From Grape to Glass
Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery
Clay Shannon is one of the two largest grape growers in gorgeous but obscure Lake County above Napa. Clear Lake at an elevation of 1,400 feet and volcanic Mount Konocti as high as 4,300 feet are just two of its many attractions. Clay owns 140,000 acres and farms 70,000. Unfortunately, grape growing is a cyclical business. Today, the demand for grapes has exceeded supply and is causing problems for wineries. But eight years ago, supply exceeded demand, and many growers watched helplessly as grapes rotted on the vine because wineries had more fruit than they could use. At times like these, some growers become winemakers so that they can convert at least part of their perishable commodity into wine that can be sold at a later date. Clay Shannon reached that decision quickly. “We committed so much to growing all these grapes. Just letting them sit on the vine was not an option. We had to get into the wine business.” But what distinguishes him from other growers is that in just eight years, he has almost entirely transformed his business from selling his substantial fruit production to selling an equally large amount of wine. Last year, he made 105,000 cases, and this year he expects to make 140,000 under various labels at different prices from modest to costly. His resolve and business acumen are exceptional as is his ability to alter his lifestyle from driving trucks in the vineyards to taking planes to urban centers where he introduces his wines. I repeat our conversation with minor editing for clarity.
Why did you recently buy more land when half of what you own is unplanted?
We’re acquiring some other properties because we like to have wild life corridors, a balance. We say that we farm a poly culture, not just grapes. We grow trees too, and bears and eagles and hawks and deer. That’s the way we roll. We’re not in a race to clear all of our acreage. In fact we don’t want to, never want to. We’re acquiring other properties that are plantable so that we can maintain a percentage of our land, maybe half or even more, unplanted. We bought about 80 acres, and thirty are already planted. We put in another 10 acres of Cabernet last week. The balance of the property was cleared, and that will be 30 acres more of Cabernet, Petite Sirah, and maybe a little Muscat. In the rest of our vineyards, we have some unusual varietals, but our main plantings up here are Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Do you farm all of these vineyards in the same way?
We’ve entered a phase of our lives here when we’re doing less and less business with other wineries. It’s not that we don’t want to. It’s just that our brands are growing so swiftly that we are doing a lot less business as grape growers and a lot more as winemakers. But to answer your question, the farming is usually based on what our clients are looking for, what programs the grapes are going into, and frankly what customers are paying. If it’s going into a $12 or $15 program, the buyer gets a $12 or $15 grape. If it’s going into a $40 program, we give them $40 grapes. And that usually involves yield. The fewer grapes that we allow the vine to produce, the higher the quality of that fruit. Shoot thinning, irrigation practices, fruit density, and shoot density are usually what affects vine yields.
You have flocks of sheep in the vineyards. How do they help?
We have about 1000 breeding yews, and we raise about 1500 lambs a year. They’re raised in the vineyard and harvested. We sell grass fed lamb to restaurants, out of our tasting room, and from our website, and we give it away as gifts. It’s becoming a big piece of our business. We use the sheep in our vineyards for canopy management, shoot thinning, leaf removal, and trunk suckering, so we’re using them as a tool, and it makes for a great story and a great meal. We just dropped the prices of our lamb because it was too expensive in my opinion. I think the website represents current prices. My family raised sheep on the Sonoma coast long before there were vineyards out there. They were in the sheep and timber business. Once that smell of lanolin is in your blood, you can’t get rid of it. Growing our flock to the size that it is has been a lot of fun. They’re perfect employees. Think about that. You can put them out in the vineyard and don’t have to create shade. You don’t have to give them break periods. They work 24 hours a day, and when you’re done with them, you can eat them. Seriously, that’s what our family eats. It’s a healthy red meat.
How many different wine labels do you have now?
We have Vigilance, Shannon Ridge, our Ranch Collection, the Single Vineyard Collection, and this summer we’re coming out with a new brand. We’re stepping up to a little higher quality that we’re calling our High Elevation Collection. Then we have a brand called Dalliance, a red blend and a white blend, and that’s just doing extremely well. We have some private labels that we do for our friends in the retail business. One of them is Cross Spring, and another is Hill Gate. So we’re in the wine business!
Having made this transition, you must know things that others don’t.
Evolving from a grower to a winemaker and wine company, I’ve gotten a huge education at a huge cost, of course. It’s cost us millions. You can’t get an education like I have. You can’t buy one. With every education, you don’t necessarily learn positive stuff. You learn what not to do. You make mistakes, and you learn from your mistakes. What the average person always does is get so bummed out about the mistakes they make. We move fast, and I always celebrate our mistakes because at least I’ll never do that again. The mistakes that you make in your life are finite, and the successes are infinite. Once you’ve got a recipe, you can figure out what you need to do. You can always make good lamb shanks once you have your recipe down. You can always get better though.
