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September 24, 2015updated 02 Nov 2022 10:24am

A Search for Radiance
Varner and Neely

It’s evening in March. We’ve just finished barrel-tasting 2011 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with Jim Varner. The conversation has focused on a calm but passionate exploration of the principles expressed behind the wine. Listening to Jim’s account, what becomes clear is that the focus is one of supreme gentleness. The subtle power of such an approach echoes through the wines as we taste them. Twins Jim and Bob Varner have now celebrated 18 vintages making wine from their Spring Ridge site, though they began planting it 34 years ago. From it they produce wines under the Varner and Neely labels, Bob managing the vineyard and winemaking, and Jim running the office and business. Spring Ridge rides the rim of Portola Valley, on undulating slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Valley had not been cultivated to vines when the brothers began their project.

Through much of the Santa Cruz Mountains, vineyards grow out of sight from each other, giving winemakers a sense of isolation from outside influence that is rare to most wine country. The region still echoes today with solitude, though it also carries in it some of the deepest, most respected heritage of California wine.

In the 1870s, Paul Masson, a Burgundian winemaker, found his way on to the elevated slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains and established vineyards for sparkling wine. The fog and cooling influence of two bodies of water-the San Francisco Bay to the east, and Pacific Ocean to the west -combined to offer the structural assets of a cooler climate needed for sparkling wine. In the 1940s, Masson’s enterprise led local entrepreneur Martin Ray to establish even higher vineyards and to begin making varietally specific wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and later Cabernet Sauvignon, an enterprise essentially untried in the state before. The site would come to be known as the historic Mount Eden.

On a ridgeline farther east, Dr Osea Perrone, a prominent member of San Francisco’s Italian community, purchased land in the 1880s and began cultivating vineyards at high elevation. After the devastation of Prohibition, the vineyards were rediscovered in the 1940s and planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. In the 1960s, the site would come to be known as Ridge Monte Bello.

These historic sites demonstrated the quality possible in the region, yet with so few plantings in the mountains right into the 1980s, it would be unclear initially whether Spring Ridge itself could be a worthwhile enterprise. The brothers decided, then, to take it slow, to find their own way. Today, their Spring Ridge Vineyard grows six blocks, planted in equal portions to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While studying enology at UC Davis in the 1970s, Jim Varner was poured a Burgundy on one of his wine courses. It was his first taste of a region that would send him in search of a cool site in California. After completing his studies, Jim took work in Napa. It was clear the area was too warm for the sort of wine he wanted to make. Carneros offered a cooler zone, but the water table was high for the style he wanted. Sonoma’s Western Coast was still unknown. Then a colleague connected Jim to a man with land in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Greg Melchor introduced Jim Varner to 235 acres (95ha) in Portola Valley, surrounded by several hundred acres of open space. At the time, there were no other vineyards in that part of the Santa Cruz Mountains to suggest the potential future of the site. Mount Eden and Ridge Monte Bello both produce quality Chardonnay and Cabernet, a combination unusual in wine-growing regions around the world. Mount Eden also grows Pinot Noir. But both also stand on different ridgelines, and at higher elevation, than the Varners’ Spring Ridge. There was no way to know if the exceptional quality shown through the two heritage sites would find its way into vines on Spring Ridge.

Still, Jim could see the site was unique. When he met Melchor, the ground had been essentially at rest for decades. The previous owner was a Depression-era rancher who let wild prairie feed his herd rather than spend money on seed. The ground turned out to host shallow clay loam over fractured sedimentary rock, but the brothers did not discover the composition of the hillside for decades, when conducting geological tests ahead of building their winery. Initially, Jim just knew that undisturbed ground meant healthy soils.

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Jim and Melchor developed an agreement. Melchor owned the land. Jim could establish vineyard on parts of the property while also helping tend the ground in general. The opportunity would afford Jim a site that, in climatic terms, was consistent with his image of wine.

Having found a growing location, Jim recognized the enormity of the project, and called Bob. Jim’s twin had sunk deep into a PhD in genetics at UC Berkeley by the end of the 1970s, doing breeding studies on fruit flies. He enjoyed the work. Speaking with his doctoral mentor, however, Bob recognized he would never again have the opportunity to pursue a project such as Jim suggested. So, he took leave from the program to begin a vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his brother.

