Friday, May 7, 2010

The Shepherd of Grapes


Recently, I attended Dry Creek Passport in Sonoma County, California.
Passport is a weekend-long event at which 50-plus vineyards open their tasting rooms to hoards of thirsty Zinfandel drinkers. I was in attendance on a press pass, and the folks who were running the public relations for the weekend will, no doubt, be happy that I thought enough of the wine to write about it.

By all accounts, Dry Creek Valley is producing some world-class wines.
Of course, not every bottle made in the Valley is world-class. But some are. Phil Hearst at Truett Hearst makes a very fine Pinot Noir and an extremely delicious
Zinfandel Rose. Unti Vineyards is producing a stellar Grenache. Just about everything
available to the wine club members of Michel Schlumberger will knock your socks off, and anyone can join the club. Debra Mathy of Dutcher Crossing has cultivated relationships with the finest grape growers in the Valley, and the proof of their skill (and the skill of her winemaker, Kerry Damskey) is in every bottle. But the best bottle of wine I had from Dry Creek Valley, by far, is one that is unavailable to just about everyone.

The PR machine behind Passport won't be too thrilled about this fact,
I guess. But still, they should be happy I met Paul Bernier, the man
who made that bottle of wine in his tool shed.

I met Paul at Dutcher Crossing Winery. He was tucked in a corner of
the tasting tent, pouring Zinfandel. The wine was made from the grapes
he grew in the summer of 2007. Paul is not a wine snob or a
sophisticated viticulturist (and there are plenty of both crawling
around Sonoma). Paul is a grape farmer and he looks the part, which is
to say, rough, grizzled, and slightly awkward when tucked into a
corner of a wine-tasting tent. So, immediately, I liked him.

Within 30 seconds we were fully engaged in a discussion about how
immigration legislation will affect the industry. (Paul's view is that
it won't. "Anglos" like to drink their handpicked old-vine Zinfandel
too much and at the same time are too lazy to do the work. Paul pays
his pickers $20 to $25 an hour. It's not the money that will keep them
around, he says, it's the Latino workers' work ethic. "They're here
and they want to work," he told me.) Even on dirty subjects, Paul
thinks like a farmer—with his feet firmly planted in the ground.

The wine Paul was pouring, although made from his grapes, was crafted
by the Dutcher Crossing team. When I asked if they were doing a good
job with his grapes, he did not say yes or no. Instead, he invited me
to see his vineyards at 7:00 the next morning. Of course, I took him
up on it.

Most of Paul's grapes were planted some 20 years ago on leased land.
They are pruned in a style called head training, which makes it
impossible to harvest the grapes by machine. They need to be picked by
hand. This is one of the keys in the relationship between the vines
and a farmer like Paul. Just by means of harvest, he is already so
much closer to the plants than his tractor-picking contemporaries. He
actually needs to touch the vines, and he does, almost every day. We
stood on one of his planted hillsides as the sun finished rising, and
he described his pruning techniques. He pointed out the fresh buds,
then laid his hand, over-sized from decades of labor, on an old,
gnarled branch of the vine as if laying a hand on the shoulder of an
old friend. This man loves these plants. When I asked him about the
physical difficulty of his chosen profession, he smiled with the
innocence of a child. "Heh, this isn't hard. This is fun."

He took me to see another one of his planted hillsides, the
Bernier-Sibary vineyard, about a quarter mile down the road from his
house. And this is when things started to get really interesting. Over
the course of our conversation, Paul debunked several modern wine
myths. And although I encouraged this with the questions I asked him,
I got the feeling that he wanted these facts to be known.

Wineries insist that grapes are extremely sensitive to
terroir—that the soil flavor of adjacent hillsides is
different enough that they can be detected in the finished wine. Paul
disagrees. Sure, grapes from Napa will have different characteristics
than those from Sonoma, or the Rhone Valley, but the distance of
several football fields makes little or no difference at all. Some
wineries sell what's called block wine. In other words, they ferment
and bottle grapes from one plot and sell it as superior to another
nearby plot. According to Paul, it's a bunch of hogwash. If you're
growing your grapes well, then a few hundred yards, or a quarter mile
for that matter, makes no difference.

Of course, within that thought lives the simple notion that the grapes
need to be grown well. So what does that mean anyway? In the case of
Paul Bernier, less is more. "Wineries think the growers are magicians,
but I'm more of a shepherd; I just keep the wolves away," he said,
almost chuckling.

One of those wolves wears bacteria's clothing, and bacteria loves a
moist environment. To avoid the need for both fungicides and
herbicides, Paul uses a technique called dry farming. Every spring, he
tills the ground throughout the vineyards. This adds nutrients to the
soil by way of decaying weeds. It also creates a layer of mud that
quickly dries into what is called a dust mulch. The vines are not
irrigated. Instead they pull all the water they need from beneath the
ground. This environment is hostile for bacteria, so Paul saves money
on both spraying and watering. Instead of adding chemical nutrients to
the soil, he churns in composted grapes along with some oyster shells.
"It's what the plants want," he told me.

I found this YouTube video of Paul working the farm:

Well, it seems to be working. Dutcher Crossing is charging (and
getting, I'm sure) $39 a bottle for wine made from Paul's grapes. I
tasted it and it's delicious, yet it stands out in a valley full of
Zinfandels because Paul grows what is called a field blend.
Intermingled with his Zin are three other varieties: Petit Syrah,
Carignane, and Matero. He told me the percentage, but I wouldn't want
to give away too much of his secret, one he learned from an Italian
grape farmer of the old school. "Those guys knew how to live," he said
as we climbed through the vineyard. The different grape varieties grow
together, are picked together, and are fermented together. Their
combined taste is something of a signature.

But there's more.

Grape vines produce two fruitings a season. They are called the first
and second growths. The vineyards are only interested in the first
growth, believing the quality to be better. That leaves the second
growth as a sort of insurance policy. One that Paul usually turns into
his own wine. I asked if the quality were any different from growth to
growth. He asked me if I'd like a bottle of his wine and said, "You
can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

A writer loves when a farmer says that sort of thing.

So I drank Paul's wine with some wine connoisseur friends. These are
people who know more about wine than I ever hope to, and they loved
it. I loved it too. It tastes very much like Dutcher Crossing's
version, but slightly rougher. Rougher in the best of all possible
ways, too. It tastes as if there are berries the size of basketballs,
and prunes dried in desert sun, with enough cloves and anise to build
a gingerbread house. And dirt. The wine tastes like dirt. Dirt that
has been worked year after year with grape compost, oyster shells, and

It's inspiring to meet people like Paul Bernier. He removes the
pretension from what can be a pretty haughty subject and focuses on
what really matters. He pours in his love and stewardship of the land
to receive the best fruit he can grow. Then, he pours the wine of his
grapes at his dinner table. That's a guy who knows how to live.