In the Beginning
The story of Cara Mia Vineyard began in 1997, before Cadence was founded and even before Gaye and I were married. Through my home winemaking experiments and our extensive tasting of Washington red wines we knew that Red Mountain was one of the ideal viticultural areas in the state. Our travels across Washington often led up Sunset Road on Red Mountain, and we were surprised one day to see a For Sale sign in the middle of a large expanse of sagebrush and tumbleweed.
On a whim we called the owners, and were soon immersed in negotiations for 16 acres of property. Ultimately we purchased 10.5 acres in the summer of 1997. It did not have water rights. We applied, but knew the process was extraordinarily lengthy, so soon moved on to other phases of our life like house purchases, starting a winery, marriage, house remodels and child (mainly in that order). Cara McNutt Smith was born on September 9th 2001, and naming the vineyard became an easy decision.
In the fall of 2003 Larry Pearson, the owner of Tapteil Vineyard, called us with startling news. Larry determined that he owned the water rights to our property, and was willing to transfer them to us. The sheer coincidence still amazes me; Larry is the owner of our favorite vineyard and the first vineyard we approached upon starting Cadence. That he owned the rights and was able to transfer them to us is fortuitous beyond belief.
We had water and land, but no way to plant a vineyard. It was simply impossible for us to accomplish from the west side of the Cascades, 218 miles away. With another stroke of great fortune, Ryan Johnson entered the scene. Ryan manages Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain. Jim Holmes owns Ciel du Cheval and is one of the great innovators in Washington viticulture. In the short time Ryan has been with Ciel he has absorbed all that Jim has to teach. The two men agreed to allow us to use their workers, equipment and knowledge to plant and manage our own vineyard. Full scale planning could now commence.
Digging For Gold, Or At Least Unusual Soil
We began the preparation by clearing the brush from the property and very gently graded the steepest sections of the site. We then surveyed the site and produced a contour map detailed to two foot contour intervals. The topography was now set; next came the geology. 31 pits were dug at regular intervals throughout the vineyard to a depth of 8 feet.
A geologist reported the material and chemical composition of the strata in each pit. I assembled a detailed soil map from this data.
And we knew we struck gold.
Washington State University geologists confirmed that we have perhaps the most unique and varied soil profiles of any vineyard site on Red Mountain. There are three major soil types in the vineyard, deep cobblestone soils, clay, and fractured basalt sandy loams. Two of these soils, cobblestones and clay, have not been uncovered in any other Red Mountain vineyard sites. The physical makeup of the cobbles and clay are very similar to the Pomerol and St. Emilion plateau in Bordeaux.
Of critical importance was determining the boundaries of each irrigation block so as to ensure uniform water retention characteristics within each block. Similarly watering clay soils and well drained cobbles would be to alternately stress and over water adjacent vines, leading to non-uniform growth and ripeness.
What Does All That Dirt Do?
After the soil maps were completed and irrigation blocks determined we needed to match grape to dirt. We knew the baseline choices: all Bordeaux; the relative quantities of each varietal: 40% Cabernet Franc, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot, but there were still many decisions to be made in order to make the most of the theoretical wines we imagined the vineyard could produce.In our research we ran across these quotes from the great California winemaker and grower David Ramey. David wrote: “You may know that Merlot does better on clay soil and Cabernet on gravel, and if one has planted correctly it can be very difficult, even impossible, to distinguish wines made from the two grapes.”
“Those of us who grow grapes and make wine are a little hesitant to attribute a direct chemical pathway from dirt to the bottle. It’s more that the particular minerals in the soil, or their absence, affects the vine, which in turn affects the grape and thus the wine. Rhyolitic soil (volcanic tufa) can be low in phosphorus, for example, which results in red leaves, which delays maturity. The way I think of soil effects is based more on soil texture and the consequent water holding capacity. Clay soil retains water and stays cold longer in spring, thus delaying bud break–just the thing for Merlot. Gravelly soil drains well and warms up early, thus advancing bud break–just right for Cabernet. In addition, anecdotes from my French experience lead me to feel that clay soil gives wine “strength”–color and tannin–while gravelly soil gives wine elegance. Once again, then, you would benefit from planting Merlot on clay and Cabernet on gravel. Sandy soils may be full of minerals, but they make light wines. Deep loamy soils have a lot of potential vigor, and so produce big vines with lots of leaves and crop–and consequently lower quality wines. It’s these considerations of soil texture, morphology, water holding capacity and organic content that I see reflected in wines, rather than specific chemicals.”
