Small Vines, Big Dreams
Paul Sloan and his wife, Kathryn, started Small Vines Viticulture in 1998 (and his own label shortly thereafter) with little more than a dream. He wanted to see biodynamic practices take root in California. Having started his career in the wine industry as a sommelier, Paul knew that Europe held the key to his education as a winemaker. “Great wines are made in the vineyard,” he says. So off he went to France, pruning shears in hand, to learn about winemaking from the perspective of the land. Many of Paul’s grape growing contemporaries insisted that his theories wouldn’t work in California.
Turns out, he’s proving them wrong.
What inspired your passion for wine?
Interestingly enough, I had worked in the restaurant industry for years, but my family had nothing to do with wine or winemaking. Wine wasn’t really a part of our life. But, my passion for food and wine developed through moving up to higher end restaurants through my career. I took a job at the Kenwood Restaurant and bar. The owner, Susan, was very passionate about Pinot Noir, and she was the first person who introduced me to it. My interest in wine really started developing at that restaurant.
What do you love most about grape growing and winemaking?
I think that there are so many things that I love about it. First of all, with the grape growing, you’re outdoors a lot. The other thing is that there’s never anything that you do in this industry for more than say 45 days out of the year. Then you’re on to something else. It’s ever evolving, ever changing, and you’ll never learn everything that there is to know. You’re education is perpetual.
Where did you receive your training?
The education I got I’d have to say was at Junior College which has an incredible viticulture program as a 2 year degree. I went through that program while also working for Warren Dutton and the Dutton family at the same time. One day, I was sharing my vision with Warren Dutton. He encouraged me not to go to the CalPoli viticulture program. He said, “with what you want to do, you really need to travel to Europe to educate yourself. Nobody’s doing it here, so you’ve got two choices: start your business now or you can go to Burgundy and enter college there.” I chose the first because I knew no French. Over the last 13 years, I’ve brought consultants out and have traveled to Burgundy to study, to prune, etc. When I first started, my passion was to produce a more old world style California Pinot Noir. I was inspired by after a tasting of the Domaine Romanée-Conti. That’s really what clicked. I would ultimately make wine from vineyards I had planted in that style. I got my hands on a book written by Nicolas Joly [about biodynamic farming]. After reading it, I looked at my wife and I said, ‘you know, honey, some day I would like to farm this way. I would like to go back to farming with horses. I would like to go back to thinking of the farm as an entire system’. To me, that just sounds complete. It sounds balanced. It doesn’t sound monoculturish … unidirectional. So, having said that I guess I kind of put the dream into words, and put it out into the universe. Dumont winery was one of our first clients. With the assistance of consultant, Phillipe Armagné, we took their 20 acre estate property biodynamic in 2005. I also took all the properties that I was leasing from my own wine program and converted them to biodynamic. Phillipe, at this point, is donating his time on occasion to continuing my education in biodynamics. Our properties are young and our pocketbook has its limitations, but we definitely view it as the healthiest system to farm.
Have your thoughts on biodynamic, organic and sustainable practices engendered a positive shift or a backlash among fellow winemakers?
It’s interesting because everybody’s got their opinion of what biodynamics is, and I would say that there’s a lot of support from the people that I have really looked to over the years, like Ted Lemon [at Littorai]. People like that get it. Prior to having chemicals as an option, biodynamics is how everybody farmed. They followed the cycles of the moon. They used homeopathy for their agriculture because they had no other means to turn to. So it was really the chemical revolution, products used to spray and protect, that in the short term gave great protection, but in the long term are dramatically weakening the system we’re farming in. With going high density and old world, you realize that the standard vineyard in California is torn out after between 20 and 30 years. The standard vineyard in Burgundy has been farmed for over 2000 years, and they have vines from 80 to 120 years old that they’re cultivating. So, I look at that and say, if I’m really doing this to pass on a legacy to my family, if they’re interested, or whoever is taking over what I’ve started here, I want to leave them something that’s healthy and strong, not diminishing and depleting along the way.
My definition of biodynamics is that it’s a way of farming that actually heals the earth rather than destroys it. Other people might call it hoodoo voodoo. It’s just a different approach that actually tries to replenish rather than take, and be balanced. That’s really what I’m after. I believe that by getting away from the use of chemical fertilizers as much as possible, you’re going to get a greater expression of the terroir.
