A Vigneron's Quest For Great Dirt
By Stephen P. Pepe
As I began to write this book, Clos Pepe Vineyards and Estate Wines of Lompoc, California, had evolved into even more than I had hoped it might someday become. We had released the 2000 vintage, our first commercial release, early in 2001, and the wine critics’ response had been extremely positive. The Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker, who like me is a former lawyer (though I’m sure that didn’t affect his judgment), had pronounced the Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir 2000 “a brilliant effort” that “should merit a higher score.” In Gourmet magazine, Clos Pepe Estate Pinot Noir 2000, Santa Rita Hills, made Gerald Asher’s short list of only six recommended Pinot Noirs from the Santa Ynez Valley, and Decanter magazine called Clos Pepe “a new winery to keep an eye on.” Ultimately, by the time the manuscript for this book was in its final pre-publication stages, in 2006, The Wine Spectator had named Clos Pepe Pinot Noir one of the top 30 pinots in California.
The 2002 growing season had been a drought year for vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills, and the vines produced little more than half the yield of the previous year. Low yield endows Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with concentration and character, extraordinarily so in this case. Our winemaker, Wes Hagen, Catherine’s younger son, had told me that the blackberry/strawberry/cherry finish of the Pinot Noirs lingered pleasantly throughout his quarter-of-an-hour drive home from the winery. He exclaimed in tasting notes on the Chardonnays that they leapt from the glass with fruity, spicy aromatics. Wes was predicting that our 2002 wines would be the best he’d ever made, possibly the county’s most highly-rated vintage in a decade or more. Ah, the enthusiasm of youth.
As for me, I was at last becoming a full-fledged vigneron, living and working at Clos Pepe full time. After a period of getting the vineyards and winery started from a distance, I was leaving my Los Angeles law practice after 35 years, and transplanting myself from my home in Long Beach.
In the end, it had not been a difficult decision to leave the hectic pace behind for what I anticipated would be the sublime pleasures of a farmer’s life in the Santa Rita Hills, about 180 miles north and several worlds away from Los Angeles, between the small towns of Buellton and Lompoc to be exact. It was not the most famous wine-growing region on the globe, or even in California, but the Santa Rita Hills suited Catherine and me perfectly. Napa and Sonoma were too far away, too expensive, and perhaps already too famous. Temecula, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, simply had too hot a climate for growing the grape we love—Pinot Noir. The Santa Rita Hills at the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley seemed ideal; only 10 miles from the cooling winds of the Pacific, and the composition of its soil, calcareous shale with some sandy loam, was well suited to growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
My plan was to become increasingly involved with the land and the climate, with growing grapes. I imagined myself as a vigneron, a grower of premier grapes. Why did I aspire to growing grapes rather than making wine? Because, despite the media’s current adulation of the winemaker, I believe great wine is the product of great grapes, not great winemakers. The designation of winemaker doesn’t even exist where the world’s best wines are made, in France, and there is no word in the French language for the term “winemaker.”
My wife Catherine, who is affectionately known as “L’Agent” around here, tends to tame my sanguinity about life with a needed dose of practicality, especially when it comes to finances. Consequently, she determined that she would go on with her rather frenzied law career, thus providing a bit of needed ballast to our ship of dreams. Catherine is a sort of combination Sancho Panza and Dulcinea to my Don Quixote, my indispensable comrade-in-arms, and my passionate inspiration—as well as my reminder that testosterone-driven bravado is sometimes best tempered with a woman’s common sense.
While maintaining her partnership at our international law firm, Catherine began helping our architect finalize plans that would transform our Lompoc horse barn into a Tuscan-style villa. Although this transformation may sound improbable, I have come far enough in the fulfillment of my fantasy to have developed complete faith in the improbable. These days, Clos Pepe seems to be something of a small oligarchy. Our winemaker Wes is Catherine’s son, and is married to Chanda, whose horse show name is Charlemagne—which, by the way, is the name of one of the greatest Chardonnay vineyards in Burgundy: Corton-Charlemagne. And from there, the family in residence increases exponentially and merges with a kind of canine kingdom: Bud is our vineyard dog, a grumpy 12-year-old Dalmatian who is wont to do battle with the local skunks. Another Dalmatian named Samson and a Pug named Winston are Bud’s comically pesky sidekicks. Rosa is our border collie who yearns for some sheep to keep in line, and our two greyhounds Indy and Tiva run rabbit patrol about the vineyard. (They have been so successful, there are few prey left and, were they paid, both dogs would deserve a raise.)
