The SOMM Journal

August / September 2016

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Page 48 of 148

48 { THE SOMM JOURNAL } AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2016 The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA (SLH) is one of the world's most highly acclaimed regions for producing Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Yet, these world-class wines come from an unexpected place. Heading north along Highway 101, we pulled off at the Starbucks in Gonzales, California—a sleepy farming community—to meet with Steve McIntyre of McIntyre Vineyards. Driving on tractor roads past the row crops of the Salinas Valley (which is responsible for the second largest farming economy in the world), I couldn't help but notice the irony. World-class wines are always made in the vineyard, but those vineyards aren't always surrounded by Michelin-starred restaurants and B&Bs. To that point, McIntyre and many other win - eries in the SLH have tasting rooms located in tourist-rich Carmel and Monterey, about an hour's drive from the vineyards. After about 15 min - utes, we pulled into McIntyre's estate vineyard tucked up against the foothills facing east. McIntyre purchased the 80-acre par- cel, which was previously the abandoned McFarland vineyard, in 1987. At the time, he was Assistant Winemaker at Hahn's Smith & Hook in Monterey County. McIntyre is a tall, soft-spoken yet incred - ibly passionate man who, by the end of the day, gave me a world of insight into sustainable farming, the region and the history of the appellation. Although McIntyre started out in the cellar, he and his wife, Kimberly, established a farming company, Monterey Pacific, which over the years has been responsible for planting and/or farming 25 percent of the appellation, in addition to properties they farm outside of the SLH through - out Monterey County. Sustainability & Weed Control Observing the original block of Pinot Noir on the property, planted in 1972, I was surprised to see the vigor of the old vines. Having been involved in biodynamic, organic and sus - tainable farming practices, McIntyre understands that the health of the vineyard is truly important for longevity and has gleaned a great deal of knowledge through decades of observation. The vineyard supports a volunteer cover crop, made up of mainly native grasses that propagate and provide protection against erosion in the winter months. When the vines wake up from dormancy in the spring, the tall cover crop acts as a windbreak for the fragile new growth and subsequently raises the ambient air temperature in the canopies, which helps with fruit set. Rather than tilling the cover crop back into the soil in late spring, to avoid water competition between the growing vines and "weeds," McIntyre waits patiently. "By not mowing until later, you discourage the broad-leaf weeds," he says referring to obnoxious weeds like mallow and mustard. "Broad leaf seeds need sunlight for germination so by not mowing it, we've taken out the sunlight." This controls the more problematic weeds and provides a place for beneficial insects. Perennial grasses stay in place until the seeds have matured, thereby fulfilling their lifecycle, and then are mowed rather than tilled. Since these grasses are drought and daylight obligate, an evolutionary trait that has enabled them to survive dry California summers, they won't grow back until the winter months when the days are shorter and the rain more prevalent. Not only does this approach make sense for weed control, it also helps to support the colonies of beneficial bacteria, mycor - rhizal fungi, which benefit the vines by converting minerals to nutrients that the plants can use. "Here was the proof in the pudding," said McIntyre. He referred to study that had taken place in Monterey County years ago by Kendra Baumgartner, from the University of California at Davis. She conducted a five-year experiment to identify effec - tive vineyard farming practices. The study observed increased compaction over time from cultivation (or tilling) of the cover crops and noticeably larger populations of mycorrhizal bacteria in cover crops that were not tilled. Since the grasses are dormant, not dead, the mycorrhizae live on their roots; tilling would disturb this symbiotic relation - ship. In addition, tilling essentially kills the plant, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more reactive than carbon dioxide (CO 2 ). What about the legumes, like sweet pea, which are often planted in cover crops for nitrogen? "You don't really need them in this system because we're removing very little nitrogen every year. But where we need nitrogen, we use compost," said McIntyre. The compost is strewn next to the vines using a compost spreader without disturbing the cover crop. It's no surprise that McIntyre was one of the founding members of the Central Coast SIP (Sustainability in Practice) Certification Program (see more about this program on page 104). He has worked diligently since to ensure that all McIntyre wines are SIP-certified, which not only takes into account the practices in the vineyard, but also those in the winery and the economic sustainability of its employees. The Winery With great attention to detail in the vineyard, it's no wonder that McIntyre adopts a minimalist approach when it comes to winemak- ing. Although the winery was founded in 2005, he has always been { monterey county } Looking at the new Calera planting we see McIntyre's "proof" of weed control. This area had been tilled to prepare the land for the new vines. The volunteer cover crop has grown in, but in addition we see numerous hearty weeds, especially mustard, which was barely present in the established vines prior to mowing.

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