Slow, small, and careful

The first year, the pair cleared poison oak using only a machete. “The decision was not to clear or bulldoze,” Jim explains, aiming to leave the soil’s own ecosystem intact. Then, in 1980, the duo began hand-planting what would become a mere 14 acres (5.5ha) of wine. “It was a lot of work in the first year, but then it got easier.”

Though the brothers had access to a couple of hundred acres of land, the plan was to move slowly and establish a fairly small footprint. “If you can commit to getting things right at the beginning,” Bob says, “the benefit does accumulate. We planted without disturbing the soil to start slow but build benefits over time.” The approach, they believed, would ultimately allow two things. By advancing carefully, they could do things right from the beginning and thus avoid sacrificing quality by fixing mistakes later. Further, in keeping their approach small, they could manage most of the work themselves. A smaller footprint would allow greater control. To select blocks, the pair walked the undulating hill observing the wild prairie’s growth patterns. They noticed that near the top of a slope the grasses tended to be rather short, while near the bottom the plants were incredibly tall. There was always a stretch in the middle where the grass kept a moderate height. They guessed that the grass height reflected soil character and that this would also speak to future vine vigor. The variation of growth on the prairie implied natural nutrient and water variation in the ground below. The moderate height of the grass, then, suggested what future vines needed to grow without being over- or underfed. In 1980, they planted their first 2-acre (0.8ha) block to Chardonnay on an east-facing midslope where the grasses grew moderately, below the house at the top of the property. The planting is now known as Home Block.

In the Home Block, the brothers were placing what they imagined as a ten-year, 2-acre bet. They would establish these vines, then wait, seeking to discover through patience what the site had to offer. “We decided to plant to Chardonnay first,” Jim explains. “We thought, we can plant to Chardonnay and learn from it how Pinot Noir would do here, too.” The budwood was purchased unmarked from a local nursery. At that point in California history, cataloging vines was less valued than it is now. “The nursery owner told us, ‘It’s good clean stock, my friend,'” Jim laughs. “We asked him what kind, but he didn’t know.”

By 1981, it was clear that those first vines responded well, so the brothers anted up. Buying more cuttings from the nursery, they planted another 2 acres down-slope from the first, in a slightly concave, south-facing midslope they would name the Amphitheater Block. Having established 4 acres, they stuck to their plan-and waited.

In the meantime, to fund their venture, the Varner brothers helped plant other vineyards through the Santa Cruz Mountains, beginning with Thomas Fogarty Vineyards in 1980, a ridgeline up from Varner. They also started a wine-import business in 1987 as a way to have two connected but separate businesses. Jim took over that project, while Bob focused on Spring Ridge.

Eventually, they sold the import business, but the model of separate-but-connected continued. Jim took over the office side of Varner Wines when they began their own label. They’d use the approach to ensure continuity through the various stages of a vigneron project, with one person focused on making the wines from vine all the way through to bottling. “I am really appreciative of my brother,” Bob emphasizes. “We talk about the big stuff, the philosophy, then he lets me handle the cellar.” He’s quiet for a moment and then continues: “I really appreciate his trust in me. Jim giving me that just makes me want to work harder.”

Wines of supreme gentleness

It wasn’t until 1996 that the brothers made a barrel of wine to test their principles and the results of the vineyard. “We wanted to make wine with supreme gentleness,” Jim says. “But we always ask ourselves, Are we making the wine better or worse?”

Bob agrees. “It should be a polite beginning and go from there,” he explains. Grape sorting occurred almost entirely in the vineyard before harvest. Fruit was picked before 10:30am to come in cool, then immediately be destemmed and gently pressed. The wine would go through natural fermentation and never be moved through more than 10ft (3m) of tube in the cellar. Pleased with the results, they expanded to 20 barrels the next year, while also establishing their first block of Pinot Noir. By 1998, they were making 1,300 cases of Chardonnay.

Toward the end of the 1990s, Kirk Neely and Holly Myers purchased the Spring Ridge property from Melchor. The positive land partnership enjoyed with Melchor continued with the new owners. In 2000 and 2006, the brothers added two more blocks of Pinot to the property, releasing their first such vintage in 2002.

