The Little Chardonnay That Never Should Have Been

The sun, the cool, the dry, and the wet
Made this Chardonnay a very good bet

I believe that genius is the art of taking infinite pains to do something right. Basically, you visualize and create something, you innovate, and, with a lot of hard work you achieve success. When someone comes along, looks at the end result, and says, “That’s genius!” you know it’s really a matter of relentless creativity and effort. Sometimes genius is serendipitous or, maybe, it’s just dumb luck. In the case of our Chardonnay, genius was a matter of the heart.

In 1983, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Warm Springs Dam, which forms Lake Sonoma and is about five miles from our vineyard. The compacted earth-fill dam serves as a deterrent to disastrous floods and stores water for irrigation. The beautiful lake is also used for recreation.

A fish hatchery was built at the bottom of the dam to replace and enhance the spawning grounds for salmon and steelhead trout. To ensure that the water level in Dry Creek is maintained, enabling the fish to swim to the sea and come back to spawn, water is continuously released from the dam into the river. Constantly full, the river conveniently makes a curve around our vineyard. Before we bought the property, our Chardonnay and Merlot varietals had been planted halfway between the river and the hill line.

The water in the river is mind-numbingly cold. In fact, as the warm summer winds blow across the cold water, they create a microclimate for the Chardonnay vines that are closest to the river. Today, if you stand at the end of one of the vineyard rows in just the right spot, you can feel the two climates. Facing south and stretching your arms forward, your right hand will remain cool, and your left hand will get warm.

The problem for our Chardonnay vines was the heat. It gets so hot in the center of the valley away from the river that those vines were getting scorched. Because Chardonnay prefers cooler temperatures and more moisture than other varietals, we decided to pull out the Chardonnay vines and replace them with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Removing an existing vineyard is a big job, so our decision to do it shows how damaging the intense sun’s rays can be in midsummer in Dry Creek Valley.

We hired a driver with a Caterpillar D9. The tractor had a huge blade affixed to the front controlled by hydraulic arms, and a ripper attached to the back to tear up the soil—and anything else that got in the way—as far down as six feet.

The Cat driver, José, deftly handled the monstrous machine as I watched with some reluctance from twenty feet away. Tearing out fruit-producing vines that sustain other living beings is always tough for a farmer to watch. I had pangs of remorse as I realized it would take seven to ten years to return this plot of land to a mature vineyard.

The root systems for grapevines have a unique characteristic: They fan out underground, but they will not impose their need on the root system of a neighboring vine. When they come in contact with other grapevine roots, they don’t entwine; instead, they turn away. The roots for each plant grow deeper, but not wider.

When the Cat uprooted these mature Chardonnay vines, they lay upside down on the ground, exposing root fans that gave the appearance of candelabras in the sunlight. That did it. Call me emotional, but something told me it was just wrong to destroy these beautiful vines. The pangs of remorse got to me and, in one of those decisions of the moment, an act of pure intuition, I ran over to stop José.

“What’s up, Mr. Williamson?” José asked, a little disconcerted at the interruption. “I’m on a roll here.”
“Can’t do it, José,” I said. “These vines are just too beautiful to completely destroy. Tell you what. Let’s leave the last ten rows of vines nearest the river. It’s cooler there, and I have the feeling that those vines will do just fine.”

Making that decision is how we came to have one small area of Chardonnay planted contiguously to our Cabernet Sauvignon.

The year after replanting the vineyard, we decided to plant Tuscan olive trees on the end of every second row. We chose trees from Nan McEvoy, a true California pioneer, who imported her original trees from Tuscany and continues to grow them and many other wonderful fruit trees on her Petaluma ranch.

We planted all of our olive trees on the same day, and they share the same drip-irrigation line. Tuscan olives love the heat. Today the olive trees next to the Cabernet are twice the size of those next to the Chardonnay. This is dramatic evidence of how climate and microclimate nuances on the same acreage can affect the growth of plantings. The subtleties are not lost on the fruit. Our Chardonnay grapes are outstanding, partly because we paid attention to the cooling effect of the river and avoided the heat of the sun in the area just fifty yards away.

During the past few years that we have been producing our Amourette Chardonnay from this vineyard, the wine has performed superbly in competition, winning gold medals at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition. Because Sonoma County is home to some of the best Chardonnays in the country, we can rest comfortably knowing that our little Chardonnay that never should have been now ranks among the finest in the United States.

Years later, I’m still getting credit for the decision not to rip out all of the Chardonnay vines. The credit is little deserved. My decision was simply a matter of the heart, inspired by a voice from somewhere outside of my rational mind that whispered, keep ten rows of Chardonnay next to Dry Creek!

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