De Tierra: Of the Earth
De Tierra Vineyards
Partners David Coventry and Tom Russell have long histories in Monterey County. Tom farms thousands of acres of row crops there and elsewhere along with his two vineyards, Silacci in the Santa Lucia Highlands and the organic estate vineyard in Corral de Tierra. David began his winemaking career with two well-known Monterey wineries, Chalone and Morgan Winery, before he joined Tom as a partner at De Tierra five years ago. Both men are champions of Monterey County and feel that its vineyards are as good or better than any others anywhere else in California. Their wines prove the thesis. Generally considered a cool weather zone, Monterey County is known for its fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But nearly the size of the state of Massachusetts, Monterey County has many climates and micro climates, and David insists that only imagination limits viticulturists and winemakers in the area, something he has plenty of. “Both Tom and I are contrarians. If someone says it’s not possible to make a good Bordeaux varietal in Monterey, immediately we start to do it just because the attitude pisses us off.” David feels that Chardonnay is going to enjoy a renaissance in the near future, and he and Tom are leading the way by planting new vineyards. And David is certain that Pinot Noir is here to stay, not a fad to be soon forgotten. So Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, together with Syrah and Merlot are the core wines of their production. With minor editing for clarity, I report my conversation with David Coventry.
You have the first certified organic vineyard in Monterey County. How did that happen?
With a lot of hard work, a lot of paper work, and an extra amount of farming that is amazing…. ‘The most important thing in the vineyard is the winemaker’s shadow.’ That’s the rule of thumb for an organic vineyard. You have to pay attention to your vines. Organic farming forces you to be there, not once every three weeks, not once every two weeks, but every single week, every three to five days. You have to be watching for developing problems because the tools that you have to use are not sledge hammers, but much finer tools. So you have to be there more often to make sure that things are going correctly. And because you’re there more often and paying more attention to the vines, you get a better quality grape. We buy fruit from other vineyards, too, and they are farmed sustainably. We have a commitment to that because we think it’s the right thing to do. But on a rather selfish note, wonderful grape flavors come out of vines that are healthier homeostatic systems. I see certain vineyards, and I can’t pass them up. As a winemaker, you have to do it. I have to make wine from this place because I just know it’s going to be good. People tell me that I make Burgundian style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but never for one second in my life have I said I wanted to make Burgundian wines. But if you source fruit from great vineyards, and you make the wine well and bottle it well, it will have some similarities to its French brethren. I have a very mainstream palate. I don’t mean pedestrian, and I don’t mean average. But what I like, most people like. So when I make the wines, blend the wines, the way I make them, they appeal to almost everybody.
Is your partner Tom Russell solely responsible for the farming?
He’s 90 percent responsible for the farming, and I’m 90 percent responsible for the winemaking. But we share all these responsibilities. He knows so much about organic farming because of his produce business. He’s been growing organic produce for 25 years. So the knowledge that he brought to wine growing was so far beyond what any other winery could conceive of. I’m guessing that just 20 percent of his business is organic row crops, but at 20 percent, he’s still the third largest organic farmer in the country. The guy understands plants. He’s seen them grow for 40 years. Although grape vines are a little different because their cycle is longer, he still on a very basic level gets it, which is unusual. The guy is really bright. He planted the De Tierra vineyard where he lives in a residential subdivision with 20, 30, and 40 acre lots. Being the type A, A, A personality that he is, he couldn’t stand unplanted ground on his property, so he planted grapes, then olives, then lavender until he finally ran out of room. That’s how the winery started in this little area Coral de Tierra, and that’s where we got the name for the winery, De Tierra, meaning of the earth. Any great wine starts with a great vineyard, and any great vineyard starts with the ground, pretty much the starting point for any conversation about wine. It’s a great place to be a vine. Those grapes live in one of the nicest places on the planet earth. Here’s the fascinating thing. He planted the Merlot vineyard back into what’s called a boxed canyon. It has little hills on either side of the vineyard and focuses the heat, which Merlot needs to ripen. So on any given day, if it’s 85 degrees in the Merlot vineyard, and you walk 400 yards to the Chardonnay vineyard, it’s 10 degrees cooler over that small distance. This is pretty much the definition of a micro climate. He was bright enough as a farmer to know that the boxed canyon is going to have the heat focused in by the mountains, and a little further on the flat spot with a little bit of wind and fog the site will be cooler. He understood that he could do Merlot and Chardonnay in the same general area, which is by and large not normally successful.
In this slow economy with a glut of wine, you’re planting Chardonnay, which isn’t scarce in California. Why?