The Varners wished to honor the healthy relationship they had with the Neely family, so they decided to label their Pinot Noir under the property owners’ family name, even though the Varners made both wines. Today, three blockspecific Chardonnays and a Pinot Noir blend are released under the Varner label. The three individual Pinot Noir blocks and a Chardonnay blend are released under Neely. Having launched the winemaking side of Varner in 2000, the brothers built a winery on the Spring Ridge property. For the first several years of wine production they had rented cellar space at Mount Eden. Between the two sites, the wines have never seen inoculated yeast.

Determined to maintain their minimal footprint, the Varners chose a building design that uses the natural insulation qualities of the hillside to preserve an appropriate ambient temperature without fans or refrigeration. Such a choice keeps air inside the cellar still and the space quiet. No music ever plays in the cellar.

The winery design also supports their ability to maintain a sanitary cellar through elegant choices like keeping the drain outside. By keeping wet operations outside the winery, fear of issues like Brettanomyces is largely eliminated without sterilizing practices, and the need for either toxic cleaning agents or high-temperature steam within the winery (to clean the drain) is removed. The goal at every step was to find the most passive way to achieve results.

Framing the flavor: the value of phenolic character

Vineyards like Mount Eden and Ridge Monte Bello successfully produce both Chardonnay and Cabernet, at least in part thanks to the phenolic character distinctive of the region. The structural presence of the two sites serves as an articulate frame for composing varietal and fruit expression. A site with less structural distinction might not serve both varieties so well.

It turns out that the phenolic presence witnessed through the two heritage houses of California gives character to Varner’s vines as well. Proximity to two bodies of water, at an elevation of 600-840ft (183-256m), means that fog frames the outer edges of the Spring Ridge property without ever creeping into the vineyard itself. In winter, fog settles along the valley floor from San Francisco Bay. In summer, the fog pattern reverses. Humid air from the ocean 10 miles (16km) west wraps the crest of the mountains. As a result, there is a continuous-even if sometimes slight- cooling breeze but no fungal issues. The lack of fog within Spring Ridge itself means a continuity of sunlight to promote ripe flavor development. The combination creates in Varner and Neely wines elongated flavor on a lithe frame, ripe flavors mounted with a phenolic grip.

The region itself cannot take all the credit for the form of Varner wines. Bob Varner recognizes the phenolic quality of the mountains as an asset in his winemaking. “The components in the wine,” Bob tells me, “and how they relate, the acidity or juiciness, and the flavor; but how those elements and their relationship are expressed in the final wine depends on how the fruit is handled in the cellar. He continues, “If I get the structure right, the flavors can be more than if I just have the juiciness. If it’s done well, you can show the radiance behind the flavors.” This is where the Varner method of supreme gentleness shows itself. It is a search for radiance in wine.

Phenolic elements, especially in a white wine, can appear harsh when the fruit is not handled carefully. Within the pulp, they concentrate along the underside of the skin and just outside the seeds. Through gentle, slow pressing of destemmed grapes, Varner captures the texture he finds through the outer reaches of the pulp, while avoiding rough edges from pulling on the skin or seeds. The approach gives a subtle focus on mouthfeel that brings special attention to the fruit’s vibrancy.

In wine with too much juiciness, the lack of texture means flavors simply wash across the palate, less available to taste. A focus on mouthfeel offers a sort of balance to the shape of the wine. From some phenolic presence, the flavors travel the palate with just enough grip to radiate with presence.

Striking a balance in terroir

Any site generates its own particular composition of elements within the grape, to be harnessed within the cellar. However, a vigneron’s management of the land changes what the vineyard can give. The structure, acidity, and flavor profile all depend on the character of the site itself, as well as vintage, but are also influenced by choices such as irrigation, fertilization, and picking times. The style of wine a vintner wants to make, then, can guide the way they choose to interact with the vineyard. There is also a learning curve for any new planting. It takes years, over varied vintages, to gain knowledge of the site.

