The Interplay of Sense and Sensibility: Insights from a Viticulturist

By | 24 February 2024

A vintage piece goes behind the scenes with Sonoma viticulturist Virginia Lambrix.


Stephen Brook

As part of our week-long focus on viticulture and the role of the viticulturist, we have gone deep into the archives to a vintage piece from WFW21 (September 2008). Touring Sonoma vineyards with Virginia Lambrix, Stephen Brook finds there is more to “buying in grapes” than simply buying in grapes, and leaves with an enhanced respect for the range of skills required.

Viticulture special: Marco Simonit—A lesson in substance and style

Viticulture special: Against the dying of the vine—A wake-up call from the nursery

Viticulture special: Wine in history—Ampelos, the satyr of the grapevine

Viticulture special: A deep dive into the Pinot gene pool

During the perfect September weather, both for humans and for grapes, I had the opportunity to enjoy an exquisite view from the balcony of my guest-room in a Sonoma Winery. The tranquil atmosphere was complemented by twinkling fairy lights and a beautiful view of the coastal range silhouetted on the horizon, all serving as a romantic setting while I savored the locally produced wines. I had the pleasure of meeting Virginia Lambrix the following morning.

After gaining experience in Chile with Concha y Toro and working in several viticultural and winemaking positions in Sonoma, Lambrix was appointed the lead viticulturist for DeLoach in Russian River Valley in 2005. She currently oversees winemaking and viticulture at Truett Hurst Winery located in Dry Creek, where she practices biodynamic farming to produce Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel.

The history of DeLoach is fascinating, having been originally owned by a former San Francisco fireman and his family before being sold to the Boisset family from Burgundy, now managed by energetic Jean-Charles Boisset.

Though DeLoach owns only a few vineyards, they have contracts with top growers throughout Sonoma County. Lambrix, sharing Jean-Charles’s passion for biodynamic farming, plays a crucial role in maintaining these relationships. DeLoach primarily sources their wines from organic or biodynamic vineyards.

During this most critical time of the year for the winery, Ginny was handed the responsibility of coordinating the harvest schedule for the 2007 vintage. The white grapes like Sauvignon and Chardonnay were safely in tank or barrel by late September. Still, only a few red grapes had been picked due to the hot September temperatures causing a rapid acceleration of grape ripening. As the weather cooled, the grapes ripened at a steady pace, developing their flavors alongside sugar levels. However, the rain on September 22 led to an increased vigilance against botrytis among the growers.

Ginny was waiting for me on this crisp Monday morning, a fleece over her shoulders, coffee in hand, bottles of water stuffed into the door pockets of her pickup truck. We had met a few times before, and she had always suggested I should join her to tour the vineyards. Now I was taking her up on the idea. Although during harvest she consults daily with winemaker Greg LaFollette—tasting berries and must, as well as talking—it is essentially her call when to order the picking at each vineyard. It’s a crucial decision: Pick too early and the grapes could be green and unbalanced; pick too late and there could be raisining, rot, and overripeness, leading to burly, alcoholic wines that neither of them wanted.

So, at this time of the year, Ginny is constantly on the road, visiting the vineyards, chomping on the grapes, and talking to the growers. Before setting off we stroll over to the pen where the sheep that graze the cover crop in the vineyards spend their nights. “I adore my sheep,” she says, somewhat unexpectedly. “They do a great job cleaning up the vineyards, but they can do dumb things like getting tangled in irrigation hoses. At the end of the day, I always need to check what they’ve been up to.”

To me they just look their placid selves. We salute the chickens, too—“Jean-Charles gets priority for the eggs”— then climb into Ginny’s pickup truck and head west to the first call: the Kent Ritchie Vineyard on undulating land in Russian River Valley. “Kent grows Chardonnay that everyone is after. It’s quite an old vineyard with varied exposures. Kent’s not organic, but he is willing to make some changes in the blocks I buy from, such as planting cover crop. Our best Sauvignon comes from here.”

Ginny is pleased with what she sees, so we are soon back on the road. Her cell phone rings, and as the day goes on there is a buildup of anxious messages from growers. “They all want to know when to pick our blocks. And it’s a tough call. It can take up to a week to set up a crew to go in and harvest. Many crews are booked solid at this time of the year, so we do need to plan in advance. Fortunately, the forecast is good for the next week, so that takes some pressure off us. Some growers never stop calling me. It can be irritating, but I understand their anxiety. They have farmed and worked all year, and they want their grapes to be picked at the optimal moment. I’m at the vineyards every two days, so I have a clear idea of what’s happening. You soon learn how to read the vines, to hear what they are saying. If a vine is unhappy, it knows how to tell you—if you can read the signals. And if I see that the vines are in trouble, I won’t hesitate: We’ll pick as soon as we can.”

