Kukkula Wines

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!



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