Winegrowing puts focus on soils, not climate, to cultivate unique flavors
While America’s west coast is celebrated in the world of wine, groundbreaking work is being done in many other parts of the U.S. I had the opportunity recently to meet two luminaries who are contributing significantly to the wine industry east of the Mississippi.
Jim Law of Linden Vineyards in northern Virginia is proud of his Midwestern roots. He was raised in Cincinnati by parents who enjoyed old world wines. His first farming experience came as a vineyard worker in Guilford, Indiana at what became Chateau Pomije.
After graduation from Miami University of Ohio, he joined the Peace Corps and received several months of intensive agricultural training at Michigan State. He then spent two years on assignment 100 miles south of the equator in Zaire (Congo), Africa where he taught locals how to grow tropical fruits and cocoa.
Once back stateside, Jim gained winemaking experience while working at Debonne Vineyards where he became a self-described “cellar rat.”
This background, in conjunction with travel throughout Europe, led to an acknowledged love of farming and wine. In 1980, he literally flipped a coin to determine on which coast he would pursue his dream of establishing a wine estate to “grow” fine wine. I am not sure if east was heads or tails.
Intrigued by highly respected Barbourville Vineyards, Jim realized the potential of Virginia soils for nurturing a number of varietal grapes. After all, it is the legendary Zonin family of Italy who purchased the Barbourville property near Monticello in 1976 and continues to run a highly successful winery operation.
Property was purchased in 1983 — a hardscrabble farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains 65 miles west of Washington, D.C. — with the first vines planted in 1985. The initial focus was on first-rate root stock and growing quality grapes.
Attention has since been paid to the soils. Plots have been mapped out based on soil analysis from a series of 7-foot deep test cores. Grape varietals are now more specifically matched to soil type in pursuit of more distinctive wines.
Jim notes that Cabernet Sauvignon does best in well drained, droughty soils. Clay will promote wines of a dense, rich character, but somewhat rustic. Finessed, complex and harmonious wines result from gravel soils. Sandy ground can impart a light, fresh quality to wines.
Raised in Michiana (North Liberty), he relished being outdoors and had a fascination with plants. Not surprisingly, he obtained a degree in plant ecology and botany from Ball State. It was a professor during that time who suggested plant ecology and wine grapes would make for an interesting study.
His next stop was at Michigan State, where he remained from 1983 to 1997. The first 2 ½ years were spent earning a MS in viticulture. Thereafter, he worked as a research technician, completing in his last four years the doctoral dissertation research confirming the influence of crop levels on fruit and wine quality.
Dr. Dave subsequently accepted a position as winemaker at St. Julian Winery, where he worked from 1997 to 2010. During his tenure, production was increased from 45,000 to 125,000+ cases, in addition to supplying bulk wines to small wineries throughout the Midwest.
More importantly, he focused on improved grape quality by closely working with the contracted growers. A key element to this upgrade involved applying the results of his research experience on managing crop load. Typical harvests went from averages of 8-10 tons to 3-6 tons per acre while maintaining profitability.
A decision was made to leave St. Julian in 2010 and develop a winery with his wife, Sandy. In 1999, they planted Riesling and Cabernet Franc vines on their property in Lawton. It was named “Sophie’s Vineyard” in honor of their daughter who was born that year. This became the foundation of their business.
Until his facility in Lawton is fully equipped, Dr. Dave continues to work with other wineries to produce his wines. The timeline for completion of his operation has been delayed by challenging weather and limited fruit from the 2014 and 2015 vintages.
The couple has operated a tasting room in downtown St. Joseph since 2010 and anticipate opening a tasting room at the Lawton site this fall.
The winemaking adventure has been “a good run [with stops where he] stayed for a responsible time and moved on.” Dr. Dave sees southwest Michigan wines progressing to the next level by matching soils to specific grape varietals.
The LMS AVA has two large glacial moraines with a sandy shoreline that becomes more clay going inland. While that is an accurate generality, Dr. Dave cautions that there is much variation within short distances. His Lawton property has a well drained loam/clay soil composition, while within a half mile there is heavy clay.
It seems to me that too often climate rather than soil is highlighted when considering great wine regions. After all, late season frosts have devastated recent grape production in Michigan and upstate New York. Excessive rain at harvest time is the bane of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
In contrast, both Jim and Dr. Dave enthusiastically share their conviction that given adequate temperatures, great wine is not made but rather grown by allowing vines to express the unique qualities of the soil. It requires attention to the nuances of water content and canopy management of the best suited vines in the intermediary soil.