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February 23, 2024

Sense and sensibility: The viticulturist

A vintage piece goes behind the scenes with Sonoma viticulturist Virginia Lambrix.

By Stephen Brook

As part of our week-long focus on viticulture and the role of the viticulturist, we have gone deep into the archives to a vintage piece from WFW21 (September 2008). Touring Sonoma vineyards with Virginia Lambrix, Stephen Brook finds there is more to “buying in grapes” than simply buying in grapes, and leaves with an enhanced respect for the range of skills required.

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The September weather was perfect, for humans as well as for grapes. From my guest-room balcony at a Sonoma winery, I could gazeout over the shimmering pool, fringed at dusk by twinkling fairy lights, while darkness gathered on the coastal range silhouetted on the horizon. Benign bugs flittered around me. The evening was warm, but temperatures would drop during the night, helping to maintain acidity levels in the millions of grapes around me. Iwas up early the next morning to meet Virginia Lambrix.

After a spell in Chile with Concha y Toro, as well as various viticultural and winemaking jobs at a Sonoma winery, she had been hired in 2005 as chief viticulturist for DeLoach in Russian River Valley. (She has since moved to Truett Hurst Winery in Dry Creek, as director of winemaking and viticulture. She continues to farm biodynamically, producing Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel.) The estate had been owned and run by a former San Francisco fireman and his family, but they had grown too ambitious and were forced to sell the brand. The purchaser was the Boisset family from Burgundy, with the relentlessly enthusiastic Jean-Charles Boisset boisterously directing and promoting the business.

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DeLoach owns few vineyards but has contracts with leading growers throughout Sonoma County. One of Ginny Lambrix’s roles is to maintain and refine these contacts. She shares Jean-Charles’s passion for biodynamic farming, and most of the wines sourced for the DeLoach label come from organic or biodynamic vineyards.

A viticulturist’s tour of the vineyards

For Ginny, and for the winery as a whole, this was the most important time of the year. The grapes were ripening fast, and it was her job to coordinate the harvesting schedule for the 2007 vintage. Most of the white grapes, the Sauvignon and Chardonnay, were safely in tank or barrel by late September, but few of the red grapes had been picked. There had been a worrying period throughout Sonoma when torrid temperatures in early September accelerated the ripening and threatened to raisin the fruit, but then the weather had cooled off, and the danger was averted. Autumnal sunshine was allowing the grapes to ripen at a moderate pace, developing their flavors as well as the sugar levels. But there had been a spell of rain on September 22, and growers were on their guard, keeping a close eye out for botrytis.

Ginny was waiting for me on this crisp Monday morning, a fleece over her shoulders, coffee in hand, bottles of water stuffed into the door pockets of her pickup truck. We had met a few times before, and she had always suggested I should join her to tour the vineyards.Now I was taking her up on the idea. Although during harvest she consults daily with winemaker Greg LaFollette—tasting berries andmust, as well as talking—it is essentially her call when to order the picking at each vineyard. It’s a crucial decision: Pick too early and thegrapes could be green and unbalanced; pick too late and there could be raisining, rot, and overripeness, leading to burly, alcoholic wines that neither of them wanted.

So, at this time of the year, Ginny is constantly on the road, visiting the vineyards, chomping on the grapes, and talking to the growers. Before setting off we stroll over to the pen where the sheep that graze the cover crop in the vineyards spend their nights. “I adore my sheep,” she says, somewhat unexpectedly. “They do a great job cleaning up the vineyards, but they can do dumb things like getting tangled in irrigation hoses. At the end of the day, I always need to check what they’ve been up to.”

To me they just look their placid selves. We salute the chickens, too—“Jean-Charles gets priority for the eggs”— then climb into Ginny’s pickup truck and head west to the first call: the Kent Ritchie Vineyard on undulating land in Russian River Valley. “Kent grows Chardonnay that everyone is after. It’s quite an old vineyard with varied exposures. Kent’s not organic, but he is willing to make some changes in the blocks I buy from, such as planting cover crop. Our best Sauvignon comes from here.”

