Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Backyard Vineyards

Favorable Bay Area climate, terrain and soils, along with the quest for quality control, help sustain the growing backyard vineyard cottage industry where producing fine wines in a business that really hits home.

by Broderick Perkins
© 2008 DeadlineNews.Com
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Deadline Newsroom - After trading in his tech industry career for winemaking and later selling his successful Paseo Robles-based Meridian Vineyards, Paul Klein couldn't just walk away from life in the vineyard.

Literally bringing his work home, he and his wife Mary Ellen chose a trellis system of pinot noir grapevines to landscape a half acre on their six-acre, ridge-top homestead in southwest Morgan Hill.

This fall, a vintner partner will harvest the fruits of the couple's labor and brand it with their own private "Rattlesnake" label -- named for Mary Ellen's brief vineyard encounter with one of the venomous vipers.

"We've got a lot of property that just sits there doing nothing. If you've got the property and you like wine, there's nothing better than a vineyard," says Klein.

The Kleins belong to a unique group of wine aficionados who have enough fertile acreage to spare for a growing cottage industry of winemaking that farms so-called "backyard vineyards."

Favorable Bay Area climate, terrain and soils, along with the quest for quality control, help sustain the growing backyard vineyard business, including the Klein's chosen vintner, San Martin-based Clos LaChance.

Clos LaChance farms its own 150 acres of grape vines and it manages the additional 80-acres of vineyard surrounding the CordeValle Vineyard Estates residential community. The community's homes were sold with the option of a backyard vineyard.
The winery's CK Vines subsidiary oversees the unique backyard vineyards operation by managing and maintaining -- farming -- 30 acres of vineyards on 20 private properties from the Santa Cruz mountains to the Central Coast.

The Clos/CK commercial operation is itself rooted in a backyard vineyarding effort that produced a chardonnay so compelling the home owners became vintners.

They are Clos LaChance owners, Bill and Brenda Murphy, who planted their first vineyard on their Saratoga property not to make wine, but to stabilize an eroding hillside.

Says Bill Murphy, another tech industry transplant, grapevines thrive in hillside soil because of the gravity-induced drain off -- vines like arid soil. And the deep grapevine roots keep slopes from sliding -- which explains the preponderance of hillside vineyards.

In addition to the soil- and water-saving qualities that makes growing grapes a more sustainable form of farming, grape farming doesn't require repeated plowing, rotation or periods of dormancy to rejuvenate the soil -- practices common to many farmed crops. Once the vine stock is hardy and set, after the third or fourth year or so, the same vines reproduce glowing grapes year after year.

And when it comes to a property's resale value, vineyard landscaping is a better deal than a staid lawn or a scrubby shrub-lined fire break perimeter common in rural settings.

"In terms of real estate value. I've had a few clients who had reason to sell their home years after they put in a vineyard and the vineyard was a huge upside in terms of property value," said Ken Wornick, owner of Redwood City's La Honda Winery. His subsidiary, the aptly titled Post and Trellis, manages 30 backyard vineyards throughout the Bay Area, the only grape source of La Honda wines.
And then there's the romance. A vineyard is like a year-round living postcard, from the starkness of dormant, leafless vines in the winter, to spring's "bud break" and the flowering that follows. Later, the burst of the verdant green canopy heralds the arrival of plump green or red fruit and the harvest.

For six years now, the vineyard's cycle of life has been the backdrop for weddings, parties, non-profit events and 16-grandchildren family dinners for Elaine and Dana Ditmore, who years ago planted an acre of merlot grapevines on their San Martin property.

"We did it for the beauty of it," sad Elaine Ditmore, who has enjoyed two vintages for the family's private vineyard.
"We also pick some for table grapes if the birds don't get them," she said.

But Ditmore cautions, a backyard vineyard is not an overnight sensation.

"We put it in ourselves at first and quickly learned we weren't skilled enough and didn't have the time. You have to make sure it's what you want to do," she warned.

That's where operations like Post and Trellis and CK Vines come in.

CK Vines, for example, determines what grapes are best suited for a given site and contracts to install the trellis system and the grapevines. The property owner buys the design and installation at a fixed cost of about $45,000 an acre. CK Vines also farms the vineyard, providing regular maintenance and management, also for a fixed rate of about $7,000 a year.

It takes three or four years before the vineyard produces viable grapes suitable for harvest and winemaking. Wine making can take another 18 months to three years, with longer fermenting necessary for the reds.

When the grapes are ready, Clos LaChance purchases the harvest for about $1,200 per ton. Each acre produces about two to four tons of grapes which are blended with other compatible grapes for Clos LaChance wines.

Property owners can include in the contract a purchase or share of the wine produced, including a private label batch of blended wine that includes their backyard vintage.

A backyard vineyard is typically not a wine-for-profit proposition. It takes a larger vineyard stake, say five acres or more, to produce profitable quantities of grapes.

"They do it because they are really crazy about wine and they think a vineyard makes for spectacular landscaping," says Wornick, who found winemaking a solutions for his yen for both science and art.

"It's for people who like the idea, but they just want to look out the window and see it. They don't need another job," Wornick added.

Wornick says the vintner gets the other half of the backyard vineyard win-win proposition because the arrangement allows the vintner to maintain control over the quality of wine by managing the backyard vineyards.

That's just fine with Herb Schneider, one of the founders of Extreme Networks in Santa Clara. Also turning tech industry green into a farm of grapes, Schneider chose a Post and Trellis vineyard at his Los Altos Hills home after he'd had enough of annual weed management chores required to keep his three-acre hillside property fire safe.

Since Post and Trellis planted a half acre of syrah and a smaller plot of Semillon six years ago, he's netted three syrah vintages each with 250 bottles of his private Quartermoon Vineyard stock.

"We don't have to water it much, it's absolutely stabilized the hill and it's produced an incredible fruit crop we can drink. I've got more wine than I can drink and give away to friends in a lifetime," Schneider said.

© 2008 DeadlineNews.Com

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Broderick Perkins, an award-winning consumer journalist of 30 years, is publisher and executive editor of San Jose, CA-based DeadlineNews Group -- DeadlineNews.Com, a real estate news and consulting service and Web site and the new Deadline Newsroom, DeadlineNews.Com's news back shop. In both cases, it's news that really hits home!

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