May 14, 2021, 2:10PM
Updated 39 minutes ago
With red flag warnings in May coupled with a deepening drought, many winemakers and growers are filled with a sense of foreboding. Will their vines survive yet another year of extreme weather?
But a bit of hope is embodied in a small vineyard in Kenwood, one that has remained resilient — for the most part — to climate change for more than a decade.
Located in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, the sun-kissed Rhone varietals at Landmark Vineyards are thriving once again this year after last year’s setback. The 2020 vintage suffered from smoke taint when the Glass fire blazed through the region just a couple miles north of the vineyard.
“All the fruit was dropped,” said winemaker Greg Stach. “Fire is always a risk.”
While the 11-acre vineyard remains vulnerable to fire, it has largely outsmarted climate change thanks to its transformation. The chardonnay grapes in the vineyard were floundering so in 2006 they were replaced with Rhone varietals. These grapes require less water and can withstand high temperatures.
“The grapes are producing amazing wines,” said Phil Coturri, who has farmed the vineyard since 2010. A pioneer of organic and biodynamic growing for more than three decades, he said, “Anybody who isn’t thinking about replanting should be. We have to rethink our use of water, especially when we’ve had one-third of our average rainfall this year and an incredibly dry spring.”
The viticulturist works closely with son Sam Coturri on their Sonoma label Sixteen 600, which bottles the grapes grown in the Kenwood vineyard. Climate change-resistant varietals, they said, have become a hot topic in Wine Country.
“Suddenly everybody is talking about replanting, between the drought and disrupted bud break to the big ‘F’ (fire), the four-letter word no one wants to talk about,” said Sam Coturri, managing partner of Sixteen 600.
While many growers are convinced replanting is the wisest path, the chokehold is economics, he said.
“Napa and Sonoma are still regions where chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the dominant grape varietals,” Sam Coturri said. “And as long as wineries are paying the most for them, it’s difficult to convince anyone to plant or make anything else. Growers have to respond to both the wineries and consumers.”
In 2020, chardonnay had the largest portion of the total tonnage crushed in California at 15.2%, with cabernet sauvignon following closely behind at 14.1%, according to the 2020 California Grape Crush Report.
“Replanting is on everyone’s mind, but we haven’t yet found the magic bullet,” Sam Coturri said. “As I sit here watching the wind blow like it’s October and it’s May, it’s difficult to be overly optimistic. I’m hopeful because there’s an inherent optimism in being a farmer. But my sense is it’s bone-dry and all the pieces are in place for a difficult fire season.”
While extreme weather puts many acres of vines in peril, the resilience of the Kenwood vineyard is a sign Wine Country has a fighting chance to adapt to climate change.
The backstory of the Kenwood vineyard
In 2006 the owners of Landmark Vineyards, Mary and Mike Calhoun, decided they could no longer bottle their underperforming chardonnay grapes. They sent Stach and then-winemaker Eric Stern to France to research a suitable replacement.
“We definitely had climate change on our minds,” Stach said. “We found it was too warm to grow high-quality chardonnay on the valley floor.”
Stach said he doesn’t know the exact amount paid for the replanting, but it was more costly to grow flawed grapes. Every year, he said, the vintners were purchasing more grapes from cooler regions — the Carneros and the Sonoma Coast — to maintain chardonnay as one of their flagship wines.
Optimum growing conditions for chardonnay and pinot noir, Stach explained, require temperatures in the 70s and 80s with morning fog. But temperatures in Kenwood are about 10 degrees warmer.
“We wanted to plant a vineyard that would last with varietals that would grow well,” Stach said. “During our two-week trip in May of 2006, we talked to the vintners of Domaine de la Solitude and Le Vieux Donjon. They had harvest records for centuries, and they could see that the climate was changing. Harvest dates were earlier every year and summers were warmer.”
Stach and Stern concluded Rhone varietals — syrah, grenache, mourvèdre and viognier — were the best fit for the vineyard.
“Now the vineyard is making high-quality wine, and it has from day one,” Stach said. “Wine industry people in the area said mourvèdre wouldn’t ripen, but it has ripened every year. It hasn’t been an issue at all.”
The fate of the sun-kissed grapes
Phil Coturri’s Enterprise Vineyards began leasing the vineyard in 2015 and just renewed its lease.
“I’m totally enamored with Rhone varietals,” he said, adding these are quality grapes.
While a portion of the grapes are reserved for the Coturris’ Sixteen 600 label, the remainder is sold to more than a dozen upscale wineries, including Buena Vista, Enkidu and Clif Family Winery.
“We sell the grapes for $4,000 to $5,000 a ton,” Phil Coturri said.
The average price for a ton of Sonoma County grapes in 2020 was $2,362, according to Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.
Founded in 2006, Sixteen 600 produces about 2,000 cases a year, including a Steel Plow Grenache at $46 and a Steel Plow Viognier at $35 from the Kenwood vineyard.
“I think Sonoma County has a great terroir for growing Rhone varietals,” Phil Coturri said. “Especially with climate change, the Rhone varietals can withstand the heat. And the last five years at the Kenwood vineyard we’ve cut way back in watering.”
The father-and-son team is not surprised that transformed vineyards can produce quality grapes.
“What you make is a continually evolving expression,” Sam Coturri said. “If you go back 150 years with a vineyard, there were likely different varietals. If you look forward 150 years, it will look a lot different. … There’s a great line my dad always says: ‘The vine is not immortal but the vineyard is.’”
You can reach Staff Writer Peg Melnik at email@example.com or 707-521-5310.