Red Mountain Cabernet Franc, by nature aromatic and powerful, seemed to benefit most from cobbly soils. Merlot was a natural for clay soils, as in Pomerol. We planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in the steeper sections of the vineyard to promote full ripeness.
Planning the State of the Art
Once the varietals were matched to soil and the relative percentages of each varietal established we had to choose from the new grapevine clonal selections from Bordeaux, as they represent new and exciting potential compared to the standard plant material used in Washington for the past 40 years. We chose to plant the standard Washington clones, Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 8, Merlot Clone 4, and Cabernet Franc Clone 1 as a baseline for comparison. Two thirds of each varietal was dedicated to new ENTAV clones, Cabernet Sauvignon 191 and 169, Cabernet Franc 214 and 337, and Merlot 348 and 181. These new clones have proven to be among the finest selections currently available. The vines were also planted on their own roots instead of rootstock. This is an advantage that Washington enjoys over the rest of the world, as there is no phylloxera pressure to drive the use of rootstock.There is nothing between the soil and the clusters to detract from purity of flavor. The next decisions revolved around the physical layout of the vineyard – the trellis and training systems. We again decided to follow Jim Holmes’ lead and forgo convention by opting for very high in-row vine density, double Guyot training with vertical shoot positioning, and 11 degree off-axis row orientation.
The vineyard was laid out with 3 feet between vines and eight foot row spacing. The high density allows very low yields per plant (only 8 to 12 clusters in full production) to increase wine intensity and concentration.Guyot vertical training provides renewal canes in the event of freeze damage, ensures a compact and uniform fruiting zone, and minimizes canopy shading and vigor. The unusual row orientation counteracts potential uneven ripening from one side of the row to the other, a phenomena frequently encountered in hot years. The row shift angling east equalizes the amount of sun exposure to each side of the row in the critical late season ripening phase, promoting uniform sugar levels throughout the vineyard.
2004 – Year One Planting
Planting commenced in late April, 2004. The last vine went into the ground on July 1st that year. It was a hot summer, and Ryan had to continually pour water on the thirsty young vines to prevent their drying out. Growth in the first year was spectacular. By fall the vines were well established. In October Ryan watered the vineyard to field capacity, and then shut the well down for winter. The water helped the vines go dormant in preparation for a winter’s sleep. The crew then buried to vines to protect against winter freeze.
2005 – Year Two Pruning
The winter of 2004/2005 brought a hard freeze that, fortunately, did no damage to Cara Mia Vineyard. We again began to irrigate early in order to promote the vigor necessary to set up the vines for 2006. The vines were pruned back to two main canes. Each was allowed to reach the newly installed fruiting wire, whereupon the weaker shoot was removed and the strong shoot topped at the wire.
Lateral shoots formed, which were to become the 2006 fruiting canes.No herbicides have been used at all. Instead, we have opted to hand hoe the vineyard. Each hoeing pass through the vineyard requires about 100 worker hours, and in 2005 three passes were required.
The 2005 growing season went very smoothly, with about 60% to 75% of the vines developing the lateral shoots necessary to fill their three foot section of fruiting wire. The vineyard was again buried in November to protect it from winter freeze.
2006 – Year Three, Preparing For Harvest
The vineyard made it through the winter unscathed. Vines were dug up in March. Pruning took two days in late March. The vine pictured to the right is ideal; two heavy canes that fill up 36 inches of trellis wire. From each node on both canes will grow the fruiting shoots of 2006. As of April 1st, we have begun to see bud swell, meaning that the real growing season is fast approaching!Our goals for the year are twofold – continue strong plant and root structure development, and harvest a small but extremely high quality crop. The yields will be no greater than one cluster per shoot and no more than six clusters per plant. Depending on the cluster and berry weights, this will net about 1.5 tons of fruit per acre.
