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.