Kukkula Wines

April 15, 2018RH Drexel, Wine Advocate

Farming in the Gray Area: A chat with Kevin Jussila

Kip­pis!” Kevin Jus­si­la says, as we raise our glass­es in the mid­dle of a sun­ny and clear Paso Rob­les Day. Jus­si­la is the Finnish own­er of Paso’s kukku­la win­ery, and kip­pis” is Finnish for cheers.” We are seat­ed in Jussila’s airy, bright­ly lit, atri­um-like liv­ing room, over­look­ing his estate vine­yard plant­i­ng. Kukku­la, Finnish for the hill,” or high place,” is an apt­ly-named brand con­sid­er­ing Jusilla’s home sits atop a hill in Paso’s Ade­lai­da dis­trict. As we sit to enjoy a light lunch, I ask Jus­si­la why his brand’s name appears in low­er­case, on both his wine labels and their web­site. It reflects who were are,” he says. We don’t like to do any­thing over the top. Also, it’s min­i­mal­ist, mod­ern and pro­gres­sive, and I strive to keep things simple.”

I’ve come to vis­it Jus­si­la because I’ve heard he’s a straight shoot­er, and I appre­ci­ate that qual­i­ty in wine­grow­ers. Jus­si­la began his career as a wine­grow­er and wine­mak­er rather ide­al­is­ti­cal­ly, vow­ing to farm his vine­yard organ­i­cal­ly. Yet the real­i­ties of doing so have, at times, proven chal­leng­ing, and so we embark on a con­ver­sa­tion about the real­i­ty of hav­ing to tog­gle from ide­al­ism to real­ism when faced with cer­tain unfore­see­able, and poten­tial­ly finan­cial­ly dev­as­tat­ing, chal­lenges in the vine­yard. We begin, though, with a lit­tle back­ground on how he end­ed up on this hilltop.

Jus­si­la serves us a chilled glass of his kukku­la white, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Rous­sanne and Viog­nier. The love­ly and lean white goes well with our con­ver­sa­tion. My wife jokes that I don’t know the mean­ing of a small hob­by,” he tells me, laugh­ing. I start­ed mak­ing wine inside our base­ment in our Topan­ga Canyon home.” Jus­si­la and his wife have built each one of the homes they’ve lived in, and his archi­tect on the Topan­ga Canyon home, a lover of Bur­gundy, helped him with his home-made wine. I was a total novice and he said to me a few times, this would be a great place to make some wine.’ Dur­ing our first year, we bought about a ton of Pinot Noir from Russ­ian Riv­er Val­ley. In ret­ro­spect, that first vin­tage wasn’t very good, but I thought it was pret­ty good back then. And then one bar­rel became two. We start­ed mak­ing some Chardon­nay, too.” Jus­si­la named his nascent lit­tle project Green Bluff,” the name of the street he lived on at the time.

A trip to Provence with his wife in 1995 proved to be the cat­a­lyst for estab­lish­ing their own com­mer­cial­ly viable brand. They rent­ed a 15th-cen­tu­ry farm­house just out­side of Avi­gnon and rel­ished a vaca­tion spent enjoy­ing food and wine, and read­ing Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, which became a great source of inspi­ra­tion. We vis­it­ed Beau­cas­tel, and I knocked on François Perrin’s door. I guess you’re not sup­posed to do that, but I did and he invit­ed me to return three days lat­er for a bar­rel tast­ing with him. So we tast­ed from bar­rels togeth­er, and François told me about his nurs­ery in Paso Rob­les that he found­ed with Bob Haas of Tablas Creek.”

Upon his return state­side, Jus­si­la vis­it­ed the nurs­ery and pur­chased 1,500 Syrah vines. Jus­si­la Vine­yard was born, with Topan­ga Estate as a fan­ci­ful AVA. They began sell­ing their wines to restau­rants in Los Angeles’s West Side. From there they moved to Paso Rob­les, fold­ed Jus­si­la Vine­yard and found­ed, instead, kukku­la. When I saw this prop­er­ty, my heart just start­ed pound­ing. I knew the rep­u­ta­tion of the area and I knew it would be a good area for Rhône varieties.”

