Winemaker's Journal - July 2011

Relationships with Growers

I began cultivating relationships with grape growers in 1996 while sourcing fruit for Xcellence, our red blend that was later renamed Mercury Rising. Cinnabar had been making wine exclusively from estate fruit since 1986, but Xcellence’s popularity warranted supplementary fruit.

We started with neighbors in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but our search slowly spread like ripples from pebbles striking a pond. The radius grew from 10 miles to 50, and eventually to over 175 miles as we now source fruit from regions as far as Clear Lake and Paso Robles.

Wine quality starts with exceptional fruit and ends with me keeping things on track in the cellar. A significant part of the process is selecting exceptional vineyards paired with great growers.

Location, Location, Location

Like the real estate mantra says, location is paramount: the right grape variety must be paired with the right vineyard.

Choosing vineyards with well-drained soils and a Mediterranean climate is a starting point, but certain varieties require us to look further. We prefer cool sites for pinot and chardonnay, warm ones for merlot and cabernet franc, and warm-to-hot locations for cabernet sauvignon, petite verdot and petite sirah. (See our wine-regions map for more information.)

We also like to see historical evidence of a variety’s success on a site to preclude issues with frost and/or water availability.

Heart and Soul

Once I have found the right location, the next step is finding a grower whose skill set is compatible with our program. I generally look for attributes that translate to better wine quality:

  • Willingness and ability to embrace changes in extraordinary or difficult years. It’s rewarding to know that our teamwork can transcend challenges such as excessive rain, drought or heat to produce spectacular wine.
  • Progressive improvement. My parameters change — I make darker and richer wines with more balanced tannins — and I like to see growers’ standards evolve with mine.
  • How concerned are growers with my priorities when they have challenges that could cost them time and/or money?
  • The application of new technologies and/or different approaches such as using cover crops instead of tilling, oil instead of sulfur, cane pruning over spur pruning, or deficit irrigation versus conventional irrigation.
  • Keeping up with the latest canopy-management techniques. Some growers allow vines trained on vertical trellising to fan out and provide more shade (i.e. prevent sunburn) in warmer areas.

Finally, we especially like areas where there is a regional flavor with specific grapes. The 120-year relationship between winegrowers in Dry Creek Valley and zinfandel has created a multi-generation phenomenon of living and working among the vineyards. There is an indisputable commitment to being good stewards of the land, and this special bond is what makes Dry Creek Valley the benchmark region for zinfandel.

Great fruit makes great wine, and my job is to keep the ship on course and avoid icebergs. Our winegrowers play a major role in connecting the dots between vines in the field and wines in the glass, and their dedication is a huge part of our success.