Escape to Spring Mountain, Where Roots Run Deep In Napa Valley

Sunny Stony Hill Vineyards. Photo: Alexander Rubin.
Sunny Stony Hill Vineyards. Photo: Alexander Rubin.

Confessions: first, I’m usually drinking European wines, where dry farming is the law. And I’ve been pretty brutal to Napa Valley’s wine. The unholy alliance of high alcohol, high points, glamour marketing, and bombastic fruit profiles — the preferred drink of heavy-handed cologne wearers, whose senses are all but dead to the world — is the exact opposite of everything I’m looking for in a wine.

I’ve noted this strange correlation firsthand while working in wine retail. Often, drinkers and peddlers of bombastic, fruity wines are a suit-clad social elite, slathered in an ungodly amount of cologne, obsessed with how many points a wine scores. These are the sellers and consumers of what we’ll call Big Fruit: Amarone, pricey Super Tuscans, post-2000 vintage Bordeaux, and of course, pricey Napa Valley reds.

But not all Napa Valley reds are built alike.

Imagine my surprise upon discovering two producers, Smith-Madrone and Stony Hill,  who have been dry farming a corner of Napa Valley called Spring Mountain — an AVA that until 1993 was clumsily lumped into Napa Valley.  Small, independent wineries, not piloted by corporations, who have been doing things right all along. In fact, Stony Hill’s Chardonnay were once the very model of Napa Valley cult wines in the 1960’s 1.

But it’s the red wines which interest me most, as these seem to be the toughest challenge for Napa Valley. These Cabernet attest to their breed: they’re not only drinkable, they’re delicious. The wines are more akin to classic Bordeaux, or at least golden age early 50’s-70’s California Cabernet — before drip irrigation began disfiguring flavor profiles.2

When winemakers Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone and Mike Chelini of Stony Hill gave the first conference on dry farming in San Francisco in 2014, there were more speakers than attendees — a sad state of affairs, given the California drought.

  • Stu Smith atop Spring Mountain. Photo: Kelly Puleio

“You’d think that once it’s time to replant, people might want to give a bit of thought to dry farming, and the type of rootstock they’ll put in”, Stu Smith notes. “But they just don’t get it. First of all, we don’t have any information on rootstock other than what existed 25 years ago — the industry has really done a shitty job of doing any kind of research. I was on the Napa River Watershed Task Force from ’98-2000. And I said, ‘Look: we should be looking at rootstocks. Because, all the plantings that occurred in the 80’s are gonna come to time to be replanted’.  And then I was on the General Plan Update Committee, and said the same thing. But nobody gives a shit! I’ve fought so many windmills.”

Rootstock selection is the single most important enabler of dry farming. Even if California’s winegrowers are gradually beginning to care about water conservation, few seem to be focused on rootstock.

To be fair: rootstock is a costly endeavor, and it is not the sexiest dimension of winemaking. It’s important to consider this when already facing the costs of replanting, as changing rootstock already cost $10,000 per acre as of 1997.3

WHAT THE HELL IS ROOTSTOCK, REALLY?

Rootstock.
Rootstock.

Imagine if it were possible to cut the precious top of a dying human off — let’s call him Vitis vinifera, and suppose he is victim to a parasitic killer — and graft it onto the legs and torso of another saintly, dispensable human who’s already resistant to that parasite. That’s basically how we’ve protected our precious Vitis vinifera since the late 19th century. Thank you for your continuing sacrifice, dispensable legs and torso-man.

But of course, the metaphor is deficient; humans don’t feed through their feet. A bit like our nascent understanding of the invisible effects of gut flora on humans, rootstock is a critical underpinning to the taste of wine. Along with factors such as harvest date and canopy management4, rootstock determines how vigorously a vine grows. And, more importantly, just how deep it sends down roots to access moisture.

Hydric stress is perhaps the single most important element of terroir which inflects a wine’s taste.  As sadistic as it sounds, only fruit which suffers just enough eventually yields wine which we deem interesting (let’s set aside Fukuoka-style winemaking for a moment). Dry farming is an indispensable part of this sadistic infusion of deliciousness.

Successful dry farming gives you mature, smaller grapes with lower sugar levels and more flavor-laden skin than juice. Does dry farming necessarily mean lower yields? No, that’s a misconception5. Slower to begin bearing fruit and yielding after the first grafting? Yes. Sooner to ripen during the season? Yes! But if you haven’t chosen an appropriate rootstock? Game over.

