A little background: Several years ago our beautiful Chardonnay vineyard began showing the symptoms of Pierce’s Disease, which is incurable. Our only option was to replant. It was a sad realization, but we also recognized crisis as opportunity. The vineyard was originally planted in the 70s and 20-plus years is a long time in a young wine-producing region like Napa Valley. The learning curve is steep and many of our ideas had changed over the years. In its way, having to replant gave us a chance to use what we’d learned. Please click here for information on how Piece’s Disease is contracted.
Q: Once you became aware that the Chardonnay had Pierce’s Disease, how much time did that leave you to plan on what to do?
Geoff: We first noticed the symptoms in the late 80s and started replacing sick vines one by one. Eventually the vineyard was over 50% replanted and even though the wine was wonderful, it was a really difficult situation because of uneven ripening at harvest with the mix of young and old vines. Plus we had old-fashioned spacing and trellising. We knew it was time to start over. But that gave us lots of time to think about replanting and to plan. We finally replanted in 2003.
Q: What’s the first step?
Geoff: Since so many years had gone by we thought it would be a good idea to take a really hard look at the property, so we hired a couple of the most respected viticultural consultants in the valley. They dug sample pits in different parts of the property to check the soil depth and composition, re-measured the meso-climate and we put our heads together to determine what to plant and where.
Q: Say you had to start from scratch and buy land. What does an acre on the Napa Valley floor run these days?
Geoff: Without a home site about $200,000/acre or unplanted, $150,000. Location and parcel size can make a significant difference.
Q: Why did you decide to go with the Cabernet family rather than planting Chardonnay again?
Geoff: When we took a look at the terroir it really called for the Bordeaux varieties. Of course, now we’ve got 11 different sections on 9.3 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Q: How did you get rid of the old vineyard?
Geoff: We hired a guy with a Caterpillar D-8 with a big fork on it to rip out the vines and shove them into a pile. Then we burned it all and hauled all the wires to a recycling plant.
Q: Do you need to do anything to the soil before you replant?
Geoff: Our analysis indicated that we needed to raise the pH, so we added some lime and then we hired another Caterpillar to rip down about 6 feet into the soil. That’s done to loosen compaction due to gravity and heavy machinery driving over it all those years and to try to get out most of the roots. Then they disked and smoothed the soil and we started pulling out rocks. We could probably have filled about 4 swimming pools with all the rocks we removed and it’s still rocky!
Q: Can you briefly explain why we can’t grow the vines on their own roots?
Geoff: World-wide, in most places you can’t grow wine grapes on their own roots because of lack of resistance to soil pests like phylloxera, so we graft the varietal onto resistant rootstock. Also, if you match the rootstock hybrid and the clone of the variety to the soil conditions, fruit quality can really go up.
Q: There are some differences in spacing, rootstock hybrid and clone out there for the Cabernet and Merlot. How did you decide what to do?
Geoff: We went back to our soil samples and even on our small site there’s quite a bit of variability, which is why we have the 11 blocks. You’ll find nice, loamy soil, very rocky soil and some in between. We also have a low spot where part of the Napa River used to run through. I don’t know if you’d say we have 11 specific terroirs, but we have lots of different soils and now that the vineyard is productive I can see that making those delineations is paying off. They’re doing really well.
Q: How do you decide on row orientation? You see everything in this valley.
Geoff: The hills that form the valley run pretty close to north to south and I think most of us plant east to west, so that both sides of the vines get plenty of sunlight without getting hit with too much direct sun exposure, especially in the afternoon. Everyone has his own theory and you’ll see north to south and virtually everything. Of course if you’re on a hillside, like we are in Howell Mountain, then you have to conform to the shape of the hill.
Q: And what about the trellising?
Geoff: There are lots of options. We went with the vertical trellis, which just means that the shoots are placed so that they grow straight upward and are trained through the trellis wires to maximize light exposure. It heightens the fruity character we’re so famous for here in the Napa Valley! It’s labor intensive to keep tucking the shoots into the wires every 3 weeks or so, and later on at pruning time you have to pick it all out. But it’s worth it.
Q: Can you talk about the advantages and disadvantages between grafting by hand vs. purchasing the pre-made grafts from a nursery?
Geoff: If you have enough water to support both the rootstock and the graft you can gain a year by purchasing bench grafts. The labor is already done and there are fewer misfires. In that case the bud for the variety is already grafted into the rootstock and both the root system and the varietal are growing and developing at the same time. You usually end up cutting back completely at pruning time at the end of that first season, but then when it comes back in the spring it grows really well. If you field bud you need skilled field-budders and there are more no-takes that have to be re-done. We prefer bench-grafts, but we couldn’t get the right combination of rootstock hybrid and clonal selection for the whole vineyard, so you can see places in the Merlot and some of the Cabernet Franc that don’t look as strong as the rest of the vineyard because we had to field-bud. But, they’ll catch up.
Q: Once you plant a bench graft how soon can you expect a crop?
Geoff: At least two to three years, and you’re doing a lot of thinning on those years. We thinned the entire crop off of some of our second year vines and even in the third year, you’re more interested in getting the vines well-established than in taking a big crop, so you thin. The fourth year you’re going pretty well.
Q: At what point do you think of the vineyard as mature?
Geoff: After about 5+ years.
Q: What does it cost per acre to manage the mature vineyard each year?
Geoff: Depends upon how much of the work you do yourself, but figure on about $800.00 to $1200.00 per acre per year. There are costs like protecting the vines from mildew and some years frost is a bigger issue than others. Also, there’s maintenance of the wind machines for frost protection and other farm equipment. If you do a lot with cover crops then it cuts down on tractor time and saves money. There are ways to economize, but you always know that the wine can’t be any better than the fruit that makes it.
Q: What kind of yield can you expect per acre?
Geoff: We’re thinking 3-4 tons per acre, even though the vines will probably be capable of producing more. You want to keep the tonnage down to keep the flavor, color intensity and fruity character up, so we do some cluster thinning during the growing season.
Q: What does that translate to in terms of wine?
Geoff: At 3 tons per acre, and 160 gallons per ton, you can figure about 200 cases per acre.
Q: How much is a ton of Cabernet worth these days?
Geoff: Napa Valley average was $3,973.00 in 2005. Sonoma was $2322.00. Again, that was the average and depending on location it can run even more. I saw that someone paid over $10,000.00 per ton in 2005!
Q: How old is too old?
Geoff: We hope to have at least 30 good years. At some point the vines drop off in quantity or quality, usually due to disease, and it’s just not viable anymore-much like we experienced with our Chardonnay. Sometimes the old vines surprise you and make really nice wines for a long time, but the average is probably around 30 years.
Q: What does the future hold for the Goosecross estate vineyard?
Geoff: We hope to do a Meritage blend and maybe some ÆROS along with a few separate varietals. The vineyard is still young and I’m sure that will be a subject for debate with my business partner, David Topper!