April through June – The Yearly Rebirth
April brought budbreak throughout the vineyard. It was a joy to see the emergence of green everywhere. Budbreak started in the Cabernet Franc, spread through the Cab Sauv and finished about two weeks later in Merlot and Petit Verdot. In the third week of April we hit a cold spell at around 32 degrees, but fortunately there was no bud damage. Only a couple weeks later the temperatures soared into the 90’s, and shoot growth was furious. During this time the new clusters formed, and they are huge and relatively abundant. Consistent rainfall spurred shoot growth but created a little anxiety around another important milestone, flowering.Perfect flowering conditions are still, dry, warm days that allow the flowers to set, pollinate and develop berries quickly and evenly. Disturbing this sequence lengthens the time between the first and last berry set, therefore reducing the evenness of ripening at the end of the season. As happens frequently, the weather didn’t cooperate at flowering. The last week of May and the first two weeks of June were windy, cool, and rainy. Flowering and set did indeed stretch out to about two weeks in total. My assessment as of Tuesday June 19th is that we didn’t really fair too poorly, and that the berries are pretty uniform. The next real test of berry uniformity will be the swiftness and compactness of verasion (the color change from green to purple) in August.
Early June also brought copious rainfall – over three inches! There was obviously no need to turn on the irrigation system. The rain had predictable consequences. I tracked mud everywhere. More importantly, the vines kept growing. There is surprising vigor in Cara Mia’s young vines! As expected, the water-retaining clay soils are more vigorous than the cobbles. What to do?
Balance, Cluster Counts and Vigor, Oh My
Aside from the basic care and feeding necessary to maintain vine health, the most important decisions made in an established vineyard are these: How much canopy vigor do I allow? How much fruit do I try to ripen? These questions are the subject of eternal debate. There is no single correct answer, for an industrial vineyard destined for $12 per bottle wine does not need to perform as well as a vineyard hallmarked for uncompromising reserve level wine.There is a delicate, unique, and near magic dance between the canopy and the fruit. Too much canopy ripens fruit too quickly, with too much sugar and not enough flavor development. Too little canopy for a given fruit load forces the vine to struggle to ripen the grapes, and once again flavor suffers. This is the balance in a vineyard, and it is our job to regulate the dance’s cadence.
In practice this year the canopy has been set with less human influence than normal. I have to determine the vineyard yields, which means determining the number of clusters to leave on each vine, in hopes that the vineyard achieves proper balance and perfect fruit maturity.
The Play by Play
Here are the decisions Ryan and I reached: In all vineyard blocks the crew will leave no clusters on shoots less than 12 inches long, no more than one cluster on shoots between 12 “ and 36 “, and no more than two clusters (the new clone Cab Sauvs throw three clusters per shoot!) on shoots over 36”. This plan should yield about 12 to 15 clusters per vine, or about two tons per acre, depending on the weight of the clusters. It will be at least six weeks before I will be able to predict the final cluster weights, and at that time we may make another thinning pass.
July though early August Yield Estimates
After the crew performed the requested crop thinning pass in early July I went back to do cluster counts and weights. Unfortunately I picked a 105 degree day to spend stripping 10 vines per block of their fruit (100 vines in total). Over eight hours and 1 ½ gallons of consumed water later I had a pretty good idea of the overall state of the vineyard. We’re hanging more fruit than I expected. But then there is a stronger canopy than I expected, too. Throw in the fact that it is a hot year and potentially a resulting early harvest means that I’ll let most of the fruit hang. According to my estimates no block is hanging more than 2.9 tons per acre.What to do? Experiment! We’re gonna see if there really is any truth to extremely low yields and wine intensity. I picked the upper Cabernet Franc block to split in two. ½ will be left at 2.9 tpa, and the other was pruned 50% – half the clusters were removed. The fruit will be picked and vinified separately to determine the impact of yield on wine quality. It isn’t perfectly scientific, but a good start that if repeated yearly will certainly establish trends.
My latest trip was yesterday, August 8th. What a surprise! There’s purple in that vineyard! Lots and lots in the new clonal Merlot! Yes, the 348 and 181 Merlot verasion is about 70% complete. The other Merlot is about 60%, as is the Cabernet Sauvignon 169. The rest of the Cabernet Sauvignon is just starting, and the Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are blissfully green. I’m now going to guess that the Merlot harvest will start around September 5th. Will I be ready? How will it taste? Stay tuned!