Wednesday May 24, 2023
light at the end of the tunnel
2012 was the first year of a multi-year drought throughout Califronia. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know how long this would last. That first year, I chalked it up to a random act of Mother Nature. As a dry-farmer, four years of severely below normal rainfall became quite concerning.
More notable, however, and worrisome, I had started to notice a trend over that period where the relative pH levels of our fruit at time of harvest seemed to be notching up each year. At first, I assumed this was due to the drought environment we were experiencing. Scouring all sources available to me, and consulting with other growers and the UC Cooperative folks, we tried to alter our farming practices in varying ways. We tried reducing even more than normal the fruit load on our vines, assuming that the plants were struggling because of the dropping soil moisture. We tried changing the way we shaded our canopy. We tried alternating heavier and lighter crops within the same block, along with other strategies over a 4‑year period. All resulted in the same trend of an ever-increasing pH level on our fruit. The only way to mitigate the pH problem was to pick at lower levels of sugar, as it seemed that the increasing pH would move exponentially up after a certain Brix level (sugar) was achieved.
During this period, I also started to notice that the level of extraction of color in our juice was diminishing, and a certain level of brickishness was becoming apparent in the finished wine. The mouthfeel of the wine was losing its density. Clearly something else was going on!
I had read a fair bit of research by then about Red Blotch, a virus that had been officially named in 2012, and was apparently spreading throughout vineyard growing regions around the country. The general conversation circled around the inability to achieve sufficient levels of sugar to harvest. We weren’t having this problem. Yields in Red Blotched vineyards dropped dramatically, and we were seeing this. Over time, the research indicated that the ability to achieve satisfactory levels of color extraction was also a problem. We too were seeing this.
I decided at the end of the 2016 growing season that I would send some budwood from nine of our blocks to a lab for analysis, and of course, all came back positive. What a gut punch! We had planted fifty acres of vines from 2006 through 2013. A lot of hard work, money, and expectations had gone into this project, and I have to say it felt like we could be in serious trouble as a business.
Red blotch is a serious virus. How serious, we will find out at some point, but I contend that it could ultimately be as serious as phylloxera was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A relatively recent research article I found in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture says “Since its discovery in 2008 in California, the disease has impacted several winegrape-growing regions in North America (Calvi 2011, Krenz et al. 2014). It has now been reported in three provinces in Canada, 18 states in the United States, Mexico, two European countries (Switzerland and Italy), two Asian countries (India and South Korea), and in Argentina (Fuchs 2020, Bertazzon et al. 2021).”
As this virus wasn’t discovered before 2008, and given a name in 2012, the vast majority of growers knew nothing of this until late in the last decade. Many of us, kukkula included, purchased vines that were already virused. So, on day one, we were doomed. C’est la vie!
After several months of conversations, research, and soul searching, we decided that our best course of action would be to incrementally remove all fifty acres in a way that would allow us to keep producing and minimize the financial impact. We would focus on removing small pieces of our varietals with the greatest acreage first, and then plant the varietals with the smallest acreage first, in order to not fall into a trap of not being able to produce our blends that were focused on the varietals with less acreage. Additionally, we would give priority to the varietals and blocks that seemed most impacted early on by the virus. A bit of a balancing act!
Today, there is no cure for the virus, but at least we know we are planting clean material. The spread rate in vineyards that are replanted appears to be less than 2% per year. We have become really vigilant in the vineyard scrutinizing plants that might be exhibiting symptoms, and if we find any, we test. Thankfully, at this point, we have found none.
I assumed it would take me about a decade to accomplish the turnaround. By removing blocks of vines incrementally and planting concurrently in fallow blocks of land, we also hoped to avoid needing to purchase fruit from other sources. For the most part this worked, until the last couple of years. Fortunately for kukkula, the demand for our wines was increasing at a healthy clip, so it became apparent in 2021 that we would need to start purchasing some fruit in order to keep up with the demand. In both ’21 and ’22, we needed to purchase about 40% of our fruit. In retrospect, it turns out that sourcing fruit resulted in a couple of additional benefits, both by adding more complexity with the addition of fruit from different terroirs, and by mitigating the negative impacts of chemistry, extraction, aromatics, and mouthfeel of the finished wines.
This year, we are likely to purchase, at most, 10 tons of fruit (as compared to about 25 tons purchased in ’21 and ’22), since many of our new blocks are now in their 3rd to 5th leaf. A bit of fruit may still be purchased next year, but we will likely be focused once again on all estate fruit by 2025.
As of now, 48 of 50 acres have been removed. Just shy of 10 acres are currently producing; 6 acres are grafted and will produce in 2024; almost 16 acres will be grafted next spring and produce in 2025, and the remainder of planting to completion should be wrapped up by 2025. It appears we’ll be past the hard work and expenditures in a couple of years, which will have taken us about 8 years to complete. So, we will a bit ahead of schedule.
I’m not at the point where I feel like we can breathe a sigh of relief, but the storm clouds seem to be receding. I’ve been reflecting on this journey in the last few weeks after bud break, and we’ve been diligently working on grooming the vineyard for the upcoming harvest. No longer do the hillsides on our farm seem so barren and torn up. The symmetry of the new blocks and the stunning vibrancy of growth is awe inspiring!
Additionally, we just finished putting together our ’22 vintage blends a couple of weeks ago, and the wines are stunning. To say I’m stoked about the new fruit would be an understatement! I can’t wait to have you get your hands on them. That will be a couple of years yet. Alas, there might just be light at the end of the tunnel!