Friday, January 30, 2009

Blending Technology and Art

Growing grapes and making wine have, from time immemorial, been a mix of experience, art, passion, and patience. Not so in the 21st century. We now have technology working in many areas once considered the exclusive province of the artisan grape growers and wine masters. Wine technology takes much of the guess work out of deciding what to grow, how and where. That same technology can be used to monitor, sample and adjust the nutrients, and determine how much water to use. A master of this new winemaking strategy is Dave House, founder of House Family Wines.

Dave’s center of operations is also his home, a sprawling fieldstone and glass house that sits atop one of the tallest hills in Saratoga, California. Saratoga is an exclusive community that rests in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and, with its neighbor, Los Gatos, serves as the gateway to Highway 17 and Santa Cruz on the Pacific.

The home would have made Frank Lloyd Wright envious, capturing views of the surrounding hills and mountaintops of this eastern edge of the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation. An appellation, Dave was quick to point out, that offered enough diversity to contain several mini-AVAs within its region. An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a designated wine/grape-growing region in the United States distinguishable by geographic features. The boundaries are set by government agencies.

The wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains have been among my favorites since I lived only footsteps away in Los Gatos. This is mountainous terrain I’d bicycled hundreds of time, criss-crossing every back road on which the wineries and vineyards lay. In fact, I routinely cycled the feeder road on which Dave’s mountaintop vineyards reside, never realizing what hidden treasures the land held for the right developer. Dave, as it turned out, was the right developer.

Grape Growing Technology

This is where the technology comes in. Dave had his eye on this parcel of land while building a home below in Saratoga more than 15 years ago. He decided the breathtaking views and various slopes of varying exposures would be perfect for a home and vineyards. He hired a dirt doctor – yes, you read that right – and had numerous cones of earth punched out of the hillsides to verify the composition of the soil. Dr. Alfred Cass probably prefers his descriptor -- soil scientist, and he has a resume that must have him in high demand in California’s wine industry.

That analysis gave Dave insight into the types of grapes to grow, the layout and planting of the vines, and type of irrigation best suited to growing world-class grapes. Dave added numerous weather stations to record wind direction and intensity, rain patterns, moisture content of soil and vines, and other parameters that were then sent wirelessly to his computer to perform extensive yearlong analyses of the land.

The French would call this information the basis of the terroir, a belief that the unique aspects of an area’s soil, climate and topology dictate what types of grapes to grow. In France they have consultants that do the soil analysis to determine what to grow and how, but they have nowhere near the kind of information that was collected here. Dave is also not constrained by French regulatory organizations.

Some of the slopes on which the grapes reside are very steep, how steep I didn’t realize until Dave took me for a ride through his vineyards. The little cart we rode was only equipped with a roll bar (I always disliked the term roll bar, with its suggestion of the need for immediate employment) and no seatbelts. So, here we were on the top of a hill.

The first part of the journey was not too bad, but when I looked down a steep slope that appeared to be 90 degrees, I grew a bit apprehensive. This was like a roller coaster ride, but without the safety bar that keeps a body from launching into space. Calm down, I told myself, he’s done this before. Nonetheless, I glanced sideways to assure myself that this was part of his routine vineyard tour.

Dave pointed out that the type of furrow etched into the hillside for the vines was created with a special wing-shaped augur that cut a wide, two-foot deep trough through the soil. The vine would have an easy time getting down the first two feet, after which it would encounter much higher soil density to fight through. Since these vineyards are dry-farmed, the roots had to expend a lot of energy to get to the deeper water. Stressed vines yield smaller clusters of dense and flavorful grapes, a prime reason for this technique.

Even the ground cover was chosen for soil and water retention, using a custom seed mix adjusted for soil type and slope and specified by his viticulturist, Dr. Roberts. Did I mention that Dave never does things half way? By the time we returned, thankfully unharmed, my head was spinning with the amount of detail and thought that went into creating the vineyards that surround the house.

Working with the Best Grapes

Even if the science is correct, and the art of grape growing is religiously applied, it still requires a good winemaker to turn excellent grapes into excellent wine. For that, Dave called upon Jeffrey Patterson, who began winemaking with Mt. Eden Vineyards in 1981. Jeffrey also makes the wines for Mountain Winery, where Dave has an interest. Mountain Winery resides on the historic site of Paul Masson vineyards. All three vineyards are within miles of each other, carved out of a special part of the Saratoga Hills.

Repairing to the tasting room--airy, glass and stone, incredible views--we sampled Chardonnay as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends. The proof of all that technology still had to show up in the glass. And it did in abundance. We began with a limited release 2006 Chardonnay, followed by a 2004 Merlot with 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Merlot. The grapes came from vines that surround the home. There is something special about drinking wine where the grapes are grown. These vineyards are young and still evolving, but tasting the harbingers of what is to come, I’d say it won’t take long for the demand for these wines to become very high. The line forms behind me when Dave announces the first official release later this year. Salut!

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