My Grand Daughter Will Be A Great Wine Maker; or What the 2020 Vintage Taught Us
Updated: Oct 10, 2021
Rudolf Steiner is a big name in wine because he is the father of what we now call "biodynamics," a way of farming in which plants, animals, and humans work together in a self-sustaining way. It’s both scientific and spiritual. Steiner saw himself as being sensitive to the invisible worlds around us. He was big on zodiac signs and moon cycles.
Before Steiner was seen as an agricultural savant, he was an educator. His work is the basis of the Waldorf School: one of the most successful parochial educational systems ever. In one of his works on education, he explains that children ought to learn in a special way— through stories. They don't need to know what "courage " means, they need to hear how a hero overcame fear.
As they grow older, kids need to understand the relationship between the world around them and the larger world. One of the examples he uses is the importance not only of appreciating the fruit of a grapevine, but also of digging a seed out of the berry's flesh, holding it in the palm of your hand and understanding that it contains the potential of another vine. Simply put, a child must become aware of the world, feel its goodness and beauty, then understand how its parts relate to one another across time and distance.
I love to read about how we learn, but my interest in early childhood education has become more than theoretical recently: all three of the families who own and operate Herrmann York had or are having our first children this year. Maybe you could chalk it up to confirmation bias, but ever since I started reading Steiner, it's been difficult to ignore how interconnected everything feels. We began making wines as our children were gestating, and we began sharing the wines with people just as the boys began coming into this world. We are learning how to be winemakers while learning to be fathers. The boys will grow up with the vines we have planted, and we will dig seeds out of the berries and talk about the future.
This year, we had the privilege of working with some extraordinary people as we began learning what we hope will become a life-long trade. We've learned an incalculable amount, some of which validated our assumptions and some that challenged our naïveté. While those lessons are now vivid in my mind, I would like to preserve them here.
#1. Good farmers are precious.
In 2021, we began looking for additional farmers to work with. Bill Smith, a retired Ventura County fire fighter who lives up near the poppy fields in Lancaster agreed to give us a shot, putting us down for some Cabernet Franc and Merlot (his favorite) after driving us around the property in a golf cart and telling us about his preferred means of pest management—lady bugs. His friend, Ramon, has been farming the property for the past 19 years. Bill told us he’d recently sold the property and was moving away, but the new owner would honor our agreement and keep Ramon on. It’s unclear if 2021 will be the only year we get to work with this site.
On the other side of San Gabriel peak, Dominic Galleano and his assistant winemaker, Red, had us over to Galleano Winery for 3 hours of conversation on the back patio under the elm trees. Just behind us was the beginning of the Lopez vineyard. At over 100 years old, these own-rooted, dry farmed vines have been searching the granitic sands of Mira Loma since before it was called that. This is the quintessential Southern California vineyard—the last holdout from the days when the foothills of the Inland Empire were nothing but vines. Development has taken out most of what Pierce’s Disease didn’t. But not Lopez. Not Galleano. Dom is animated frequently with a fury fed by the opportunists that descend on him often, offering to buy away what his family has built over a century. He will never give them the satisfaction. And because of him, the vineyard and the legacy of the family goes on, though the world changes around them.
Making wine as negotiants means we’re remaking deals every year, just as most winemakers in California do. There is no sure bet, and most contracts are signed with a handshake. But we have the privilege of working with growers who live on the property they farm and know the vines. We aim to build relationships with each of these growers and become reliable customers, year after year, but we also understand that things change.
#2. Southern California needs champions.
This year was a boom for new wineries in Los Angeles. We’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of them and forming what we hope will be lifelong friendships. Adam and Wendy Huss of Centralas are committed to promoting organic and better farming practices. Ben and Katie Sposato at Acri are creating some wines of great depth from fruit they hand harvest from LA to San Diego. Adam Sabelli at Sabelli-Frisch has a wide range of delicious wines made in the old Italian way. These are the champions Southern California needs.
Every wine growing region has its personalities: it’s David Abreus and Ruben Salazanos, its Jim Clendenons and its Paul Drapers. These are people whose names are synonymous with the places they farm or the regions in which they make wine. There is a pride and an energy coming from each of these young LA winemakers that trends in that direction. Without their commitment, our region would not achieve renown.
