Robert Steinhauer – includes related articles – interview with vineyard manager

Robert Steinhauer – includes related articles – interview with vineyard manager – Interview

Larry Walker

When Vineyard Manager Robert Steinhauer came to Beringer in 1979, the winery owned or controlled about 2,000 acres of vines. Twenty years on that number has grown to more than 10,000 acres. That’s a far cry from his first vineyard experience and harvest back home in Fresno at his father’s raisin vineyard.

Steinhauer recalls that, like most high school kids, he had little interest in working. To encourage him, his parents promised him the profits from a small section of the vineyard. He was clearly a success from the beginning, since he bought his first car, a 1950 Chevrolet pickup, with the profits.

He went on to earn a degree in viticulture from Fresno State and took a job in 1965 with Schenley in Delano. The company owned a 5,000 acre vineyard there, making among many other products, Roma Wines. In 1968 he returned to Fresno State and took a masters’ in plant science. With added academic clout, he returned to Schenley as supervisor of the Delano property.

“Schenley sold the wine side of the business to Guild and an oil company bought the vineyards,” Steinhauer recalls, “so in 1971 I came to the North Coast and took a job with Andy Beckstoffer, who was still with Heublein. We supplied grapes mostly to Beaulieu and Inglenook. It was a great move for me because it did get me to the North Coast.”

Steinhauer was with Beckstoffer for eight years, before joining Beringer, where he also is ultimately responsible for grower relations, although he is quick to credit George Buonaccorsi with the day-to-day contact work that is so important. Beringer has contracts with about 500 growers. Between their own vineyard holdings and the growers, grapes are supplied for all Beringer wine products. He also credits two management companies – Dale Hampton of Farming Company and Jim Efird of Pacific Viticulture – for helping keep track of the Central Coast holdings in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

“One of the most difficult aspects of grower relations is to coordinate supply and demand.” Steinhauer said. “Long-term demand is a moving target. We need to know what grapes we will need a few years before we need them.”

Asked if market demands ever led to grapes being planted where perhaps it wasn’t appropriate to grow them, Steinhauer’s answer was an emphatic “no.”

“In 20 years with Beringer we have never planted a variety in the wrong place, just because we need it for the market. We may have planted in the wrong place for other reasons,” he grinned, “but not for market demands. When you are in long-term with quality wines, you can’t do that.”

Earlier this year, Beringer signed 30-year lease agreements to develop 750 acres of vineyards in the Carneros region. The Grace-Benoist Ranch has 600 acres of plantable land in both the Carneros and Sonoma Valley appellations. Beringer will plant Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah there next spring. Soils include Hare clay loam, Kidd stony loam, Tuscan cobbly clay loam and a series of Laniger soils. All are shallow with low vigor.

In Napa, there is a 150-acre property less than a mile from San Pablo Bay. Like the Grace-Benoist land, it has never been planted. Currently, the plan is to plant it entirely with Pinot noir. Soils are Hare clay loam and Clear Lake clay.

How was the decision made regarding varietals for planting in the vineyards?

“Obviously, there are a lot of variables,” Steinhauer said. “The soil types, the elevation and slope. We had to look at the total picture of the terroir. Twenty years ago I probably would not have thought of planting Syrah or Merlot in Carneros. They will go into a higher elevation part of the vineyard and will be on a slope with some wind protection, planted on rocky loams from 24 to 40 inches deep. We have found that Merlot does well on a wide variety of sites.”

How important was clonal selection?

“We have tasted clones from all over, including Oregon. We will be using 114, 115, 113, 677 and 777, plus 13, the old Martini clone and 5, called the Pommard clone. We’re also looking at clone 459, a new clone from Burgundy. Our thought is to have a greater clonal diversity for blending purposes. We are very high on 115, by the way. We will also be planting on a variety of rootstocks – 3309, 5C, 101-14, 1103, SO4, 1044-33, which is good in high magnesium soils. The 3309 is especially good in fertile soils as it holds down vigor; 1103 is drought tolerant We will be trying, of course, to match rootstocks and soils. Also, as long as I’m around, we will never again have a mono culture rootstock,” he added.

