Journey: Thoughts and Reflections along the path.
Saturday March 23 was the first day of Spring Passport.
This year the Wineries of Santa Clara Valley (WSCV) had made specific provisions to limit the overservinig and intoxication problems of the past. The glasses with marked 1oz pour line, policy of only 4 tastes and doubling the effective price by making them separate spring and fall all were intended to reduce the few issues we had last fall.
At Lightheart we had a slow start with our first traffic after 1130, and then it built steadily through the day with a surge at 430. Lots of people seemed to be having fun, we were tasting our Chardonnay, Colombard, Cabernet and Winter Celebrations Meads. There were a few folks who tried to game the system and cadge additional samples but they were the minority, and the weather and great band had everyone in a good mood.
Today we have two bands, playing from 11 to 5 and expect to switch up what we are tasting over the course of the day, to provide a bit of variety. Come on out and party with us, its a great day in the South County and a great value.
Passport is the traditional big event in the Wineries of Santa Clara Valley Association. Its a weekend where most of the wineries are open and you can taste at any for the price of a single "passport' booklet. Wineries have food and music to make the day more fun.
This will be our fourth passport starting in Fall of '11, then Spring and Fall of '12. We've evolved our style over the time period, and will be featuring two bands playing "acoustic" music and may have some trays of pre-packaged sandwhiches to offer so we comply with county ordinances.
We expect to see our regular customers and hope to meet some new ones over the course of the two days. March 23 & 24.
Its not a weekend that's a big sales time, but its the fundraiser for the Winery Association and pays for the brochures, rack cards and maps we use all year.
Please stop by and tell us you read this .
Running a business is an education, the MBA courses don't really touch on how things happen, out in the "real world" or what passes for it in the wine industry. We've gone from managing our small estate of 0.25 acres planted in 2008 & 2010 to 22 acres in 6 additional vineyards in less than 3 yrs. To say this was unanticipated is a bit of an understatement.
And it all started with the neighbor's cows, who came to visit in the summer of 2010, leading us to their friends the Behlmer's who's vineyard is our Colombard source. Over the course of 2011 we managed their acre and our own, and towards the end of the year, picked up the Soli Deo Gloria (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Sirah) and Coop (unknown red and white) vineyards. Early 2012 saw us adding Athena's vineyard for Cabernet Franc and more Merlot and the fall brought the Camparo Syrah acreage, adding up to ~15 acres.
Just a week ago, we shook hands to manage the Chirala Vineyard, a beautifully planted 7 acre plot of Rhone Varietals. This brings an additional 7 grapes to our sources, and looks to be a mutually beneficial arrangement that will add another label to the Santa Clara Valley AVA. To do this we are getting far beyond what Jane and I can handle on the weekends, and have started a payroll, and had our first interactions with labor contractors.
The 22 acres will be sufficient to supply us somewhere in the range of 75 tons of fruit, or about 3x what we crushed in 2012. Its not clear yet that we will grow fast enough to use all of that, of if we will divest some of the fruit in the next few years to augment cash flow.
This would be an interesting case study to throw to the professors back at WSBE, which has now evolved itself from the former Whittemore School to the Paul School.
We poured our wines tonight at GOOGLE's "Beta Cafe" courtesy of their wine maker series on the invitation of one of our wine club members. IT was fun, a lot of bright "young" people, compared to Jane and I. and our colleagues. It was fascinating to pour for them our Colombard, realizing the vines are older than most of the people sipping, and that they represent a later wave, the 21st century software replacing late 20th silicon replacing the agriculture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
We made some connections, learned a bit about what we did and didn't do well, a late evening before dealing with the intrusions of life reducing the quality of our preparation. d
There's a decision to be made between working on your individual goals, or community ones. Games theory and skepticism will tell you that one personal optimum is to allow others to do the community work, and to free-ride on it. An alternate view is that to invest some portion of your time in community work, create value and gain respect is actually preferred, as the intangible values are not trivial, as long as you have enough resources to do your own work as well. Depending on the people you are working with, there may be more or less community spirit vs individual focus.
