San Bernabe Vineyard, the third largest in the world, combines mass with class.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Winemaking in Monterey County isn’t pretentious. We don’t put on airs like counties to our north, and our grape growers are farmers, not Silicon Valley execs-turned-vintners. Here, it’s more toe-in-the-dirt. Winemaking is humble; it’s about farming and reading the land, and for some, it’s a way of life. So perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising that the largest vineyard in the U.S. – the third largest in the world – is located in our own backyard.
San Bernabe sits beneath the Santa Lucia Mountains to its west and gently rolls above the Salinas River to its east. Its gnarled roots twist back to Father Junipero Serra and the California Indians – San Bernabe’s as much a product of the California mission system and Salinas Valley farming tradition as of the soil, wind, sun and fog that make it one of the premier wine-grape-growing regions in the world.
Serra founded Mission San Antonio de Padua, the third California mission, in 1771. The Spanish priests thought it a good location for a winery. The wildly successful mission produced wine, among other products, and became the agricultural hub of the mission system.
The church owned the San Bernabe land, which is thought to be named after Saint Barnabus. In 1842, it was deeded as a land grant to Petronillo Rios, a cattle rancher believed to have made wine from grapes grown around his home. Visitors can see the remains of his adobe on the property.
But while the Spaniards saw the Salinas Valley’s potential for vineyards, the Swiss Italians who migrated to southern Monterey County made it happen.
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In 1988, a farming family whose patriarch, Gasparé Indelicato, arrived in the Central Valley in 1912 from Sicily, purchased the San Bernabe Vineyard. One of California’s largest family-owned wineries, Delicato Family Vineyards – DFV – owns San Bernabe Vineyard, and the Clay Station Vineyard in Lodi’s Borden Ranch AVA (American Viticultural Area) and Black Stallion Winery in Napa Valley.
“We were buying a lot of grapes from the Monterey area,” says Cheryl Indelicato, Gaspare’s granddaughter, who runs the hospitality program at San Bernabe and is the president of the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association, “so we bought the property and began with the winery right on the property. It was being able to be in control of your own destiny, have the grapes we needed and being able to process them.”
When Indelicato bought San Bernabe, wine experts believed it to be the largest contiguous vineyard in the world, with 8,500 vine-to-vine acres of fruit on the 11,000-acre property. (Now, company officials say it’s likely number three, behind Caviro in Italy and Bodegas Virgen de las Viñas in Spain.) But sheer acreage does not good wine grapes make, and the family immediately began a 10-year replanting program focusing on specific varieties and clones, experimenting with different trellis systems and introducing new rootstocks that grow better in the valley. Today there are just under 5,000 acres of grapes, with only 2 percent of the original vines remaining. Some of the land remains open space while farmers and cattle ranchers lease other plots, growing organic greens, potatoes and carrots, and grazing cows.
There’s an herb-and-vegetable garden near the administrative offices and visitors center. When the winery hosts clients or Wine Institute visitors for tours and tastings (the winery and vineyard isn’t open to the public), Cheryl Indelicato prepares a meal using the homegrown produce. “We try to give our guests a real example of what it’s like to be at San Bernabe,” she says. “It’s a jewel. No matter how many times you visit the property – even if you work there and live there – no two days are ever alike. The quietness and the birds chirping, the whole ambiance of what the vineyard has to offer and what Mother Nature provides, it’s exquisite.”
San Bernabe has its own American Viticultural Area designation, which means it’s a one-of-a-kind wine-growing area. (Monterey County has nine AVAs, or appellations, which identify the wine’s geographic pedigree.) With its 13 soil types, ranging from sandy loam to clay, 22 microclimates – temperatures vary up to 5 degrees from the north to the south end of the King City vineyard – 14 miles of canals and 17 reservoirs for water storage, irrigation and frost control, growers have matched grape varieties with the environments that bring out the fruit’s most desirable characteristics. The northern end of the vineyard is the coolest, growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Moving south, the grapes progress to warmer-climate varietals, with Cabernet and Merlot at the southern end, which often escapes the valley fog. The vineyard grows grapes for a number of California wineries, using between 10 and 20 percent for its own brands.
San Bernabe winemakers and grape growers call the vineyard “the most diverse in the world.” Its farmers have grown as many as 27 different varietals at one time; today they grow 21.
“The California wine grape industry has come a tremendous way in the last 20 years – quantum steps,” says San Bernabe Vice President Bill Petrovic. “The worst thing we have done in California: We have put grapes where they don’t belong. It’s like Australians’ high rate of skin cancer. You don’t take Irish people and put them in the desert.”
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Petrovic grew up in King City, the son of a Bosnian-Serb father and an English mother. “When I was a kid there was essentially nothing out here,” he remembers. “Right here, where this office was,” he continues, sitting at a long table inside the winery’s private tasting room, “this was alfalfa fields and dry-land farming.”
As a kid, Petrovic watched his now-wife go to church with her family every Sunday from his front window, couldn’t wait to leave the tiny farming town, eventually did at 16 to attend the University of San Francisco where he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology, experienced intense culture shock and saw his first mini-skirt (worn by a man) while living in the big city, and finally couldn’t wait to return home. He started working at San Bernabe in 1978, when Prudential owned the property and grew wine grapes, “some real winners – like Ruby Cabernet,” he jokes.