First of all, it takes four years for a vineyard to produce good fruit. You can’t follow whatever six, eight, or 12-month curve that the economy is making. You have to think ahead. The pendulum swings. We’re in harder times now, but good times are coming. It’s just the way the world works. You have to plan and look forward to those good times. Because the economy is down right now, people are getting deals in terms of the costs of vines and trellis wires and so on. You can actually plant a vineyard now for the least amount of money that we’ve seen in 20 years because everyone wants the job. Everything about wine takes time. You can’t be on a 12 month thinking cycle. That’s inappropriate. And yes, we’re planting Chardonnay in the Santa Lucia Mountains. For 10 years I’m been preaching, but no one listened. Everyone was planting Pinot Noir and forgot that the flip side of Pinot Noir was Chardonnay. They both need the same climate. So now there’s a ton of available Pinot Noir, but we’re hard pressed to find great Chardonnay. So we planted a bunch of Chardonnay in our Silacci vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Silacci produces some great Pinot, but it might produce even better Chardonnay. The first crop was spectacular, but we need to see at least two. There may be a revelation of Chardonnay here. I’m working hard on changing the attitudes of people who are not interested in Chardonnay. The pendulum is swinging back. But people don’t want those uninteresting, buttery, crappy Chardonnays. They want something with more integrity. The great grapes are the great grapes. People haven’t stopped drinking Chardonnay. They haven’t stopped drinking Cabernet, and they’re not going to stop drinking Pinot Noir. Once they know the wine, it won’t go away. Americans are always looking for the newest, hottest, coolest, best thing, and you can’t change that. But when you do the right thing and make great wines, people will drink them.
There’s a lot of quality competition from diverse California growing regions like yours. Do you think Napa will eventually loose some of its caché?
The pendulum always swings. I think they built themselves a house of cards, and at some point, it’ll fall down. All Napa wine is not created equal. There are bad wines, good wines, and great wines there. But everyone is looking at the neighbor. ‘They’re charging $150. I’ll charge $150.’ We all know how much it costs to produce wine. At some point, you’re pricing with ego, not reality. And that will correct itself. Napa produces absolutely great Cabernet, but no one has enough money to just waste it. Paying $150 for a bottle of Cabernet, all things being equal, is a lot of money for a bottle of wine. Those wines have suffered most in this economy because there’s no value there. I think Americans are in the steep part of the learning curve as a wine drinking culture, and it’s been a long time coming. And actually, I’m all for it because we offer an astounding value, and we always have. We don’t make wine for ego’s sake. We make wine so that people can drink good wine. Tom is a capitalist, a business man from the word go. And that’s what has made our winery successful. He’s not going to give anything away. But he’s going to be fair always. We laugh about this all the time. If in life, we could just get to what’s fair so that you’re not screwing someone, and no one’s screwing you, that would be good.
California Wines of the Month
De Tierra Vineyards – 2007 Chardonnay, Monterey 168 cases made
Winemaker David Coventry’s Notes
Our Estate Chardonnay is grown deep in the Corral de Tierra at the foot of Mount Toro between the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Carmel Valley in Monterey County in what John Steinbeck called “the pastures of heaven.” The vineyard is organically farmed to accentuate the terroir of this most unusual area. Classic Burgundian aromas of hard spices, butter, and brioche leap out of the glass with citrusy and tropical nuances flowing behind. Full and intense in the mouth, rich fruit flavors are carried by balancing acidity that keeps this wine focused and produces a lush finish. With the intensity of flavor that this wine is showing, mid-term cellaring will produce an ever finer wine. The wine was aged ten months in 50% new barrels.
Anna Maria’s Notes
David Coventry doesn’t like to hear that Californians can’t make good Chardonnay or that consumers are bored by it. “People don’t like clumsy, unbalanced, screwed up Chardonnay,” he says. “You have to make it right.” And he’s dedicating himself to doing just that. This one is a beauty. Whatever else you might say about it, it’s a beautifully balanced wine with fruit, acid, and oak creating a delicious whole. David has more and differently styled Chardonnay wines in the pipeline because he feels that there will be renewed interest in the varietal if winemakers avoid the excesses of the past.
De Tierra Vineyards – 2006 Merlot, Monterey 1,000 cases made
Winemaker David Coventry’s Notes
Our Estate Merlot is grown deep in the Corral de Tierra at the foot of Mount Toro between the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Carmel Valley in Monterey County in what John Steinbeck called “the pastures of heaven.” The vineyard is organically farmed to accentuate the terroir of this most unusual area. Classic Bordeaux aromas of hard spices, cedar, and blackberry join with vanilla and smoky oak flowing behind. Full and intense in the mouth, rich fruit flavors are carried by balancing acidity that keeps this wine focused and produces a lush finish. The wine was aged for 22 months in 100% new Hungarian oak barrels to heighten the lush mouth-feel and Bordelaise character. With eighteen months of bottle age, this wine is drinking quite well, but its structure and intensity would indicate many years of enjoyment to come.