For Chardonnay, Beringer is planting Burgundian clones 76,96 and 95 and clone 4, the Davis heat-treated clone. For Merlot, clone 3, which is the clone from their Bancroft vineyard and clone 181 which Steinhauer said was fairly new in California. The Syrah will be taken from the old Estrella River clone, now Meridian Vineyards, owned by Beringer.

Vine density will vary from site to site within the vineyard, Steinhauer said, although basic spacing will be about 5 feet by 7 feet, which works out to 1,245 vines per acre. Vines will be on a vertical trellis

On the issue of crop level, Steinhauer said that he did not consider lower crop level a guarantee of quality. “It isn’t a pure equation. It’s very site specific. Our winemakers like high sugars, so to some extent, we have to curtail yield to get the sugars up. My aim is to have about five shoots per linear foot of vine,” he said.

“But no vineyard is off-the-rack. They are all made to order, based on site, soils and all the other variables we have discussed,” he concluded.

The 7-foot row spacing is necessary in the event of mechanical harvesting, Steinhauer said. “We have to keep an eye on the labor situation,” he said. “I prefer to hand-harvest Pinot noir, Syrah and Merlot, but we have been successful with machine harvesting Chardonnay on the Central Coast and we do all the Knight’s Valley Cabernet by machine.” Steinhauer said he uses a Braud or VinStar pull-type harvester.

Beringer is also pre-pruning. “Pruning is a major labor consideration, since it takes one person about an hour to prune 25 to 30 vines. With pre-pruning by machine, we can speed that up.”

Steinhauer is using metal vineyard stakes with an eye on eventual organic certification. “They won’t certify organic with treated wood,” he said. The organic issue has also influenced a decision on whether to go underground with drip irrigation lines. “We haven’t decided yet for sure, but the drip lines have a built-in herbicide around the emitters to discourage weeds. If we put them underground, we can’t go organic.”

Right now, the only non-organic practice for most Beringer vineyards is the use of Roundup for weed control. And, with very few exceptions such as morning glory, Steinhauer admitted that weed control was largely a matter of cosmetics.

“But I know that the future is organic. Our long-term goal is to go completely organic. In general, we are learning to be more sensitive to the environment,” he said. “Not just viticulture but agriculture is running into conflicts with the urban population.”

New Beringer vineyards are planned with a 100-foot buffer zone between the vineyards and any houses, including roads. Vineyards are being planted with riparian corridors to protect native plants and deer fencing arranged to allow deer to move easily outside the vineyard. “When we develop a vineyard now, we do not cut any oak trees. We farm around them,” Steinhauer added.

Cover crops are also being used for weed control and predator habitat. “We use rye and rescue. They don’t compete with the vine for water because they go dormant just as the vine begins to need water,” Steinhauer said.

Steinhauer has not set a timetable for going organic. “It isn’t just a sales or marketing goal,” he said. “It’s something that must be done, for worker safety, consumer concern and to get along with our neighbors.”

Vines in a Tube

It seems that virtually every new vineyard these days is planted with the vines in grow tubes. Bob Steinhauer at Beringer Vineyards has a generally positive position on the tubes.

“We got into them at Chateau Souverain when we noticed that the wild turkeys were eating the young vines,” he said. “We tried them out and it did discourage the turkeys. But it also just gets the vine off for better growth. The microclimate inside the tube acts like a hot house, speeding up the growth.”

Grow tubes were first used in forestry, to protect young trees and give them a head start, so it isn’t surprising they have the same effect on vines.

“There is also less labor involved when you use the tubes,” he said. “We use them for two years, to save the costs of lying the vines.” Steinhauer said the tubes also provide wind protection and protect the vines from Roundup, should that have to be used.