Of course, I wasn’t always the master of this Lompoc domain, this vineyard estate, and menagerie of one horse and five dogs. But you might say that before Clos Pepe came into existence as a reality, it figured large in my fantasies. I grew up in northern New Jersey as a second-generation Italian American. My grandparents, Philip and Christine, arrived in the United States at the start of the 20th century, leaving behind a village that had been inundated by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
As it turns out, my grandfather was something of a winemaker. Each year, he, my father, my older brother, and their friends made an autumnal pilgrimage to buy grapes at the Paterson, New Jersey, train station.
I should point out that my grandfather had no understanding of that government nonsense called Prohibition. He was Italian, after all, and as the Romans went about conquering the world, they were known for first planting their standard, the Roman Eagle, and then planting grapes to make wine. To my grandfather, and others of his ancestry and generation, the tradition of making a household wine was practically inbred. They didn’t hesitate to take full advantage of the annual Prohibition allotment of 100 gallons of homemade wine per family member.
No surviving Pepe can recall the kinds of grapes they bought (perhaps Petite Sirah or Zinfandel), or where the grapes came from (probably California or the New York Finger Lakes). But there in the bustling Paterson train station of the 1920s, this group of men from the Old Country indulged in a tradition handed down for generations: They tasted the various grapes offered by the vendors, bargained over their purchase price, held lengthy discourse about which lug box of grapes would be best, then took their grapes home to make wine.
The wine my grandfather and his cronies made was fermented in barrels that the men always stored in the northeast corner of their cellars, known to be the coolest area of the basement. When the fermentation was complete, my grandparents and their friends would go from one man’s cellar to the next along Jasper Street and Ryerson Avenue in the Italian immigrant neighborhood of Paterson. The ritual was the same each year: they tasted each other’s wines and debated the respective virtues of vintner and vintage.
These recently transplanted Italians were quite serious about their winemaking procedures. One of my father’s clearest childhood memories is of a hot summer day when he came home from his sweaty games and retreated to the dark cellar to cool off. Soon finding the cellar air a bit too chilly, my dad proceeded to open all the cellar windows. When my grandfather returned in the evening and discovered that the perfectly controlled, naturally maintained temperature of his wine cellar had been substantially compromised, he was, to say the least, enraged. What happened next is an indelible incident in Pepe family lore: my father received a not-soon-forgotten paddling, and hammering furiously, my grandfather nailed shut each and every cellar window.
Pepe family tales like this one often make me wonder if winemaking is embedded in my chromosomes, part of my genetic makeup. From early on in my life, I had often entertained the desire to own a vineyard. Even after years of higher education and a fulfilling career as a lawyer, visions of vineyard ownership persisted in my imagination.
Amazingly, I kept the dream alive even after I did the math. As a financial venture, the prospects are nothing short of daunting. For the first generation of vineyard owners, very poor investment returns are assumed, and the reasons for this are rather obvious: first, you must buy enough land to grow a large number of vines at the mercy of the weather’s vicissitudes; and then, the grapes you grow cannot be marketed or made into wine until the third year of growth. Consider next that, even once the grapes have been picked, no income is generated until the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed, producing juice that must be fermented into wine, then aged over time in $800 French oak barrels—which, by the way, only last for about three years. And finally, of course, the wine must be bottled and brought to market. At best, owning a vineyard might offer a very marginal return after the usually pricey land is actually paid for, which in California, for example, is likely to take a multitude of years. I was strangely undaunted by this knowledge. Money market accounts and bonds, with their promise of more reliable and much higher returns, never quite managed to capture my imagination the way a vineyard did. No, it definitely wasn’t a fantasy of untold riches that drove me. Pure and simple, I longed to be a vigneron. Perhaps it was in my blood after all...
