These last twelve months have been some of the most exciting of my career as we work to develop our first estate vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. As most of you already know, we purchased a twelve-acre apple farm in Sebastopol about a year ago. This spring we will be planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; and with a full season of weather data, we can project that the property will be cool climate, with similarities to Falstaff. We have over 15,000 plants on order with a local nursery, and I am anxious to care for each one in the years to come. I have been doing some extensive research about farming and soil health, as I strive to take in as much knowledge as possible. The way I am feeling reminds me of making my first wine back in 2005, curious, eager, and excited!
Our approach and goals:
Kristen and I are committed to creating a diverse ecosystem from the beginning instead of mono farming and planting one large vineyard. To accomplish this, we will be planting as many species of native fruit trees as we can. We wish to be in harmony with nature, and will also plant a multitude of native plants, introduce ways to attract wildlife, and eventually raise livestock, all working together in tandem.
We will compost all our grape skins, stems and seeds from fermentations to improve bacteria, fungi, and enzyme strains in our soils. We will feed some of the compost to red wiggly worms which we will raise in a small, covered barn which will help multiply the microorganisms in the soils to the billions. Having already purchased the worm bin and accepted delivery of a 100-gallon, compost tea system which will be used to make tea from the compost and to then be sprayed as a foliar this month, things are quickly coming together. We also recently installed two log hives for native bees and will not harvest the honey. This environment will allow native bees to pollinate and propagate freely on healthy land.
We will be planting a large pollinator garden to allow the bees to thrive. The fresh green cover crop is growing with all our winter rains which will help to build soil structure and sequester carbon. We will not use synthetic fertilizer or Round-Up. Our intent is to raise sheep to help keep grass down and chickens to forage and peck below the vines to eradicate bugs and insects. We are budding with excitement! Let me take you though the journey so far.
Recent work completed:
We began the year by carefully taking down two old barns to open the space for vineyard acreage on our land. My stepdad Roger and I set out to save as much of the precious, century old (rough-sawn) redwood as we could. We intend on repurposing the rafter beams and barn siding when we build a new barn on site. At about the same time that the barns were taken down, we dug multiple soil pits with the guidance of an expert consultant who has a Ph.D. in soil fertility.
The soils were analyzed for fertility and water holding capacity to make decisions on rootstock, clonal material, row width, vine density, row orientation & trellis type. We also tested for nematodes (parasitic worms that infest winegrape rootstocks). Thankfully, none were present. Digging and looking down into each pit was thrilling, as I stopped to imagine the vines growing down through the soil in a few years. We also had the opportunity to purchase a turn of the century Aeromotor windmill and mounted it on a concrete pad next to the existing house well. It serves as a weathervane now and brings a sense of nostalgia to our land.
By springtime, we were ready to remove some of the apple trees on the property, and that was when some serious guilt really started to set in. This was a step in which I struggled with mixed emotions. I felt guilt and sorrow for what we were about to do and yet excitement to fulfill a nearly two-decade dream. I chose to send letters to all our neighbors informing them that we would be removing several acres of apple trees and expressed my feelings in that letter. I took my time to assure them that with the loss of trees there would be a resurgence of life, and that my intention was to maintain being a great steward of the land. We are already beginning to see new life as the composted apple wood chips are thriving with bacteria, fungi and enzyme strains which will improve the soil’s health. With two chain saws, Roger and I got to work. It took several weeks to fell the trees and then put all the branches through a chipper. Then it was time to dig out the stumps, so we rented a 30,000-pound excavator. I did the excavating while Roger received the stumps with our UTV. With seven of twelve acres cleared, we then hired an experienced farmer and had his crew lay-out the vineyard with irrigation, stakes, etc. With a newly drilled, 700-foot irrigation well for water installed, the vineyard layout with irrigation has been completed, with long beautiful vine rows giving just a hint of all the new prospects of good things to come.
Before the rains arrived this winter, twelve hundred pounds of cover crop were laid down to help build soil structure, build organic matter, and increase nutrient holding capacity for plant growth. The cover crop seeds turned the new vineyard property green within a matter of days of the first rain. The future is exciting as we witness how every step along the way is developing. Kristen took fondly to picking the tender pea shoots to snack on.
We took the time to try and save as many apple trees as we could; and in total, we saved over two dozen trees. The trees were given to friends, family, neighbors, and local schools. We’re happy knowing that many young trees continue to thrive today. To pay homage, we left a large Gravenstein apple tree center stage at the edge of one of the newly installed vine rows; a tree that has provided many afternoons of shade during lunch breaks and one that will continue to give a nice crop of apples for years to come. Nearly two acres of apple trees remain for a reminder of what the property once was.