HEALDSBURG, Calif. — Charles Richard, a classical guitarist from the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, has found a new rhythm behind a team of workhorses on his 72-acre ranch in the Northern California wine country.
His favorite compositions are now several "world class" Bordeaux-style wines produced by using what he calls "sustainable agriculture" at a century-old boutique winery in the fertile Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County.
"I really hear a different beat now and it's the rhythm of the land and the seasons," said Richard, who retired his guitar for good to work the vineyards with Rowdy and Curly, his team of Belgian draft horses.
Music to the Farm
Richard, whose love of music once led him to study master classical guitar in Spain, said his dream of becoming a virtuoso on the instrument was fading about the time the opportunity to acquire the ranch he has named Bellerose Vineyard occurred in 1978.
"It was like taking the plunge off the high dive," Richard said, who with his wife, Nancy, had previously experimented with making wine on property they owned in Mendocino County. "I grew up loving the outdoors and always lamented that I wasn't raised on a farm. This place really spoke to my heart."
Richard said his boyhood was spent largely in the woods around Mt. Pocono, Pa., where his late father, Charles Richard, an immigrant from Torino, Italy, established a small hotel and restaurant, Villa Charles, in the mountainous resort area known for its honeymoon specials.
"My father was born on the land and always preferred the country to the city," Richard said, adding that his father also endowed him with a love for European cuisine, fine wines and the culinary arts.
On purchasing the nutrient-rich land in the 16-mile-long Dry Creek Valley, Richard kept the original barn built in 1875 and developed a wine cellar on the stone foundation of the original winery. He completed construction of a main winery building in 1980 and uses oak barrels to age his most sensitive compositions.
A student of aesthetics and of the writings of Wendell Berry, a pioneer of the "sustainable agriculture" concept, Richard entered the premium wine business determined to stay small, quality-oriented and dedicated to preserving the land for future farmers.
"I consider myself a steward or caretaker of this place," Richard said. "I'm carrying forward the tradition of hard-working and independent farming that began in the mid-19th Century.
"I think of those who will follow me on this land. I try not to deplete the soils, but rather use natural resources as much as possible to sustain the land. Sustainable agriculture involves sacrifices and limitations. It is the foundation of my grape-growing program."
Richard uses a tractor for ground-breaking chores on the 35 acres of land he cultivates annually, but gets behind the draft horses for secondary plowing, to spread manure and to pull a portable incinerator through the fields to burn cuttings and deposit the ashes in the soil.
Advantage in Horses
"For an operation of our size and given what we started with, the use of draft horses is an appropriate technology," Richard said. "I am convinced that in certain situations such as ours, having horses for certain chores is practical and that many farms could use draft horses to their advantage.
"We use them to harvest some of the hillside vineyards, where they're certainly safer than a tractor on the steep slopes. They also do less damage to the soil by not compacting or tearing up the sod as much as the wheels of a tractor."
Richard said he concentrates on organically growing the "big five" varieties of the Medoc region of Bordeaux in France--20 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 4 acres of Merlot, 4 acres of Cabernet Franc, 1.5 acres of Petit Verdot and half an acre of Malbec. The grapes are blended to make his showcase wine, Cuvee Bellerose.
He also produces a white Sauvignon Blanc by blending Sauvignon Blanc grapes with Semillon and keeps the "outer limits" of total wine production at 6,000 cases a year.
Richard said the estate-bottled wines are sold in eight states, including New York and Pennsylvania, and have been exported to Canada and Switzerland.
"Our goal is to make California wines of distinction which reflect the soil, climate, grapes and character of the Bellerose Vineyard and the Dry Creek Valley," said Richard, who hopes to buy another team of draft horses and expand their duties as part of his philosophy of emphasizing the art rather than the science of farming.
"Agriculture is the heart and soul of America," he said, "and the horses symbolize those qualities and values of the family farm."