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Make Your Own Rules: A Renegade Guide to Unconventional Success

by Wayne Rogers (Author) and Josh Young (Author, Contributor)

Excerpt from pages 33-38

This is an obvious example of how creativity and business work. You must start with all the available research, some good, some bad, but gather it all, try to understand it, make your choices, and test them. I say  " test your choices" because if you have the opportunity and the luxury of time, you may be able to try a number of ·'wrong" ways on the road to finding the " right" way, and that again engenders the questions that lead to creative answers. For every question, there may be more than one answer, sometimes many more, and, once again, these can foster creative thinking.

A radical solution for the vineyard

I put this kind of creativity into practice at a vineyard I developed.   The adventure began   when a bargain   price caught my attention   when   I was   reading an ad in The Wall Street Journal for a large parcel in central California.  The ad was an offering to sell 2,500 acres of arable land for  $325 an acre.  The land had wheat and alfalfa on   it.  There was debt against the property, and   the owner was in some financial trouble and   needed   money.   My   thinking   was to  "land   bank" the property for some period of time. I could do this by farming the wheat and alfalfa, which would   give   my associates   and   me enough   to pay the   taxes and insurance and   reduce the debt.

I put together a small group of investor s and purchased the land. My partner and I became the general partners, so it was our responsibility to make sure the venture was successful. At the time, we did not know if the land had the potential to grow grapes.

I had a friend at that time who was a grower in Southern California and who knew something about vineyards. He directed me to his son, who was planting a new vineyard in the Santa Barbara district. Through him, I met a group that was planting a vineyard in Shandon, a tiny community near Paso Robles in California. As one thing led to another, I contacted this group, and its members were very helpful in pointing us to the University of California at Davis, whose viticultural expertise they had followed. (Viticulture is the science of growing the grape, and enology is the science of turning it into wine.)

I drank wine, but I was not a collector. The cellar in my house was more conducive to the storage of coal than wine. I could distinguish cabernet sauvignon from pinot noir, but that was about it. By the way, the business of wine has nothing to do with the aesthetics of drinking it. The decision to plant grapes was purely financial: it was the best and most profitable use of the land.

Turning a piece of property into a vineyard also   gave   this   adventure   a comfortable discomfort because I knew nothing about starting or running a vineyard.  First, I needed an education in viticulture, so I went to the professors at UC Davis, which has one of the leading viticulture and e no log y departments in the country. I gathered and used as much of that information as possible.

Like most ancient agricultural practices, viticulture is bound by tradition. People did things a certain way simply because that was how they had always been done. In contrast, much of what we decided to do came out of necessity. And it broke with the traditional practices.

One of the first things I learned in the wine business was that conventions are sometimes necessary and, to improve on them, you must understand them. One particular convention was the installation of a frost protection system. If we did not have someway to protect the grapes, we would lose all the vines in the winter months, when the temperature dropped below the freezing mark. This sounds pretty straightforward and logic al, but the process is actually very scientific.

A frost protection system uses a series of sprinklers to wet the vines when the dew point and temperature arrive at a point that will produce frost. The process, called " icing the vines,” involves spraying the vineyard with water and letting that water freeze on the vines. What does water do when it freezes? It gives up heat. So, when you spray the vines and cover them with ice, the vines heat up and insulate themselves from the cold. It looks like you are killing the vine when, in fact, you are protecting it.

There was also a time-honored process to planting a vineyard. You would take cuttings of vines and plant them directly in the ground, similar to the way roses are planted. As it turned out, we could not use that process because of unforeseen circumstances, so we had to be creative. What does that mean? Necessity, as the overused, infinitely apt cliché goes, became the mother of invention, and it is one of the best tools to push you to your creative limits.

We had purchased 260,000 cuttings and healed them in a sandpit awaiting planting. For the uninitiated, a cutting is an eight-inch to ten-inch section of a dormant vine, much like one would take from a rose bush to propagate another bush. The problem was that California was having an unusual amount of rainfall that year, so we couldn't drive the bulldozers on the soil to install the sprinklers because they would sink into the wet ground. If we couldn't install the irrigation system to ice the vines, we couldn’t plant the cuttings because the frost would kill them. Unfortunately, we had all the cuttings sitting in sand, and if we d id n' t plant them in the ground before they pushed buds and grew roots, they would die anyway.

