Hillside Farming: The Highs, the Lows, and the Steep In-Betweens

So, I’m sitting here in the trauma ward, hopeful that today Dr. Flores will send me home. I mean, all they’re doing is monitoring me. Blood pressure: 126 over 77. Heart rate: 82 bpm. Hemoglobin levels: normal. All my vital statistics are normal. True, there is a little blood around the lower part of my lung, and yes, the CT scan revealed a list of interior damage: lacerated kidney, torn spleen, cracked ribs, cracked lateral wings of a vertebrate. But so long as I’m not bleeding internally, and a drop in blood pressure would show that, there’s nothing to be done but to keep still. I can do that in my bed or on my couch at home! Here, I’m subjected to a guy hacking up a lung in the bed next to me for hours on end. Argh.

Okay, I wasn’t wearing the seat belt when I rolled my tractor. Even though it has a roll bar behind the driver’s seat, I fear being crushed under the tractor with my seat belt on. I was surprised when I realized the tractor was rolling. I had let my guard down: one of the sections of the newer blocks has pretty steep sloping turnarounds at the row ends and usually I am quite cautious when making turns there. In this cautious state, moving very slowly, I’m usually prepared to hop off if the tractor begins to roll. This happened once before, when the tires of our bigger – more stable – tractor found a hidden ditch in the tall grass and rolled onto its side. I was able to exit quite leisurely as the roll took place very slowly.

This time, I was driving our smaller and tippier tractor and a sequence of avoidable events caught me off guard. I instinctively headed over the back of the tractor. I remember lying on my back on the ground and watching the tractor roll bar head for my midsection. So much soft flesh was pressed into the ground by this steel bar. As quickly as one’s mind works, I considered the likelihood of snapping my spine, of paralysis, as the tractor rolled over me. After the tractor passed, I fished in my pocket for my cell phone to call an ambulance to retrieve my rag doll body. At that moment, to my delight, I discovered that I had full sensation in both legs. No paralysis after all! I put my phone away, stood up, and walked over to the tractor to turn off the still running motor.

I’ve always felt that hillsides and hilltops are the best sites for quality grape growing. A quick perusal of the vineyards of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage in the Northern Rhône as well as the various vineyards of Germany and Austria appear to support this contention. I could attempt to construct a general rule that thinner top soil leads to greater vine stress and when combined with slopes provides better drainage and sun exposure that result in superior wine flavors. As with all generalizations, however, this too has various shortcomings: certainly there are hillside sites with the wrong soils, plenty of hill country with the wrong climate, and Grand Cru sites in Burgundy that barely slope to the east. A long history of human habitation perhaps is the overriding factor in what type of agriculture ended up on different slopes: west of the Rhône river south of Lyon, the rolling granaries give way to hillier apricot and cherry orchards before finally dropping off down the steep faces of St. Joseph et al. with their Roman era terraces to the river itself. What else would grow on these steep hillsides but vines? Still, whatever the cause, it was a lesson I internalized while working up on the old volcano, Howell Mountain, at La Jota. Hillsides make great wine.

Peay Vineyards’ blocks are set up in the air – at 800 feet elevation – on hilltops and hillsides. The precise intersections of latitudinal, longitudinal and vertical coordinates locate us in coastal countryside that is quite hilly and steep, as is true of all “true Sonoma Coast” grape growing country. When we were looking for the ideal vineyard site, the soil and climate were of greatest importance to us. Slope was not seen as a negative, unless, of course, for areas that we considered “too steep.” How steep is too steep? Even though we strive to create a ne plus ultra/nonpareil wine, practicality must enter into our decision-making. We could farm on slopes greater than 30 degrees – history has demonstrated that it is possible – but we need to consider our erosive soils. We also need to consider the economics of farming without tractors in extremely steep sections and also the low density of plants to acreage that terraces necessitate.

Thankfully, we chose a hilltop surrounded by steep drop offs to the river below that empties a few miles west into the Pacific. Our vineyards up on the hilltop are on somewhat gentle slopes – 0 to 25 degrees -and where the planting gives way to the forest, the hillside plunges downward into the canyon below. We were secretly pleased to have found such a well-located site with slopes that were somewhat practical to farm and that didn’t require terraces. We would not be able to use over-the-row tractors, however, as in Burgundy. There are no more than a few square yards that are flat on our property. We had considered a track layer, also known as a crawler. Hmmm. We thought about that one for a long time. To turn, however, crawlers’ tracks run in opposition to one another. This chews up the ground and creates large divots at every row end. For an area with erosive soils, I thought it best to avoid loosening so much soil on a regular basis. Now, I’m having second thoughts, because track layers are difficult to flip…

As the years have passed we have learned that, in particular, aspect (the combination of a hill’s direction and slope) influences the flavors we extract from each block. For the Syrah, it appears that aspect plays almost as important a role in determining flavor profile as clonal selection.

I had a hunch all those years back about the relationship among hillsides, slope and quality wine. I’ve been accumulating more experience at our site on how these factors affect flavor. As with all things in grape growing, however, it is hard to pin point the specific variables that really account for a wine’s profile. The jury is still out. I’ll get back to you as the years—and, hopefully, no more tractors—roll on.

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