Jus­si­la intend­ed all along to dry-farm his vine­yard and, most impor­tant­ly, to farm it entire­ly organ­i­cal­ly. Over the years I’ve spo­ken to plen­ty of wine­grow­ers who claim to be organ­ic, but who take con­ven­tion­al-farm­ing-based short­cuts in the field when need­ed in order to sus­tain the health of the vine­yard. How­ev­er, they don’t talk about it and would rather per­form these con­ven­tion­al tasks in secre­cy, rather than be found out.” Refresh­ing­ly, Jus­si­la is hon­est and forth­com­ing about the chal­lenges of farm­ing organ­i­cal­ly. His desire to dry-farm his vine­yard may have, iron­i­cal­ly, led to the occur­rence of red blotch at his estate, a virus that adverse­ly effects the grapevine and any juice it may yield. Red blotch dis­ease results in delayed ripen­ing, small­er berry size and altered berry col­or. It adverse­ly affects antho­cyanin lev­els, pH, tan­nin lev­els, and oth­er phe­no­lic fac­tors that reduce the qual­i­ty and mar­ket val­ue of the fruit, as well as the wine made from affect­ed grapes. Wine pro­duc­ers (pre­mi­um- and ultra-pre­mi­um cat­e­go­ry) in Cal­i­for­nia esti­mate that a 100% red blotch infec­tion can reduce the val­ue of a vine­yard by as much as $68,000 per acre.

We’ve cut all of the plants out below the graft, so the root struc­ture remains. I could just rip the soil, but in the past, I’ve found that there are always ran­dom suck­ers that con­tin­ue to pop up. So I’ve essen­tial­ly decid­ed that I need to treat these remain­ing root struc­tures with an her­bi­cide,” Jus­si­la says. There are no organ­ic her­bi­cides that will kill the roots. Gen­er­al­ly, organ­ic options are devel­oped after con­ven­tion­al her­bi­cides, and in this case I think the need to erad­i­cate the prob­lem super­sedes my need to remain 100% organ­ic.”

Jus­si­la is pro­found­ly cog­nizant not only of his invest­ment, but also of his cus­tomer base, a loy­al base that comes to expect con­sis­ten­cy from Jussila’s wines. His wine­mak­ing style might best be cat­e­go­rized as per­son­al­i­ty-dri­ven. Like Sean Thackrey’s end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing offer­ings under his icon­ic Thack­rey label, Jussila’s kukku­la wines are rus­tic, eccen­tric and loaded with char­ac­ter. Though they demon­strate typ­ic­i­ty, they are also quite sin­gu­lar expres­sions, and make their pres­ence known at the table. His fan base has come to expect tru­ly hand­made wines from this hard­core, hands-on farmer, and so he feels behold­en to them, to approach each chal­lenge in the vine­yard with rig­or and hon­esty. I believe that ini­tial­ly I might have touched on my reluc­tance to be organ­i­cal­ly cer­ti­fied because of the sub­tle dif­fer­ences in require­ments among organ­ic cer­ti­fiers,” Jus­si­la con­tin­ues. I found it odd that there would­n’t be one exact stan­dard among all of the enti­ties, and it made me won­der how much was dri­ven by the mon­ey side of the equa­tion. I was also forced to make a deci­sion for the first time last year, when we start­ed devel­op­ing a resis­tance to treat­ing a grow­ing leafhop­per prob­lem. We used up the litany of organ­ic choic­es to treat the prob­lem, but the leafhop­pers kept com­ing back. Late in the sea­son, our PCA [Pest-Con­trol Advi­sor] told us that he had noth­ing left in the arse­nal, so I had to make the hard deci­sion to save the crop by using a con­ven­tion­al her­bi­cide. And of course it erad­i­cat­ed the leafhop­per prob­lem imme­di­ate­ly.”

