Wildfire! Drought! Cartels!
Updated: Jun 29, 2022
Stressed out about the future? Applegate winegrowers will make you feel better.
I settled onto my Ruch property ten years ago. I have nectar-sweet memories of moving into my place, planting bulbs in the yard, and hosting dinners under my grandaddy oak tree. It was a summer of carefree discovery, blackberry-picking, paragliding and of making enough friends to nearly sink a pontoon boat in Applegate Lake. That first summer, I was definitively sure I’d found paradise.
A decade on, some of that early exuberance has faded. Wildfire smoke, the pandemic, and politics have got me down. The proliferation of illegal pot grows with their water theft and plastic hoop houses have, at times, made the cruise along the normally-bucolic Highway 238 sort of, well, distressing. I sometimes look around and worry: What is the future of the Applegate?
Lately, though, I’ve found reasons to be encouraged: One, there’s been a crackdown on illegal grows; plastic greenhouse trash is getting balled-up and hauled-out every day. Two, the spring rains have made the valley lush again; poppies electrify my front yard. But the real seismic shift in my perspective came yesterday, when I attended the Applegate wine event, Uncorked. There, I got to chat directly with the valley’s winemakers. I was inspired by their stubborn optimism.
Eighteen nearby wineries showcased their new-releases paired with food. For my sanity and sobriety, I limited myself to three: Valley View Winery, the new Quady North tasting room, and the beloved Plaisance Winery.
At Valley View, I met Mike Brunson, their new winemaker from the Healdsburg area. As he drew some ‘21 pinot noir direct from the barrel, I shared my worries: Isn’t it going to get too hot? What about water? What about wildfire? He explained that farmers always have to pay attention to varying conditions, climate change-related, or not. They have to be ready and able to adapt to whatever the weather throws at them. In the case of heat, techniques like managing the leaf canopy can be used to create more shade.
While I ate the pork and polenta dish the winery paired with the pinot, Mike explained how when he worked for larger outfits in France, Sonoma and Italy, he sometimes faced pressure to produce consistent product year after year—regardless of the weather fluctuations. This maintained predictability--but also risked creating soulless wine. “You can’t taste the challenges,” he explains. In the Applegate, he feels free to make wine that express the seasonal variables—wine that has personality. “Nothing has been added or subtracted to this wine” he explains.
I went to Quady North next. Their new tasting room is perched above Ruch and surrounding hills are bare--but only temporarily; planting stakes and reels of trellis were laid out and looked ready to stretch. The owner, Herb Quady was there pouring a merlot. He explained that he had to pull all the old vines at the site because they were afflicted with "red blotch"--a pest-transmitted disease that is difficult to eradicate. He is ready to replant in syrah, grenache and rosè.
“Isn’t it frustrating,” I asked, “doing all that work and then having to yank them up and start over?”
“Yeah, but I’m in it for the long run,” he said, waving his glass around to reveal a forearm tattoo that read: I refuse to make bad wine. His long view comes partly from being around the wine industry for a long time; in fact, his parents started a California winery in 1975.
“If I didn’t feel optimistic, I wouldn’t have built this new place.”
Herb walked us over to view clear jars of soil samples displayed on the walls. There was a “river wash” soil from right off the Applegate River that is sandy and very deep—good for high quality syrah and viognier. He also picked up a jar of silty loam soil that was good for the grapes he uses for rosé. The area’s incredible soil diversity seemed to inspire him
“I’m all in on the Applegate” he concluded.
I ended Uncorked at Plaisance Winery where owner, Joe Ginet, was pouring his 2018 and 2020 tempranillo side-by-side. That very morning, one of his frost protection fans broke and some of his crop got damaged. “The crop will be less, but, oh well.” he said.
Joe has been in farming long enough to know how to take such
things in stride. “If you’re a farmer, it’s been this way since day one,” he said. “There is always a frost, or a drought, or a flood. Welcome to farming.” He’s had to adapt in different ways, even setting up a rainwater catchment system to ensure his water supply in dry years—all the while knowing some problems can’t be solved.
“New people come here who are used to throwing money at problems to make them go away, but Mother Nature never goes away--no matter how much money you throw at it.”
Far from discouraged, Joe recently planted three acres of new vines.
Touring the wineries at Uncorked did a lot to ease my Chicken Little worries. The optimism of these three winemakers –Mike, Herb and Joe--is not a fluke, but a trait shared by farmers at large.
This Will Rogers quote I found pretty well sums things up:
“The farmer has to be an optimist-- otherwise he wouldn’t still be a farmer.”
So, thank you Applegate winemakers for the much-needed attitude adjustment. I feel better.
As Herb Quady says:
I’m all in on the Applegate.
*Thank you Raven Brault for attending Uncorked with me and helping me with the interviews!
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