Biodynamics does add to the cost. In our area, I have not been able to get 100% away from doing a mildew protection program in addition to the biodynamic prep. In the Rhône region of France, it’s a totally different story. But, we get fog; we’re at 100% humidity between 4 and 7 days out of the week in the morning. It’s as if it has rained over night, plants are dripping with water; so we’re just not under the belief yet that we are going to be able to get away from the use of sulphur. We definitely feel that we have healthier plants over all. For example, last year my biodynamic vineyards produced higher quality, more balanced fruit and a larger quantity of it than my non-biodynamic vineyards. About 30% of our vineyard acreage is biodynamic, and the remaining 70% is either organic (which is the predominant) or chemical. My team mentions to me frequently that the leaves are up, they’re facing the sun in the biodynamic vineyards, the vines are healthier, the fruit sets much better, and the vines tend to grow to the sun rather than to the ground. Those comments are proof for me because they’re out touching the vines in every single block.
[In terms of which one is financially sustainable], in the first few years, you have to get to where you’re profitable, and once you’re profitable you can eke back a little bit and start implementing practices. The number one thing is your management of the area in the strip underneath the vines. If you’re using Round Up, you can at least go to an organic weed management program under the vines, or even just mowing under the vines. That soil there is where about 70% of your root system of your vine lives, and if you’re chemical torching it with Round Up then [that’s what it’s sucking up]. There’s no biodiversity there, no microorganisms living there. It’s essentially just a dead medium for water storage. There are just so many little things where you can just say, ok we’ve met that goal. Be smart about the steps you take getting there because, as much as we would like to do this for pleasure, at the end of the day this is our living. I didn’t come to this with millions from a dotcom company. I decided one day to be a farmer and found a way to be profitable in the venture so that I could start producing wine.
Biodynamic farming involves some fairly unusual (in some people’s view) practices, i.e. stuffing a horn with compost and burying it, planting according to moon cycles …. Which one of the elements in this farming method has given you consistent results?
I would say that the greater effect comes from the combination of your awareness to what you’re doing. You become more aware or more conscious about your system. In pruning, I’m definitely going to pay attention to what the best days to prune are. It definitely has an effect on plants, animals and people. We pay a lot of attention to that on those major things, like pruning, planting. Overall, the more of the practices you can implement the better. For instance, the cost of a compost tea application is minimal. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes per acre. When you’re spraying once every 7 rows and putting only about 3-5 gallons of total applied material per acre, you can travel fairly quickly. You can mix a lot of acres in a small number of gallons so you can use a lightweight tractor to get through rather rapidly.
Small Vines spaces vines differently in the vineyard as compared to many other vineyards. Why do this?
A lot of the old world highest end growing regions in the old world have very high density plantings – Italy, Bordeaux, Switzerland, etc. Paying attention to what was going on in Burgundy, I kind of had a feeling that there’s got to be something to the spacing; there’s a reason why they’re doing it. Why wasn’t California doing it? What practices had been brought here? The only practice from Burgundy that had not yet been brought here was the common planting of meter-by-meter or something similar to that. Why would we ignore that aspect, but bring the barrels, the wine making techniques, the plant material and then think that planting an 8 foot tractor row is going to give us a representative result? I decided that it was probably a very important aspect of the style of wine that the Burgundy region was producing. I didn’t own any tractors or equipment at that point, and really felt that I wanted to pioneer a new style of Pinot Noir production in California. I went to Burgundy and got my equipment from Europe. That was really the only challenge. Here, Prohibition tore out all of our vineyards; then the tractor was invented and became fairly common during that era. Farmers planted orchards and were farming them with tractors. When Prohibition ended and they started planting their vineyards, they planted them to fit their wide orchard tracts. In Burgundy it was the opposite. World War One ended. They had horses available. So farmers made their vineyards fit their horses. Prior to that, Burgundy was planted 3 times more densely than it is today.
We are very strongly feeling that the wines, the grapes and the vines are very significantly different as a result of the spacing. It’s been 13 years, which is a fairly short period of time within the lifecycle of wine. I’m cautious as to how bold of a statement I make, but there are a few things that we see happening. One is that the root system of the vine is developing in a fairly dramatically different way. When you plant vines close together, they don’t really want to share space with one another. They emit enzymes at the tips of their roots, which is essentially the same as cutting the roots. When you cut a vine root, the root system branches off from there. You end up with a vine that has a much denser root system per cubic foot of soil, the diameter of the roots are much smaller and they have a greater percentage of hair-like roots that are efficient at pulling up nutrients and moisture. Most people would theorize that you need to water and fertilize high-density vineyards more than you do larger spaced vineyards. We’re finding quite the opposite.