We’re journeying along the renowned Westside Road of Russian River—golden territory for California Pinot Noir. We eventually steer onto a skinny road winding up into the hills. For several miles, there’s naught but pasture and woods. However, over a ridge, a vineyard reveals itself, located on a series of knolls. At the entrance, bales of straw are piled high—they’re destined to be strewn among the rows to ward off erosion but, for now, they form an organic playground of sorts. This whimsical touch enchants Ginny, but it doesn’t sway her opinions on the vineyard.

“I’m not fully satisfied with how this vineyard is managed and last year, we had more rot than anticipated. To address this, I flagged a row and maintained it myself, demonstrating to the grower how I’d like it done. For instance, I want the leaf-thinning done at the right time, a task he wasn’t always accomplishing. Essentially, I’ve handed him a one-year ‘get out of jail free’ card. He’s aware that if this year’s crop fails to meet my quality standards, we won’t be patronizing his vineyard again.” Ginny seems reasonably pleased with the current state of the vineyard. We depart the hillside and veer inland.

We have a moment to converse, and I ask her about her payment practices with growers. Some wineries choose to pay by the acre rather than by the ton, ensuring the grower gets the same amount regardless of yield. This approach places the economic risks of severe green-harvesting or late season grape gathering on the buyer. “Actually, we pay by the ton,” confesses Ginny. “For me, the deciding factor is that the vineyard maintains a balance and this means yields will differ. Two tons per acre might be the sweet spot on a chilly hillside but could be inadequate for a flatter, fertile site.”

Though her influence over farming practices is restricted, just like at Ritchie, some small-scale farmers welcome her guidance. At times, she will hire a vineyard management firm to maintain the vineyard when the farmer is either unable or unwilling to manage it themselves.

“There are some brilliant management companies out there, but you need to know who is going to do a good job. I’ll work closely with them to determine, for example, the irrigation regime. But you have to make sure they’re not taking advantage of you. Some companies subtly create additional work. They’ll overfertilize the soil so the vines show too much vigor, which can lead to disease problems. Then the company has to intervene to deal with it. If they hadn’t overfertilized in the first place, they wouldn’t have needed those remedial measures, which of course they charge for. But those companies are in the minority.”

She, and other viticulturists, always have to keep in mind the pride of the grower. If some welcome her views, others are likely to bristle at being told what to do, especially by a young woman. “Yes, there are a few traditional farmers out there who can be tricky to handle, but you just have to use some tact and common sense. I had a grower who had done a poor job with bunch-thinning and clearly wasn’t listening to what I had been saying. So on one trip to his vineyard, I cut off two adjoining bunches of Chardonnay that were botrytis-ridden and just left them on his doorstep. A few hours later, he called me and admitted that we had a problem that he wasn’t acknowledging before I made that gesture.

“You can’t always pick perfect grapes, so we can intervene by sorting the crop, either in the vineyard or at the winery. At some vineyards I will make sure I’m there to monitor the harvest and check every bin as it gets filled. Or we can sort at the winery. Frankly, it’s an economic issue. If the grapes are going into a low-priced blend, then the resources required to sort the fruit thoroughly won’t be available. If it’s going into a high-priced single-vineyard wine, then we won’t hesitate to sort.”

We reach the small Riebli Valley vineyard east of Santa Rosa. This rather flat site is studded with unruly bush vines that look half wild. Blackberry shoots tangle with the vine shoots. Many of the vines are clearly virused; some bear a healthy crop, others a few miserly bunches. “I just love this place,” says Ginny, with evident affection for the gnarled, dry- farmed vines, now 105 years old. “But it’s a mess. The vines are suffering from nutrient deficiency and virus problems. We can never get more than two tons per acre from them, so it’s not cost-efficient for us or the grower to invest in tending the vines properly. But it doesn’t seem to matter. They’re self-regulating. I find this vineyard humbling. It looks awful, but it gives us some great fruit and great wine.”

