INSIDES AND OUTSIDES
As with all things, Hirsch Vineyards has a visible outer side, and an inner, hidden foundation. On the outside: the vineyards flow wave-like over the coastal ridge traversed by Bohan Dillon Road, west of Cazadero. At 1500’ the Pacific Ocean is visible three miles to the southwest through the redwoods and firs that dot the slopes and meadows. This is the coastal rainforest. Rainfall, mostly from October to April, is abundant at an average annual eighty inches. The summer climate is dry, desert-like. When the land was in sheep, lambing occurred near Christmas to allow the sheep to fatten on the green, growing spring grasses and go to market before the land browned and died back.
The climate is highly erratic, unpredictable, with wide annual swings in moisture, temperature, storms, and wind. As these factors are in constant flux, their cumulative effect creates a changing, complex environment on the soils and plants: no year is like another. This climatic chaos is coupled with a geology containing a highly varied mélange of sandstone-based soils and assorted rock placed at random across the rolling hills and ridges on which the vineyards are planted: an erratic climate working on highly variegated soils and exposures and slopes.
What is behind this geologic jumble? A mile to the west of the ranch and down in the recess of the planet’s crust, the Pacific and North American plates contact and grind away. This is the land of the San Andreas Fault. This is where the polar opposites come together. And it is in this telluric clash that the complexity is brewed that defines Hirsch Vineyards, its grapes and wines. The fault is the mother of the country, predating the coastal shelf, which was pushed, up only ‘yesterday’ in geologic time: two to three million years ago. It is the cause of the soils’ continual slipping and sliding as the land moves downward toward the streams and the ocean.
The actions of the San Andreas and the heavy rains and high winds, assisted by the chainsaws of man and sharp hooves of sheep, have created the current landscape and agronomy. Gone are the deep soils and compost of the rain forest, all washed away into the creeks, leaving thin soils over sandstone based assemblage of intermixed heavy clays, sandy loams, and clay loams. Blended into this mix in random ratios is a mélange of rocks varying in origins and type from igneous to metamorphic to sedimentary shale so degraded it can be crushed by hand. And the rolling hills with varying slopes face out in all directions and at all angles from level to forty percent. This means that vine ‘A’ may be in a well drained sandstone that holds little water, conducive to slow growth and even ripening, but vine ‘B’, a few yards away, is in a high magnesium, heavy clay that has very high water retention and consequently grows a vine with high vegetative vigor and uneven ripening.
Tucked away on a ridge five miles up a dirt road, the land flows away in all directions to the high blue horizon typical of the coast. Only two hours from San Francisco, it is a place lost in the rural past of northern California. The outside beauty, profound in its purity and scale, tears at your heart and words are inept; then winter arrives and the storms roll in one following another, like frenzied wild horses, and the rivers of rain and shrieking winds rend the very landscape.
And all this is reflected in the wines: the clarity, the complexity, the concentration.