Petrovic’s arms and the top of his head are tanned from working among the vines. He prefers the company of deer, wild pigs and ducks to his computer. “I love being outside,” he says. “The most hated thing here is my office,” where a boar’s head sits mounted on the wall (he shot it), a crossbow leans underneath and a Nacho Libre keychain shares a bookshelf with two bottles of Dead Red. He knows every inch of the property – the shady spots where deer nap and the ponds, teeming with fish, where a cinnamon teal glides along the top of the water.
The vineyard’s laid out in 100-vine blocks, the largest of which is 121 acres of Chardonnay. Petrovic walks every block twice a week. Two should be irrigated now, he says. And despite the fancy tools like neutron probes used to monitor moisture and sample water retention capability, “the best device still is your eyes and a shovel,” he says.
“Terroir” is one of the terms Petrovic hates: “Take out the ‘i’ and it’s terror,” he says. He prefers “farmer” to “vintner,” and the former better suits his style. “The reality of it is, farming is farming,” he says. “You’re dealing with soil demands, plant demands, pest issues. A lot is just doing it. Theory is wonderful, but reality is the block. This is applied agriculture: The best thing you can do is know your fields. Maybe that’s what farming is – paying attention.
“You do this because you love it. And I’m not talking about being able to drink wine before noon.”
Speaking of, it’s time to taste.
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Start with a Fog Head Chardonnay, which tastes fresh and fruity, not overly oaky or buttery. (Fog Head is one of the brands produced with San Bernabe grapes; DVF Wines’ other brands include Gnarly Head, Irony, Twisted and 337 from grapes from Napa, Lodi, Monterey and Sonoma.)
“The winemakers spend a lot of time in the vineyard, looking for the development of the flavor,” says Ignacio Cruz-Osorio, the winery manager and a winemaker.
Cruz-Osorio is originally from Oaxaca, Mexico. After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s in agriculture and environmental chemistry, he started working for DFV in 1998, spending his first year at the company’s Manteca winery before moving to the Delicato Monterey Winery (located on the San Bernabe vineyard) in 1999. He and his wife now live on the property.
“The Chardonnay starts out citrusy, and then all of a sudden you get these tropical flavors – guava, melon, pineapple,” he continues. “That’s when you start picking the grapes.”
Plus, the winery’s located in the middle of the vineyard, so the grapes don’t have to travel far and don’t have time to oxidize.
Next is the Loredona Riesling, also grown here at San Bernabe.
“Riesling is one of my favorites,” says winemaker James Ewart. “It does really well down here – really honey, apricot notes.”
Ewart, a trained viticulturalist from Adelaide University, is originally from Australia. He started out as an intern in 2000, doing trial work with the grapes. He intended to stay for one harvest, then return to Australia – which he did, before coming back the following year to work at San Bernabe.
“One of the reasons I came back the second year: I was able to see how big a difference the trials made,” he says. “You can see the change, year from year.”
Petrovic took the young winemaker under his wing – “He calls himself my American dad,” Ewart says; “He’s my adopted son,” Petrovic says – and Ewart’s been here ever since.
“Here, grower and winemaker aren’t diametrically opposed,” Petrovic says. In fact, they seem more like kin. Cruz-Osorio and his family spend every Christmas with Petrovic and his family. The two men cooked the meal – “a real King City barbecue” – for Ewart’s wedding rehearsal dinner.
When asked why they stay, all three answer: It’s the land and the people.
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Open barley fields pass by. Now potatoes and carrots. And then the grapes, acres and acres of rolling hills and vines. We stop at a block of Merlot. “We want 7.5 tons,” Petrovic says, doing the math. “At 900 vines per acre, that’s 16 to 17 pounds per vine, four and three pounds to a cluster. We want 63 to 70 clusters.”
For Chenin Blanc, he looks for 40 clusters per vine, and with Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s 86 to 90 clusters, Petrovic says.
Driving down the dirt roads, Petrovic notes the shoot positioning, canopy and cluster weights. “With Chenin Blanc,” he says, “if you look at the architecture, it’s a much bigger cluster. The Pinot cluster is like a cannonball, short and square, where Merlot is more elongated. People say, ‘How do you know it’s Merlot or this or that?’ The way a leaf looks, the way a cluster looks. But really, the best way to know: Read the end post.”
The dirt changes from heavy clay to gravely sand as we drive though the vines. Native cover crops grow between the rows. These California grasses keep the ground stable, preventing wind and water erosion and dust, while providing a home for beneficial insects that eat the pesky ones.
A handful of deer lounge under the vines. “It’s nothing to see 150 deer lying there,” Petrovic says. “As you can tell, that deer is doing no damage to the vines. The only damage the deer could do is if it learned to use a chainsaw.”
Other full-time critter residents include wild boar, coyotes, rabbits, mountain lions, eagles, falcons, roadrunners, ducks and fish.
Owl nesting boxes sit atop perches overlooking the vines. Petrovic calls them “the best thing we’ve ever had for gopher control,” adding that the owl houses remain at 99 percent occupancy.
Five baby mallards paddle behind their mama in a canal; further up, oak tree clusters dot the hills and Pinnacles National Monument towers in the distance. The cool coastal breeze rises from Monterey Canyon and weaves with the hot valley wind, while the dirt roads travel through the historic property, carrying farmer and winemaker through the vines and toward harvest.