The other thing that we’re finding is that winemakers are choosing to harvest the grapes on high-density vineyards at about a degree and half lower in brix. They’re picking on flavour. Stylistically, that means that the alcohol is going to be lower. You’re getting the concentration in the fruit and in the wine, but you’re making a more old world style wine with natural acidity. We frequently get comments from folks that our wine is in between Burgundy and California. My desire is to produce a wine that’s meant to be an accompaniment to a meal, and with that you need acid, structure, balance and lower pHs. I desire to make wine that will age for 10, 12, 20 years. But, they can be enjoyed with the art of decanting, or just a nice glass and some patience, you can enjoy it almost immediately. We’re trying to find the balance between what’s best about Burgundy and what’s best about California.
Approximately how many cases does Small Vines produce per year?
Currently we bring in enough fruit to produce approximately 1000 cases. We sell off all of the pressed wine. We end up with about 650 cases right now a year. If we were to keep every vineyard under lease now and keep all of the fruit, we could go to approximately 4000 cases. That would be about 1200 to 1500 cases Chardonnay and the balance being Pinot Noir. Will we go to that level or how quickly? Our 10-year plan is probably in the 3000 case range. It’s about finding the right team members to support me, and trying to do less of the day-to-day of certain aspects of things and really focusing on what I am best at, which is determining what needs to happen in the vineyards. I would keep the walking of the vineyards, determining what needs to be done in what vineyard when. Then I would keep daily track of the fermentation. Other than that what happens in the vineyard is so simple: it’s topping; it’s adding sulphur on occasion, deciding when to bottle. As we continue to grow, I’m trying to put the right people in the right places, and treat them well so that they want to stick around for a long time and really learn and grow with us.
You’re not just a winemaker. You run a vineyard company, as well. What problem does your company solve in the wine industry?
If I were to farm a vineyard on an 8 foot tract row, and I farm it the same way that I farm a 4 foot track row I would get half the amount of fruit per acre. So if we change the way that we planted our vineyards, theoretically, we could get the same amount of wine from half the acreage. We’re just more sustainable if we had more land to grow vegetables – tomatoes, corn. It could really be more biodiverse, planting tomatoes and corn where tomatoes and corn should be planted. What would that look like for the economics of your system? People often balk at the initial cost to plant my style of vineyard. The average cost is about $20 per vine. If the vines live to be 120 years old, and you didn’t have to buy as much land, or you made twice the use out of your land, you’re going to be a lot better off financially. When looking at sustainability and economics of a system, it’s just something to think about. The problem that we have in agriculture today is monoculture, and we’re not always looking at the piece of property and thinking about what’s really the highest and best use for this property. If the best use is to grow vegetables, then why are we planting vineyards there? Wine is a luxury item, it’s not a necessary item, so if we can do it in a way that has a lower impact on the overall agricultural system of an area it might have a profound affect.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
My favourite thing to do is spend time with my wife and my children. We love the great outdoors – surfing is probably at the top, just getting out and having fun, snow skiing, rock climbing, mountain biking, the list goes on. I’m an avid outdoors sportsman so hunting and fishing are the way we like to feed our family, living off the land as much as we can.
Tell me about the funniest or strangest thing that has happened to you as a grape grower or winemaker.
There have been the days when it’s 110°F, and you’re trying to irrigate. You’re having problems with the system, and so you’re working on it. You bust a pipe, and you just get doused with water. But who cares; it’s 100°F. Then there are the days when you’re just frustrated, and you find yourself just laying back in the mud and laughing. I think that the strangest thing has been feeling like I’m on this journey, even though many people in California don’t understand what I’m trying to achieve. Then you go to Burgundy and there’s not one person who can understand why they would plant and cultivate their vines the way that they do. The winemaking community gets what we’re doing tremendously; but the vine growing community, the people that are out there farming, just think that I’m the weirdest guy. [They wonder] why would I subject myself to such torture.
Any additional thoughts?
I have a tremendous amount of respect for, and thanks to, Warren Dutton. I think that, although they operate in a different philosophy than I do, the inspiration that I got from them and the knowledge and the opportunity to work for them [was unbelievable], especially knowing that it was going to be for only a short period of time after which I would go to start my own business, in essence, in competition to them. They weren’t afraid of that. They accepted me and saw me as a hard-working person that was eager to learn. Also, the support of my family, my mom and my wife in particular, has influenced my dream. [My wife] loves the lifestyle and the land. But it was really my dream. The assets that she brings to the operation are so different than the assets that I bring. It’s a very nice combination. We would not be nearly as successful as we are if it were not for her and what she brings to the table.