It was soon after Catherine and I were married that I began to believe I might actually fulfill my vineyard dreams and live up to my winemaking heritage. For many people, and I must be one of them, love and marriage provide just the inspiration and impetus one needs to actually fulfill what was once merely an elusive fantasy. The year was 1991. Catherine and I had married in December of 1990 and we were living in a small 1940s tract house in Long Beach, California. The property consisted of a very low-maintenance yard—a modest lawn in front, a cement patio surrounded by planters in back, and a small yard to the side of the house. Improbably, it was this unimposing property that gave birth to Clos Pepe.
Shortly after—and quite possibly inspired by—our marriage, I decided that this house might be perfect. In my mind’s eye, it was beginning to shape up as the place where I could grow grapes and make wine just as my forefathers had done in the old country, and my grandparents had done in Paterson. Amazingly, perhaps unwittingly, Catherine agreed to the adventure. We named our incipient enterprise “Clos Pepe.” Allow me to explain why...
While the prospect of owning my own vineyard was still but a twinkle in my eye, I was undergoing a change in my allegiance to the various varieties, or grape types, used to make wine. For a good part of the later 1980s, I had feverishly romanced the red wine referred to as Bordeaux in France (where wines are named for the regions where the grapes are grown) and Cabernet Sauvignon in the U.S., primarily northern California (where wines are named for the grape varietal from which the wine is made). I was admittedly going along with a trend, as Bordeaux/Cabernet Sauvignon had many suitors during the 1980s. But by the early 1990s, I’d had a total change of heart. I was newly besotted with the red wine known as Burgundy (after the region in France) or Pinot Noir (after the grape in California). This change of heart had probably been dictated as much by my diet of chicken and fish, prepared in a light style, as by anything else. I found the Bordeaux/Cabernet Sauvignon too tannic; it wasn’t fruity enough for my lighter culinary choices. Burgundy/Pinot Noir, on the other hand, lacks the hard tannins of Bordeaux/Cabernet and is generally fruitier—a first-rate accompaniment to my favorite dishes, especially salmon.
Now, “Clos” is a word very much associated with the vineyards of Burgundy where Pinot Noir grapes are grown. “Clos” means “enclosure,” usually by a quaint stone wall. One evening, as I was staring at the six-foot cinder-block wall surrounding our Long Beach house (and very probably drinking some Pinot Noir) it came to me that Clos Pepe was the perfect name for our budding enterprise. After all, there in front of me was the wall that enclosed the land. All we needed to do was plant a vineyard.
N.B. There is nary a wall to be seen at the current Clos Pepe Vineyards and Estate in the Santa Rita Hills. Overly literal minds have pointed out this discrepancy and wondered where, indeed, was the eponymous clos. Some have even proposed that, if we expect to maintain a shred of dignity, we should probably erect a wall of some sort somewhere on the property. We have responded, with a haughty snort, that, in actual fact, clos means enclosed, and that Clos Pepe is indeed enclosed—albeit by a horse fence, rather than a stone wall.
Enough about nomenclature. Onward, to the vineyard—or at least to the planting thereof—in our Long Beach yard. As soon as we had a name for our project, we also realized we had a problem: We had no idea how to turn our rather tiny piece of property into a small, but thriving viticultural region. We weren’t even sure the Long Beach soil had ever before been planted to grapes, not to mention any of the noble wine grapes.
If my lengthy education has taught me nothing else, it has at least taught me that when you want to learn how to do something, you need only purchase a book. I bought several and began my studies. The next step, of course...we needed some grapevines.
A thorough tour of the nurseries in Long Beach revealed that there were many grapevines for sale in the area, but the fruit they produced was in the category of table grapes, the eating kind. None of the local nurseries sold the noble Vitis Vinifera, the plants that produce the grapes from which wine is made.
I figured that the best place to buy the plants we required was a place known for its excellent wine. Napa Valley was not exactly right around the corner from Long Beach, but it was a scenic venue for a weekend getaway. Catherine and I headed to Napa, where our methodical search for grapevine nurseries began with a perusal of the local yellow pages. We found and visited several of the nurseries listed.
