What’s In a Name? Meyécci batiwal li?
Assembling the cuvées is no simple process around here. The thirty three acres of our Pinot noir are planted on the tops and flanks of the farm’s knoll, in blocks ranging in size from just two tenths of an acre to almost four and half acres. The size and placement of each block are based on the nature of the nine different clones (or selections) and rootstocks we grow and the appropriateness of the soil, aspect and other features of each block for that vine. The clone, rootstock and aspect influence the rate of ripening of each block and causes our harvest of Pinot noir to stretch over a three week time span. We pick and ferment the individual blocks at their precise moment of ripeness, even blocks as small as the little 0.2 acre orphan. This results in numerous lots of Pinot noir, each consisting of anywhere from one barrel to nine barrels. As we taste them throughout the winter following harvest, the separate lots group themselves into character types of complementary flavors. The flavors evolving in each wine in trial sub-blends begin to reveal distinct characteristics and personalities. As a result, Vanessa functions almost like a midwife in the creation of our two distinct estate cuvées.
What do we call these blends, or more fittingly, what do they wish to be called? Incapable of a Vulcan mind meld, we’ve had to guess at our voiceless creations’ intentions. Before I discovered my affinity for science, I was a history major. I came to appreciate how the natural history and the social history of a place provide a lens through which we gain insight into the truths of a mute physical witness. It seemed fitting to give historically meaningful names to the cuvées. The wines cry out, in their language of sensory experience, “We are from here.”
Scallop Shelf – A place where bivalve shells were found perched up high, at elevation. Preceding the arrival of the unnamed loggers of the nineteenth century to our hill top, preceding Captain Sunberg and his successors, the Petersens, at the turn of the twentieth century to their home on the ridge, were the Pomo people. The Pomos hunted, fished, and foraged, often for bivalves found along our coastline. It was not unusual for them to carry their food to higher ground – defensible hilltops, maybe a little warmer – to have their feasts. A Pomo name for this place is meyécci batiwal li which means ‘where scallops lie.’ I’ve heard it told that midden piles containing shells are not uncommon in our area, though I have not uncovered any in my vineyard planting preparations. What I have uncovered are fossils, dating from long, long before the presence of the Pomo. The hilltops that we farm are actually uplifted sea floor, made up of soils of fine silty sediment deposited at the bottom of an inland sea that existed here five to seven million years ago. Unlike your typical “recently drained swampland” which would be considered rich in nutrients, the uplift event left our highly siliceous soils exposed to our large winter rainfall over the interceding millennia, leaching most nutrients downward and off our hill. As the hilltop dried out over the course of the summer, we planned to feed our thirsty young vines from a pond fed by the previous winter’s rains. Once the digging for the pond scraped into the sandstone subsoils, brachiopods and pelecypods began to appear. Our subsoils are littered with the fossils of sea creatures, especially the elegant fan-shaped scallop shell.
Pomarium – Latin for apple orchard. When we were searching for frontier land suitable to grow Pinot noir, we sifted through what agricultural information was available, some of it quite technical, some of it legend based on empirical knowledge. One item I’d heard was how certain orchard crops were a good indicator of a site’s suitability for Pinot noir. Now that we know our location is ideal for Pinot noir, let’s take a look to see if that theory holds.
The following are the climate considerations ideal for apple farming. There is what is called a winter chilling requirement – a certain number of hours below 45°F (1200-1500 hours per year). You also want to avoid hot temperatures that can result in burning, not a concern due to our very moderate summer weather. Too much summer humidity leads to high disease pressure. Luckily our air is quite dry, when it is not foggy. This leads us to the final requirement: the avoidance of too much fog or dew that often causes “russeting,” that brown, rough portion of the skin that you occasionally see on apples. We do get a bit of russeting on our apples, which is fine for processing apples, but undesirable for eating apples.
One version of the decline of our local apple farming industry raises a few more questions about the apple-Pinot noir correlate. It is said that the early consumer favorite, the Gravenstein apple, fell out of favor since that variety does not store well. Further, the persistent post harvest temperatures below freezing in the Yakima Valley in Washington made the storage and sale of Washington apples feasible throughout the year. Yet, the Yakima is not known for its Pinot noir reputation because its summer temperatures are too hot, located as it is on the edge of the Northern Sonora Desert. But certain apple varieties are more adaptable to one climate versus another. In the Yakima, apple growers use overhead misters to prevent burning since they possess ample, cheap water. But still, the fact that apples thrive in Washington casts a little doubt on one old saw.
I’ve since discovered that the story of the demise of the Sonoma Apple industry is a little more complicated than the explanations above. Gravensteins were planted because of their high vigor, forming large trees with deeper root systems, better adapted to un-irrigated farming. As rivers were dammed up in the Columbia River basin and throughout the Sierra watershed, readily available and ample water meant that small, shallow rooted trees could be farmed. These smaller trees bore fruit sooner, could be quickly grafted to a different variety, were easier to harvest and prune, and bore much more fruit per acre with an ample supply of water. Gravensteins were popular for the local market, which was the Bay Area for western Sonoma County, but since they do not store well, newer, cheaper storing varieties could be shipped longer distances at all times of the year and undercut the market for Gravensteins. Free market economics trumps yet again. Alas.
But it was helpful to learn that our land was farmed for Gravensteins in the beginning of the twentieth century. The Petersens had an apple drier, which still stands on the property, and sold commercially W.P. Petersen Mountain-Grown Dried Apples. Was this presence a reliable indication that this hill top was suitable for growing superior Pinot noir? Taste Pomarium and Scallop Shelf. You decide.