As many of you have read in my prior letters, we have been growing grapes in Temecula for 25 years. Initially most of the grapes were sold to wineries up north and were turned into wine sold as a “fighting varietal” (Wines labeled as Chardonnay, Cabernet, etc. and sold under $10 a bottle). Until 1997, our business depended on producing the most grapes at the lowest cost while still maintaining an acceptable quality. Our client wineries paid well, were not terribly choosy and were happy to sign multi-year contracts. From 1997 until 2003 huge amounts of vineyards were planted in all the California Coastal Counties, from Santa Barbara all the way up to Mendocino. The resulting oversupply spelled the end of Temecula’s wine-grape business as we knew it. We were forced to reinvent ourselves into a retail winery operation.
Our goal since opening the winery has been to “retool” the ranch to improve the quality of the grapes to supply both Ponte Winery and other local boutique wineries. Many separate but related projects have been under way these last few years in order to accomplish this. We have pulled out obsolete vineyards, have planted new varieties using modern trellising techniques, and have changed some of our traditional farming practices to change the focus from quantity to quality.
In no particular order some of these changes are: First, we are using compost under the vines to return organic material to the vineyard. 40 years of synthetic fertilizer, inorganic mildew controls and local city water with fairly high salinity levels had taken their toll on the vineyard. Using compost for the last three years has started the process of rebuilding our soil. Already our soil analysis is showing huge progress and a visual inspection of the soil shows worms and other beneficial insects are teeming with life. Secondly, we have stopped discing (shallow plowing) between the rows, allowing grass and other beneficial plants to grow between the rows. As these “weeds” get too tall we simply mow them once in a while saving fuel, time and reducing soil compaction. The roots of these plants loosen the soil allowing nutrient transport and beneficial insects to promote the health of the vines. Third, we are reducing the use of water during the ripening period. This is called “deficit” irrigation and besides the obvious water savings, it reduces berry size increasing the ratio of skin to pulp while thickening the skins, which results in higher intensity of wine flavors. Fourth, we are aggressively “leaf pulling” on the sunny side of the vine. This exposes the fruit to the afternoon sun, prior to maturity, which results in a “fruitier” taste as opposed to a more “vegetable” taste in the wines.
We’ve had to make some tough decisions regarding our older Cabernet and Zinfandel parcels. Some of you may know that it’s possible to “splice” a small bud of, say, chardonnay, unto a merlot vine and the resulting cane will produce chardonnay fruit. In other words, the grape variety is not determined by the roots or trunk of the vine but rather by the variety of the wood immediately before the grape bunch. In the case of the Cab, except for the immediate vicinity of the winery, we have opted for grafting new clones of cabernet unto our old cabernet vines. In the case of the Zinfandel we have opted to reposition the bearing arms to use a more modern trellising system without sacrificing the zinfandel clone which already produces very tasty flavors for our Port and our holiday Zinfandel.
Lastly we have slowed down our replanting program to conserve cash in these difficult times, reserving it to be used for the best clones, varieties and trellises, all laid out in the optimal orientation. The ranch already produces all the grapes we need. According to some, up to 30 to 50 new wineries will eventually be built in Temecula. When that happens, we’ll be ready to supply them with the best fruit Temecula can produce. Until then we’ll continue striving to be great stewards of the land, and to produce wines which show the flavor profiles typical of our area, served directly to you, our wine club members and guest. As always, we welcome your feedback. Please e-mail us your ideas and suggestions. Thanks for your support and see you at the winery.