Acri, Sabelli-Frisch, and Centralas, among many others (including, we hope, ourselves), represent people committed to this region and whose wines will help to create something worth paying attention to.
#3. Planting a vineyard is a statement of hope.
We will always buy fruit from the likes of Dominic Galeano—so long as we can—but our long-term goal is to also have a vineyard of our own. Tegan Passalacqua has said on many occasions that winemakers cannot continue to take and take and take. They must also give back by planting vineyards our kids can run through, can harvest together. But with a changing climate, the question on everyone’s mind is, how long can we expect to be able to farm grapes in a region that many think is already too hot to produce good wine? The climate is changing, is warming. We are contributing to that in significant ways. But there are, on the margins, glimmers of hope as we discover more about our soils and ways we can improve farming practices to sequester more carbon in the organic matter. Grape farmers have the distinct advantage of being rewarded in tangible ways by the market to farm organically or better. That means there’s a responsibility to farm well, like the Galleano family has for years, so that those who have the difficult task of farming other crops can have the confidence that it’s not too expensive, nor to difficult to focus on rebuilding topsoil and reducing chemical inputs.
We’ve got our eye on San Timeteo canyon, which according to historical records from the 1880s, used to be blanketed in hundreds of acres of vines—mostly Muscat of Alexandria. We’d like to plant a vineyard there because of it’s historical lineage, its slope, it’s sandy, silica-rich soils, which are begging for own-rooted vines, and for its vicinity to our front doors. We’d like to gather cuttings from the historic vines around Southern California and recreate a new generation of inter planted blocks, which we can farm carefully. This year we learned that, while this reality is likely a long way off, it’s not as impossible as we once thought, nor is it a fool’s errand. As we’ve written before, we’re young and a little dumb, and that combination breeds a durable kind of hope for the future. The same kind of hope that you need to have a kid, I guess.
#4. People who know nothing about wine and people who know a lot about wine have a lot in common.
DiMaggio Washington makes a great sweet wine. He makes a great dry wine. He makes a great California Chardonnay, an excellent Port, and a series of Cabernet Sauvignon, engineered for the discerning palate. He also farms and makes a beautiful Syrah, grown on his property in Acton, up in the cool hills between the desert and the LA basin.
Every time we tell him some nutty plan for a program, no matter how far flung, he just smiles. We make a white Alicante Bouschet. He smiles. We make a skin contact Muscat, he smiles. We make a mysterious rosé from an abandoned vineyard. He smiles. The support he’s shown us over the past year is profound. His teaching is subtle and delivered with a light touch. His compliments are sincere and humbling. His patience seems endless.
I mention his wines and his reactions to ours to say that DiMaggio is someone who truly understands wine because he knows that the act of thinking you understand it is foolish. It is not one thing, it is multitudes. It can be designed, or it can be shepherded. It can be burly and obnoxious or it can be ethereal.
Dying on a hill of dogma is tired.
What we learned this year is that the people who know nothing about wine and those that know a lot—DiMaggio is a great example of the latter—have a lot in common. Those who know nothing are willing to try anything, to give it an honest opinion, even if it is delivered trepidatiously. People who know a whole lot about wine, though they may have traveled through various phases of self-assuredness, generally have regained their sense of wonder and their humility in the face of all there is to know and taste. Both groups have opinions that are complex and have nuance. Both are willing to accept that wine is not simple and can often be daunting. Both are giddy when tasting and talking.
We had the humbling experience this year to harvest the Lone Wolf Vineyard alongside Abe Schoener of the Los Angeles River Wine Company. He allowed us to make a wine from this site, planted in 1912, abandoned for 60 years, gone wild. The fruit from the bush vines has dropped to the ground, sprouted, and turned into something with a DNA unique to this vineyard. It is a site capable of producing a wine that many say is not possible in California—a wine of place. To be able to work with this sort of site during our inaugural vintage was an honor we did not expect, nor deserve. Our thanks go to Abe for his generosity and his trust. He gave us something truly special and introduced us to a vineyard whose beauty comes from little seeds, full of potential, who released into the world something that didn’t exist before.
We will learn more, year after year, and we hope to take with us the lessons of previous vintages. If we learn as much every vintage as we did this year, who knows? At this rate, maybe my granddaughter will be a great winemaker.