So what’s your basic recipe?
Hard work. We work a lot, and we’re great communicators. This is a business, but it’s a way of life. Do we work seven days a week? Well, we are thinking seven days a week. At least our sales people are. When you come to work with us, you’ll probably make pretty good money, but you’re going to be challenged. You’re going to work hard, and ultimately you’re going to learn what being in the customer service business is.
What else have you learned, maybe from failure?
I have learned how hard it is for wineries to sell wine and how competitive it is. Growers just sell the grapes and wash their hands of it. They complain that it’s so hard to be a farmer. But I’ll tell you, the hardest piece of this business is not making wine, and it’s not growing grapes. It’s creating demand for your product, selling your wine. It’s really difficult, and you’re always out there competing with somebody who has a lot more money than you. The only way you can sell your wine is telling the truth, shaking hands, and face time. That’s your tool. We don’t have the money to do a national promotion like some of these big companies. I can’t use those tools. So that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned. I always underestimated just how hard the wine business was. It’s just hard.
You don’t have the advantage of Napa with hordes of tourists.
Right. We are getting more and more tourists coming to Lake County because of the natural beauty here, and they’re looking for less crowded tasting rooms and cleaner air. So we’re seeing more people, but some tasting rooms in Napa sell 20,000 to 30,000 cases out the front door. We just don’t have the visitors to do that. So we work with distributors around the country. They do a good job but they have lots of wine in their catalogues and lots of wineries demanding their time. I really have to go out there and help them make introductions to restaurants and retailers, put a bag of wine on my shoulders and pitch some of that wine myself. I do that a lot. I hadn’t taken my wife on a sales trip before. She said, “Oh, you have so much fun. You eat at nice restaurants.” I said ‘Okay, let’s go together.’ We left at eight o’clock on a Wednesday morning. We poured wine all day in San Francisco. We finished the night in Sacramento at a restaurant dinner, again pouring wine. The next morning at 5:30 a.m., we were on a plane to Pittsburg. We poured wine in Pittsburg till nine o’clock at night and were out till 1:30 in the morning with a gentleman, who runs a club that we sell wine to. The next morning we went to West Virginia. There are a lot of golf clubs there, so we poured wine for them. The next morning we were in Philadelphia. And the next morning we were hung over on the plane coming home. That’s hard work.
What other mistakes taught you a lot?
Well, we’re still making them. We don’t use screw caps for one. The wines don’t age well, and the caps are not recyclable. They take the metal from the earth, and it ends up in landfill. It doesn’t degrade or get recycled. Corks are sustainable. When we need more, we can plant more oak trees, and these forests protect many species. Screw caps may be cheaper, but that’s not a good place to save. Don’t try to cheapen your package because that’s like wearing a tee-shirt to a prom. That’s what people see. That’s their first look. You try to pinch a penny here and there and sometimes it bits you in the rear. If you want to sell a nice wine, then you need a good bottle, a nice label and cork and foil. In our early years, we didn’t know any better. In 2004, we had a Cabernet that didn’t get ripe. It was the first time that we had enough Cabernet to go out and sell and then found out that it wasn’t ripe. We didn’t over-crop. We just picked the fruit too early. But learning what that’s like, trying to sell wine that’s less than perfect is impossible. Then bottling, when you’re working with other companies, you want to work with quality companies. You can’t ever compromise quality in packaging or wine. You just can’t do it. Customers are super smart, and when they turn their backs on your brand, you’re in terrible trouble. You can’t compromise the relationship that you have with that customer.
California Wines of the Month
Shannon Ridge – 2009 “Ranch Collection” Zinfandel, Lake County
Winemaker Mike Wood’s Notes
The grapes used to produce our 2009 Shannon Ridge Lake County Zinfandel were harvested from several different blocks from family vineyards in the High Valley appellation in Lake County. Deep color and flavors were achieved through a soft punch down extraction during a cool fermentation. We aged the wine in French and American oak for 12 months to help create a balanced, soft mouthfeel. The color of the 2009 Zinfandel is deep garnet, and marionberry, creamy vanilla, and spice dominate the aromas. On the palate raspberry, cracked pepper, and vanilla move forward together with rich texture and balance with a long finish (alcohol 14.5%, total acidity 0.58, pH 3.75).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This delicious Zinfandel includes 7% Petite Sirah, which adds structure and color to often lightly pigmented Zinfandel. The wine shows lots of fruit flavor yet is nicely balanced with acid, tannin texture, and oak, which is hidden in the background exactly where it belongs. Mike Wood made 2060 cases of this wine.
