The Plight of the Landless Winemaker: Not at All Bad
When Lanny Replogle started his Livermore winery in 1976, he already knew that he did not want to farm. “That’s really different from making wine,” and winemaking was his joy. In fact, he liked making wine more than he liked teaching organic chemistry at San Jose State University where he had been working since 1961. “I loved making wine, seeing how it aged, and presenting it to friends and consumers. It was a creative activity.” Besides, he did not have the choice to buy vineyard land. “It would have required a considerable investment of money that we didn’t have,” he says. Today, that “considerable investment” is far greater.
Owning vineyard land is prohibitively expensive, a possibility only for those with the deepest pockets. A prime Napa vineyard sells for about $300 thousand an acre and unplanted about $125 thousand if it can be found. Prices in other California wine regions are less but still costly. According to Curtis Van Carter, long time Northern California real estate broker, Sonoma County vineyards are as high as $125 thousand per acre, Monterey $38 thousand, and San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties at $57,000. And that’s just for one acre, which would not make a living for anyone.
Today’s young winemakers are coming to the same conclusion that Lanny Replogle did in 1976 and probably doing it faster since land is much more expensive. To start their own wineries, they might rent space at a co-operative winery, put their own equipment in a leased warehouse, buy or build a winery on a small parcel of land. But in any case, they would purchase grapes from growers.
For Lanny’s generation of landless winemakers, the idea was to set up a winery and then purchase grapes in the immediate area, going farther afield only if they couldn’t find fruit for wines that they or the market desired. While winemakers are doing that today, many are identifying less with their own appellation and instead seeking out vineyards that they think are extraordinary even if those vineyards are located in other counties. As the saying goes, wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery. In other words, if wine is only as good as the grapes that it is made from, then seeking out premium vineyards makes sense, regardless of their location or proximity to the winery.
Livermore is located in Alameda County on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area and is home to Wente vineyards, the oldest, continuously operated family-owned winery in the U.S., farming 3000 acres of vineyards. Concannon is the other large land owner. But today, the area includes many small wineries and vineyards, which developed after the county created a plan that was designed to preserve agricultural use in the area. When large tracks come up for sale, they must be divided into no less than twenty-acre parcels.
The plan was created after a 770-acre piece became available for sale in the early 1990s. It was sold to Signature Properties and Jack Nicklaus for the development of a large golf course and subdivision, known as Ruby Hill Estates. Each parcel was zoned for a two-acre home site and 18 acres of vineyards. In 1993, 2100 acres were devoted to viticulture along with 11 wineries. Today, there are more than 5000 acres of vineyards and over 50 wineries. Apart from Wente and Concannon, the rest are small, boutique operations. Lanny would like to see some medium-sized wineries develop with a wider distribution beyond the local area to add to Livermore’s growing reputation for fine wine.
In 1976 when Lanny first started Fenestra, there were four wineries in the Livermore Valley, Wente, Concannon, Villa Armando, and Stonyridge. Lanny made wine for Stony Ridge and had permission to make wine for his own label as well. In 1980, he leased a 16.5 acre property with an old winery on it that was built in 1889. “We put a lot of money and effort into cleaning up this historic building and strengthening it,” he says. Subsequently, the owner sold to Signature Properties, which renovated the building in 1997. Lanny continued to lease. Finally in 2007, he had accumulated enough money to purchase the property.
Although Lanny’s estate has a 16-acre vineyard planted with 3.5 acres of Syrah, 1.5 acres of Mouvedre, and one acre of Grenache, it accounts for just 15% of his seven thousand case production. His intention was always to promote Livermore and buy grapes nearby. The Valley is planted to a fair amount of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as other Bordeaux varieties, and of course Zinfandel and Petite Syrah. Rhone varieties are becoming more common here. Until recently, these have been Lanny’s staple wines. When he decided to make a Port, he became interested in Iberian varieties and began to buy grapes from the Silvaspoon Vineyard in Lodi, about 70 miles northeast of Livermore Valley. Lanny’s portfolio of wines now includes Verdelho, Touriga, and Tempranillo. Purchasing the Silvaspoon grapes was his first foray outside of his beloved Livermore Valley.
