What: Napa Valley Vineyard Tour, California
Author: Brett Petersen
Most people go on winery tours. We were unfortunate enough to go on a vineyard tour. Such is life! After the 3-Day International Wine Grape Growing Course conducted by Neal Kinsey, we set out to see the Albrecht-Kinsey fertility programme in action on grapes. The course was a great success; many of us had done Kinsey courses before. There were 61 ‘students’ - 34 from USA, 18 from NZ, 3 Canadians, 2 Puerto Ricans, 2 from Germany, and 1 each from Switzerland and Mexico. A dozen were involved with growing grapes; most others were not, representing other crops such as citrus, walnuts and plantain. It does not matter what crop you grow; what matters is the soil fertility. There were over 20 consultants, a dozen farmers and growers and three doctorates amongst the students.
Out on the vineyards, we were greeted by a barrage of soil figures, but the important thing is; are the soils and the crops improving? It certainly showed up in the figures and staff observations that they were. Such things as less soil cracking, more calcium, less magnesium, (in high Mg soils) improved copper levels and better crops compared to a few years ago. The Napa soils are in the TEC 16-25 range, certainly more fertile than most of those we had seen so far. Land in 2012 cost $250,000/ha.
Debbie Ziggerbaum is the Robert Sinskey owned Amigo 2 vineyard manager. Here they produce 30,000 cases of Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. They are organic and biodynamic and have been on the Kinsey programme for 17 years. The vineyard is in 600mm of topsoil on a marine clay hard pan.
10 years ago, soil used to stick to boots, but not anymore. Weed control is by ‘spading’, and sheep. However, some ‘butterfly’ and cupped younger leaves were evident, indicating potassium deficiency. The rachis was also curved, indicating a problem with zinc. It doesn’t matter if you farm organically or chemically. If you break the laws of nature, your crops or animals will tell you. Are you listening to them? Debbie was not a good listener.
Moving on to Las Amigas, also a Sinskey vineyard, the information became more ‘mechanical’. They had tried aluminium posts. These simply dissolved. Some effort went into ascertaining irrigation requirement involving tensiometers and leaf presses. Plant temperatures were measured, recording 9-10 degrees below ambient at times. The ppm of zinc was better, calcium on a par, but as for magnesium, in both cases it was still excessive.
The last fertiliser recipe was 556kg/ha azomite rock dust, 39kg of sulphur, 556kg RPR, 1,176kg of lime, 11kg of copper sulphate, 504kg of potassium sulphate and 22kg of borax. They still spray for botrytis.
North of Napa, at Oakville, we visited a Beckstoffer owned, Dave Mitchull managed vineyard of 33.5ha. Beckstoffer vineyards have 87 clients (and another 50 on the waiting list), who buy their grapes by the row. Beckstoffer has 1,400ha under grapes, but this vineyard is the flagship, producing the highest quality and highest priced grapes. Dave ensures the yield is never below 5t/ha, as the per ha sale price is the equivalent of $86,450/ha, based on a minimum of 5t/ha. These buyers require just one cluster per shoot, about 1.5kg grapes/metre.
Many wineries work on the assumption that lower yields enhance flavours. When asked if he thought there was a correlation between the ‘grape score’ and yield, Dave replied, “In my opinion, no, there is not.” The Vineyard has achieved a grape score of 100 three times, and high 90’s on all other occasions while being with the Albrecht-Kinsey system for the last 8 years. Costs/ha are $20,000-22,500, so this is one every profitable operation. However, the cultural practices have become more intense. The vines used to be handled on three occasions. Now it is 20, but that is the choice of buyers. The usual yield is 7.5-10t/ha, so the price of those grapes is under $19/kg. Minimum brix levels are 26. A quick check of the Zinc over copper found it in the right place and that was borne out by level-shouldered bunches. A seed count also confirmed this vineyard was superior.
The Albrecht-Kinsey system is practiced on 400ha in Napa Valley and rising, although progress is slow. Usually a portion of a vineyard is converted, with the whole vineyard taking several years, depending on the confidence of the operator.
This is the winery that produced a wine in 1976 that beat the French at their own game, winning the white wine section of an international competition. That event was the subject of the 2008 movie, ‘Bottle Shock’. The 100ha property was started by Alfred Tubbs in 1886, just in time for prohibition in the 1880’s and 1890’s, then owned by Yort and Jeanie Frank, and is currently owned by Jim Barrett. Dave Vella is the manager and our host for our visit which took us through the winery, cellars, excavated under a cliff, and finally into the wine tasting area. Dave had just returned from overseas, so our visit was confined to the winery itself. We did not specifically visit or discuss the vineyards at all.
The vineyard was redeveloped with the first wines produced in 1972, mostly Riesling, then Cabernet Sauvignon in 1978, however, despite the 1976 success with a 1973 Chardonnay, the soils became unbalanced, as excessive manure was being used year after year. Finally in 1994, the decision was made to use the Albrecht-Kinsey system. The soil tests are conscientiously followed with the recommended fertiliser being added into compost before being applied to the vineyard.