On the downside, he said the tubes can create a high humidity situation which can lead to leaf Botrytis in some cases. “Some have said the inside of the tube gets too hot and damages the vine, but I’ve seen no evidence of that.”


How Beringer Finds New Growers

George Buonaccorsi, who reports to Beringer Vineyard manager Bob Steinhauer, said that when looking for a new grower, he bases his evaluation about one-half on the quality of the vineyard and one-half on the grower’s altitude. “A grower can have the best vineyard in the world, but we’re not going to get the results we want without a commitment to optimal maturities. Mother Nature can throw a curve boll at any time, and the growers have to know how to respond. But they also know we’ll stand by them and be fair.”

Buonaccorsi said he was very particular about the location of the vineyards, looking for the right climate and soils for the varieties planted. “We prefer grapes from coastal areas because we feel the maritime -influenced climate allows for both ripeness and balancing acidity in the grapes,” he said recently.

“When I identify potential new growers, I like to take wine samples from their previous harvest to our winemaking staff for evaluation. The ideal is to obtain separate-lot barrel samples from a winery they’ve supplied in the post. And growers often make wine for themselves from their own grapes. Frankly, it’s not always great wine, and I’m amazed at Ed’s (winemaker Ed Sbragia) ability to see through that to judge the intensity of fruit flavors, the color and the potential of the grapes.”

Once the grower has been selected, Beringer enters into a purchasing contract, if it is a mature vineyard, or a planting contract for new vineyards. With a planting contract, the winery can make suggestions about clone selection, row orientation, trellising, every detail of the vineyard. Under either contract the winery has a continuous monitoring role. “We’re out there during pruning, at the start of budbreak, at the end of bloom and start of fruit set, near veraison, when we can get a sense of what the yield will be, and of course we are there during harvest when we are constantly walking the vineyards.”

Buonaccorsi said the Beringer winemaking staff makes vineyard lots for each grower and growers are welcome to come by and taste the wines as they evolve. There is also an annual growers dinner, when all the growers’ wines are served.


The Proof in the Bottle

It isn’t often that a writer gets the opportunity to taste wines from a specific vineyard with the vineyard manager. After walking the vineyards with Beringer Vineyard Manager Bob Steinhauer, we headed back to the Rhine House at Beringer headquarters in St. Helena to check out how the grapes translated into wine.

We tasted red wines from Knights Valley, Bancroft, Chabot and Tre Colline. The last three are components of the Beringer private reserve Cabernet.

Beringer developed Knights Valley in Sonoma County in the 1970s, with the first wine from there in 1976. The soil is rough and gravely, alluvial, with low nutrition. The crop load averages about three tons an acre. It produces very concentrated fruit. The wines often have a long, tight finish but develop faster and are generally released a year earlier than other Cabernet bottlings. Beringer makes an Alluvium red table wine, which is mostly Merlot, and a Cabernet Sauvignon from there as well an Alluvium Blanc table wine.

Bancroft Ranch and Tre Colline (three hills) vineyards are both on Howell Mountain at an altitude of about 1,700 feet, which is above the fog line. The average temperature for the vineyards is about 3 to 5 degrees cooler than the valley floor, because of the elevation, but they do get more sunshine.

There is, however, a major difference in soils. Bancroft Ranch has gritty white volcanic tuff. It is shallow, infertile and very well-drained. The vines produce small, very intense fruit, powerful and concentrated. The Tre Colline soils are also volcanic but are red. The Cabernet from Tre Colline tends to be very dense and slightly earthy with black and red berry flavors.

The Chabot vineyard is east of the Silverado Trail. There is an underlying layer of pumice and bedrock. Wines are inky and deeply flavored, very distinctive perhaps because of the soils. The Chabot Cabernet was the first that Winemaker Ed Sbragia bottled as a private reserved in 1977.


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