Lanny purchases grapes from a dozen different vineyards.” We’ve been dealing with the growers for many years, so we have built good relationships. In general, we’re not looking for new vineyards.” But if he could find Iberian varieties in Livermore, he would prefer to buy those instead of grapes from the Lodi vineyard even though Silvaspoon Vineyard is growing some of the best Iberian grapes in California.
Even wineries with large estate vineyards often purchase fruit from other growers. Certain varieties, whose wines they may want to include in their portfolios, might not do well on their properties. So the winery without estate grapes, at least theoretically, has the advantage of picking and choosing its fruit to a greater degree than an estate winery that has to make the best with what its vineyard produces in any given year.
The down side of purchasing fruit is that prices fluctuate. When crops are smaller and demand is higher, prices increase. A winery can also loose its fruit source for a particular wine. “In the case of our Chardonnay, the vineyard where we had been buying was tied up by another winery,” Lanny says.
Another difficulty for a winery without estate grapes is that it has less control over how the vineyard is farmed, although growers, to a certain extent, will accommodate the wishes of purchasers and farm according to their specifications. If not, the buyer can always walk away and look for a more compatible grower. “But we did buy the property because we wanted to own it after being here for so many years. And we wanted to have some vineyard. It’s more attractive for our customers, who come here, and we can control that fruit quite well.”
California Wines of the Month
Fenestra Winery 2008 Merlot, Livermore Valley, Thatcher Bay Vineyard
Winemaker Brent Amos’ Notes
The grapes for this wine were harvested from the 16-acre Thatcher Bay Vineyard, owned for the past 22 years by former engineer and scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Scott Burkhardt. The vineyard is planted with eight acres each of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Including 3% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Cabernet Franc, this Merlot and has an inviting bouquet of cranberry, cherry, black currant, cola, and rose petal. Aged for 19 months in 50% new French oak barrels, the wine is complex and full-bodied with a lingering finish that suggests cherry, blackberry, mocha, and spice. It pairs nicely with grilled pork tenderloin, filet mignon, and roasted duck (alcohol 14.1%, brix 25, total acidity 0.58, pH 3.51).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Fenestra bottled 239 cases of the 2008 Merlot. This is a dense, textured, and full-bodied Merlot, one of two primary grapes in the Bordeaux blend, the other being Cabernet Sauvignon. Americans tend to respect Cabernet more than Merlot, forgetting that Merlot produces some of the greatest and most costly wines in France, especially those from Chateau Petrus. Serve at cool room temperature.
Fenestra winery 2012 Pinot Gris, Livermore Valley, Buttner Family Vineyard
Winemaker Brent Amos’ Notes
The grapes for this wine were harvested from the 10-acre Buttner Family Vineyard in Livermore’s Sunol Valley. Held in the Buttner Family for over 150 years, the vineyard produces Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. We made this opulent 100% Pinot Gris like we would a Chardonnay, fermenting it in French oak and Acacia barrels and then aging it on its lees for 10 months. The wine has spicy aromas of pineapple, ripe peach, orange blossom, and white pepper. The wine is medium-bodied with lingering flavors of melon, pear, lemon peel, and spice. Enjoy with shellfish, apricot-glazed chicken, Asian food, and curry (alcohol 14.1%, brix 25, pH 3.52).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Winemaker Brent Amos bottled 152 cases of this Pinot Gris, which is normally a lean and citrusy wine. Exercising the creative spirit, probably after sharing a bottle of wine, Lanny and Brent made it in a much richer style like a Chardonnay. Sunol is Lanny’s home town, and he liked the idea of making a wine from this historic vineyard, not far from downtown Sunol, its population under 1000 people.
