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.
The vineyards roll across the hills like waves at the edge of the world. An intense relationship between geology and climate has created sites perfectly in tune to the cultivation of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, which reflect both the complexity of their site and the traditional characteristics of the variety.
From the first planting in 1980, a philosophy of viticulture has been slowly evolving that is specific to Hirsch Vineyards. Just as our pinot noir and chardonnay vines, influenced by the local environmental conditions, have grown and adapted to the site, we have learned to work out an appropriate cultural approach by trial and error in the field. The mixed geology fostered by the San Andreas Fault and our dramatic climate makes for growing conditions far different than other sites, even those quite nearby.
The Old Vineyard was planted in 1980 to one acre of a massale selection of Pommard and Wädenswil pinot noir and two acres of Riesling. In 1988 the Riesling was budded over to the Mount Eden selection of pinot noir. From 1990 to 1994, thirty-two acres were planted to these clones. In 1995 the 114, Swan, and 777 clones were planted on nine more acres. Two and one half acres of chardonnay were planted in field 10 (a 40% slope) in 1994.
By 2000 we realized that much could be improved upon in the design and planting of the vineyards in order to produce better and more fruit on a consistent basis. Twenty-five acres of closely spaced vines were planted in 2002 and 2003. (See the Vineyard Map for more about each block.) By this time we had reached the limits of useful feedback about farming from the wineries buying our fruit. This lead to the decision to build the winery on site.
A cursory review of the vineyard data schedule shows the large difference in planting density between the old and new fields. Also you will note an expansion in the kind of rootstocks used. New methods of site mapping, investigation, and soil analysis were employed. These lead to changes in preparation, planting, and training. We stayed with the same trellising system, vertical shoot positioning (VSP), but employed new hardware for enhanced stability and flexibility in the employment of the desired cultural practices. The narrower tractor rows on the steep side hills called for new farming equipment. In all ways the focus was on the site and our goal: to find effective ways to work with the highly varying conditions of soil and topography and an ever changing, unpredictable climate in order to produce fruit through which the unique, complex characteristics of the site would emerge vintage after different vintage.
In terms of field and block design, the intense attention put on site investigation resulted in planting a large number of discreet blocks based mostly on the water retention property of the soil. For example, field 12, all of 5.88 acres, contains nine separate blocks. There are tremendous soil and drainage changes across this field including a hill of almost pure sandstone in the southwest corner where the chardonnay is planted. Dividing the field into multiple blocks is costly and adds difficulties to installation and farming. The benefits are (1) a proper rootstock can be used for each soil type; (2) specific preparation can be done block by block in a precise manner; (3) clones can be used in a discreet way; (4) irrigation will be separate for each unit; (5) an attempt can be made to achieve the highest quality (most profound expression of the site in a given vintage) at the highest level of production (all this has to be paid for); and (6) the vines will be farmed and harvested in separate lots for the winery. This is what a site specific elaboration of a philosophy of viticulture has meant at Hirsch Vineyards.
Given our environment, clones (selections) are secondary, the outside dressing to the body and structure of a serious wine. Selection of the best rootstock for the unique soil and drainage properties of a given site is primary to achieving balance within the highly differentiated sites. We have sought selections from older, well-farmed sites that are untainted by the contemporary processes of genetic selection and industrial nursery propagation: in looking for scion wood with soul, we will take a little blemish.
From a qualitative perspective, the purpose of the methods and approaches cited above is to seek balance in the vineyard. The challenge is to apply our resources in an efficient manner to interact with the place and the plants in pursuit of our goal to make wines that reflect the site. This demands an understanding of how limited our resources truly are. Each year brings a different juggling act whereby we seek to enter into the dynamic of the annual cycle of the vine to learn where we can be effective in specific situations to help bring the vineyard to balance at harvest time.
In 2011 we began the process of converting the vineyards to biodynamic viticulture. By 2014, all 72 acres of vines as well as our gardens and orchards were fully under biodynamic practice.
Please click here to view the complete vineyard map.