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Dirt Farmer

Paul Bernier's vines are celebrated for what they lack: water

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Early one morning in September, Paul Bernier prepares for a day of work in Healdsburg's Dry Creek Valley. He grabs a mortar and pestle, a sugar meter, a sack of home-dried pears and a three-foot-long temperature probe. We pile into the cab of his scruffy pickup, dogs in back, and bounce down the road. We're going to spend the day working the dry-farmed Zinfandel vineyards he manages. But this time of year he doesn't call it work; he calls it "goofing off."

Bernier, 65, is lanky, with a head of darkish, curly steel wool and an impish grin. A farmer at heart, he settled on grapes by way of attrition. Grapes were the one crop he didn't kill.

"I'm not too sensitive around plants," he says. "But grapes can stand me."

Bernier's methods do at times appear to push the boundaries of tough love and benign neglect. But for all of his professed horticultural limitations, his services are in high demand. And he only takes on the hardest cases.

"Most of my grapes are on marginal land," Bernier says. Which is to say, old vines, usually hearty Zinfandel grapes, clinging to thin-soiled hillsides, planted by stubborn Italian immigrants.

These "old Italian guys," as he calls them, began hiring Bernier to implement their methods when they became too old to do it themselves. By way of micromanaging him, these growers initiated Bernier into an agriculture practice that is still very much alive in the Mediterranean basin (which includes parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa) and is catching on in California. That an insensitive plant person like Bernier, who grows grapes on the steepest, boniest hillsides he can find, can produce such impressive yields is a testament to the power of these methods. They boil down to one simple, if counterintuitive, practice: don't water the grapes.

Dry farming came over from the Mediterranean with Bernier's mentors. It depends on wet winters and dry summers, also known as the Mediterranean climate, which California famously has. There are dry-farming methods used in the East Coast and Midwest that depend on summer rains, but the aim of Mediterranean-style dry farming is to store as much of the winter rains in the earth as possible. The following summer, when it hasn't rained for months, dry farmers like Bernier won't give their crops a drop, because they don't need it. In fact, surface irrigation would only water the weeds. Vines that have been weaned from irrigation, on the other hand, grow deep roots with which to tap those stored winter rains.

As Bernier learned and refined the techniques passed on to him by the old Italian guys, he built a reputation as a rescuer of vineyards on the edge of failing, regularly coaxing three to four tons' worth of grapes from an acre of dry hillside. If he were growing on prime, valley bottomland, and irrigating his grapes, he says he'd get closer to six. But then his grapes wouldn't be in such high demand.

Bernier calls himself a sharecropper. It's a humble word in California's high-brow wine community, but entirely accurate. He cultivates vineyards on other peoples' land, in exchange for 65–85 percent of the harvest. Many of his clients come to him because they've heard he can rescue the dying vineyards that experts have told them should be torn up. And winemakers seek out his harvests, because it turns out that grapes grown on marginal land, without irrigation, produce some great wine.

Our day includes a stop at Dry Creek's Nalle Winery, for a quick tour and a sip of wine. Andrew Nalle, the manager and owner, uses Bernier's grapes in his Bernier-Sibary Zinfandel, Nalle's top-selling label, and his Dry Creek Zin blend. All three of Nalle's top-selling wines are from dry-farmed grapes. The wines are remarkably dry and smooth for Zinfandels, with all of the dark complex mystery that Zins often miss because of the higher alcohol, fruit laden–style produced by irrigated vines.

The flavors imparted by dry-farmed grapes "are more vibrant, and linger longer," Nalle says. "The sugars are more in line with the ripeness of the fruit. The sweetness matches the flavor."

Later in the day we do a similar drill at Peterson Winery, also in Dry Creek, where Tom Peterson explains how it is that dry-farmed vines produce superior grapes.

"The plants aren't there to make you wine," Peterson says. "The fruit exists to disperse the seeds. So the seeds need to ripen at the same time that the fruit ripens. In the vinifera [grape] family, the vine wants to grow like hell, above the other plants. When you irrigate the vines, it tricks them into thinking they should keep growing."

When the sugars are where you want them for winemaking, the fruit doesn't have any flavor and the seeds aren't ripe, he says. The fruit isn't physiologically mature. "The nuances that make great wine happen in the last few weeks of the grape's maturation. If they ripen too quickly, they don't develop the esters and aromatics that attract creatures."

Also, Peterson notes, the deeper roots tap into mineral flavors from down below, adding to coveted claims of terroir.

When one considers the water savings associated with dry farming, plus the higher quality of produce and higher price it fetches, it should all amount to more than enough incentive for a farmer to give it a shot. But the advantages don't end there.

"I dry-farm because I'm lazy," Bernier says, with a coyote's glint in his eye.

He's kidding, of course. Sort of. Bernier keeps a ferocious pace through the day. But there is an undeniable time-savings enjoyed by dry farmers that can't be ignored. They don't need to bother setting up, operating and repairing irrigation equipment, much less paying the associated costs. Bernier says he can manage an acre of wine grapes for only about $1,800 a season, compared to the $5,000 per acre charged by the average irrigated vineyard manager.

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