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Wine & Spirits

Vines of distinction

Larry Hyde, custom grower to an all-star list of winemakers, lovingly tinkers and prods to create unique fruit.

April 11, 2007|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Carneros — LARRY HYDE surveys his vineyard from the front seat of his "mule," a beat-up green truck small enough to drive down narrow vineyard rows, each vine within easy reach of the 61-year-old farmer's calloused fingers. One after the other, he tells the stories behind each of his 52 vineyard plots as he passes. The angle of each row, the soils and the genetics of each vine are puzzle pieces that he works to match. After 28 years, he says, the 180-acre Hyde Vineyard is still revealing itself. Perhaps his sons, now 23 and 21, will live long enough to learn its true character.

Though his words might sound like viticultural grandiosity, Hyde considers his long view simply practical. Vineyard experiments take years, sometimes decades, to show results. His vine-by-vine tinkering has required planting and replanting plots to discover the types and varieties of vines that work best in each section of Hyde Vineyard.

The winemakers who produce wines with grapes from Hyde Vineyard, an all-star lineup that includes Kistler Vineyards, Kongsgaard Wine, Paul Hobbs, Mia Klein's Selene Wines, Ramey Wine Cellars and Patz & Hall agree with him. And in 1999, the elite club expanded to include international wine celebrity Aubert de Villaine, codirector of Burgundy's Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. Hyde's cousin by marriage, Villaine has partnered with Hyde in HdV Wines, a winery using Hyde Vineyard fruit.

It's not just grapes that Hyde supplies to other winemakers. The vine stock he's cultivated is just as sought-after as his fruit. Cuttings he has shared with his friends are the backbone of a new generation of vineyards in Napa Valley and Sonoma.

At the pinnacle of the California wine industry is a handful of vineyards such as Hyde, operated by growers who cater to prestigious winemakers. The fruit is sold by the acre instead of by weight. Each winemaker controls his or her particular parcels, dictating farming methods and the amount of fruit produced as well as harvest dates.

Hyde Vineyard is so prestigious it's often designated on the wine bottle label. Paul Hobbs has a Hyde Vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon as well as a Pinot Noir. Patz & Hall has both a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir labeled "Hyde Vineyard." Selene produces a Hyde Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc.

"Larry invented the concept of the custom grower 20 years ago," says John Kongsgaard, who uses Hyde grapes in his Napa Valley Chardonnay. "I'd ask for no leaves on the morning side of the row except for one leaf fluttering above the grape cluster, and he did it. The guy next to me in the vineyard wanted exactly the opposite thing, and he'd do what that guy wanted. Every few acres are farmed completely differently."

"Larry knows every vine in his vineyard," says David Ramey with Ramey Wine Cellars, who along with many of the other winemakers asks Hyde to farm organically, which he prefers.

Over the years, the individual relationships between Hyde and his winemakers have become more like partnerships, extending into perpetuity with no need to renegotiate contracts. It's a club no one wants to leave, they say, with a long list of winemakers waiting to get in. "Larry is creative; he takes risks. What winemaker wouldn't want to be a part of that?" Selene Wines' Klein asks.

The uncommonly patient touch of the man who first planted wine grapes here in 1979 makes this slice of Carneros a viticultural hot spot, say the winemakers. The challenge of Hyde's partial paralysis, the result of a stroke when he was still in his 30s that forces him to rely on the mechanical "mule," only adds intensity to his viticultural mission, they say.

Not everyone saw greatness in Carneros. When Hyde bought the original 100-acre plot with his brother Richard and sister Diana, the most appealing characteristic was its low price. "In 1979, you could count on your hands the number of vineyards down here," Hyde says.

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A flourishing vineyard

CARNEROS developed as a viticultural afterthought to Napa and Sonoma. Stretching across the southern end of those two counties, the region's southern border is the flatlands above San Pablo Bay. The towns of Napa and Sonoma define its northern limits. Chilly fog from the bay blankets the land in the morning; ocean winds sweep in from the Pacific in the afternoon. The relatively light clay soils are shallow, extending only a few feet before hitting a layer of impenetrable clay. French Champagne house Taittinger defined it as a sparkling wine region when it established Domaine Carneros in 1987.

The bottom of the long, narrow Hyde Vineyard at Carneros Highway is only 20 feet above sea level. Tucked in a warm, northeast corner of Carneros, it is protected from the often-brutal Sonoma winds. Soils extend 3 feet before giving way to cement-like clay subsoils. A mile and a half away at the northern end of the vineyard, the elevation rises to 200 feet and the top layer of clay soils mixed with sand and rocks is somewhat deeper.

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