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Beringer plants a ‘good neighbor’ vineyard

Beringer plants a ‘good neighbor’ vineyard

Larry Walker

Larry Walker visits Benoist Vineyard in Carneros and comes away impressed by Beringer’s commitment to sustainability.

When Beringer Vineyards took a long-term lease on a 1,353-acre parcel in Sonoma Carneros in 1999, Vineyard Manager Robert Steinhauer knew it was going to take some special planning to convert the former dairy ranch to vineyards. The land has been in the Benoist (been-wah) family for over a century. Until the past few decades, it had been in open country at the northern edge of the Carneros American Viticulture Area (AVA), bordering Felder Creek. Now, there are three retirement communities as well as other private homes around the land.

“I knew we would have to keep the neighbors happy,” Steinhauer said. “There are a lot of negative feelings about new vineyards being planted. It’s one of the most critical issues facing the industry,” he added, as we began a tour of the newly-planted 526 acres of vines with Scott Bauer, director of Sonoma Valley Vineyards for Beringer Blass.

Steinhauer has said that the vineyard is a very personal project, representing not just how to grow grapes but how to plant and maintain a sustainable vineyard in a fairly densely populated suburban setting.

“We consider this vineyard sustainable from three points of view,” he said. “First, it is sustainable in an environmental sense; second, it is sustainable in context of the community around it; and third, it is sustainable economically. If the vineyard doesn’t make money, it isn’t sustainable.”

Why would Beringer Blass Wine Estates (to give the company its official title) even want to plant a vineyard where they could be sure of getting flack from the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) folks?

“For years we have been getting grapes from the Durrell and Sangiacomo vineyards, and Benoist is in between them,” Steinhauer said.

Another factor was that Steinhauer and the Beringer Blass winemaking team, headed by Ed Sbragia, believe it is an ideal place to make great Pinot noir because of the combination of soils and climate.

As Steinhauer puts it, “I’m either a genius or crazy on the future of Pinot noir in California.”

Being a fan of Pinot noir in general and (recently, anyway) California Pinot noir in particular, I think the genius tag fits better. Of the 526 acres planted, 327 acres are in Pinot noir, with 116 acres of Chardonnay, 66 acres of Merlot and 17 acres of Syrah. Spacing is mostly 5 feet by 7 feet with vertical shoot positioning used throughout.

But before a single vine went in the ground, Steinhauer and his vineyard team put into place a planning program that could be the model for “good neighbor” viticulture.

To maintain natural habitat (environmental sustainability), they worked with the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) to protect all streams and wetlands on the property. Vineyards are set back from 25 to 300 feet, even from seasonal wetlands. Bridges were built to handle vineyard traffic and pipes were built over the creeks, rather than running through them.

A wildlife biologist did a complete report, identifying local ecosystems and any endangered species. Wildlife and riparian corridors were left open to allow deer, mountain lions and other wildlife access to streams and the freedom to pass completely through the property. As Steinhauer puts it, “We fenced the vines in rather than fencing the wildlife out.” According to DFG follow-up studies, these corridors are getting heavy use by deer and other critters.

There are hundreds of oak trees on the property, and only three were taken out-they were diseased. They either planted around the oaks or created clusters of oaks separated from the vineyards and accessible to wildlife through habitat corridors.

California native grasses are planted as permanent sod between vineyard rows, which encourages beneficial insects as part of an integrated pest management program (IPM). Leaf hoppers and mites are controlled with an organic soap.

When asked if there had been any thought of moving to a certified organic position, Steinhauer said the possibility was under discussion. “Now, the only thing we use that isn’t organic is Roundup for weed control, and that breaks down quickly, leaving no toxic residue,” he said.

All of these moves were not only important from an environmental perspective, but it demonstrated to the neighbors that Beringer was committed to preserving the rural character of the community. In the end, the acres planted are less than half of the total acreage; of course, much of that was not plantable anyway, but still, considerable acreage that could have been planted was set aside.

One example is the 100-foot buffer zones between the vineyard and other property lines. Scott Bauer estimates that at least 11 acres of plantable vineyards were lost by that decision alone.

