At the start of June, the Syrah and Petite Sirah crop growing in the Almond Hill Vineyard near Paso Robles, Calif., was looking the best of any the vineyard has produced in the past four years. Grower Dennis Van Westerhuyzen credits much of that to the rains the vines have received following the previous four abnormally dry seasons.
Since last summer, when an unusual mid-July storm dropped almost 3 inches of rain over a several-day period, he’s measured a total of 12.5 inches of rainfall. That’s just about 1.5 inches shy of normal for the period, he reports.
“The rain has helped this year’s crop tremendously,” he says. “Also, unlike the last three years, we had very little wind shatter during pollination. The clusters are back to near-normal size and look really nice.”
Located at the site of a former hillside almond orchard on the west side of the Paso Robles appellation, Van Westerhuyzen and his wife, Nicole Cavier, planted the vineyard’s first vines, 2.5 acres of Syrah, in 2000. Four years later, they planted four more acres of Syrah plus an acre of Petite Sirah.
Although they postponed retirement longer than originally intended as they developed the property, the vineyard now provides a fulfilling vocation for Dennis, after a career in the aerospace industry, and for Nicole, who formerly owned a screen printing business.
Their choice of grape varieties reflects their wine preferences. “We wanted to be able to make the kind of wine we like to drink, even if we couldn’t sell all the crop,” Van Westerhuyzen says.
Finding a home for their grapes hasn’t been a problem, however. In fact, they sold their first crop, in 2002, to a boutique winery next door.
“We believe great wines begin in the vineyard,” Van Westerhuyzen says. “So, we spend countless hours priming the vines to bear only a low yield of concentrated fruit.”
He figures their vineyard’s quadrilateral trellis system is capable of producing a 7- to 8-ton-per-acre crop. However, after veraison, he and his wife thin the clusters to just two per shoot to limit production to about 3 tons per acre. Typically, they keep the primary cluster, the one closest to the cordon, and the next largest, and clip off the rest. Prior to that, though, they thin the shoots to better adjust the canopy to the crop load. The number of shoots removed varies from spur to spur. Sometimes that’s as many as five.
“We want to leave two shoots per spur, and select the best ones with next year in mind.” Van Westerhuyzen says. “This produces extremely high quality fruit. The going price for Syrah grapes in this area is around $1,500 a ton. We’re able to sell ours for around $2,500 a ton.”
Also attesting to the quality of the grapes are several awards the vineyard’s estate wines have earned. They include a gold medal for their 2008 Syrah at the Sunset International Wine Competition, a gold medal and best of class for their 2009 Petite Sirah in the California Mid-State Central Coast Wine Competition and a silver medal for both the 2010 Petite Sirah and 2010 Syrah at the 2010 New York Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.
“We haven’t been able to correlate winning awards with increasing sales of our wines, so we no longer enter the competitions,” Van Westerhuyzen says.
The biggest crop for the 7.5-acre vineyard was 21 tons in 2010.
However, in 2011, an April frost wiped out most of the production, and only 6 tons were harvested. The following year marked the beginning of the drought which impacted the recovery of the vines. Since then, the vineyard’s annual crop size has varied between 6 to 8 tons per acre.
“The last four years have been tough for farming here,” Van Westerhuyzen says. “Because of the drought, the clusters haven’t been very large. Also, we’ve had high winds during pollination, losing as much as half of each cluster to wind shatter. So, we haven’t done much thinning.”
In fact, production the past several seasons wasn’t enough to meet contracted tonnage, he adds.
This year, however, prospects are much more promising. The Almond Hill Vineyard bloom began in the second week of May, about 10 days earlier than usual, he notes. Based on crop development so far, Van Westerhuyzen estimates production for the 7.5 acres of vine could total 11 to 12 tons this year.
Supplies of ground water here are in far better shape than the area east of Paso Robles. A water table that lies 220 feet below his vineyard and a drip irrigation system meets the needs of their vineyard.
Most of the grapes grown in the Almond Hill Vineyard are sold to wineries in the area. Van Westerhuyzen and his wife reserve a small amount of their grapes to produce wine in their garage for their own consumption. The rest they make into their estate wine at a commercial facility. It’s available through their wine club and local retail outlets and restaurants.
Meanwhile, native plants covering the ground between the rows of vines help limit erosion on the sloping land. Weeds under the rows are controlled with pre-emergence herbicides applied in January or early February. Mowing controls weed growth between the rows for the rest of the season.
Powdery mildew, which Van Westerhuyzen treats with a mixture of sulfur and fungicide every 14 days, is the main disease threat to the vineyard. However, the fungal trunk disease, Bot canker (Botryopshaeria dieback), has infected vines in one section of the vineyard. He plans to cut off the diseased portions of the vine to healthy wood below the canker, and then to retrain new cordons or trunks as needed to maintain production.
Pocket gophers continue to be a major problem in the vineyard. In addition to using traps, Van Westerhuyzen controls them with the Rodenator System. It injects a mixture of pure oxygen and propane into the burrows and ignites the gas, producing a concussive force that kills the pests.
Limiting the gopher population is complicated by the lack of gopher control on surrounding properties as well as the increased rainfall this season, he notes. “The rains have helped the weeds grow, providing more food for more gophers,” Van Westerhuyzen says.
This is just one of the challenges posed by Mother Nature that he and Nicole have learned to accept.
“I love working in the vineyard and marvel when I walk down the rows and see the clusters hanging from the vines,” he says. “Despite the many factors that we can’t control, we try to be as innovative as we can in growing our grapes. Also, we’ve learned a lot by listening to a number of growers who have much more experience than we do.”