Shannon Ridge – 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, Lake County
Winemaker Mike Wood’s Notes
The grapes used to produce our 2011 Shannon Ridge, Lake County, High Elevation Sauvignon Blanc were picked from several different blocks to help create an elegant multi-layered wine with great complexity. We fermented the wine in stainless steel tanks instead of oak barrels to showcase its delicious fruit flavors and aromas. Our 2009 Sauvignon Blanc has a clean, light straw color and aromas of lemon, grapefruit, and other tropical fruits that follow over onto the palate. The texture of the wine is crisp with a balanced fullness and a lingering finish (alcohol 13.8%, total acidity 0.67, pH 3.34).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The minute you pour this vibrant Sauvignon Blanc into your glass, you’ll inhale a blast of heady apple aromas that will fill the air space in at least one room. The wine has no oak interference, which to my mind and palate, rarely adds anything positive to white wine. Every sip you taste will be better than the last. Mike Wood made 1226 cases of this Sauvignon Blanc. Serve chilled with appetizers and first courses.
Shannon Ridge – 2009 “Single Vineyard” Petite Sirah, Lake County
Winemaker Mike Wood’s Notes
The grapes used to produce our 2009 Shannon Ridge Lake County Petite Sirah were picked from a special block on our Caldwell Ranch. The fruit was picked at the peak of ripeness and aged in 50% new American oak barrels and 50% neutral French oak for 18 months. The wine was subjected to an extended maceration to help soften tannins. Its color is deep purple, and blue berry, blackberries, spice, and herbs dominate the aroma, while blackberry, tobacco, and vanilla oak follow on the palate. The wine is rich and well balanced with a long finish (alcohol 14.3%, total acidity 0.62, pH 3.69).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This Cladwell Ranch Petite Sirah, Lake County is just in time to accompany anything you might grill outdoors, which is not to say that it would be inappropriate for more formal dining. The wine is a beautiful, sophisticated red without any of the rustic qualities that we often associate with Petite Sirah. Mike Wood made 1200 cases of this wine. Serve at cool room temperature.
Shannon Ridge – 2009 “Single Vineyard” Tempranillo, Lake County
Winemaker Mike Wood’s Notes
The grapes used to produce our 2009 Shannon Ridge Lake County Tempranillo were picked from a special block on our Morine Ranch. The fruit was harvested at the peak of ripeness and aged in 50% new French oak barrels and 50% neutral French oak for 14 months. Deep ruby red in color, the aroma is a blend of blackberries, plums, spice, and herbs that translates to blackberry, tobacco, and vanilla oak on the palate. This Tempranillo is rich and well-balanced with a long finish (alcohol 14.8%, total acidity 0.58, pH 3.61).
Anna Maria’s Notes
My guess is that we’ll be seeing more of this grape variety in California. Tempranillo is one of the noble wines of Spain and is often blended with other grapes because of its tendency toward lower acid and alcohol. For this wine, Mike Woods used 6% Petite Sirah in the blend, which may account for the wine’s deep color and balance. Berry, spice, and tobacco flavors are typical of the variety and show themselves well in this wine. Mike Woods made just 291 cases. Serve at cool room temperature.
Menu of the Month
One Enchanted Evening
Platters of prosciutto garnished with olives and parboiled asparagus
dressed lemon & olive oil, served with freshly baked baguettes
Farro spaghetti with cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella,
finely chopped garlic, basil, and a rich extra virgin olive oil
Organic baby lettuces with lemon-olive oil-garlic dressing
Ricotta mousse with fresh strawberries and mint, drizzled with triple sec
Recipe of the Month
My latest enthusiasm is pasta made from emmer, spelt or einkorn wheat sometimes with the addition of barley and known as farro in Italy. Widely cultivated in the ancient world, farro has been found in archaeological excavations and ancient tombs that date back to 17,000 BCE. Its cultivation and preparation is now rising as people look for a more nutritious and less caloric version of white pasta, especially in Italy but also in the United States. I found farro at Dean & Deluca and also in Oakland’s Jack London Square in a pasta shop, run by two young Italians who make it on the site. Its color is a beautiful, warm brown. Because farro has more substance that refined white pasta, you don’t need to worry that it will turn to mush if you withdraw your attention for a few minutes as you wait for it to be done. It’s delicious with pungent mushroom sauces and fresh tomato sauces alike. The recipe below is my spring version.
1 pound farro spaghetti or other open shapes as opposed to tubes
1 ½ cups flavorful cherry tomatoes cut in half
1 cup small mozzarella balls, cut in half or quartered if larger
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
A handful of slivered basil leaves
1/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
Drop pasta into a large pot of salted, boiling water. Remove from heat and drain after about 15 minutes while pasta is still chewable. Taste strands periodically to test. Prepare tomatoes, mozzarella, garlic, and basil and mix together with olive oil and salt in serving bowl. Mixture should be well salted since it constitutes a “sauce.” Immediately after draining, transfer pasta to serving bowl with vegetables and mix. Taste for salt, and let stand for a few minutes before serving. Serves 4 to 6.