A Farmer and His Dirt

The farmer wakes up by 4:30am, before the sun has creeped above the horizon and the birds are just beginning their morning reverie. He is efficient and knows his routine, indulging in a cappuccino and kissing his beautiful wife before heading out the door. Climbing into his truck, navigating down the winding mountain road, he has two hours of windshield time ahead to be lost in his thoughts. He makes his way north to visit two plots of land with varying types of dirt. A farmer is nothing without the soil and he’s been lucky to be a steward of the vines growing in these particular patches of dirt for close to 26 years. Each passing year is ephemera but the vines and the soil endure.

IMG_3172It was August of 1989 when he first walked among the vines that produce a wine called Geyserville. The vintage has been remembered as a much maligned year because there was rain during harvest, but being a good farmer he and his team picked before the rain. Having been planted in the 1880’s, the vineyard had already endured for a century without his help and he planned to keep it healthy for decades to come. The dirt under foot is gravelly loam, a fertile soil containing clay, sand, and organic matter called humus.

GY-dirtDeeper down, the water table begins between six to twelve feet in the Spring on this ancient river bed near the Russian River, dropping continuously lower throughout the summer. This is the western edge of Alexander Valley, perfect for grapevines, with plenty of water to help set the fruit and allow the roots to chase the water table as it lowers with the change of seasons. It’s rarely in need of irrigation, fortunate in an area prone to drought. Cover crops are planted between the rows of vines. Plants like triticale will increase the vigor of the old vines, fava beans and magnum peas add much needed nitrogen to the soil. There are also plants to attract beneficial insects, purple tansy, St Catherine’s lace, and wild carrots. All are collectively nurturing the soil, which nurtures the vines and therefore the grapes, leading to the wine that Ridge calls Geyserville. The farmer loves Geyserville and his mouth waters a little as Miles Davis plays on the truck radio. One more hour to go.

Later in the morning of that same August day in 1989, the farmer walked through a vineyard little more than a mile to the west where a wine called Lytton Springs is made. Having been planted in 1901, it’s the younger sibling of Geyserville but no one would call the vines young. Ancient gravelly clay, with a plasticity that holds water and minerals, dominates the flat lands of this vineyard site. The water table also sits between six to twelve feet, the benefit of having springs nearby. There are several rolling hills, some rising 50 feet, where gravelly clay loam is more dominant but the water table is lower than in the flats. When planting young vines to replace those that have died, the farmer knows he must wait for the dirt to be just right, the “Goldilock’s Moment”. When it’s too dry and dusty it’s difficult for microbes to break down the nutrients that encourage new root systems. If it’s too wet, it compacts and challenges the weak roots to take hold. He remembers a practical rule of thumb: if you’re making ruts with the tractor wheels, it’s too wet. Plant the vines at the right time in this soil and they’ll eventually produce full-flavored grapes to create a wine called Lytton Springs. His mouth waters again, renewing the internal debate of 26 years. Which wine do I like better, Geyserville or Lytton Springs? Fortunately he’s never had to choose.

davidgatesThe farmer pulls into the gravel lot, steps down from the truck, stretches towards the sky and takes a deep breath of the crisp April air. “Good morning, Dave” shouts a man standing among some gnarled grapevines along the road. David Gates, Vice-President of Vineyards for Ridge, offers a wave and a smile of genuine joy. He’s the steward of these plots of dirt, these classic vineyards of California, and he couldn’t be happier.

Dan Buckler
Regional Sales Manager

Categories: Vineyards

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