Making wine is the natural extension, and ultimate expression, of the love of wine. Winemaking begins with grape growing, and for the quality-minded winemaker, all the details matter. Luckily we have the opportunity to plan and plant a vineyard in Paso Robles, California, an up-and-coming wine region with huge quality potential that is just beginning to be tapped. We’re doing this in conjunction with T&Co Wines, the winery that my brother and sister-in-law run on the same property. Thanks to Alex and Jenny for their help and support… and their land! Also thanks to Nate W., Lucas P., and all others for their advice. This is definitely a case of learning on the job.
The classical wine regions of Europe have the benefit of a long history of trial-and-error through which they have formed their local traditions. These traditions in turn give growers and winemakers a blueprint for decision making, often handed down generation to generation, so they know more or less what they need to do to optimize their terroir and make quality wines that are unique. In California we don’t have such a long history, so we turn to science to augment our common knowledge.
The concept of terroir can sound pretentious or pseudoscientific, but in reality it is very simple — it’s the idea that a wine can be unique based on the unique location, climate, soils, and human actions that go into making it. In other words, two different wines from different places really shouldn’t taste the same. So, we need to know as much as possible about our raw materials — soils, climate, even wind — so that we can make decisions that will lead to the best possible wine. That part isn’t so simple!
Planting a vineyard is like aiming artillery — most of the important work is done up-front, and once you pull the trigger you have far fewer options for where the shells end up. Or, it’s like curling — you can brush a bit at the ice to affect small changes, but nothing substitutes for the perfect throw at the beginning.
The sites we will plant are rolling hills in the Adelaida District AVA in western Paso Robles. This area has great quality potential due to wide day-night temperature swings (up to 50 degrees F), mild slopes for draining air, and good sunny exposures. It’s also very dry during the summer, which can be good for quality — especially for red wines (more on this later).
The soil at these sites is very important for eventual wine quality, so it’s important that we understand what we’re dealing with in order to make sure we plant the best vines for the site — again, we’re aiming the artillery here, so we need to get it right. It’s also an investment that takes at least three years to begin producing, so the pressure is on.
The first step we can take, then, is to dig soil pits to understand the composition and layering of the soils. We’ll also send soil samples to a lab for testing so we can learn the water holding capacity of the soil, its mineral composition, and other technical details to ensure that the eventual vines will be well suited for the land. While we need to await the lab results to know for sure, it appears we have 1-3 ft. of clay-rich topsoil and loose sandstone underneath.
Here are some more photos for those of you who are curious. Thanks for reading and looking forward to hearing from you!
A few more photos from the weekend including our vineyard mascot Taco; his namesake dish; my wife Liz (4.5 months pregnant!) in a soil pit; Alex deftly maneuvering a clunky backhoe amongst his Syrah vines; and some brotherly pit-time. No, we didn’t dig that by hand!