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Crumly's Vines

For those of us who don’t farm grapes for a living or live next door to someone who does, a vineyard seems like a very stable, unchangeable place.  The grapevines bud in spring, grapes form into beautiful bunches in the summer, harvest takes place in autumn as the leaves turn red, gold and brown, then everything is dormant in winter.  End of story.  Repeat next year.


But, of course, it doesn’t happen that way.  At any particular time, a significant percentage of most vineyards is in transition.  Old vines have been ripped up, new ones are being planted and those recently planted are in waiting until they are mature enough to go back into full production. 


Although we love to hear about old-vine vineyards, grapes lose their productivity as they grow older and often fall prey to diseases.  These are replaced on a rotated basis.  Additionally, growers are always looking for better clones and better rootstocks for better-tasting or healthier grapes.  Then there are market forces.  If syrah isn’t popular, then maybe it’s time to replant with merlot.


I was talking the other day with Mike Crumly, vice president for vineyard operations at Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma’s Carneros, which was what got me thinking about the slow but constant pace of commercial vineyards.  When Champagne makers such as Moet & Chandon, Roederer, Taittinger and Mumm came to California in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, they purchased or planted varieties they used back home, chiefly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.


However, Gloria Ferrer is owned by Freixenet, which makes cava on the outskirts of Barcelona from a totally different assemblage of grapes.  “I wasn’t about to plant Macabeo,” Crumly said.  He wanted the best Chardonnay and Pinot he could find, and, in the mid-1980’s, journeyed to Champagne to look for clones not previously planted in the U.S..  Now, 25 years later, he is finally getting his vineyards the way he wants them.


“We had introductions to a gentleman at Roederer who promised to help us,” Crumly recalled.  “But people in California said, ‘You won’t get anywhere with the French!’”  Au contraire.  “He showed us everything.  He showed us the experimental trials, and then he started pulling corks,” Crumly said.  “We tasted base wines, we tasted finished wines.  We got a little looped.”  He was invited to take what he wanted.  And so Crumly came back to California in 1987 with 12 clones of Pinot and 6 of Chard that weren’t be grown here.


Now, let’s condense the three decades since.  New vines have to be tested for viruses and such, but U.C. Davis was renovating its facilities at the time.  The cuttings went to British Columbia instead.  Quarantine studies and other matters took four years.  Once the vines got back to Sonoma, the whole process of gearing up for mass production from the vines – “they were scrawny little things” – took even more years.  Test plots of each clone were established, then expansion blocks.  “We finally started trials on seven-year-old vines in 1999,” Crumly says.


They compared wines made from these grapes to the base wines from other vines Gloria Ferrer had been growing for a couple of decades from already-established clones.  After all, hundreds of thousands of case of sparkling wine had to be made to keep consumers happy while Crumly was getting his French imports ready.  Now he has.


So if you drink a bottle or two of Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs or Va de Vi over the holidays, remember that Mike Crumly thinks they’ve gotten the grapes just where he wants them – for the moment.  “It’s taken practically my whole career at Gloria to get here,” he says.


And soon it will be time to start replanting.

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