Stu Smith summarizes: “The two major rootstock species are Vitis rupestris and Vitis riparia. Both come from Southwest Texas. And riparia was found growing along a riparian corridor — a river corridor — so it puts its feet down into as much moisture as it can get. Vitis rupestris was found out in the goddamn desert; it’s got much finer root hairs. And it’s able to scavenge for water in a way that riparia doesn’t. So, rupestris is what I’ve selected to use.”

A DROUGHT WITH NO BEGINNING OR END

California’s drought is so severe that water rights and management are now a primordial obsession for many growers; one is either blessed or cursed given their positioning in relation to water resources and rights. But regardless of access to a rapidly diminishing source of water, why not mitigate one’s need by configuring vines for dry farming?

Any proponent of dry farming — especially an early pioneer of California dry farming, Frog’s Leap winemaker John Williams — is quick to point out that vines which are irrigated render a wine which tastes completely different, as they need only create roots near the surface of the soil to feed. These irrigated vines tend to produce wines higher in alcohol which bear a too fruity profile — often hot and jammy.  John Williams was branded a nutbag for the longest time, but in the midst of the drought California is facing, Frog’s Leap is overjoyed to be sitting on St George (a Vitis rupestris subtype) rootstock and dry farming.

Mike Chelini, winemaker at Stony Hill explains: “I’m working on getting the minerality out of the soil. As the roots go down, I think they give you more interesting minerality and character of fruit.  The 1970’s Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve are still beautiful wines, but 15.7% alcohol is the new wave. Many of today’s consumers and media like instant gratification: the old days of laying down a BV don’t happen much anymore. But at Stony Hill we prefer a more restrained style. To me, this is real wine — and it’s what I prefer to drink.”

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Feeding Phylloxera. Photo: Joachim Schmid, Fachgebiet Rebenzüchtung und Rebenveredlung Forschungsanstalt Geisenheim.
Disgusting, tiny little bastard phylloxera, feeding via roots. Photo: Joachim Schmid, Fachgebiet Rebenzüchtung und Rebenveredlung Forschungsanstalt Geisenheim.

Oddly, America was the cause of — and solution to — phylloxera. The aphid hitched a ride on cuttings taken for experimental purposes to France in the mid 1800’s, to discover the ultimate happy hunting ground: miles of Vitis vinifera without a defense in place.

Once the phylloxera louse killed Europe’s Vitis vinifera vine stock in the 1870’s and 1880’s, it took a while for the Old World to figure out that grafting Vitis vinifera onto America’s Vitis rupestris and Vitis riparia rootstock was the best way to beat phylloxera. Quite naturally, American rupestris and riparia had already evolved defenses.

But there was a problem. Vitis rupestris and Vitis riparia performed dreadfully once transplanted in the Old World’s high limestone soils. In 1887, the French returned to Texas in search of a rootstock that would work better in limestone. They found another species: Vitis berlandieri, thriving in the limestone-laden hills around Austin. This Vitis berlandieri was then crossed with Vitis rupestris and Vitis riparia for even greater vigor, and Europe was saved.

Meanwhile in California, growers insisted that their existing Vitis californica was best practice versus the louse. They saw the error of their ways by the 1890’s, and moved to Vitis rupestris and Vitis riparia. Professor Arthur Haynes instructed growers that the Vitis rupestris variety St George was the best solution. If only growers had heeded his call: sadly, a different French rootstock developed in 1879 called AXR-1 began selling like candy.

Fast forward to the 1960’s and 1970’s, during the California wine planting boom: St George and AXR-1 were the only viable options. A full 80% (according to this source) of growers chose AXR-1, and learned decades later that a nightmare was festering in AXR-1: at some point, it had been crossed with Vitis vinifera, reacquiring its weakness against phylloxera. The 1983 resurgence in California of a new strain of phylloxera called Biotype B took a mighty toll.

The rootstocks that Spring Mountain dry farmers use are either a pure Vitis rupestris (St George), or a hybrid of Vitis rupestris and Vitis berlandieri (110 R is a result of this cross dating back to 1889; 1103 Paulsen in 1895; and 140 Ruggeri has an unknown date of origin, but performs exceptionally well in the drought-stricken, steep limestone terroir of Sicily).

  • St George: V. rupestris. Photo: UCDavis.

Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone notes: “There are three rootstocks that I use: 110 R, 1103 Paulsen, and 140 Ruggeri. I’ve pretty much abandoned 110 R; my 1103 Paulsen is my default, and 140 Ruggeri is what I use in the most difficult, stressy, rocky terrain.

