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Plagued by inclement weather, Monterey County's wine makers are slowly gaining vinous respectability : Monterey's Windy Vineyards

April 06, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

GONZALES, Calif. — When the afternoon wind roars down the Salinas Valley, it rakes the leaves on 25,000 acres of vines and peels them away from the clusters of grapes.

It's a pretty sight: bunches of grapes glistening in the sun. But growers Rich Smith and Terrel West cringe at this display of nature's power because they fear that wine quality will suffer.

Among the other ills visited upon this verdant valley famed for its greenery, excessive wind creates more havoc for the grape grower than any other malady. And there are plenty of maladies.

Wind, cold weather, fog, pestilence and more have plagued most of Monterey County's grapevines for the three decades they have been here, reducing what once was America's most-promising wine-growing region to an enigma.

Today, however, after wrestling with the problems of growing their vines and with the image of their wines, the growers and wine makers of Monterey now have a map out of the maze. Science is showing the way. Monterey County, a 100-mile region stretching from San Francisco Bay in the north to San Luis Obispo County in the south, is slowly gaining vinous respectability.

But it has been a hard fight from those days in the early 1960s when the wine-making experts from UC Davis first identified Monterey County as one of America's likeliest spots to grow fine wine grapes.

Heartened by those reports, Wente Bros., Mirassou, Paul Masson and some large growers sank fortunes into the soil. By the late 1970s, Monterey County had more than 20,000 acres of vines growing; by 1982 that number had leaped to 35,000 acres, more than Napa or Sonoma.

And the early wines from Monterey showed promise. But they also had in them a characteristic that has dogged the county's reputation for decades. In polite circles, it's called herbaceousness. Bluntly, it's called "the veggies."

A strong vegetative character pervaded many of the varieties growing here. In some cases, the aroma was as faint as freshly cut grass or newly mown hay. At its heaviest, it grew to celery tops and cabbage smells, and some wines were even described as having the stench of week-old cooked asparagus.

"The duration of heat during the day is shorter than any other wine-growing region in the world," said Smith, president of Vineyard Management of Soledad, who farms 1,700 acres of vineyard land.

Smith said that the short daytime heat, combined with strafing afternoon winds, reduces the maturity in grapes. So even though grapes may get physically ripe, with plenty of sugar, physiological maturity is retarded, leaving the grapes with an under-ripe quality.

That gives wine the veggies.

So grape-growing experimentation began. But in solving one problem, others were created. Some growers tried to expose more grapes to the sun to get needed maturity into the grapes. But excessive sunlight burns grapes, and sunburn produces yet another non-wine aroma, akin to charred paper.

Wente attacked the problem by planting different clones of the same variety to see how they would grow in different exposures; Mirassou tested the soil with water-measuring devices to see if soil moisture was a solution; Jekel adopted only tested grapes; Masson and Almaden harvested Monterey grapes, then blended them with grapes from other regions that had less of the veggies.

Doug Meador of Ventana Vineyards, a former jet pilot and apple grower, used irrigation control as his first attempt to fight the problems. All had a degree of success.

West, a respected grower with a row-crop background, attacked the problems using growing systems. He first asked himself the question: If wind, cold, fog, lack of heat, and excessive sunlight all were problems, was there a growing system that helped to maximize warmth and still minimize sun exposure and the effects of the wind?

The answer came to his vineyards in Arroyo Seco from New Zealand, and it was a vine-training system developed by Richard Smart, along with data accumulated in New York. West, as well as Smith, Meador and other vine-growing experts here, adopted versions of the system.

For lack of a better term, this system is called the Monterey Harp because the canes (arms) of the vines are trained to grow up in an arc higher than usual growing systems, simulating a harp. The leaves are then splayed out higher than in standard growing systems.

Holding the canes in place and thinning them so there aren't too many leaves prevents them from swaying in the wind. It also prevents them from bending away from the clusters and allowing too much sunlight to shine directly on the grapes. Thus shielded, the grapes don't get sunburned.

And by keeping the leaves spread out in a fan, no umbrella of leaves can form to can keep cold nighttime temperatures in and thus reduce maturity. The sunlight also has to filter through no more than three leaves to get to the grapes.

"Frankly, no one ever developed a very good system for growing fine-wine grapes in a cool, dry desert like this," said West.

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