it was what nature dealt us.  But fortunately, one of the beauties of making wine in California is that, frankly, those things don't happen too often.  We're lucky: we're not Bordeaux where the climate can by iffy, we're not in Italy where they can get sudden hailstorms pounding a vineyard, we're not in New Zealand where they might get frost just before harvest.  Yes, it's a lot more work here to deal with the steep hillside, but on the flip side there's a lot less risk in terms of those extreme weather events occurring.

Lynn HofacketLH:  And this vineyard is actually not that terribly difficult to farm.  By and large, we dry-farm.  When there are heat spells, we'll irrigate; but normally we don't.  So [because of the water limitation], the shoots will grow up to about three or four feet, and then start concentrating on the fruit.  Whereas on the valley floor, if you look at those vineyards, they're all perfectly hedged [at the vine-tops] out of an effort to de-vigorate them.  But we don't have to deal with that here.  As you can tell, we're not trying to make this look like a golf course; we don't do a lot of landscaping.  With all the weeds growing between the vines and the bugs they attract, we have a certain amount of biodiversity that keeps everything in balance, keeps things healthy, and even de-vigorates the vines some.

MG:  If I didn't feel like the fruit quality was exceptional, I wouldn't go through the effort.

NM:  How did the decisions you made early on in establishing the vineyard influence the ultimate quality of the resulting fruit and really help set you apart?

LH:  We had the advantage of having no history.  We didn't come here to make a name.  But with most of the folks that I talked to who are into the boutique wines, that's their world and that's what they want — that name.  We weren't interested in that.  And as a result, we didn't have an iron in the fire, we were just looking at it with new eyes and no past history or preconceived notions.  And because of all that, we did a lot of things differently here that saved us a lot of money.  For instance, we planted only clones of Cabernet Sauvignon — we didn't plant any of the other Bordeaux Five varietals.  I had gone to a benchland vineyard down in Napa that had some clones — 337, 169, and 4 — and there was so much difference [in flavor and character] among them that, rather than go with different varietals, I would just focus on the clones.  Now, what other growers are doing that?  Not many.  But if I had had preconceived ideas or a history or a reputation, I probably wouldn't have gone that route.

MG:  Clones are a nice variable to introduce into a bigger property like this one.  But I would argue, in my experience, anyway, that they have far less of an impact on the ultimate wine quality than do site and cultivation techniques.  If you farm everything at a high level and you're in a good spot, then having the clones offers just that extra bit of variability to make your wines perhaps a bit more complex.  But ultimately, the effects of picking a better spot and farming it in a better way is going to far outweigh those differences.  With that said, though, I'm certainly glad that Lynn did what he did.

LH:  The other thing is, as everyone in the business knows, Cabernet is much easier to grow.

"Rather than go with different varietals, we focus on the clones. What other growers are doing that? Not many."

MG:  From a pure viticultural standpoint, Cabernet Sauvignon is a very hardy grape.  It's very forgiving.  You get a much broader range of what works with Cabernet.  And that's part of what allowed Lynn to take the chances he did in putting in this vineyard.

NM:  Ahhh, now it's making a lot of sense!  Because, Lynn, you were already taking a great deal of risk to begin with in developing this terrain with grapevines, so you didn't want to further compound that risk by planting any grape varieties with, shall we say, more questionable temperaments — ones with stricter requirements for soil or climate or moisture.

LH:  To be perfectly honest, too, all you need to do is go into a wine store and check bottle prices.  We had Mark Aubert looking at this early on when we were just selling grapes, and he said, "There'd be no problem making a $70 Chardonnay off of this vineyard."  Which is true.  But that's the equivalent of a $140 Cabernet!  And it's easier to grow the Cabernet than it is the Chardonnay.

NM:  And I'll add to that: it'll be easier to sell the $140 Cabernet than the $70 Chardonnay!

LH:  Marco's always told us, "The reason I like you guys is because you get it.  And that's because you understand that, in the end, this is a business."  It's a business.  If you don't any return off this, it may be fun, but there's not a whole lot of point.

NM:  Yes, absolutely.  I understand that.  There's a romantic notion around growing vines and making wines, but the reality is that it's still a business.

Steep Sloping VinesMG:  But one of the beauties about the wine industry is that the two elements, [business and romance], don't necessarily have to exclude one another.  In reality, the very things we love about it are really what helps us sell and what helps us to differentiate what we have versus what other people have.  They really do go hand in hand.  All the things that we've talking about, while they may not necessarily be directly correlated to [investment] returns, they do play a role in the way that we present ourselves to the consumer — and that does, in the end, affect our bottom line.  If we can go out into the marketplace with our product and talk to a consumer or to a wine writer, and not have to make up a story or think about ways of spinning something in a way that's going to sound romantic, it's a wonderful luxury and something that lends a level of credence to what we do that many producers simply don't have.  In the end, all we really need to do is bring people out here and say, "Look, here it is, this is where it all comes from.  And this is why everything we've talked about — the way Lynn laid out the vineyard, the way the clones were chosen, the way that we pay attention to the farming, the way that decide how to pick — all that's wonderfully romantic, but if you look at it, it's here, it's real, and that's what makes the bottom line work.  It's not just some manufactured story that someone in a marketing office cooked up.  Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just a different approach.  But Lynn, Casidy, and I are not marketing people, so we're not good at weaving stories.  We are good at pointing out what's here and making something special from it.

And something special is exactly what Lynn Hofacket and Casidy Ward, together with their winemaker Marco DiGiulio, have succeeded in accomplishing with Hidden Ridge Vineyard.  It's a true testament to what the daring, drive, and dedication of a collective of wine professionals can accomplish.  To learn more about the history and development of its vineyards or to get details on its stellar mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, visit Hidden Ridge Vineyard online.  (Photo Credits: Hidden Ridge Vineyard & iStockphoto). v