Vines of distinction

Times Staff Writer

LARRY HYDE surveys his vineyard from the front seat of his "mule," a beat-up green truck small enough to drive down narrow vineyard rows, each vine within easy reach of the 61-year-old farmer's calloused fingers. One after the other, he tells the stories behind each of his 52 vineyard plots as he passes. The angle of each row, the soils and the genetics of each vine are puzzle pieces that he works to match. After 28 years, he says, the 180-acre Hyde Vineyard is still revealing itself. Perhaps his sons, now 23 and 21, will live long enough to learn its true character.

Though his words might sound like viticultural grandiosity, Hyde considers his long view simply practical. Vineyard experiments take years, sometimes decades, to show results. His vine-by-vine tinkering has required planting and replanting plots to discover the types and varieties of vines that work best in each section of Hyde Vineyard.

The winemakers who produce wines with grapes from Hyde Vineyard, an all-star lineup that includes Kistler Vineyards, Kongsgaard Wine, Paul Hobbs, Mia Klein's Selene Wines, Ramey Wine Cellars and Patz & Hall agree with him. And in 1999, the elite club expanded to include international wine celebrity Aubert de Villaine, codirector of Burgundy's Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Hyde's cousin by marriage, Villaine has partnered with Hyde in HdV Wines, a winery using Hyde Vineyard fruit.

It's not just grapes that Hyde supplies to other winemakers. The vine stock he's cultivated is just as sought-after as his fruit. Cuttings he has shared with his friends are the backbone of a new generation of vineyards in Napa Valley and Sonoma.

At the pinnacle of the California wine industry is a handful of vineyards such as Hyde, operated by growers who cater to prestigious winemakers. The fruit is sold by the acre instead of by weight. Each winemaker controls his or her particular parcels, dictating farming methods and the amount of fruit produced as well as harvest dates.

Hyde Vineyard is so prestigious it's often designated on the wine bottle label. Paul Hobbs has a Hyde Vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon as well as a Pinot Noir. Patz & Hall has both a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir labeled "Hyde Vineyard." Selene produces a Hyde Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc.

"Larry invented the concept of the custom grower 20 years ago," says John Kongsgaard, who uses Hyde grapes in his Napa Valley Chardonnay. "I'd ask for no leaves on the morning side of the row except for one leaf fluttering above the grape cluster, and he did it. The guy next to me in the vineyard wanted exactly the opposite thing, and he'd do what that guy wanted. Every few acres are farmed completely differently."

"Larry knows every vine in his vineyard," says David Ramey with Ramey Wine Cellars, who along with many of the other winemakers asks Hyde to farm organically, which he prefers.

Over the years, the individual relationships between Hyde and his winemakers have become more like partnerships, extending into perpetuity with no need to renegotiate contracts. It's a club no one wants to leave, they say, with a long list of winemakers waiting to get in. "Larry is creative; he takes risks. What winemaker wouldn't want to be a part of that?" Selene Wines' Klein asks.

The uncommonly patient touch of the man who first planted wine grapes here in 1979 makes this slice of Carneros a viticultural hot spot, say the winemakers. The challenge of Hyde's partial paralysis, the result of a stroke when he was still in his 30s that forces him to rely on the mechanical "mule," only adds intensity to his viticultural mission, they say.

Not everyone saw greatness in Carneros. When Hyde bought the original 100-acre plot with his brother Richard and sister Diana, the most appealing characteristic was its low price. "In 1979, you could count on your hands the number of vineyards down here," Hyde says.

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A flourishing vineyard

CARNEROS developed as a viticultural afterthought to Napa and Sonoma. Stretching across the southern end of those two counties, the region's southern border is the flatlands above San Pablo Bay. The towns of Napa and Sonoma define its northern limits. Chilly fog from the bay blankets the land in the morning; ocean winds sweep in from the Pacific in the afternoon. The relatively light clay soils are shallow, extending only a few feet before hitting a layer of impenetrable clay. French Champagne house Taittinger defined it as a sparkling wine region when it established Domaine Carneros in 1987.

The bottom of the long, narrow Hyde Vineyard at Carneros Highway is only 20 feet above sea level. Tucked in a warm, northeast corner of Carneros, it is protected from the often-brutal Sonoma winds. Soils extend 3 feet before giving way to cement-like clay subsoils. A mile and a half away at the northern end of the vineyard, the elevation rises to 200 feet and the top layer of clay soils mixed with sand and rocks is somewhat deeper.