Beringer also abandoned a road that had run along the edge of the property and built the main vineyard road through the center of the vineyard, taking more acreage out of production. That road is also surfaced to keep down dust.

Because there isn’t enough water for sprinkler frost protection, 14 wind machines were installed in areas of the parcel most susceptible to frost. Those machines were muffled to cut back on noise. All of the water pumps are electric for quieter operation.

“Even with the muffling, the wind machines get some complaints,” Steinhauer said. “But we keep it to a minimum. This is not an area subject to much frost danger anyway,” he added.

A hydrologist was brought in to source the sites for five wells, used for drip irrigation, and all drilled well away from neighboring wells. The drip system is set up so that a single row of vines can be irrigated or a 9-acre block, as needed.

“Our irrigation schedule depends on the soils, rootstock and clonal selection,” Steinhauer said.

Being able to micro-manage irrigation is consistent to Steinhauer’s approach with Benoist. He likes to say, “When we designed this vineyard, we saw it as 100 6-acre vineyards, rather than one 600-acre vineyard, and all of our decisions were made with this in mind.”

The familiar and factory-inspired grid layout was not even considered at Benoist. The vineyard was planted to take into account not only climate difference, but soil types, which range from dense loam to clay, to pebbly red sand. Vineyard blocks range from one-half acre to 28 acres. There are 53 blocks altogether. If I’ve done my math right that would mean the average block size is just under 10 acres. Of the 53 blocks, 29 are planted to Pinot noir.

Steinhauer said that each block of Pinot noir will be kept separate at all of the wineries involved in the Beringer Blass group–Beringer, Chateau St. Jean and Souverain.

“Our goal is to give the winemakers involved a wide variety of flavor profiles to blend,” Steinhauer said. The winemakers were included in the planning process and Steinhauer said they have already identified certain vineyard blocks they would like to work with.

The potential blend goes beyond soil and climate. For example, there are 28 different clones and seven different rootstocks for Pinot noir. There are 11 Chardonnay clones, four Merlot clones and three Syrah clones. (Stags’ Leap Winery–owned by Beringer Blass–Winemaker Robert Britton is consulting on the Syrah plantings.)

“I think one problem California has had with Pinot noir in the past is that we tried to make it from sparkling wine clones,” Steinhauer said. None of the clones we are using would make a good sparkling wine. “We have mostly Burgundy clones, what they call the ‘drooping’ clones, which they believe in Burgundy are the best. The upright clones are what we used to call Gamay Beaujolais in California.”

As another example of Beringer’s serious Pinot noir mission, Scott Bauer has replanted 18 acres of Petite Etoile, the famed Sauvignon blanc vineyard from which St. Jean made a vineyard designated Fume blanc, to Pinot noir. Bauer said the Russian River AVA vineyard was planted in two parts, last year and this year, and is on a single clone, 115.

So, bottom line time. How much did the good neighbor policy and the environmentally sustainable policy add to the cost of vineyard development?

Steinhauer said development costs are expected to be about $20,000 an acre for four years, not including lease costs or other non-farming costs. Of that, he said about $2,000 can be accounted for by neighbor-friendly farming.

And that doesn’t include land lost to vineyard development, such as the setbacks, wildlife habitat corridors and wetlands preservation.

Steinhauer agreed that in costing out vineyard development, such expenses would become increasingly common as part of the cost of farming.

“Working with the neighbors is an evolving process,” Steinhauer said. “As I said, there is a lot of negativity about vineyards, but we have to recognize that we will have more and more neighbors as time goes on. We have to learn to work with them.”

And that’s the real bottom line for 21st century viticulture.

Tree A Symbol For Vineyard

The icon for Beringer’s Benoist vineyard is a huge California Laurel (umbellalaria californica) said to be the largest on record, pending verification by the California Department of Forestry. At shoulder level, the tree measures 60 feet around. The canopy circumference is 171 feet and the estimated age of the tree is about 200 years.

The tree is a few yards from Rogers Creek, in the middle of the vineyard, near a picnic area used by vineyard workers.

Bob Steinhauer said, “Nobody is going to touch that tree. We don’t even park under it.”

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