“Napa Valley used to be full of AXR-1 and St George. A lot of people are thinking of going back to St George, because it worked in the old days. It was vigorous, but the literature says it really shouldn’t do that good in the mountains. A lot of people have used it in the mountains anyhow; we may try it, just so we have a block of St George. Down in the valley floor, they’re using riparia; they’re using 101-14, 33-09, and these are all water-needing rootstocks. And I’ve been saying, look! In the Napa Valley and Sonoma County, we should be looking for rootstocks where we can dry farm or at least go toward dry farming — we don’t have to get there! We don’t have to succeed in it, but if we drive ourself toward it, we’re better off!”

Some irrigation is inevitable: even if you’ve chosen the right rootstocks for the right place to dry farm, and even if you’ve spaced out your vines properly, it’s impossible to plant new vines without initially irrigating to keep them alive. Long ago in Napa Valley, growers would carry buckets of water by hand to the vines; many are convinced that by soaking the soil, vines were encouraged to send down deeper roots than today’s drip irrigated vines, whose roots merely stay near the surface.

The 2012 Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine which stole my heart, comes from stony hill cabernet 2012vines planted in 2004, which are being weaned off irrigation progressively to gradually force their roots deeper. “When our Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in 2004 we did some irrigation to get the vines started. Not a lot — just once or twice a month through the summer. I’ve now cut back to just once or twice to get some nutrients into the vines, and if there’s a drought, to get a little more hang time without over-ripening. You can see when irrigation might be needed by watching the edges of the vineyard where trees have roots coming in. If the vines start to slow down and yellow, you know it’s either time to pick or give them a little drink. As long as they are doing well, I see no need to irrigate.”

This wine was stunning, and spoke of another era. Here was the first time ever I’d said of a current release Napa Valley red, “I’ll drink the shit out of that wine”. Eminently drinkable, noble and behaved yet gushing with fruit character. Here is a wine of balance, that has nothing to do with its overinflated Napa neighbors.  A wine that brings to mind what Tschelistcheff’s 1973 BV must have tasted like in its salad days; you can feel winemaker Mike Chelini’s admiration of Golden Age BV.

“My goal is for those Cabernet vines to be completely dry farmed. That’s what we did last year [in 2015]. We had a small crop due to berry set issues, but the berries were a good size.”

Smith Madrone 2011 CabernetThis photo of the 2011 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon tells a story: you’ll note the bottle is empty. That’s because it’s a wine that wears its 14.3% ABV nobly, and beckons you to keep drinking until there’s none left. The 2011 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon had an inviting, pungent bell pepper aroma on the nose, and a proper texture — a bit young and spiky, clearly able to age, and not so suave that it feels like the vinous equivalent of some guy in a tacky suit with gelled hair (and loud cologne). The youthful grip leads to a sweet plum midpalate that later finishes with flecks of white peach and licorice. A very nice wine; and I really wish I could have aged it much longer. The nose really reminds me of a 2000 Figeac tasted 5 years ago, but without the suave texture that followed on the palate, which naturally accompanied that wine’s longer time aging in the cellar.

Mike Chelini’s prognosis for Napa Valley dry farmers leaves hope for the future. “I think it has become more difficult to be a dry farmer than it used to be. We want to be more sustainable and fish-friendly, so we no longer cultivate. In the old days, you’d make sure there were no weeds, but we don’t do that, because if we get early rains there could be erosion. The competition [between plants for water] makes it more difficult in times of drought.

“There are some places where the soil needs to be irrigated; it’s a tool that gives farmers control over certain vineyards. But I think Napa Valley dry farming will become more widespread in the areas that can support it, particularly along the Oakville Rutherford Bench. In the mountains up here at Stony Hill, we have redwoods, Douglas fir and huge oak trees, which is an indication that we have a soil that can support dry farmed grapes.”

If you’re a lover of immensely fruity wines, or someone who’s already drinking a lot of ‘hedonistic’ Napa Valley wine, you will probably find these wines rather alien to your palate: thin, wiry, and drying — without ‘pleasure’ as you’d say.

But, if you’re typically a drinker of Old World wines who won’t touch Napa Valley with a ten foot pole — or someone who pines for old California Cabernet — the dry farmed wines of Spring Mountain will dazzle you.

