Wineries insist that grapes are extremely sensitive to terroir—that the soil flavor of adjacent hillsides is different enough that they can be detected in the finished wine. Paul disagrees. Sure, grapes from Napa will have different characteristics than those from Sonoma, or the Rhone Valley, but the distance of several football fields makes little or no difference at all. Some wineries sell what's called block wine. In other words, they ferment and bottle grapes from one plot and sell it as superior to another nearby plot. According to Paul, it's a bunch of hogwash. If you're growing your grapes well, then a few hundred yards, or a quarter mile for that matter, makes no difference.
Of course, within that thought lives the simple notion that the grapes need to be grown well. So what does that mean anyway? In the case of Paul Bernier, less is more. "Wineries think the growers are magicians, but I'm more of a shepherd; I just keep the wolves away," he said, almost chuckling.
One of those wolves wears bacteria's clothing, and bacteria loves a moist environment. To avoid the need for both fungicides and herbicides, Paul uses a technique called dry farming. Every spring, he tills the ground throughout the vineyards. This adds nutrients to the soil by way of decaying weeds. It also creates a layer of mud that quickly dries into what is called a dust mulch. The vines are not irrigated. Instead they pull all the water they need from beneath the ground. This environment is hostile for bacteria, so Paul saves money on both spraying and watering. Instead of adding chemical nutrients to the soil, he churns in composted grapes along with some oyster shells. "It's what the plants want," he told me.
I found this YouTube video of Paul working the farm:
Well, it seems to be working. Dutcher Crossing is charging (and getting, I'm sure) $39 a bottle for wine made from Paul's grapes. I tasted it and it's delicious, yet it stands out in a valley full of Zinfandels because Paul grows what is called a field blend. Intermingled with his Zin are three other varieties: Petit Syrah, Carignane, and Matero. He told me the percentage, but I wouldn't want to give away too much of his secret, one he learned from an Italian grape farmer of the old school. "Those guys knew how to live," he said as we climbed through the vineyard. The different grape varieties grow together, are picked together, and are fermented together. Their combined taste is something of a signature.
But there's more.
Grape vines produce two fruitings a season. The vineyards are only interested in the first crop, believing the quality to be better. That leaves the second crop as a sort of insurance policy. One that Paul usually turns into his own wine. I asked if the quality were any different from crop to crop. He asked me if I'd like a bottle of his wine and said, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
A writer loves when a farmer says that sort of thing.
So I drank Paul's wine with some wine connoisseur friends. These are people who know more about wine than I ever hope to, and they loved it. I loved it too. It tastes very much like Dutcher Crossing's version, but slightly rougher. Rougher in the best of all possible ways, too. It tastes as if there are berries the size of basketballs, and prunes dried in dessert sun, with enough cloves and anise to build a gingerbread house. And dirt. The wine tastes like dirt. Dirt that has been worked year after year with grape compost, oyster shells, and love.
It's inspiring to meet people like Paul Bernier. He removes the pretension from what can be a pretty haughty subject and focuses on what really matters. He pours in his love and stewardship of the land to receive the best fruit he can grow. Then, he pours the wine of his grapes at his dinner table. That's a guy who knows how to live.
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