Anna Maria’s Notes
Apart from wonderful flavors and aromas, this Merlot has a highly compelling texture, which is always the hallmark of a great red wine. “I spend an inordinate amount of my time working on the texture of my wines,” David says. “If everyone chose wine because of aromas, we’d all be drinking Muscat. There has to be a more visceral part of the wine, and that’s the texture.” If you’ve never focused on the contribution that texture makes to red wine, now is your chance as you drink the De Tierra 2006 Estate Merlot.
2005 Pinot Noir, Monterey 470 cases made
Winemaker David Coventry’s Notes
The Tondre Grapefield, where we harvested the fruit for this Pinot Noir, is located in the heart of the Santa Lucia Highlands. This wine represents the warmest vineyard from which we source fruit. It gives a riper and more opulent version of Pinot Noir due to warmer days and softer winds. A complex combination of hard spices, Bing cherries, and smoky vanilla leaps out of the glass. Good weight and breadth of flavor from ripe red fruits with undertones of cassis continue on the palate. Firm acidity and fine tannic structure combine to feature the more opulent side of Pinot Noir. Certainly ripe and lovely now, mid-term cellaring will reward the patient pinophile. The wine was aged in 60% new French oak barrels for softness and complexity and 40% one, two, and three year-old Hungarian oak for spiciness and vanillin character. The wine was aged for ten months and racked only once, just before bottling, to retain maximum richness and fruit character.
Anna Maria’s Notes
The Tondre Grapefield is one of the most prestigious vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, with winemakers competing for its fruit. But apart from delicious Pinot Noir flavors, the wine exhibits David Coventry’s talent for making balanced wines. So much Pinot Noir on shelves obscures the essential character of this noble wine, its distinctive flavor and its lighter color and body, those qualities that initially attracted so many wine drinkers. David knows what real Pinot Noir is. And you will too when you drink this wine.
2005 Syrah, Monterey 400 cases made
Winemaker David Coventry’s Notes
Our Syrah is grown near the town of Greenfield in the warmer section of Monterey County. The vineyard has sparse and rocky soils and a warm wind that blows through in the afternoons, much like the Cotie-Rotie. Although the days are warm, the nights cool off to produce Syrah of uncommon complexity and richness. This wine was made with six different clones of Syrah for exceptional complexity and balance. Classic Rhone aromas of hard spices, white pepper, cassis, and raspberry join with vanilla and smoky oak flowing behind. Full and intense in the mouth, rich fruit flavors are joined by hints of succulent meats. Balancing acidity keeps this wine focused and produces a lush finish. With eighteen months of bottle age, this wine is drinking quite well, but its structure and intensity would indicate many years of enjoyment to come. The wine was aged for 22 months in 25% new Hungarian oak barrels to heighten the lush mouth-feel and Rhone character while still letting the powerful fruit intensity come through.
Anna Maria’s Notes
This Syrah is yet another superb wine from De Tierra, exhibiting all of the spice and rich berry flavor that the varietal is known for. As David puts it, “Every single wine that we make has great integrity. We’re not chasing some trend. We’re not making some style. We’re making great wines, and that integrity shows.” In other words, fruit flavors, acid, tannins, and oak are balanced (that word again). No single component over-powers. The wine has great fruit flavors from fine vineyards, enough acidity because the fruit was not over-ripe when it was picked, and barrel aging to render the wine smooth but without imparting too much oak flavor. And of course, a wine like this will be a great complement to food, which after all is the highest purpose of a fine wine.
Menu of the Month
Dinner on the Deck
Artichoke and olive antipasti
Grilled wild shrimp with lemon zest, garlic, & parsley marinade
Taboulli with chopped green onion, tomato, lemon & parsley
Green beans with cherry tomatoes and red onions
Mixed fresh berries with honey-yogurt sauce
Recipe of the Month
Grilled wild shrimp
Buds have popped into bright flowers, and the late afternoon is still warm, a setting that invites us to eat outdoors. We adapted the following shrimp recipe from the current issue of “Tastes of Italia” and chose it because it uses the Mediterranean ingredients that we love and will perfume the air as it roasts on the grill.
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
Juice of one lemon
Grated zest of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced, plus extra for sprinkling
2 pounds large shrimp with shells
Sea salt to taste
Fresh lemon wedges
Preheat a grill or barbecue to hot. In a bowl, combine oil, garlic, lemon juice, zest, and parsley. Stir well and set aside. Take the shrimp, and cut them in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. Rinse and season with salt. Place on a plate, shell side down. Brush with olive oil mixture and grill for four minutes shell side down. Turn and grill for one minute more. Remove and serve on a platter with lemon wedges and remaining olive oil sauce. Sprinkle extra parsley. Serves six.