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  1. “Stony Hill became the prototype for Napa Valley cult wines with its long-lived Chardonnay and Rieslings back in the 1960’s and is still going strong.” World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson; Octopus Publishing, 2013. 7th Ed., p 304. []
  2. The lynchpin was allegedly the ripe 1974 vintage: “… ’74 was a hot vintage. Things ripened quickly, there were more grapes than anyone anticipated, and they let things hang finally picking through a range of 24 to 24.5 [Brix]. Grapes this ripe had never been available. The ’74 vintage caused big shift in peoples goals and expectations. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, ripeness became more of a focus. Wine growers begin to relate better vintages to more mature grapes.” The Winemaker’s Dance: Exploring Terroir in Napa Valley, Jonathan Swinchatt and David G. Howell; University of California Press; 1st Edition 2004, p. 150. []
  3. “As of 1997 (the final year statistics were collected), replanting costs in California alone were estimated at about $10,000 (in 1997 dollars) an acre as tens of thousands of acres of Napa and Sonoma vineyards were pulled up and replanted with different rootstocks.” The Wine Bible, Karen MacNeil, Workman Publishing Co., 2nd edition/Revised, 2015, pg. 44. []
  4. Canopy management: how, via trimming leaves, a winemaker engineers a balance between sunlight, drying air, and shade. []
  5. “Yields: He thins the red grapes to 4 tons/acre. That is pretty normal for conventional red wine grapes. Everyone thins it to that. If you have more yield than that the winemakers come down on you. You don’t want big yields for high quality wine. With white grapes he gets 6-8 tons/acre. No compromise in dry farming, no yield loss. The assumption that dry farming means low yields may be because people associate it with the hillside vineyards in Sonoma and Mendocino.” http://agwaterstewards.org/index.php/practices/frogs_leap_winery. []

8 comments

  1. Nick says:

    Jonathan:

    Excellent post as always. You make a compelling case for purchasing wine with Napa Valley on the label, which I haven’t done in over a decade. Both wines are comparatively inexpensive by Napa Valley standards too!

    • Gargantua says:

      Smith Madrone and Stony Hill really over deliver for the price. You can blow $100 on a monstrously bad Napa Valley red so shamefully easy.

  2. Gareth says:

    Been eagerly awaiting another post on your blog. Fantastic reading, thank you for all the research and effort you put in to these.

    • Gargantua says:

      Thanks for reading, and for the kind words, Gareth. I’ve actually been struggling with another article that’s almost killed me that I’m still trying to finish.

  3. Max Reichwage says:

    Wonderful article, any idea why the Smiths are abandoning 110R? Based on what I’ve seen, preparing the soil (fallow period, compost, deep plowing/ripping) before planting is paramount to establishing a healthy root system. It really fluffs up the soil and allows the roots to travel unimpeded.

    • Gargantua says:

      I’ll ask Stu and follow up. Need to work the tasting note on his lovely 2011 Smith-Madrone into the article later tonight as well.

    • Gargantua says:

      How amazing is Stu? ”
      I agree with Max that soil prep is of paramount importance. I’ll go one further and say it is even more important in the mountains than on the valley floor. Now that’s been said, my first real competitive rootstock planting was in 2000 when we replanted four of the eight acres of what we call our Cook’s Flat block of Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a relatively narrow ridgetop that falls in elevation from more or less east to west with a slight swale in the middle. The soil (Aiken Stony Clay Loam) in the swale is almost rock free, fairly deep and fertile and because of this I used 110R. On the slope coming out of the swale I selected 1103 Paulson and on the upper reaches of the two long sides that were extremely rocky I chose 140 Ruggeri. My decision on what went where was based on the literature, in that my only experience was with growing vines on their own roots and AXR #1. In addition, my goal was to find the best rootstock that would allow me to continue dry farming. Both our own-rooted and AXR #1 vines performed extremely well as dry farmed vineyards. Their only problem was that they weren’t resistant to Phylloxera.

      I was disappointed with the vigor of 110 R and its apparent need for more water than either 1103 Paulsen or 140 Ruggeri. It was apparent within several years that 140 R was very vigorous and drought tolerant and that 1103 P was somewhere in the middle. After eight years it was apparent that the selection concept was a success, because it’s impossible to decipher the various soil changes by looking at the vines.

      I may be a little hard on 110 R, but from my experience I would only use 110 R on the very best of mountain soils. 1103 Paulsen is our default rootstock and it has performed well for us for eighteen years. I’m not completely satisfied and want to continue to experiment and learn; I’m hoping to plant an entire block to both 140 R and St. George so that I can have some real firsthand knowledge. While this plan has been on hold for the past three years because of the drought and the issues with Red Blotch virus, fortunately times are changing and we’re getting ready to do some of this in 2017.

      Lastly, please take what I’ve offered here as anecdotal at best; it is just one person’s perspective, that is limited to a specific location, soil type and farming paradigm.

      Hope this helps,
      Stu”

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