I've seen this in several organizations and the Wineries of Santa Clara Valley are not really different. Everyone wants the organization to succeed, preferably at minimum cost to themselves. This leads to some interesting discussions where you get positive feedback for your sacrifice, yet those giving the feedback are curiously not inspired to reciprocate.
And yet this week, perhaps we did better than that all to often result of just a few working hard to support the rest. Our Vineyard and Barrel tasting days were the result of a few people making efforts and sacrifices to put on good events. Both were very well attended, and generated enthusiasm in the membership, which has a value all its own, "political capital" is one descriptor.
We will see if this can be converted to real change, with increasing involvement and improvements as more people start to paddle together as the tide rises to mangle a few metaphors.
The Unified Wine and Grape Symposium is an annual conference, trade show and pub crawl in central Sacramento. As one can imagine the wine industry does know how to throw a party, with myriad semi private events up and down the 'Kay in Sacramento. Add in sponsored regional tastings, and you have an opportunity to sip a variety of pretty good wines at no cost. Or at least you don't have to pay for them in cash, just wear and tear.
While the partying is a great time to network, and get a sense of the industry there are technical sessions as well, the mornings are general interest and the afternoons breakout into tracks for viticulture, winemaking, marketing and business. As Jane and I were attending, we had to make some choices in the afternoons, and she covered winemaking, while I did the Viticulture and stepped into some of the marketing as well, just as we do at Lightheart. We eschewed the opportunity to learn about international sourcing of grapes as we just don't see that we will be buying from Chile anytime soon, even if the big guys are doing it to reduce their costs.
International even "global" trends of lower costs of shipping, increased demands and the recognition that the US is the largest wine consuming nation, and that California is the largest portion of that supply at 3.5 Million tons, is a bit hard to grasp, when your production is a rounding error on the slide, 5 digits down. Hey were were 0.001% of that !
Its a bit daunting to realize that the largest winery in our area J. Lohr at 1.5 Million Cases is only 1/40 the size of Gallo. You look at our production plans and we are in a whole different business. Just as we like it. While we are not concerned about Foreigh Exchange rates and duty draw backs, we are concerned about making the best wines we can, supplying them to our customers in the Bay Area and eventually extending that as it makes sense.
We have the same farming and winemaking issues, getting good soil, vines and water, and keeping them pest free and productive. Just not likely to be mechanizing the vineyards anytime soon, as the threshold is about 300 contiguous acres and two $500k multi-tools per region. We will continue to be in a labor crunch, and try to strategically reduce our costs, by pre-pruning, or using low maintenance trellising. Our yields are increasing with our cultivation practices, from sub 1 ton towads 2-3/acre in the past year. We can see that with additional health from continued pruning, and cover crop incorporation, they will reach the 4-6 ton range which they are entitled to in our climate.
Our Winemaking scale is also vastly different, from wineries who have tanks the size of our swimming pool, to our modest 60 barrels, up from the 1 we started with in 2009. We are using better science, more attention to santitation and sensory evaluation, and our product is getting consistently better as we learn and apply the knowledge we gain.
While there are clear differences of scale, there's no difference of detail. We both serve a market that is increasingly sophisticated, less brand loyal and have many more choices. As one panelist in the consumer trends session remarked, "When you see insects coming onto the menu, you are out of recession and into recovery. What wine are you going to pair?"
Vineyard care has many aspects, there's the relatively violent tasks of tilling and spraying, accompanied by the roaring of a diesel, the cameraderie of a picking crew, and the nearly silent handwork of pruning, leaf stripping and shoot thinning.
Pruning is a relatively solitary task, even if there is a team, as it requires focus, to select the cane, pick a site and make your cut. Given the capabilty of the electric pruners to cut the 12ga wire, you need to be looking for that and keeping fingers out of the way, even with the safety circuit and left hand conductive glove system. Thus its an ideal task for reflection, akin to raking a zen garden. You work at a pace that is comfortable, the limit more your ability to process the images and decide on cuts, than to move your limbs tp execute them. Its ideal for those of us who have variable attention focus, what the world may call ADD. Waving a kilogram of powered cutter around is enough to keep your attention, and the slow progress down the cordon coupled with the change from last years canes to the newly prepared vine is pleasing aesthetically.
