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Plagued by inclement weather, Monterey County’s wine makers are slowly gaining vinous respectability : Monterey’s Windy Vineyards

Times Wine Writer

When the afternoon wind roars down the Salinas Valley, it rakes the leaves on 25,000 acres of vines and peels them away from the clusters of grapes.

It’s a pretty sight: bunches of grapes glistening in the sun. But growers Rich Smith and Terrel West cringe at this display of nature’s power because they fear that wine quality will suffer.

Among the other ills visited upon this verdant valley famed for its greenery, excessive wind creates more havoc for the grape grower than any other malady. And there are plenty of maladies.

Wind, cold weather, fog, pestilence and more have plagued most of Monterey County’s grapevines for the three decades they have been here, reducing what once was America’s most-promising wine-growing region to an enigma.

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Today, however, after wrestling with the problems of growing their vines and with the image of their wines, the growers and wine makers of Monterey now have a map out of the maze. Science is showing the way. Monterey County, a 100-mile region stretching from San Francisco Bay in the north to San Luis Obispo County in the south, is slowly gaining vinous respectability.

But it has been a hard fight from those days in the early 1960s when the wine-making experts from UC Davis first identified Monterey County as one of America’s likeliest spots to grow fine wine grapes.

Heartened by those reports, Wente Bros., Mirassou, Paul Masson and some large growers sank fortunes into the soil. By the late 1970s, Monterey County had more than 20,000 acres of vines growing; by 1982 that number had leaped to 35,000 acres, more than Napa or Sonoma.

And the early wines from Monterey showed promise. But they also had in them a characteristic that has dogged the county’s reputation for decades. In polite circles, it’s called herbaceousness. Bluntly, it’s called “the veggies.”

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A strong vegetative character pervaded many of the varieties growing here. In some cases, the aroma was as faint as freshly cut grass or newly mown hay. At its heaviest, it grew to celery tops and cabbage smells, and some wines were even described as having the stench of week-old cooked asparagus.

“The duration of heat during the day is shorter than any other wine-growing region in the world,” said Smith, president of Vineyard Management of Soledad, who farms 1,700 acres of vineyard land.

Smith said that the short daytime heat, combined with strafing afternoon winds, reduces the maturity in grapes. So even though grapes may get physically ripe, with plenty of sugar, physiological maturity is retarded, leaving the grapes with an under-ripe quality.

That gives wine the veggies.

So grape-growing experimentation began. But in solving one problem, others were created. Some growers tried to expose more grapes to the sun to get needed maturity into the grapes. But excessive sunlight burns grapes, and sunburn produces yet another non-wine aroma, akin to charred paper.

Wente attacked the problem by planting different clones of the same variety to see how they would grow in different exposures; Mirassou tested the soil with water-measuring devices to see if soil moisture was a solution; Jekel adopted only tested grapes; Masson and Almaden harvested Monterey grapes, then blended them with grapes from other regions that had less of the veggies.

Doug Meador of Ventana Vineyards, a former jet pilot and apple grower, used irrigation control as his first attempt to fight the problems. All had a degree of success.

West, a respected grower with a row-crop background, attacked the problems using growing systems. He first asked himself the question: If wind, cold, fog, lack of heat, and excessive sunlight all were problems, was there a growing system that helped to maximize warmth and still minimize sun exposure and the effects of the wind?

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The answer came to his vineyards in Arroyo Seco from New Zealand, and it was a vine-training system developed by Richard Smart, along with data accumulated in New York. West, as well as Smith, Meador and other vine-growing experts here, adopted versions of the system.

For lack of a better term, this system is called the Monterey Harp because the canes (arms) of the vines are trained to grow up in an arc higher than usual growing systems, simulating a harp. The leaves are then splayed out higher than in standard growing systems.

Holding the canes in place and thinning them so there aren’t too many leaves prevents them from swaying in the wind. It also prevents them from bending away from the clusters and allowing too much sunlight to shine directly on the grapes. Thus shielded, the grapes don’t get sunburned.

And by keeping the leaves spread out in a fan, no umbrella of leaves can form to can keep cold nighttime temperatures in and thus reduce maturity. The sunlight also has to filter through no more than three leaves to get to the grapes.

“Frankly, no one ever developed a very good system for growing fine-wine grapes in a cool, dry desert like this,” said West.

Meador, who founded Ventana Vineyards here in 1978, had been experimenting since 1974 when he planted some experimental plots of vineyard with closer spacing than the traditional 7 feet between vines and 12 feet between the rows. Meador used a 3 1/2-by-12-foot spacing, hoping the additional vines would help to control irrigation by additional competition for moisture.

He found that reducing water to the vines was only one of the possible solutions. Meador also pointed out that when you hit a certain point, the acid balance found in the grapes goes out of whack.

Meador tried a multitude of things, and by 1980 had reduced the spacing between vines to a 3 1/2-by-6-foot grid. He had 1,200 vines per acre, nearly 2.5 times the standard around the state, with each plant yielding less fruit.

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The irony of all this work was that the failure to develop a special clip to hold the trellis slowed down development of the system. A clip was needed to hold the trellis wires, and growers wanted it to be so easy to use that the wire could be moved by hand, but strong enough not to be blown apart by the wind.

That clip became widely available only in the last year.

It has been only five years since the velocity of the wind was identified as the major culprit here. Mark Kliewer, a viticulture specialist at UC Davis, showed that cold temperatures weren’t as harmful as the strong wind coming in off San Francisco Bay and running down the county like a wind tunnel.

