A Shepherd of the Vines

If snobs lie at one pole of the wine world, Paul Bernier lies at the other. He grows top-notch grapes because he stays down-to-earth—and close to it, too.


Ian Knauer

Recently, I attended Dry Creek Passport in Sonoma County, California. Passport is a weekend-long event at which 50-plus vineyards open their tasting rooms to hoards of thirsty Zinfandel drinkers. I was in attendance on a press pass, and the folks who were running the public relations for the weekend will, no doubt, be happy that I thought enough of the wine to write about it.

By all accounts, Dry Creek Valley is producing some world-class wines. Of course, not every bottle made in the Valley is world-class. But some are. Phil Hearst at Truett Hearst makes a very fine Pinot Noir and an extremely delicious Zinfandel Rose. Unti Vineyards is producing a stellar Grenache. Just about everything available to the wine club members of Michel Schlumberger will knock your socks off, and anyone can join the club. Debra Mathy of Dutcher Crossing has cultivated relationships with the finest grape growers in the Valley, and the proof of their skill (and the skill of her winemaker, Kerry Damskey) is in every bottle. But the best bottle of wine I had from Dry Creek Valley, by far, is one that is unavailable to just about everyone.

The PR machine behind Passport won't be too thrilled about this fact, I guess. But still, they should be happy I met Paul Bernier, the man who made that bottle of wine in his tool shed.

I met Paul at Dutcher Crossing Winery. He was tucked in a corner of the tasting tent, pouring Zinfandel. The wine was made from the grapes he grew in the summer of 2007. Paul is not a wine snob or a sophisticated viticulturist (and there are plenty of both crawling around Sonoma). Paul is a grape farmer and he looks the part, which is to say, rough, grizzled, and slightly awkward when tucked into a corner of a wine-tasting tent. So, immediately, I liked him.

Within 30 seconds we were fully engaged in a discussion about how immigration legislation will affect the industry. (Paul's view is that it won't. "The immigration issue is a thorny problem and I am just sorry that it has become politicized by people with other agendas." Paul pays his pickers $20 to $25 an hour. "The wages we pay gets the job done," he told me. "They're here and they want to work.") Even on dirty subjects, Paul thinks like a farmer—with his feet firmly planted in the ground.


Ian Knauer

The wine Paul was pouring, although made from his grapes, was crafted by the Dutcher Crossing team. When I asked if they were doing a good job with his grapes, he told me he thought they were, but that I should be the judge. Paul's job is growing grapes, not judging wine. Then he invited me to see his vineyards at 7:00 the next morning. Of course, I took him up on it.

I met him at his house, where he planted five acres of grapes 20 years ago. In addition, he farms 30 acres with grapes ranging in age from one to 100 years. They are pruned in a style called head training, which makes it impossible to harvest the grapes by machine. They need to be picked by hand. This is one of the keys in the relationship between the vines and a farmer like Paul. Just by means of harvest, he is already so much closer to the plants than many of his tractor-picking contemporaries. He actually needs to touch the vines, and he does, almost every day. We stood on one of his planted hillsides as the sun finished rising, and he described his pruning techniques. He pointed out the fresh buds, then laid his hand, over-sized from decades of labor, on an old, gnarled branch of the vine as if laying a hand on the shoulder of an old friend. This man loves these plants. When I asked him about the physical difficulty of his chosen profession, he smiled with the innocence of a child. "Heh, this isn't hard. This is fun."

He took me to see another one of his planted hillsides, the Bernier-Sibary vineyard, about a quarter mile down the road from his house. And this is when things started to get really interesting. Over the course of our conversation, Paul debunked several modern wine myths. And although I encouraged this with the questions I asked him, I got the feeling that he wanted these facts to be known.



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.