We return to the winery for an early lunch. Entering the lab, associate winemaker Brian Maloney presents a series of must samples. Some are currently grape juice; others have begun fermentation. The difference between the samples is noticeable, although it is difficult to predict the final outcome. Tasting Pinot Meunier must is an experience akin to sieving mush through my teeth. “What’s this in the beaker?” I ask Brian. Is it a grape or an insect?” Eventually, we finish scrutinizing this unappetizing line of beakers and head to the guesthouse terrace for a buffet lunch. Given that we’re in Sonoma, there’s a keen interest in vegetarian options.

Later in the Russian River Valley, we pay a visit to the Boudreaux Vineyard. All of its Pinot Noir crop is bought by DeLoach. Some parts of the vineyard puzzle Ginny due to the lethargic appearance of the vines. Inspecting some weak vines bordering the property, she chuckles. “These poor plants. They’re not growing well because they’re in close proximity to oak trees. Oaks are fiercely competitive and exude oils that inhibit the growth of other plants.” So, why do people plant in places detrimental to the health of the vines? “Because we’re optimists!” she declares.

Our venture takes us further west into Green Valley, arriving at Dick Giberti’s 1,100ft vineyard. The small plot is planted with a single Dijon clone of Pinot Noir. Ginny is satisfied with the quality of the fruit. “We’ve diligently worked with this vineyard. By reducing fertilizers and water, we’ve been rewarded with progressively better fruit. Some of it we will keep as whole clusters for fermentation.” She informs Giberti of her intention to pick on Friday. He is agreeable to it, but requests a couple of days’ notice in order to remove the netting from the vines. However, at the next vineyard we visit, Ginny is less impressed.

Despite the presence of netting, some damage has been inflicted upon the grape bunches. Birds, having learnt to clasp on the mesh and peck at the berries, are the culprits. “When you practice organic farming, the birds do return to your vineyard. It’s a positive indication, but it brings challenges as well. Nonetheless, birds usually feed on the grapes only when they reach 23° Brix and we’re still at 22° Brix. Maybe the birds are attracted by the fruit intensity here. It’s unfortunate that the grower, despite getting everything right, is being penalized. It’s regrettable. I’d prefer to wait another week if possible, but have to keep a close watch on this vineyard. It’s a frequent challenge: balancing further ripening against potential fruit deterioration.”

We continue our journey through Sebastopol towards the coast via Bodega Highway. We arrive at Hawk Hill Vineyard, perched at 700ft (213m) high. This windy site cultivates mostly Chardonnay. Ginny, our guide, shares, “This is an extraordinary vineyard. Budbreak starts early, and we often harvest in late October. This results in an incredibly long growing season.” We relish the grape and seed tasting done at every vineyard. “The fruit’s coming along well, but it’s not quite ready yet. We just need to be patient. I’m not worried about Hawk Hill at the moment. However, I may have to reassess if it starts raining next week.”

Paying a visit to Maboroshi Vineyard in the same vicinity, we learn about its Japanese owner. Ginny appears pleased with the progress so far. “We’ve reached 24°Brix, and the grapes’ flavour is exceptional. However, I’d prefer to wait another week to pick them since there’s no rush. This vineyard yields one of our most delicate and refined singular Pinot varieties. I’m seeking softer tannins. Right now, the sugar level is satisfactory, but the skins are slightly tough.” By mid-afternoon, the temperature had hiked to the high 70s F (mid-20s C), I’d estimate.

We sample the warm juice-filled grapes by crushing them between our teeth, challenging our skill to gauge their maturity and texture. Ginny confirms, “Absolutely. I won’t make a picking decision based on afternoon tastings. Your perception changes too much. It’s easy to misjudge, even in the best conditions. The grapes tasted as we tour the rows, tend to be the ones exposed the most, compared to those on the reverse side of the bunches. The latter ones are probably less ripe or might be showing early signs of disease.”

Further ahead at another vineyard, things don’t look too good. The clumps have been ruined by bees and birds, and the fruit has a long way to reach its peak. “Bee damage is a fairly recent development,” Ginny informs. “Some growers have installed traps that are quite effective, where the bees are poisoned inside bottles. However, this makes me feel uneasy given the decreasing population of bees across America. Yet, I understand the grower’s need to limit the harm the bees are causing.”

We are going to change our tactics here – we will need to sort the fruit at the time of picking, as any potential damage will have already spread by then. It could prove too perilous to use natural yeasts, though it’s usually our standard practice. It’s likely we’ll need to inoculate. Moreover, the farm poses its own share of challenges. The higher end of the slope requires watering; however, in doing so, the irrigation flow ends up overwatering the bottom rows since the water percolates downward. Finding a perfect solution that satisfies all areas isn’t straightforward. Ideally, the farm would benefit from pricey drainage, but the call to make that expenditure rests solely with the owner.