Ginny is pleased with what she sees, so we are soon back on the road. Her cell phone rings, and as the day goes on there is a buildup ofanxious messages from growers. “They all want to know when to pick our blocks. And it’s a tough call. It can take up to a week to set up a crew to go in and harvest. Many crews are booked solid at this time of the year, so we do need to plan in advance. Fortunately, the forecast is good for the next week, so that takes some pressure off us. Some growers never stop calling me. It can be irritating, but I understand their anxiety. They have farmed and worked all year, and they want their grapes to be picked at the optimal moment. I’m at the vineyards every two days, so I have a clear idea of what’s happening. You soon learn how to read the vines, to hear what they are saying. If a vine is unhappy, it knows how to tell you—if you can read the signals. And if I see that the vines are in trouble, I won’t hesitate: We’ll pick as soon as we can.”

We are heading along Russian River’s famous Westside Road—a Gold Coast for California Pinot Noir—and then we turn off along a narrow road that climbs high into the hills. For a few miles there are no vines, just pasture and woods. Then over a crest I glimpse a vineyard planted on a series of knolls. At the entrance, bales of straw that will eventually be scattered between the rows to prevent erosion are artfully arranged in piles so as to provide an impromptu children’s playground. This human touch delights Ginny but doesn’t influence her.

“I’m not entirely happy with the way this grower farms, and last year we had more rot than I expected. So what I did was to tag one row and farm it myself, so he can use it as a model. For example, I want the leaf-thinning to be done at the right moment, which he wasn’t always doing. In effect I’ve given him a one-year ‘get out of jail free’ card. He knows that if the fruit isn’t the quality I’m looking for this year, I won’t be buying from him again.” Ginny looks reasonably happy with what she sees, though. We head back down the hill and turn inland.

Tricky to handle

We have time to talk, and I ask how she pays her growers. Some wineries pay growers by the acre rather than by the ton. That means that, whatever the yields, the grower receives the same sum. It is the purchaser who takes the economic risk of draconian green-harvesting or of leaving grapes on the vine late into a difficult end season. “Actually, we pay by the ton,” says Ginny. “For me, the crucial thing is that the vine is in balance, and that means yields will vary. Two tons per acre may be about right on a cool hillside slope but may be too low on a flatter, more fertile site.”

She can influence the farming practices, as at Ritchie, to some extent, and some hobby growers welcome her advice. Often she will employ a vineyard-management company to maintain the vineyard, if the grower is unwilling or unable to do the job himself.

“There are some brilliant management companies out there, but you need to know who is going to do a good job. I’ll work closely with them to determine, for example, the irrigation regime. But you have to make sure they’re not taking advantage of you. Some companies subtly create additional work. They’ll overfertilize the soil so the vines show too much vigor, which can lead to disease problems. Then the company has to intervene to deal with it. If they hadn’t overfertilized in the first place, they wouldn’t have needed those remedial measures, which of course they charge for. But those companies are in the minority.”

She, and other viticulturists, always have to keep in mind the pride of the grower. If some welcome her views, others are likely to bristle at being told what to do, especially by a young woman. “Yes, there are a few traditional farmers out there who can be tricky to handle, but you just have to use some tact and common sense. I had a grower who had done a poor job with bunch-thinning and clearly wasn’t listening to what I had been saying. So on one trip to his vineyard, I cut off two adjoining bunches of Chardonnay that were botrytis-ridden and just left them on his doorstep. A few hours later, he called me and admitted that we had a problem that he wasn’t acknowledging before I made that gesture.

“You can’t always pick perfect grapes, so we can intervene by sorting the crop, either in the vineyard or at the winery. At some vineyards I will make sure I’m there to monitor the harvest and check every bin as it gets filled. Or we can sort at the winery. Frankly, it’s an economic issue. If the grapes are going into a low-priced blend, then the resources required to sort the fruit thoroughly won’t be available. If it’s going into a high-priced single-vineyard wine, then we won’t hesitate to sort.”

We reach the small Riebli Valley vineyard east of Santa Rosa. This rather flat site is studded with unruly bush vines that look half wild. Blackberry shoots tangle with the vine shoots. Many of the vines are clearly virused; some bear a healthy crop, others a fewmiserly bunches. “I just love this place,” says Ginny, with evident affection for the gnarled, dry- farmed vines, now 105 years old. “But it’s a mess. The vines are suffering from nutrient deficiency and virus problems. We can never get more than two tons per acre from them, so it’s not cost-efficient for us or the grower to invest in tending the vines properly. But it doesn’t seem to matter. They’re self-regulating. I find this vineyard humbling. It looks awful, but it gives us some great fruit and great wine.”