What time has shown the Varners is that their site offers natural advantages. The soil has allowed dry farming. The clay loam retains water, but the rock underneath funnels excess away from the roots. With no neighboring vineyards and a wealth of surrounding open space, vineyard pests are not a worry. They’ve never used pesticides. With the health of the soils, they’ve never used fertilizer. Varner trusts the vines. It’s a confidence rooted in his time at the vineyard. “I’ve been here every day for over ten years,” Varner tells me. “Well, maybe not some Saturdays,” he laughs. “I arrive each day between 6:30 and 7am.” This intimacy with the vines has shown him that it is in the ten days leading up to harvest that the blocks start to show their individual character. Up until that point, the fruit all tastes the same- pert and green. So, Varner spends every day approaching harvest walking the vineyard blocks, tasting the fruit. He follows the arc from too firm and green to the texture and mouthfeel that speaks to him as ready. He checks the Brix, the pH, the numbers after harvest.

Depending on vintage conditions, the relationship of components within the grapes-pH to TA levels, Brix compared to flavor development-changes. In average vintages, they remain fairly consistent. However, in quite cool or quite warm years, the relationship between the numbers can change dramatically. California has a reputation for a fairly reliable and narrow band of weather conditions. But with the changeable vintages over the past ten years, the numbers have varied from year to year. For winemakers who pick based on Brix and pH levels, trying to hit a particular mark in the midst of climatic change can be maddening. Instead, Varner turns his attention back to the fruit itself. He picks the moment the grapes show the texture and feel that he recognizes as expressive of the site: firm but giving, like a perfectly ripe homegrown tomato. In this way, Varner is picking for the fruit’s texture rather than for its flavor or its chemical composition.

What he’s learned from 18 vintages making wine from the Spring Ridge site is that when the texture is in place, inevitably the flavors are within a consistent range as well. In Chardonnay, for example, the three blocks are only a few hundred yards apart and yet show distinctive site expression. The Home Block tends to oscillate around a central line of pippin apple. Amphitheater gives a citrus palate to its floral nose. The acid levels between the two are similar, but Amphitheater carries a showier attitude compared to the subtle depth of Home. The block lowest on the hill among the whites, the Bee, verges on tropical but brings with it a minerality and more vibrant juiciness that trims the edges and gives it focus.

Among the three Pinot Noir blocks there is admittedly more variation in condition as well. The sites have more distance between them, with the Hidden Block around the corner from the rising climb of plantings that the other five form. The Upper Picnic Block grows on what was originally a Gewurztraminer planting that the brothers dallied with temporarily and, as a result, draws from roots significantly older than the other Pinot vines. The spicy floral element of Gewurztraminer seems to show through the red grape. The Picnic Block, which sits closest to the bottom of the hill, is also the youngest of all the blocks on the property.

In thinking about site display within these wines, Varner considers first the farming. Without fertilizers and irrigation, the character of the individualized blocks has more room to express itself, but the particular viticultural methods also have to be considered. The Hidden Block, for example, stands at the same elevation as the Bee Block, but with more access to ground water. The vines, then, were planted to de-vigorating rootstock. The site tends to offer silkier tannins.

The Picnic Block, on the other hand, grows in quite shallow soil, and shows the most struggle on the vine. “It’s a good reminder that the goal is not what the vineyard looks like but what the wine tastes like,” Varner explains. Picnic offers the most structure of the three Pinots.

Love in isolation

Considering something as simple as vineyard density of California’s wine regions, you see stark contrast. In Napa, most sites include visible neighbors from all sides. The situation creates an involuntary sense of awareness of what others are doing. Even winemakers determined to make their own picking decisions, for example, can still see how their neighbors have handled the timing.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, however, such a situation is uncommon. Still today there are no other vineyards visible from the Varner site. Their Spring Ridge remains surrounded on all sides by land legislated as open space. The situation creates a feeling of quiet isolation and insulates against the persuasive power of a neighbor’s choices. The Varners’ attention remains instead on the site itself.

Talking long enough with the Varners, it’s clear their understanding of wines is global. My first meeting with Jim included romanticizing the idea of growing grapes in Kimmeridgian soil, as well as various wines of Burgundy and Champagne, for example. Yet, in discussion of vineyard and vinification choices, there is only the echo of Spring Ridge. Bob’s focus for making their wine resides in the intimacy he holds with their site. His job is to be present and to pay attention.

“It’s been a really rewarding project, being in one place for such a long time. It’s been a luxury. We did all the other stuff just to make it work,” he tells me. He compares the process at times to the ever-deepening knowledge of a long-term romantic relationship-a love for the radiance of Spring Ridge.

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