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Robert Young vineyards: winegrower.

You're going to have to bear with me, here. This is going to be a slow, philosophical opening, but hang with me. As introduction I'm going to refer back to a diary entry from November of 1986, which has its own small introduction. (To keep this as crisp as possible, I lived 1986, as an exercise, as if I had only that year to live, keeping a diary throughout--to see how imminent mortality, even if only imagined, would change my outlook on life. And yes, it did. Rather dramatically.)

"TUESDAY, 18 NOVEMBER: Last night I had the honor of being host/guest speaker at what may well have been the first dinner/wine tasting to honor a California grape grower. The traditional 'Dinner With The Winemaker' was skewed slightly last night to honor Alexander Valley grower Robert Young, who sells most of his fruit to Chateau St. Jean (and a small amount to Belvedere Winery, which produces wines where the growers get top billing on the label).

"For seven years I wrote a column on grape growing for a farm publication, often counseling California growers to be cognizant of the distinction between growing grapes and growing wine. 'The best grape growers,' I would write, 'are those who understand that their ultimate product is not grapes, but fine wines.' If you only grow grapes, you're usually interested only in getting as many tons to the acre as possible; but as a 'winegrower,' the quality of the wine carries at least as much weight, perhaps more. Thus, quantity must nearly always be trimmed for an improvement in quality for which consumers will pay extra. And for which wineries will pay extra. It's only fair."

In those days I was on a mission to unite the vinous equivalent of the old West's sheep herder versus cattleman. I wanted the grape growers on the same side of the quality fence as the winemakers, for one very simple and selfish reason: You get better wines that way.

That the lesson is being rapidly assimilated is in evidence everywhere today. Napa Valley winegrowing partners instituted the bottle price formula to better reflect grower contributions to quality creation. Washington's Hogue Cellars is now paying their growers "by the acre" so as to better get a handle on crop levels through marginal growing seasons. And special vineyards are increasingly recognized through label designations for their distinctiveness.

One of the first independent vineyards to be so recognized--along with Sutter Home's Deaver vineyard Zinfandel and Heitz's Martha's Vineyard Carbernet--was Chateau St. Jean's Robert Young Chardonnay. And, of course, Chateau St. Jean's Robert Young Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling, that apricot-scented, syrup-textured nectar. Ah, who could forget those delights?

More than a dozen years ago, I asked Dick Arrowood, St. Jean's founding winemaker, what it was that made the Robert Young Chardonnays so remarkable. "There has always been a continuity of character in the wines, even in the off years, like 1977," he said. "The wines show intense-but-balanced varietal character and have an underlying sweetness--that round, oily, buttery quality that I look for in Chardonnay.

"It's hard to pinpoint where that distinctive varietal character comes from. I'm sure the clone has something to do with it, as well as climate and soil. I have to believe, though, that vineyard care has a lot to do with it. Bob and his sons pay close attention to what they're doing. That shows in all the whites we get from them."

Chateau St. Jean, to this day, continues to take every single white variety grown on the Robert Young Vineyard's 326 Alexander Valley acres. More than two-thirds of the planting (220 acres now, up from 130 a dozen years ago) is devoted to the Chardonnay that continues to be dense and packed-in with toasty clove, licorice and lime fruit that spreads out round and oily in the mouth. The biggest change over the years--spurred by the thorough invasion of phylloxera--has been the steady increase in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The former stands at nearly 30 acres now (up from 20, with plans to nearly double that), while the latter has grown to 24 acres (up from 10, with another 25 slated to go in over the next few years).

Jim and Fred Young are fourth generation farmers on their Red Winery Road ranch. Their great grandfather, Peter Young, settled where the road hooks sharply from north to west at the close of the Civil War. (Curiously, Robert's elegant new home, complete with sturdy white columns out front, has a distinctly ante bellum feel to it. All that's missing are the magnolia trees, here supplanted by massive, towering valley oaks.)

After clearing the land, Peter Young took to farming, mostly in grains: wheat, oats and barley. Prunes were the first fruit crops planted in the area, husbanded by Peter Young's three sons: Maynard, Warner and Silas (Robert's father). Though the ranch had been split up for Peter's sons, Robert was able to put it back together through his share, a bequest from one uncle, and the purchase of a third parcel that had been sold off.

In 1963, when Bob began to plant grapes, he got mixed signals. "All the old-timers, the Italians, told me not to plant Cabernet Sauvignon," he says with a chuckle. "They told me to plant Zinfandel and Carignane, to head train 'em, and that I'd never get any production out of Cabernet. But when I got two tons to the acre from 30-month-old Cabernet, all the wineries lined up to buy it: Pedroncelli, Sebastiani. Ha!"