Jussila’s will­ing­ness to pur­sue con­ven­tion­al meth­ods to pro­tect his vine­yard and farm­stead has not negat­ed his hope to one day farm entire­ly organ­i­cal­ly. I’m still not com­fort­able mak­ing these deci­sions to vio­late my desire to farm organ­i­cal­ly, but much like capit­u­lat­ing on killing wild boar on our ranch, ulti­mate­ly the eco­nom­ic via­bil­i­ty of what we do has forced my hand. I’m hope­ful that, over time, prob­lems like the two I’ve been con­front­ed with can be effec­tive­ly treat­ed organically.”

He was also anti-hunt­ing for many years run­ning, until a wild boar began dec­i­mat­ing his vine­yard and gar­den. Faced with an increas­ing­ly unten­able eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion, with one boar caus­ing thou­sands of dol­lars’ worth of dam­age, Jus­si­la broke down and bought a rifle and took mat­ters into his own hands. He wrote about the expe­ri­ence in a blog post:

Our destroyed land­scape sat lit­er­al­ly right below our mas­ter bed­room. So I carved out two- to three-hour slots each night to stand vig­il at the win­dows over­look­ing the lawn. No pigs showed up. I start­ed scan­ning blogs on pig hunt­ing; I exper­i­ment­ed with out­side lights on and off; I had the doors open, then closed; I start­ed feel­ing like Bill Murray’s char­ac­ter, Carl Spack­ler in Cad­dyshack. Of course the nights I decid­ed to sleep, it (they?) showed up. The blogs sug­gest­ed using red or green lights to illu­mi­nate the area. Final­ly, after three weeks of wait­ing, I hap­pened to get up and caught the pig in the act. Unfor­tu­nate­ly I couldn’t take the shot because the red light I used was too dim and the angle of tra­jec­to­ry might have hit the house if I missed the tar­get. I let it go. At least now I knew it was a lone boar (male). The next day I switched the light col­or to green, which proved to be much brighter. That, in com­bi­na­tion with a motion sen­sor device mount­ed next to the lawn and an alarm on my bed­side table, proved to be the right for­mu­la. A few nights lat­er, the alarm went off, the light shone bright, I got my shot, and the pig was killed.

Though he writes that he wasn’t as both­ered by this deci­sion as he thought he might be, his com­port­ment when he retells this sto­ry to me sug­gests he remains some­what torn on the sub­ject.

Alas, the kukku­la estate is a stun­ning one to vis­it, and it’s clear that the own­er views him­self as a stew­ard of this spe­cial site. Adven­tur­ous trav­el­ers pass­ing through California’s Cen­tral Coast would do well to vis­it Jus­si­la at his estate vine­yard. He hosts many of the vis­its him­self, which take place Fri­days, Sat­ur­day and Sun­days. My favorite of Jussila’s wines is his vaalea (Finnish for fair, bright and blond”), an arrest­ing white wine with brac­ing acid­i­ty, lift­ed aro­mat­ics and a crisp, clean fin­ish that leaves the imbiber long­ing for anoth­er sip…and a fresh oys­ter to boot. For $30 a bot­tle, it’s a keep­er. Oth­er high­lights from our vis­it include his pas de deux, a ter­rif­ic, bal­anced Grenache/​Syrah blend that pos­sess­es a rus­tic tex­ture, yet ele­gant, flo­ral core and long, exu­ber­ant fin­ish. For $45, it deliv­ers on deli­cious­ness and mem­o­rable aro­mat­ics. His aat­to (Fin­ish for eve”) is a show-stop­per blend of Counoise, Mourve­dre and Grenache. I found this wine utter­ly fas­ci­nat­ing and, like Thakerey’s Ori­on or Pleiades, unusu­al in a pos­i­tive­ly allur­ing and sin­gu­lar way. For $40 a bot­tle, it deliv­ers on eccen­tric­i­ty, fla­vor and a host of sen­so­ry memories.