Fenestra Winery 2009 Malbec, Livermore Valley, Ghielmetti Vineyard
Winemaker Brent Amos’ Notes
The fruit for this wine was harvested from the 64-acre Ghielmetti Vineyard, tucked away in the upper Livermore Valley on a sloped, alluvial bench. The Ghielmetti family chose this spot, intending to establish Livermore Valley’s premier cru property. Planted over the course of two years in 2001-2002 by well-known Napa consultants Jim Regusci and Cary Gott, the vineyard is home to 10 different grape varieties. It is planted to all five classic Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec with five different clones of Cabernet Sauvignon. Our 2009 Malbec is an elegant wine with an inviting bouquet of plum, black cherry, marionberry, and rose petal. Aged for 20 months in 45% new French oak barrels, this complex, full-bodied wine has rich, vibrant flavors of blackberry, blueberry, clove, and allspice. It pairs well with roasted duck breast, lamb, or venison (alcohol 13.9%, brix 24.1, pH 3.65).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Brent Amos bottled 172 cases of the 2009 Malbec, which is widely planted in Argentina and Chile but just in small amounts in California. I tasted the wine each day after opening the bottle and was amazed that on the fourth day, it had maintained its fruity and delicious character, not unlike how it had tasted after I first opened the bottle. Most red wines will be obviously oxidized on the third day after the bottle is opened. How long a wine lasts is an important indicator of both winemaking and fruit quality.
Fenestra Winery 2009 Petit Verdot, Livermore Valley, Ghielmetti Vineyard
Winemaker Brent Amos’ Notes
The fruit was harvested from the 64-acre Ghielmetti Vineyard. See winemaker Brent Amos’ Notes above for the 2009 Malbec. The 2009 Petit Verdot with 2.5% Cabernet Sauvignon exhibits luscious aromas of cranberry, mocha, violets, and spice with rich flavors of cherry, raspberry, vanilla, and tobacco. Aged for 29 months in 30% new French and 10% American oak barrels, the wine is full-bodied with a lingering finish. Enjoy with venison, prime rib, and other rich meats (alcohol 14.2%, brix 26.1, pH 3.90, total acidity 0.57).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Brent Amos made a mere 85 cases of the 2009 Petit Verdot, which produces full-bodied and deeply colored wines, normally with peppery and spicy flavors. While the Merlot and Malbec have pronounced fruit flavors, the Petit Verdot shows more flowery qualities. All three wines strike me as rustically delicious and well-balanced with fruit, acid, and texture. Decanting all three wines before serving would further release their nuances.
Menu of the Month
Happy Valentine’s Day
Slices of prosciutto di Parma, Castelvetrano olives,
and Sicilian caponata served with freshly baked baguettes
Ravioli with a meat filling, topped with fresh sage leaves, quickly braised in extra virgin olive oil,
which is drizzled over the top of the ravioli, the dish finally topped with scattered shavings of Parmigiano cheese
Organic baby arugula with sliced winter pears and pomegranate seeds,
dressed with olive oil and seasoned rice vinegar
Chocolate walnut cake with a dollop of freshly whipped cream
Recipe of the Month
Chocolate Walnut Cake
Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day are the two busiest days of the year for restaurants, an excellent reason to dine at home. My favorite easy but elegant meal is ravioli, topped with sage leaves braised in olive oil and shavings of Parmigiano cheese. Dessert for the occasion should obviously be chocolate. The following spicy Chocolate Walnut Cake was adapted from the December edition of Tastes of Italia and contains olive oil instead of butter. You’ll be amazed!
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 rounded teaspoon baking powder
1-1/2 cups dark brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup milk
3 ounces high quality dark cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
Freshly whipped cream for topping
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F; then butter and flour an 11-inch round cake pan. Set aside.
Sieve the flour, salt, and baking powder into a bowl and mix well. In a different bowl, beat the sugar and eggs together. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture, adding the milk a little at a time to keep mixture moist. Sieve in the cocoa powder and the cinnamon; stir in the walnuts; and lastly, mix in the oil until the batter is well mixed and smooth. Pour batter into prepared cake pan and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, testing to see when it’s done by inserting a skewer into the center. It should come out clean. Be careful not to overcook as this makes the cake dry instead of keeping it moist. Remove the cake from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes. Serve with a dollop of freshly whipped cream, or dust with powdered sugar. Serves 10.