Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Robert Rex on the Winemaker's relationship with Growers

Deerfield Ranch Winemaker, Robert Rex, wrote this in response to a fan's questions about our grape sources:

Hello Mark,

We do have an estate wine. It is Estate organic Syrah. We have relationships (contracts and handshakes) with 29 Sonoma County vineyards, which allows us to choose wine from where they grow the best. Cabernet nor Pinot Noir would grow well on our property, too much soil for Cab, too hot for Pinot. I like Chardonnay from east facing slopes and Sangiovese and Cabernet from mountain tops. We get Old Vine Zin from Dry Creek Valley, the best place in the world in my opinion to grow Zinfandel. Pinot comes form the Sonoma Coast (Stage gulch district) Merlot comes from four different spots. Malbec and Syrah from the valley flow, which gives them more dark berry flavors. Many of our partnerships with these growers go back 20 to 30 years or more. As we grow we add new vineyards very carefully. It is as much about the relationships as it is the grapes. We, the grower and the winemaker, need to be on the same page.

One of my main jobs as the head winemaker is to take an active role in the decisions made in most of the vineyards, especially when to pick the fruit and often from which rows. It takes about five years to learn how to make the best wine from a given vineyard so the long term relationships are vital. It sort of like having estate vineyards but we didn’t have to shell out the millions to by them and farm them. I’d rather pay for this in the price of the grapes. You will find the vineyards listed on our labels, even often in the blends. This type of relationship is the most common in California, way more common than wineries who own all their own vines.

There are plenty of grapes grown. In fact the best grapes are grown by people who don’t make wine. They are both specialized crafts. The winemaker needs to spend a lot more time in the vineyard than does the grower in the winery. Today our vineyard crew is out taking suckers off the vines and making sure the cordons are tied to carry the coming weight. My friend is spraying our vineyard and another we lease (Petit Verdot, which could also be called “Estate” because we do the farming) with an organic mixture of mildew inhibitors. I, on the other had, worked on two wine blends this morning in anticipation of the next bottling in July. I also started our barrel program list so I can order barrels. This gives you some idea of the division of duties.

We own about 62 acres of land in Kenwood, both sides of the ridge where the winery is. We have planted only 7 acres. The rest, by design has been left as habitat. The land you see around the vineyards is wetlands and we are protecting and restoring it. We own the forest behind it. It is one of only about 10 places in the U.S. where sizeable wetlands meets a forest. This provides a very rich habitat for flora and fauna. We have many wild animals including a black bear (his habitat is from our forest to Sonoma Mountain, mountain lions, bob cats, foxes, fresh water otters (occasionally seen in the pond) and hundreds of other smaller species. If you were there this past weekend you might have seen the five baby Canada geese just hatched last week, cute as the dickens in their chartreuse green down. We would never consider cutting down the trees and filling in the wetlands to plant more grapes. We think it is important to protect what wild land there is left in Sonoma. It is one of the things that makes Sonoma County so special. There are plenty of great grapes grown by our friends, as our wines attest. Thanks for asking the question.

Regards, Robert

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