Moving away from the brisk environment of the Russian River, we take a ride back in the direction of Sonoma, breaking our journey in the Sonoma Mountain appellation. First, we visit the Farina Vineyard. Most blocks of fruit have been already collected, except for the ones meant for DeLoach. Despite the vineyard owner urging Ginny to wrap up the harvest, she insists that the Chardonnay needs a while longer.

Our final stop is the Vanderkamp vineyard, situated on Sonoma Mountain, with heights ranging from 1,200 to 1,800ft (365–550m). While awaiting our arrival, Martin Vanderkamp and his son Ulysses are engaged in conversation with another vintner, deciding which rows are suitable for her private label.

“We are simply good old-fashioned farmers from California,” Martin shares. “Initially, we had cultivated grapes for sparkling wine production during the 1960s. Now our fields grow a variety of Pinot clones, significant amounts of Pinot Meunier, and some Cabernet, which we might consider grafting over to Pinot.” As we navigate through the vineyard, Ulysses, with a pair of pruning shears holstered, dutifully trims leaves or crops overgrown shoots, constantly adjusting the vines. “We spend most of our time in our vineyard,” he expresses, brimming with pride. “While there are numerous vineyard owners in Sonoma, not all commit to working in their fields like we do.”

Ginny strolls through a row planted with Pinot Swan clone grapes that are on her purchasing list. She taps a stick and shriveled berries drop, indicating they are ripe for the pick. She informs her colleague, Martin, about her intentions to gather the Swan rows soon and has a conversation with the farmers about the unique merits of different clones, including the toughness of their skin and their ideal maturity points.

Whilst Ginny and Ulysses sift through the harvest schedule for different blocks and clones, Martin gives me a guided tour of the rest of the farm. We help ourselves to fresh, vibrant raspberries from the bushes and then proceed to the pumpkin patch. Martin tells me about a gigantic pumpkin they sent to DeLoach that weighed a whopping 180kg. There were even bigger ones that – oh, and you wouldn’t believe this – exploded. He vividly described it as a kind of “disgusting” growth. Soon, Ginny and Ulysses catch up with us at the vinegar shed. Martin proudly presents their aged vinegar stocks, some of which were half a century old, dubbing them “Calsamic” vinegar. It was a playful nod to its Californian origins.

Before allowing guests to depart empty-handed, Martin hands Ginny some ripe melons which, conveniently, fall into my possession. The intoxicating aroma prompts me to question why these melons tasted so splendidly ripe compared to the tasteless ones I’ve had at Californian hotel breakfast buffets. Martin replies, explaining the secret to their rich flavor is simply down to nature’s timing – they pick ripe fruits. Unlike large farms supplying hotels and institutions, they prioritize quality and flavor over longer shelf-lives.

Martin expressed his love for the farm, lauding the spiritual aura of the place, a favored spot for Native American medicine men and healers for conducting their sacred rituals. He narrates the intriguing story of Nathan, a well-known medicine man who found his calling after being struck by lightning while praying for his cancer-ridden mother atop a hill. The farm’s spiritual significance has also intimated plans for constructing a ceremonial hall for Nathan to channel his healing powers. He concludes with an upbeat tone, revealing that Nathan’s mother is alive and thriving.

“Let’s visit the Mayor before we leave,” says Ginny, after wrapping up her work. We are guided by the Vanderkamps back towards the lush vines. Sheltered beneath these rows, there’s a modest gravestone carrying the name of one Ed Hattam, a former mayor of Glen Ellen in the nearby Sonoma Valley. I couldn’t help but inquire about his resting place here. They reply, “He must’ve loved this place. Another mayor we know has also expressed interest in being buried, although in a different part of the vineyard.”

There could surely be far worse final resting places than a vineyard, where the relentless cycle of growth and decay rehearses annually. It is the responsibility of people like Ginny Lambrix and her fellow viticulturists, along with the growers, to ascertain the fine line that separates the year’s peak of growth and its gentle descend into dormancy.

My day spent amongst the vineyards of Sonoma has made me realize that there is more than meets the eye when a winery “purchases fruit” from a particular location. To acquire good fruit is to establish a relationship with the grower, exchange knowledge, vigorously inspect the vines throughout their growth phase, and employ diplomacy so that the grapes are harvested under the right conditions, at the right time. The judgment call from Ginny and the trust of the DeLoach winemakers will be pivotal in determining the quality of the resultant wine.

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