Trained to be a winemaker -- working at Ridge Vineyards, Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Stags' Leap Winery -- Hyde was new to farming and not sure which grape varieties would flourish in Carneros. He planted several kinds, experimenting from the start.

Today, with 62 acres planted to Chardonnay and 26 acres in Pinot Noir vines, Burgundian varieties dominate the vineyard. There are Syrah plots in the cooler lower vineyard; in the warmer north end, Hyde has planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

But, says James Hall, a partner in Patz & Hall, "Chardonnay is the vineyard's sweet spot." The loamy clay soils and cool climate are right. But the secret, he says, is the wide variety of Chardonnay vines cultivated by Hyde. Plant diversity in the field translates into more complex wines in the glass.

Vines are classified first by variety -- for instance, Chardonnay. There are many clones of Chardonnay, each identified by its genetic match to a "mother" vine. A third level of diversity comes from the various types of vines that develop within each clonal family.

"Larry stuck with California heirlooms -- Wente, Calera, Robert Young -- when everyone was planting French Dijon clones," Hall says. "He was old-fashioned, out of date, and right."

In a painstaking trial-and-error process, Hyde continues to experiment with several types of each heirloom clone, pairing them with different root stocks and planting them in different plots to determine where they will produce the most intriguing fruit.

"Larry is immune to the aggravation of agriculture," Kongsgaard says. "He's patient, even amused, with his vines, tolerant of their quirks. He knows he can't control them."

The result, Hall says, are vines that naturally produce exceptionally small crops of grapes with very small berries. Those grapes produce juice with intense flavors and aromas. The cool climate preserves the acids. "It's why so many winemakers are able to produce world-class Chardonnay here," he says.

It's also why most of those growers ask Hyde for cuttings. "We've propagated Larry's vines in our vineyards and even in the other vineyards where we buy fruit," says Mark Bixler, a partner in Kistler Vineyards.

Nearly everyone who has worked with Hyde's fruit has done the same. Paul Hobbs, Helen Turley, Mark Aubert and others now cultivate vines first grown at Hyde Vineyard. "He likes to send vine cuttings off to have adventures in other lands," Kongsgaard says, noting that his own vineyard has benefited from Hyde's generosity.

Unconventional vineyard theories appeal to Hyde. Driving around his patchwork of vineyard plots last week, he pointed out that many of the ones producing his best fruit have some kind of virus or disease. His theory: Disease is the key to great fruit.

Diseased vines don't live as long, Hyde explains, but they can produce mature-tasting fruit at an earlier age. "The wines have a longer finish, and the acids survive. The sugars come more slowly so the alcohol levels are lower," he says, noting that these are the hallmarks of fruit from mature vines.

That out-of-left-field thinking is what winemakers love about Hyde, says Paul Hobbs, whose Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir was one of the first vineyard-designated wines released under his own label in 1992. "He's curious about what makes great wine," Hobbs says.

And Hyde has always made some for himself. Using a hand-cranked basket press and manual de-stemmer, he produces a couple of barrels a year of Merlot for himself and his family. "When Larry first called to tell me he was starting his own wine brand with a partner, I was worried," Ramey says. It was a huge leap from garage winemaker to becoming a vintner with his own winery. "Then he told me that his partner was Aubert de Villaine."

Villaine says his reasons for moonlighting from his job running Domaine de la Romanee-Conti are rooted in family ties. But the Burgundian winemaker had tasted the rising quality of the wines made with Hyde fruit, including the Merlot made in the garage behind the pre-fab yurt that was Hyde's original home at the vineyard.

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Another world

"IT is an old envy I had, to make wine in California," Villaine says. "To see how Chardonnay behaves in such a place. It pleased the adventurer in me." Villaine avoids making Pinot Noir in California, saying "it's like having an affair on your wife."

In California, "I've discovered another world," Villaine says. "Carneros is cooler than Napa. The winds keep the acidity in the wines. We can make wines that are more European. The clay soils are quite closed, roots will go in but only so far. It is very favorable to Chardonnay."

HdV produces two Chardonnays, one with fruit from younger vines and one with fruit from older vines. There is a Syrah and a red wine that is 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon.

"Larry's patchwork approach is very good," Villaine says. "The key to complexity and finesse is diversity with many clones, many root stocks. That creates more expositions that you can blend together." Experimentation in the vineyard, not technology in the winery, makes great wine.

"It is the difficult way," he says. "But I am more and more satisfied with the wines we are making in California."

Working with land that has so little history with its vineyards, "is a little strange," he says. "To be a part of giving identity to that land, this is very exciting."

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corie.brown@latimes.com

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