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A Tale of Two Growers

By: Mark Kaufman


One has been raised in the soils of Sonoma, planting and managing over 700 acres of organic vineyards throughout the region since the 1970's. The other has been managing the renown Bien Nacido vineyards near Santa Maria for over 18 years. Each of them have their own wineries which complement their grape growing expertise. How do their experiences vary, and how does climate and soil, the ‘terroir' as the French call it, show its hand both in the vineyard and in the bottle? How do they both deal with Mother Nature’s surprises as well as the issues and expectations of multiple winemakers? It may seem that they each have an impossible task, but these two have become renown both for their stewardship in the vineyard as well as their ability to work with demanding winemakers, including the pressures of harvest.


Phil Coturri Phil Coturri is a treasured Sonoma icon. Growing up on his parents' property on Sonoma Mountain, he gravitated to grape growing after being challenged by Myron Freiberg to "grow grapes like you grow your garden". That was in 1979. From that challenge, Phil stopped using chemical fertilizers and has managed grapes organically ever since. Phil's company Enterprise Vineyard, where he is CEO, manages grapes for several wineries including Repris, Mayacamas, and Kamen. His philosophy boils down to, “less in the vine, more in the glass.” When asked how he deals with his clients' different demands in the vineyard, he used a tomato metaphor to illustrate: "You may want the first summer tomato - when you bite into it, it has that bright acidity that crunches when you eat it. Or perhaps you prefer a September autumn tomato - that when you bite into it, it’s soft and it drips. They are both ripe.

Is one better than the other? That all depends on what you want.”

Phil is the vineyard manager, and considers the winemaker to be the ultimate boss. He gets the grapes to the point of the bright ripeness that’s wanted by each winemaker, then makes sure the whole vineyard is consistent. As he sees it, his job is to create uniformity out of chaos. He does that by keeping the vines in balance, whether it’s carrying two pounds or five pounds, depending on the individual block. He doesn’t prune by numbers, but by visualization. He says, “There are rules, but rules can be broken: you apply them as needed to attain the right balance.” One may think of Phil Coturri as Sonoma’s vineyard whisperer.

Chris Hammell Chris Hammell has been working in the cooler central coast vineyards for the last twenty-five years, having worked at Cambria and David Bruce wineries before coming to Bien Nacido in 2000. There he manages 700 acres, providing grapes for over fifty clients. During the harvest season, he deals with 690 separate picks, ranging from a half ton to forty-eight tons. Counter intuitively, the smaller the client, the more finicky they can be. Under Chris's domain, Bien Nacido Winery, the owner of the Bien Nacido and Soloman Hills Vineyards, both make wine and sell a decent amount of fruit at a good margins. Bien Nacido is certified sustainable as its foundation. About 10% is organic, but not certified. That’s because they need to treat the water, via irrigation, with sulfuric acid to lower the pH in the vineyard. Although the Bien Nacido is a difficult beast to manage, Chris is counted on to know how the various varietals perform within the multiple blocks in the vineyards. His main job is to "farm for other people and tailor to the winery as much as possible”.

Chris and Phil grow Rhône varietals, both for their clients and their own labels. The 1990's brought a big influx of Syrah grape planting in California, although Grenache has always had a foothold, typically found in field blend/mixed block vineyards. But Syrah opened the door to the Rhône varietals, where it’s dominant in the Northern Rhône and typically blended with Grenache and others in the Southern Rhône, Syrah is a chameleon…it grows well in both hot and cool climates. It adapts to its environment as long as you reduce the fruit on the vine. Without thinning, Syrah can produce five to eight tons an acre, with a corresponding reduction in quality. Syrah was first grafted in 1986 for Bob Lindquist of Qupe and, once its high scoring wines were noticed, Syrah spread throughout the central coast. In 2002 Grenache followed suit and has been a mainstay at Bien Nacido ever since. In the cool Central Coast climate, Syrah is one of the last grapes to be picked. In the warmer Sonoma area, the volcanic soils embed a different minerality from Bien Nacido. In Sonoma, the grapes can hang unpicked well into November, allowing them to come into balance, to “complete their marathon of ripeness”. In the loam and sandy soils found in Bien Nacido, wines impart an aromatic character unique to it appellation. Both vineyard gurus see their wines as expressive of where the vines grow. Neither would want their wines to taste like the other’s, as each wine reflects its own appellation. The beauty of wine is that, if it is grown and made properly, it will express a sense of place, its ‘terroir'. There’s a different intensity between the two AVAs (American Viticultural Area). The growing season is more truncated in Bien Nacido, with a cooler, more arid climate. When it comes to Rhône varietals there, the wines are bigger, more “in your face,” expressive of its limestone and sandy soils. In Sonoma, with its lush canyons, hotter weather and longer growing season, there’s more time for a steady ripening of the Rhône grapes, bringing the sugars and acidity into balance on the vine. In Sonoma, one can say the wine is made in the vineyard, whereas in Santa Maria, there’s more room for the tools of the winemaker to enhance the final product during the wine making process.

To see the differences for yourself, you can find wines at both wineries as follows: Chris’ The Hammell Alliance wines are available through his winery: http://www.hammellwinealliance.com/

Phil’s Sixteen 600 wines are available at his Sonoma winery on 1st Street in Sonoma or his website: http://winerysixteen600.com


Michele Thomas Photography

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