A cautionary note to any aspiring vineyard owners among my readers: Attempting to order 24 Sauvignon Blanc plants and 30 Pinot Noir plants at any Napa Valley grapevine nursery will give rise to extreme merriment among the proprietor and sales clerks. In Napa, such small-fry orders are simply not countenanced. Excusez-nous! When Catherine and I had tired of the derision our request provoked, we motored onward to the nearby Sonoma Valley, where we were delighted to have our request treated with more than a modicum of respect.
“Sure,” said the congenial salesperson at Sonoma Grapevines Nursery, “what kind of clones and what kind of rootstock would you like?”
Unfortunately, I hadn’t read that far along in my how-to-become-a-vigneron books to know the right answer. Thinking fast, I reverted to my legal training, specifically to the quintessential stall tactic: when you don’t know the answer to a question, respond by asking one.
“What do you recommend?” I asked earnestly.
Then, following up on the informative response, I respectfully concurred, “Exactly what I was thinking.”
Every student of business should take note that six years later when Clos Pepe was getting underway and I was poised to spend $140,000 to buy 40,000 vines, my choice of nursery was a no-brainer: Sonoma Grapevines got the order, of course.
It was about two months before the grapevines arrived in Long Beach that I hit on the idea of how to plant them. Catherine and I could throw a vineyard planting party. My wife pointed out to me, as kindly as she could, that most of our friends had probably read Tom Sawyer, and would be wise to our scheme. Undaunted, I mailed out the invitations to our group of wine-appreciating friends, a heterogeneous gang that includes lawyers, doctors, accountants, bankers, stockbrokers, sommeliers, restaurant owners, and teachers.
Shortly before the appointed day of the gathering, I realized that the invited planting crew tended to have two things in common—their love of wine and their sedentary lifestyles. Consequently, I had our gardener dig 54 holes and drive in the stakes intended for 24 Sauvignon Blanc plants and 30 Pinot Noir plants.
The vines arrived, and thankfully Sonoma Grapevines had intuited my ill-conceived ignorance of what I was to do with them. Included with the order were written planting instructions with illustrations.
Much to Catherine’s chagrin, I had prevailed on her father Dave Burcham, a teetotaling Presbyterian Minister, to perform the vineyard blessing. He had agreed, although it would be the first time he had blessed a vineyard in his 50-year career as a man of the cloth, during which time grape juice had always been substituted for the communion wine in his church. It was a first for Catherine’s family in many ways; her grandmother had been a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
On the appointed day, the planting guests showed up clutching designer trowels and wearing the typical weekend gardening attire of Southern California—spotless and perfectly pressed denim jeans, immaculate gardening gloves, cushy kneeling pads, and straw gardening hats bedecked with pretty flowers or ribbons.
The blessing was performed and I imbibed some wine (for courage) before my demonstration planting. My planting crew, ever accommodating, drank some wine to keep me company, then each invited vine-planter was given responsibility for two plants.
Now, there are two important tasks involved in planting bench graft grapevines. Allow me to offer some background on the reasons for their importance: Due to the root louse native to this country, called phylloxera – which destroyed Thomas Jefferson’s vineyards in colonial days, then destroyed all of the vineyards in Europe when it was inadvertently exported from America in the 1860s – most grapevines are now delivered as bench grafts. In this procedure, now performed on almost all European wine grapevines, the American native root stock, which is resistant to phylloxera, is grafted (spliced) onto grapevines that would otherwise be vulnerable to the root louse. The procedure is done on a bench at the nursery.
Back to the two important tasks for the guests invited to the Long Beach vineyard planting party... The first is to make sure the graft site, where the European vine is spliced onto the American root stock, is above ground. (If the graft is below the ground it will start growing sideways, misdirect the plant’s energy toward this offshoot growth, and compromise the upward-growing vine.) The second task is to make sure the vine’s trunk is next to the stake. I carefully explained all this as I demonstrated how it should be done.
Given the large number of our planting crew and their jovial state of mind, the 54 vines were in the ground in short order, and the planters quickly repaired to their wineglasses. I then had to instruct them that each plant had to be covered with a mound of dirt. Reluctant to leave their stemmed glassware yet again, they became obstreperous and insisted on knowing the reason why this additional labor was required of them. Because, I patiently explained, the mounds of dirt not only keep the plants warm, but also protect them from rabbits and deer. They returned to their work as instructed, but I heard grumbling to the effect that no one had seen a rabbit or deer in Long Beach since World War II.