The birds and the bees

We return to the winery for an early lunch. First we go into the lab, where associate winemaker Brian Maloney has a row of samples of must. Some are still simple grape juice; others are beginning fermentation. I find them different from each other but can’t assess how they will turn out as finished wines. Tasting Pinot Meunier must was like sieving mush through my teeth. “What’s this in the beaker?” I ask Brian. “A grape or a bug?” I am glad when we’ve finished working through this unappetizing row of beakers and can head to the guesthouse terrace, where a buffet lunch is on offer. This being Sonoma, there is a strong demand for the vegetarian options.

Virginia Lambrix: “You can’t always pick perfect grapes, so we can intervene by sorting the crop, either in the vineyard or at the winery. At some vineyards I will make sure I’m there to monitor the harvest and check every bin as it gets filled.”

Back in Russian River Valley we visit the Boudreaux Vineyard. DeLoach buys its entire crop of Pinot Noir. A few small sectors puzzle Ginny because the vines seem languid. Inspecting some rather feeble vines on the edge of the property, she laughs. “I feel so sorry for these babies. They’re not growing well because they are planted too close to some oak trees. Oaks hate competition and put out oils that inhibit other plants from growing.” So, why do people plant in spots that impair the health of the vines? “Because we’re optimists!”

We drive farther west into Green Valley to visit Dick Giberti’s vineyard at 1,100ft (335m). This small site is planted with a single Dijon clone of Pinot Noir. Ginny is happy with the fruit. “We’ve worked hard with this vineyard. We’ve cut back on fertilizers and water, and we’ve been getting better and better fruit. Some of it we’ll be able to keep as whole clusters for fermentation.” She tells Giberti she wants to pick on Friday. He’s content with that but says he needs a couple of days’ notice to remove the netting from the vines. At the next vineyard we visit, Ginny is more critical.

Despite netting, there has been some damage to the bunches. Birds have learnt how to perch on the mesh and peck at the berries. “When you go organic, the birds come back to your vineyard. That’s great, but it’s also a real problem. But birds don’t usually feed on the grapes until they reach at least 23° Brix. Here we are at 22° Brix. I think the birds just appreciate the fruit intensity here. The grower has done everything right but is being punished for it. It’s sad. I’d like to wait another week if possible, but I’ll have to monitor this vineyard. It’s often like this: balancing the need for further ripening against the likelihood of unacceptable degradation of the fruit.”

We drive on through Sebastopol and keep heading toward the coast along the Bodega Highway. We come to Hawk Hill Vineyard. At 700ft (213m), it’s a windy site planted mostly with Chardonnay. “It’s a remarkable vineyard,” explains Ginny. “Budbreak is really early, but we often harvest in late October. So that’s an incredibly long growing season.” We munch on the grapes and their seeds—as we have been at every vineyard we visit. “It’s going well, but this fruit has a long way to go, as you can tell from the acidity. We need to be patient. For the moment I can forget about Hawk Hill. If it starts to rain next week, well, I’ll have to see.”

In the same area, we look in on the Maboroshi Vineyard, named after its Japanese owner. Ginny is more than content. “We’re at 24°Brix, and the grapes have excellent flavor. But I’d like to wait another week, since we’re under no pressure to pick. This is one of the most feminine and elegant of our single-vineyard Pinots, so I’m looking for softer tannins. Right now we have good sugar levels, but the skins are still a bit tough.” By now it was mid-afternoon, and the temperature was rising—to the high 70s F (mid-20s C), I would guess.

The grapes I was crushing between my teeth had warm juice, which made assessing their ripeness and structure even more difficult. I asked Ginny if she felt the same way. “Definitely. I never make a pick call based on afternoon tastings. Our perception of the juice changes too much. And it’s so easy to get things wrong even in the best of conditions. The grapes we taste as we walk through therows tend to be the ones that are best exposed, rather than the back of the bunches, which are probably less ripe or may have some disease problems developing.”

At another nearby vineyard the picture was discouraging. The bunches had suffered from bee and bird damage, but the fruit was far from ripe. “Bee damage is a new phenomenon,” says Ginny. “Some growers are putting out traps that are quite effective, luring the bees into bottles in which they are poisoned. But I’m uneasy about that, given that the American bee population is declining. On the other hand, I can understand that the grower wants to minimize the damage.

“We’re going to have a different approach here. We’re going to have to sort this fruit, since by the time we pick, the damage will have spread. And it may be too risky to use natural yeasts, which would be our usual preference. So we’ll probably have to inoculate. And there are problems built into the site. The top of the slope needs water, but if we irrigate there, the water drains down the slope and gives too much water to the rows at the bottom. There’s no easy solution that will benefit all sectors. What the site really needs is some expensive drainage, but that’s the owner’s decision, and she may not want to make that investment.”