Given a nice clear day with few scattered clouds, brilliant winter sky and crisp air its invigorating to the spirit, and time seems to flow by. With 15 acres to prune, and an average rate of 10 hours per acre thats a lot of opportunity for reflection. We've only just begun this year, and we have to time our efforts to avoid frost after budbreak, so after a few experimental acres at our big Cabernet Franc and Merlot Athena's vineyard, we will switch to the hillside at Soli Deo Gloria and work on the Petit Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot there, as the frost risk is much less when the cold air can run off via gravity and not pool on the flat.
Farming is generally considered hard work, at least by those who have done it. Even in the 21st century there is a need for some physical strength to do the regular parts of the job. And then there is the more extreme requirements, such as when you have a tractor sunk out in a field.
Such has been our misfortune twice so far in the last weeks, as first the Kubota BX2660 tractor was dug in while using the hilling disc.
And then the RTV Utility Vehicle was stuck up to the axles while Joan was taking a census of missing vines.
At least we're getting better at extracting them, investing in a "farm jack" and a 4000 pound pull come along as Joan is using here, to pull the 1500 lb RTV out of the hole it had dug.
One would think that after the first time we would have learned, after all it was the same vineyard, albeit at opposite sides, and with different operators. However this vineyard has a variable clay strata that traps water and the gound does not necessarily show the saturation until you are sinking in. Once we get a bit drier, we'll take our new Ripping shanks and try to break through the clay, or if that's not deep enough, the hydraulic Auger to drill "drains" where we had pooling.
In between the two events, we actually had some time to be "Lighthearted" and restored a pre-World War II disc that may have been animal powered to working shape, and painted it our Logo Pink, just because we could.
If we manage to stick the disc, at least it will look prettier when we have to dig it out.
Toiling in the Vineyards:
We had a brief hiatus, between hilling up the rows of the big vineyards there was Christmas and New Years, when nothing more taxing than viewing the cover crops and rebuilding a disc happened. Now its time to head back out and resume the cycle. Tomorrow we will start weed suppression and pre-pruning at Athena's Vineyard, taking the bulk of the dead canes off with a hedge trimmer and spraying Glyphosate (commercial Round-Up) under the wire to reduce the weed growth. Alex and Derek should be able to just about do the whole vineyard in a day if they move along, there's 8 miles of wire and they would need to walk both sides of it or a 16 mile hike on flat ground while carrying tools.
The smaller vineyards get their turn next, as we prepare for the pruning later in the winter season to delay budbreak in the spring to when the risk of frost is reduced. We will work every Saturday from here through October, and probably have Joan working some weekdays as well doing tractor work such as more hilling and ripping to reduce compaction.
Somewhere in there we need to get the Kubotas over to C & N Tractor for oil changes, lubrication and general check overs and check the mower, tiller and sprayer for wear and tear as well, rebuilding anything that needs it for the upcoming season.
This year we want to be a bit more pro-active on some of the hand labor chores, so we'll need to work with Miguel and the hombre's to set up for shoot thinning and suckering early and to keep up with the weed suppression on a more aggressive schedule to allow irrigation inspections to be more effective.
Its becoming a real job. Next month we'll participate in the WIneries of Santa Clara Vineyard Day on February 7th at Sarah's Vineyard after attending the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium.
Our hours are posted online as First and Third weekends. We put out signs and banners when we are open, so that people can find us. So when we are not open we don't expect to see customers.
Recently, we are not only getting phone calls asking if we are open, we are seeing people dropping by. It's flattering to have them seek us out, with no visible indication we might be open, and occasionally disconcerting to look out the living room window and see people at the bar.
Guess we are starting to do something out there, to get more attention. Jane and I are discussing the need for a gate, to be able to be "closed" as a 2013 need to do.
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