This past weekend, I put in 44 Aglianico vines on a steep slope smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles. Growing something is an investment. It’s an investment of time, resources, energy and self. This is pretty much the case regardless if you grow tomatoes and eggplant on your patio or a commercial vineyard. It’s also a learning experience. You learn to pay attention to the soil, the sun and the plant.
In the past year, I have developed a friendship with Jeff Miller of Suisun Valley’s Artisan Family of Wines. We connected over a post he wrote for Jo Diaz’s blog and things went from there. Jeff came over for dinner one day and brought some of his wines. Among them was a bottle of Montepulciano. This is not a commercial wine, but a trial batch made in carboys. I was instantly taken by it: bright, pretty red fruit with a touch of leather. We began to talk about matching variety to site. Montepulciano is a late ripener that maintains distinct character and acidity in hot climates like the Suisun Valley. My wine growing aspirations were re-awakened.
Over the successive months, I further explored the possibility of putting in some vines on a piece of land in the Mt. Washington area of Los Angeles. My parents own a 300-foot long up-slope lot where their house stands and which adjoins another piece of land where I plan to build a house. (If this sounds like an “Everybody Loves Raymond” situation, you don’t know the half of it.)
The slope is rather steep and the soils can be varied. They consist of a mixture of loam, clay and sand on bedrock of sandstone and calcareous shale. The site has southeastern exposure and receives good winds. Because of its slope, the ridge of the hill casts a shadow on the lot by 7 pm. Having grown up there, I know there is significant diurnal variation with marked coolness in the draws of the hill.
We (actually, mostly Jeff) looked at some temperature records and determined that the site is probably upper Climate Region IV.
Jeff mentioned he’s also growing Aglianico in addition to Syrah and Petit Sirah – all these varieties are candidates for a hot site, being able to retain acidity and typicity while ripening late in the season.
A few weeks ago, Jeff emailed telling me he would have some Aglianico benchgrafts left over and asked if I wanted them. Ignoring my torn medial meniscus, I responded with an enthusiastic “Boy, would I!” (or something to that effect). A week later, I received a box with 70 benchgrafts, bundled and covered with sawdust inside a large bag. They came in the middle of the week, so I needed to keep them as close to dormancy as possible until the weekend. I moistened the sawdust, tied up the bag and put it in its box. I kept the box in my office which ranges from 68 to 71 degrees Fahrenheit.
The clone 7 Aglianico is grafted onto 1103p rootstock, which is well suited to hillside planting. The grafts come from Novavine in Sonoma. At the nursery, the vines are stored at very low temperatures to keep them dormant. Once they leave the nursery, they start coming out of dormancy and start pushing buds. In fact, there were a few buds on some vines by the time Saturday came around. In the run up to planting, Sam Caselli at Novavine and Jeff were great at providing a lot of answers (and at times, hand-holding). I had to put these vines in ASAP. It was now or never – no matter how late in the season it is. I’m going to have knee surgery at the end of August and these vines will just not wait for that.
I had previously walked the lot and taken measurements and laid out some row placement. The final decision was to put in about four or five rows, leaving room for other varieties. On Saturday morning, my father and I went out and staked out some rows. After a lot of vacillation and a few phone calls, I decided on six feet between vines and eight feet between rows. I will not put in a trellis system. It’s beyond my budget at this time and, given the slope of the lot, it would be back-breaking work to install. Instead, I will goblet train these vines (if they take). This will give for lower yields, but will make the vines more workable.
With rows marked and vine positions staked out, I began to dig.
It’s a bitch to dig in the heat of the sun. I had tolerated this much better 23 years ago when we dug the foundations for my parents’ house. But then, I did not have a bum knee and I was not doing it on a 40% incline. So, my father called a day laborer he knows. Carlos brought a friend and in 3 hours they dug 44 holes while my father and I pre-irrigated (read: poured a lot of water into each hole).
It’s amazing how much hillside soils can vary. In one hole, we’d see dark loam, in another sand or sandstone and, in another, calcareous shale. The site looked like a calico cat.
The vines had been hydrating in a bucket of water for almost 24 hours. Each benchgraft was put in and covered over with soil until the graft union was about four inches above the soil. The next step is to mound over the exposed piece of vine to protect it from extremes of temperatures as it comes out of dormancy. By the time all vines were in, it was so hot and we were so beat that we could only quickly cover each vine with straw (from the wild oats which grow on the hill) and beat a hasty retreat for the patio.
When you dig on a steep slope, you loose a lot of the dirt and what you put back in the hole ends up compacting with water. Digging more to create basins and obtain soil for mounding would have been too much in the heat.
You learn a lot putting in a vineyard no matter its size. Foremost among these lessons is just how hard agricultural work can be. I grew up in the country so I am not unfamiliar with this kind of work. I’d participated in wine harvests so I appreciate how backbreaking the work can be. Doing this kind of work is quite the object lesson.
You also learn how common tasks can unite people. My father and I don’t always see eye to eye. We sure did bicker over positioning and layout but despite his health issues he was there from beginning to end and did everything to facilitate the project.
This project also reminds me of the value of friendship and how my involvement in wine blogging has opened doors to not just “social networking” but a real friendship with Jeff whose guidance and advice is indispensable in this undertaking.
I went back the next day to put in soil mounds on the vines. I am glad that I watered first, because after the first basin and mound were completed, my knee finally gave out. I’ll have to give Carlos another call…
It should be obvious by now that I am committed to this project. This is not just in an emotional investment sense but in the way two opposing jet fighter pilots are committed to the fight when they engage each other. There is no going back. You can only go forward.
This is very much like parenthood: I’ll worry about the vines, I’ll tend to their needs, I’ll plan ahead and keep investing – in labor, irrigation, etc – hoping that it will all come to fruition one day. I’ll be doing a lot of learning along the way. Those lessons will help guide my decisions on the reminder of the lot: I’d like to put in Montepulciano and maybe Syrah or Petit Sirah.
Periodically, I’ll share those lessons and developments here on winesooth.com.