Later, upon inspection of the plantings after our guest crew had departed, I noted some irregularities in the placement of the grafts and the location of the vine trunks. Certain of our group had either chosen to ignore my fastidious demonstration with commentary, or had perhaps imbibed too much wine before setting about their labors. In any case, it was discovered that a number of the vine trunks were at 30- to 40- degree angles from their stakes and required significant dog legs on the trunks to get them back to the stake.
In the end, all in all, Catherine and I were not entirely displeased with the low mortality rate (of vines!) in our vineyard. Six of the 24 Sauvignon Blanc plants did not make it, and five of the Pinot Noir plants also gave up the ghost.
At this point, the wine-savvy reader may be wondering why Sauvignon Blanc was planted in a vineyard with the Burgundian name of Clos Pepe. Isn’t Chardonnay the white-wine grape grown in Burgundy? And, isn’t Sauvignon Blanc the grape used in Bordeaux, not Burgundy, for the making of white wine? You are right but there is an explanation: At that particular stage in my budding career as a vigneron, and my established avocation as a wine drinker, I belonged to the ABC Club, i.e., Anything But Chardonnay.
I eventually changed my mind about Chardonnay after tasting the wines made in France from the Chardonnay grape. French Chablis, for example, is made with no oak, and in other French white wines of Burgundy, the oak is used only as an accent, not as the principal flavor. This is quite different from the “oak-orama” style of the typical California Chardonnays, in which one can barely distinguish the grape. When Clos Pepe was up and running as a bona fide vineyard and winery, I was planting Chardonnay as well as Pinot Noir—and intending to lean toward the French style of winemaking for our Chardonnay—I spurned the oak.
Back in Long Beach, I spent my vacation that first growing season installing drip irrigation on the Pinot Noir vineyard in the side yard. Catherine, whose guiding principle of life is that, without question, aesthetics should always trump function, quickly vetoed using the same system elsewhere, particularly on the Sauvignon Blanc vines that were growing in planters surrounding the back patio. In fact, she was right, the black hose was unsightly. I was beginning to grasp the concept that, to preserve marital peace, thence forward, our vineyards would have to be handsome as well as productive. Thus, I did not object when she demanded that the Sauvignon Blanc vines in the planters be under-planted so it did not appear that we thought brown sticks aesthetically appropriate for our patio garden.
Catherine and I celebrated the forthcoming 1991 Long Beach harvest (perhaps the first in the history of Long Beach) with the original planting crew, dubbing the event “crush rehearsal.” We enjoyed a vineyard meal of grilled chicken, red peppers, onions, and mushrooms, threaded onto skewers, the ends of which had been inserted into green onions so that the chicken and veggies appeared to be skewered onto the green onions themselves. Pleasing to Catherine’s eye, and extremely gratifying to the gathered appetites, the repast was concluded with a selection of French cheeses and several finger desserts. Our wine choices favored the older French Burgundies and some well-regarded California Pinot Noir, imbibed primarily with the goal of fortifying ourselves for the picking. The weather’s auspices were splendid for our vineyard harvest day, even in so modest a vineyard as our Long Beach one. Our labors took place under a clear blue sky, in pleasantly warm temperatures, bathed with lemony sunlight.
Given these bright prospects, Catherine and I might have been disappointed in our yield at day’s end. To put it succinctly, our crew consumed more glasses of wine that day than the number of grape berries picked. In all, we harvested only four bunches of grapes—three bunches of Pinot Noir and one bunch of Sauvignon Blanc.
Others may have been discouraged, but I think Catherine and I felt something akin to exhilaration. It was true we would have to increase production in order to keep up the rations for our loyal vineyard workers. But, in the end, we had actually done what we’d set out to do—albeit on a very small scale and in an unlikely region for vinifera cultivation. Together, and with the help of our friends, we had planted, tended, grown, and harvested our very first vineyard. We had the grapes in hand. Now to make the wine.....
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