When the water in the east fork of the Russian River is running high, the whirl of a hydropower generator can just be heard over the river’s turbulence. This generator, which provides electricity to much of the sparsely-populated Potter Valley, is located on the edge of the Vecino Vineyard property. The guy who keeps the turbines in good working order is Vecino’s owner, Luke Miller. Luke, who formerly used his wrench-turning skills for ski lift maintenance (a.k.a. highly-skilled ski bumming) in Tahoe, purchased the Vecino Vineyard in 2003. Fortunately, the best parts of ski season don’t overlap too much with grape-growing season, during which Luke is almost single-mindedly committed to growing good wine.
The Vecino Vineyard is located near the northeast corner of Potter Valley, about 30 minutes’ drive outside of Ukiah in Mendocino County. The Sauvignon block, planted in the late 80’s, climbs a south-facing slope above the headwaters of the east fork of the Russian River. Potter Valley is known for sweltering hot days and piercing cold nights. While these extremes present challenges, they’re ideal for keeping the grapes’ natural acidity intact through the ripening season, and they also mean disease pressure is low. The soils are alluvial plain deposits derived from the Franciscan Complex bedrock of the hills that ring the valley. At Vecino, it goes from sandy loam on the hillsides to clay-rich loam in lower areas.
“Conscientious” might be the best word to describe the farming at Vecino. Luke pays close attention to his vineyard, giving it the best care, he knows how to give. This means keeping the soil healthy by avoiding any use of herbicides and by applying biodynamic practices. It also means intervention only happens when it’s really needed. Working this way, in the favorable environment of Potter Valley, means that Luke is able to grow healthy grapes without making a fight out of it (ZERO sprays in 2018!).
Adel Atallah bought his small hillside property outside Healdsburg back in the 1990’s. The attractions of the place are obvious – a beautiful view of the Dry Creek Valley, a seasonal creek, and a good supply of water among them. At the top of the property sits a fabulous house, and broad palm trees line the drive.
Adel is known in Sonoma County as master of the classic American breakfast. Along with the generous helpings (three eggs and hash browns are the standard accompaniment to your favorite breakfast meat), his restaurants are known for great service and a connection to community. Back in 2001, when Adel was considering what to do with the land between the house and Dry Creek Road, his community spirit moved him to plant what made Dry Creek Valley famous: Zinfandel.
The soil at Adel’s is is a brownish gravelly clay-loam, with numerous rocks up to fist-size that would make mechanical mowing a messy affair. Thus, the ground cover (mostly native) is managed entirely by weed eater. Though the vineyard has been farmed organically for the past 10 years, this was not the case early on. There are a few areas with weak or dying vines that we will try to rehabilitate or replant in the coming years. We’re starting with the soil, re-invigorating with compost and tilth-improving cover crops, and by pruning back the vines to where the wood is healthy and free of disease.
A couple of miles out east of Ukiah, you get a sense of stepping back in time when you’re driving through the little village of Talmage. The homes and storefronts are aging and modest, and fresh paint jobs are few and far between. It’s always a bit of a shock when, while passing the old, mechanical pumps of the town’s one gas station, you are confronted with a spectacular golden gate. Beyond this gate is the City of 10,000 Buddhas, one of the largest Buddhist communities in the western hemisphere. The City’s property covers hundreds of acres, including the vineyard of Talmage Ranch (which was already well-established when the property was acquired in 1974), and the Buddhist ethic of ahimsa is the rule here.
Roughly summarized as “do no harm” ahimsa requires that Tia and Troy Satterwhite of Rosewood Vineyards, who lease the Talmage Ranch from the Buddhists, must farm the ranch organically. Fortunately, the Satterwhites are well-practiced in organic grape farming, and the hot, dry climate keeps disease pressure to a minimum. Most of the weeds dry up early in the season, and the ones that endure exist humbly in the shade of vines whose trunks are as big as your thigh. The true physical limitation of the site is that there is no water available for irrigation. The giant old vines, which were planted in the 1940’s, couldn’t care less about this little inconvenience – they have equally giant root systems that tap into water reserves way down deep in the alluvial soils.
From their 1700′ elevation, the vines of Waterhorse Ridge have quite a view – rugged, redwood-covered terrain, a little view of the Pacific, the unearthly coastal fog, and some of the Sonoma Coast’s most famous Pinot Noir vineyards. Most would say it’s no place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. We, along with vineyard owners Patricia and Jesus, beg to differ.
Patricia Greer and her husband Jesus Velasquez married and bought their land in the 1990’s, with the goals of starting a family, growing diverse crops and raising a few animals. They planted their 2-acre vineyard in 1997, the same year their first child, Jesus (“Jesusito” around the ranch) was born. At that time, the Sonoma Coast was still something of a new frontier to grape growers, but most of the area’s new growers were betting on Pinot Noir. Jesus and Patricia figured that a mix of thicker-skinned Bordeaux varieties (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon) would better withstand the coastal moisture, and would also have the “little black dress” sort of versatility to carry on through the fickle turns of the wine market.
Waterhorse Ridge enjoys a cool coastal climate, but gets plenty of hot days due to its high perch on Stewart Ridge. The soil is rocky, well-drained loam derived from uplifted ocean floor sediments and basalts. Jesus and Jesusito farm the vineyard meticulously, managing the vines’ canopy by hand and keeping any other inputs to a minimum. In all but the hardest years, they’ve been able to limit spraying to one or two sulfur applications in a season. The old horse and the burro grazing in the vineyard have kept the cover crop (mostly clover) in check during the winters. Gophers are kept in check by by a Jack Russell and a small army of cats. Other than limited irrigations in the recent drought seasons, the vineyard has been dry-farmed for many years.
Patricia’s Waterhorse Ridge preserves, salsas, and other goodies can be found at some of Sonoma County’s best grocery stores and farmers markets: http://waterhorseridge.com