Of course, these were the first trellised vine plantings in the county. He put in his first Chardonnay vines in 1966 (whites? who'd want whites?). As demand rose, first the orchards were removed. As it continued to rise, rocks were cleared from hillsides (20,000 tons from one 30-acre block). And the Robert Young vineyard grew from 175 acres to 275, from 275 to 326. Which is about it. "Oh, we might find a few acres here and there on the hills, but I can't imagine getting beyond 350," says Jim today.

Jim's brother Fred, who studied at Santa Rosa Junior College, is responsible for keeping all ranch machinery on line. Jim, a solid, ruddy, blue-eyed Davis grad, is convinced that technology-induced quality and better money management will be the keys to continued viticultural success.

"We just commissioned a 10-year projection from Motto, Kryla and Fisher," notes Jim. "It is giving us an excellent idea as to what to expect in the coming years. "It's helping us to better manage our cash flow, we are able to anticipate pricing trends better, and it is invaluable in estimating our rate of replanting for phylloxera."

Bob interjects that the ranch is "the epicenter" for phylloxera in Sonoma County, also noting that the root louse has only spurred replanting that was going to happen anyway. (Bob's inveterate sense of humor shows through even the darkest shadow of phylloxera: "There was a survey a few years ago that classified our vineyard as a First Growth. Once we've finished replanting, does that automatically make us a Second Growth vineyard?")

Jim agrees that the changeover was in process, but had not expected the accelerated pace. "I think we need to have more red grapes, to have a broader mix," says Jim. "We're cutting back on Riesling and Sauvignon blanc, dropping the former from seven acres to three and the latter from fifteen to seven. We're still selling Pinot noir to Piper Sonoma or to Jordan for sparkling wines, and there's an increasing demand for red grapes in general. We're considering Sangiovese for some of our hillside spots. We've even planted an acre of Viognier, specifically at the request of Chateau St. Jean, just as we planted eight acres of Pinot blanc for them some years ago. If somebody asks for something else, that's what we'll plant next."

Jim says that replanting began in 1987 for phylloxera, but that fan leaf had reared its head earlier. "Actually, we've finished all our fan leaf replants, and we're over halfway through phylloxera replacements. We have just 142 acres left to do over the next four years. That Chardonnay block over there, just in front of the house, has had phylloxera since '87, but it's still producing five tons to the acre. If it continues to stay above three or four tons, we'll probably hold off for another year with it."

The Youngs have mostly stayed with 5C ("what we thought was SO4") and 3309, but also have some "true SO4" and 039-16. "We've had root-stock trials here since the 1970s," says Jim. "One we thought was good for high quality--good sugars, good pH--was one that was called SO4, but turned out to be 5C. Its yields are not as high as AxR1, but the quality is noticeably better."

Jim is convinced that new trellising methods, coupled with closer plantings, are one key to keeping quality up and quantities high enough to be competitive and survive. "We're using the Scott Henry vertical trellis, with catch wires. And we pay close attention to "Sunlight Into Wine," which may be the best viticulture book ever written. It's so useful, so practical. Dr. Smart gives the pros and cons of each style, and that's important in the real world, because everything has pros and cons. There are so many variables that it's always a crapshoot."

Bob adds that their new vertical trellising is being set up in anticipation of possible "going mechanical" at some later date. "We have done some mechanical leaf pulling--using a suction device with a sickle bar--and it can be very effective. We borrowed it from St. Jean, but I expect we'll buy one in the next year or two, when we have enough acreage back in production to justify the cost." (At the moment, fully 90-plus acres are not producing.)

As we close our discussion, Jim points back to the ten-year plan developed by Motto, Kryla and Fisher as a source of support. "They put the report on a computer program so that we could change the figures as 'projected' became 'real.' Our bankers have been pleased to have it as a resource, sure. But it's also been a very useful basis for making decisions--buying rootstocks, making more accurate tonnage guestimates, tracking payment schedules. We're at a real low point in production and cash flow.

"We harvested under 1,100 tons in 1993, which was down from our previous high of 1,500 tons. But we can look ahead to the year 2003, when the vineyard will be at full health, back in full production, with a crop of some 2,500 tons. Sort of the light at the end of the tunnel. We know we're in the tunnel. But the light is definitely there for us to work toward. And we're getting there. [C] 1994."
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Author:Hinkle, Richard Paul
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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