Various solutions appear to be working for some. J. Lohr Winery in San Jose has planted cypress trees to act as a windbreak. Lohr also is using a drip-irrigation system to better control water use by the vines. Jekel has planted new acreage under a high butte on the northern edge in the south part of the county, hoping that the severe winds will race by over the vine tops.

Much of what has been accomplished here has been out of the pockets of the wineries and growers, though $400,000 of a $600,000 grant to the county’s wine growers by the California Wine Commission has helped continue some of the research.

“Part of the problem is communication,” said Jerry Lohr. “We’re just a long ways away from Davis and Fresno physically,” and the only two educational institutions that have active vine research departments are at UC Davis and Fresno State.

“Also, the frustrating thing is that even after you’ve identified the problem, all this stuff (research) takes so damn long to do,” said Lohr. “At least 15 years.”

Few Problems Elsewhere

Some properties in Monterey County have little problem with the winds. Durney Vineyard, for instance, makes exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, making use of natural moisture in its soil atop a ridge overlooking the Carmel Valley, west of Salinas and east of Carmel.

Two other Cabernet specialists, Smith & Hook and San Saba, both to the south, grow their grapes out of the direct path of the wind, on western slopes.

On the east side of the county, Chalone Vineyard is well off the wind-beaten path near the Pinnacles National Monument. There, the Burgundian varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc) seem to ripen and mature.

Other wineries using Monterey County grapes have adapted well to the new growing methods and have made much better wine than in the past. Almost every producer has made a bolder, more directed statement toward maximizing wine quality.

The one major characteristic about so many of the latest Monterey wines is the almost complete lack of bell pepperiness that once was the county’s albatross.

And one reason for this is the changing complexion of the county’s vines. Though vine acreage has dropped from 35,000 acres to 25,000 today, Rich Smith said that about 10,000 acres have been changed from the varieties that were here in 1982.

This means that only 15,000 acres remain from the 35,000 that were here in 1982, showing that growers are tearing out varieties that simply don’t grow well and planting those that do.

The quality in this soil hasn’t been overlooked. A year ago, the large Central San Joaquin Valley winery Delicato bought the massive 8,000-acre San Bernabe Vineyard in Monterey County. The world’s largest contiguous vineyard, it represents nearly a third of the entire acreage in the county. Delicato has plans to produce premium wines from this land.

Although the problems Monterey encountered in the past were almost strictly viticultural, great contributions to wine quality have been made by wine makers who have struggled to change procedures, to adapt to the grapes. The Monterey Vineyard has, in the last two years, done as much as anyone to track the source of poor quality grapes and make sure they don’t get used. Wine maker Cary Gott’s latest wines are striking for their lack of herbal components.

The Monterey Vineyards’ 1987 Johannisberg Riesling is delicately floral in aroma; a 1986 Chardonnay is fresh and lively, loaded with tropical fruit flavors; a 1987 Limited Release Chardonnay is an even better example of wine-making skill, with richness and fruit. A 1987 Pinot Noir is a marvelous example of how Pinot Noir fruit can be retained in a wine without making the end product taste like soda pop.

Wente Bros. of Livermore, with most of its acreage in Monterey, has been hard at work improving its line of table wines, and now with the recent release of a delightful new 1986 Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine, Wente is making a big push in that direction too.

Other grand efforts from Wente include a fine dry Gewurztraminer and a fresh, herbal, spicy Sauvignon Blanc.

Paul Masson, now under the direction of Michael Cliff, a former Seagram executive and a British Master of Wine, has come out with a line of elegant wines bearing the Monterey County appellation. Masson’s fresh, richly complex 1986 Chardonnay and a lean, herbal, fragrant 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon are superb. Both sell for less than $8. Neither displays a hint of that vegetal aroma.

Jekel, famed for its Riesling, has made strides with Cabernet and Merlot. Mirassou slowly is building its image, notably with its White Burgundy, a Pinot Blanc with a nom de plume.

J. Lohr, so frustrated by its inability to tame the Cabernet in Monterey, finally bought land in the Napa Valley. But its Chardonnays have found favor with those who like the more tropical fruit style. Chateau Julien Chardonnays fit in that style, but with a bit more depth.

Barrel-Aging Technique

La Reina and Talbott, on the other hand, have developed a barrel-aging technique that accents complexity over the tropical fruit often found in Monterey County Chardonnay. And Monterey Peninsula moves that style one step further with oak as a major component, in addition to the wine’s tropicality.

Even Pinot Noir, the grape of Burgundy, has found followers in Monterey. Wines from Jory, Morgan, Jekel, Monterey Peninsula and Ventana have been highly praised recently.

Cabernet seems limited to the county’s mountain slopes. Durney, Smith & Hook and San Saba all are far off the Highway 101 path near which most vineyards sit, and high off the valley floor.

All three make fine Cabernets. Durney planted earlier than the others, in the mid-1970s. Its Cabernets are marked by opulent fruit laden with cherries and Bordeaux-like elegance, but with a hardness that requires time in bottle.

The Smith and Hook wines have a bit more California-like fruit and also are hard and astringent when young. The San Saba style is slightly more supple and approachable, but still with astringency.

The county’s most famous property, Chalone, sits 2,000 feet up and seems immune to the typical Monterey problems. It even has its own sub-appellation.

Science once predicted greatness for Monterey County. What was created was a conundrum. So science accepted the challenge and, with the aid of dedicated growers, began to solve the mystery.

Today Monterey says it can hold its own with anyone. And the evidence is growing.


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