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History in the Making

At One Winery, the Past Is as Important as the Present in Bid to Revamp Viticulture


SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Ken Brown is explaining how his Byron winery is heading back to the future--all the way back to Newtonian law, in fact--to revolutionize winemaking.

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of wineries [are] designed on one level and at some point must pump the juice and the grapes," he said. "That agitates the wine."

Better, he said, to let gravity do the work. That means less wear and tear on the grapes and more flavor in the wines.

In a profession as ancient as winemaking, it seems fitting that the latest technological advances would have gravity as their centerpiece.

Here at the multilevel facility that Byron Vineyard & Winery has built into a burnished hillside in the Santa Maria Valley 75 miles north of Santa Barbara, grapes and juice are poured, rather than pumped, into fermentation tanks and barrels.

With "gravity flow" and other innovations--one of them borrowed from the aerospace industry--Byron is demonstrating the lengths to which one winery has gone in a bid to win a reputation for quality and set itself apart from the growing pack of U.S. and overseas rivals as demand for premium wine heats up.

"The competition is so keen," said James Laube, author of Wine Spectator magazine's "California Wine," a glossy guide to 700 of the state's wineries. "The pressure is on constantly to make better wines."

The expectation is that with gentler handling, the highly regarded Burgundian-style varieties that Byron produces--Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris--will improve enough to command prices higher than their current $11 to $28 a bottle. An extra $5 to $10 a bottle for Byron's best wines would enable the winery and its owner, Robert Mondavi Inc., to recoup more quickly the $4-million investment in the new building and a planned bridge to get to it.

In Byron's case, we're not talking quantum leaps, either. Fans of Byron's better wines, Brown maintains, would be willing to pay more for a mere 1% to 2% improvement--however that might be measured.

The 32,000-square-foot winery, completed in early August after a year of construction, is designed to last a century. It's the latest phase in Byron's pursuit of world-class wines.

But the push to use state-of-the-art techniques to improve quality actually began in the vineyards, long before blueprints for a new winery were drawn. Byron Kent Brown, who co-founded the winery in 1984, knew many years ago that his 125-acre property needed massive reworking to become great.

"All of our vineyards were planted to the wrong density, wrong [grape] clones, wrong trellising system and wrong rootstocks," Brown said.

By selling the winery to the Mondavi family six years ago, winemaker Brown secured the cash he needed to begin experimenting with new vineyard configurations and growing methods.

Block by block, Brown has replanted, trying out several dozen rootstocks as well as new clones (or genetic variations) of vines from France, Oregon and California. He varied the distance between rows and between vines.

A chief goal has been to increase the density of plantings, European-style. More densely planted vines must compete for sustenance, resulting in reduced yields, smaller berries and more intense fruit.

Some Byron acres now contain 4,300 vines each, nearly nine times the standard in California. (With the addition of neighboring land bought by the Mondavis, the Byron estate has grown to 641 acres.)

Under Brown's direction, vineyard rows have been changed from an east-west to a north-south orientation to allow for more sunlight exposure on both sides of the vine "canopy." More than 400 acres, including a 60-acre block devoted to research, have been converted to a European-style vertical trellis system. Four movable wires push leaves and grapes upright as the vines grow, ensuring that clusters will get maximum sun exposure and air circulation--important factors in the state's coolest grape-growing region.

Among the transformed vineyards is a 120-acre Chardonnay block that is the oldest commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County. It was planted in 1964 by Uriel Nielson, a UC Davis student, against the advice of his viticulture professors, who said the climate was too chilly for grape growing.

Since then--after nearly 50 years of viticultural dormancy beginning with Prohibition--the region has enjoyed a rebirth. It now is the widely recognized home to more than 30 wineries. Byron wines--particularly its top Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs--are typically rated among the best of the up-and-coming Santa Barbara-area breed.

Part of the impetus for improvement comes from Robert Mondavi's son Tim, a proponent of natural farming techniques and gentler handling of grapes. The Mondavi family's prestigious Opus One winery in the Napa Valley was one of the first to return to the pre-electricity method of using gravity flow. But pumps are still in use there for moving juice and finished wines.

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