Old-fashioned California farmers

We now leave the cool coastal area of Russian River and drive back toward Sonoma, veering off into the Sonoma Mountain appellation. Our first stop is at Farina Vineyard, where most blocks have already been picked. Only those reserved for DeLoach are still carrying fruit. Although Ginny is under some pressure from the grower to see the harvest completed, she still feels the Chardonnay needs more time.

Our last stop is also on Sonoma Mountain, at the Vanderkamp vineyard, at elevations from 1,200 to 1,800ft (365–550m). Martin Vanderkamp and his son ulysses are waiting for us, in the meantime chatting to a winemaker who is selecting some rows for use underher private label.

“We’re just old-fashioned California farmers,” Martin tells me. “We originally planted grapes in the 1960s for sparkling wine, which we used to make. Now we have various Pinot clones, some really good Pinot Meunier, and some Cabernet, which we will probably graft over to Pinot.” Ulysses has secateurs tucked into his belt, and as we walk the rows he pulls leaves or snips off overenthusiastic shoots, always fine-tuning the vines. “We’re in the vines the whole time,” he says with pride. “Lots of guys in Sonoma own vineyards, but they don’t work in them. But we do.”

Ginny walks down a row, planted with the Swan clone of Pinot, that she plans to buy. She shakes a cane and some small raisining berries drop off. “If they’re falling like that,” she explains to me, “they’re done.” She tells Martin she wants the Swan rows picked soon. She and the farmers discuss the merits of the different clones, the thickness of their skins, their optimal ripeness periods.

While Ginny and Ulysses sort out the harvesting schedule for the various blocks and clones, Martin shows me the rest of the farm.We raid the raspberry bushes, with their pure intense berries. Then it’s over to the pumpkin patch. “We sent one over to DeLoach that weighed more than 400lb [180kg]. We had a few that were bigger than that, but they exploded. They blow apart but still keep growing fora while. It’s kinda disgusting.” Ginny and ulysses rejoin us as we enter the vinegar shed. “Much of this stuff is 50 years old. There’s not much of that around in California. We call it Calsamic vinegar. Get it?”

Martin, who doesn’t like visitors to leave the farm empty- handed, gives Ginny some melons, which I end up carrying. Their perfume is intense. “How come these melons are clearly so beautifully ripe,” I ask, “and the melons I eat at breakfast buffets in California hotels have no flavor at all?”

“It’s simple. Large farms that supply hotels and institutions pick when the fruit’s unripe, so as to increase its shelf life. Our melons are ripe and full of flavor, but you can’t keep them more than a few days. You know, we can grow anything here. This is wonderful farming country. It’s also a very spiritual place.” Martin explains how Native American medicine men and healers come here to perform their ceremonies. They are wrapped up like mummies for a few hours as they summon the spirits. “A really famous medicine man called Nathan comes here regularly. When he was just 14, he was praying for his cancer-stricken mother on a hilltop. He was hit by lightning and passed out for a day. When he came round, he recognized this was a sign that he was to become a healer. We’re building a ceremonial hall here so that he can perform his healing at this spot, which has been a place of pilgrimage for Indians for centuries. And Nathan’s mother is still alive and well.”

“Let’s see the Mayor before we go,” says Ginny, her work finally done. The Vanderkamps lead us back to the luxuriant vines, and beneath one of the rows is a small headstone inscribed with the name of Ed Hattam, once mayor of Glen Ellen in nearby Sonoma Valley. Why, I asked, was he buried here? “Guess he liked the spot. And it’s catching. There’s another mayor around here who’s expressed interest in being buried in a different part of the vineyard.”

There must be worse places to be buried than a vineyard, where the eternal cycle of growth and decay is played out year after year. It is Ginny Lambrix and her fellow viticulturists, as well as the growers, who decide where the precise boundary lies each year between the peak of growth and the slow decline into dormancy.

My day among the Sonoma vineyards has shown me that although it is easy to say that a winery “bought fruit” from this or that site, there is far more to it than that. Buying good fruit involves developing a relationship with the grower, sharing knowledge, rigorously inspecting the vines throughout their growth cycle, and employing diplomatic skills to ensure that the grapes are picked in the right conditions and at the right moment. Ginny’s call, and the trust of the DeLoach winemakers, would play a huge part in determining how good the final wine would be.

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