I felt haunted by the image of Orson Welles in the Paul Masson wine commercial. Swirling a glass of white wine, Welles invokes Masson's century­ old declaration: "We will sell no wine before its time." This raises an obvious question: What do you recommend we drink until your wine is ready? Joking aside, we were faced with a major problem, and so we combed the state searching for anyone who could suggest a solution. One person would introduce me to the next, but no one seemed to have an answer. Eventually, I met a man named Dr. John Weinberger, who was the leading exponent in the world of the rapid propagation of bench-grafted rootstocks.  His solution involved planting the vines in quart-size milk cartons in a mixture of PerLight, some chemical fertilizers he specified, and peat moss, then placing them on palette boards in a suitably warm climate until they could be permanently planted.

No one had ever tried this before on a commercial scale, so it was a somewhat radical idea. Since we had invested almost a quarter of a million dollars in the rootstock, we had little choice but to try and save our investment. We bought the pots and planted them all on palette boards that spring, loaded them on flatbed trucks, and sent them over to the warmer climate of the San Joaquin Valley to let them grow. In the meantime, the land dried out, and we were able to install the irrigation system.

The land was hilly in parts, so we had to pick and choose our locations. We selected three spots and made separate vineyards on each one, giving us about five hundred acres of grapes on the total 2,500 acres. Then we constructed earth dams in the canyons above, drilled wells, and made water easily available to the vines.

It was late July by the time the irrigation system was ready. No one had ever planted that late in the season, but by then our plants had developed a root system, so they were well ahead of the growing schedule when they went into the ground. We planted the rootstocks with the help of fifty day workers armed with short-hand led hoes and appropriately named our vineyard Rancho Tierra Rejada, which means " land of the cracked earth.

Because the plants already had root systems, the result was an instant vineyard. Our cost was an extra 9 cents a plant to get them in the ground, but we had a 92 percent " take," meaning that 92 percent of the vines grew successfully.  After three years, the vines produced on schedule, and we were selling grapes. Suddenly, professors from UC Davis began to show up and asked what we had done. Our solution had become news.

This process became the standard way to plant a vineyard in California.  No longer are cuttings planted. You grow a root system in a pot, and then you transport those potted plants to the field when the conditions are right. It costs a little more, but your take is much higher and you know what you have right away.

Besides our unconventional planting methods, we also grafted our vines differently. The traditional method called for grafting at the root, which takes two years to grow a vine that can be trained out on a wire. My idea was to graft high up on the vine and take advantage of the two years' growth already completed. Nobody had done that commercially, either. We started grafting on the vine. When we ended up with too much zinfandel, we grafted some of that over to fume blanc. In one year, we transitioned from twenty acres of zinfandel to twenty acres of fume blanc.

We were one of the small players in the wine business, and, from time to time, things worked against us. For example, during the Reagan administration, the dollar became weak, which meant that imports had a decided price advantage in the marketplace. Italy was producing a wine called Reunite, subsidizing its production and distribution and landing it for $ 7 a case in New York.  At that price, California wineries could not buy the g lass, the label, and the boxes for their bottles, let alone fill the bottles with wine. Fortunately, the dollar turned around two years later, and conditions returned to normal.

I also learned that the wine business is not a business in and of itself; it is a way of life. To start with, it is enormously time consuming. People enter the wine business for different reasons and, in the 1960s and 1970s, the wine industry had an intense cultist quality. There were a lot of guys who were going through midlife crises. They divorced their wives, moved to the Napa Valley, smoked funny cigarettes, wore colored beads, and tried to grow grapes.

That has all changed. Good land is very expensive, and the output of working vineyards does not justify the high prices they command. Though many of the legendary families still run their wineries, the wine business in California has become a huge industry for the state. In that regard, it has become a business of professionals who remind me of the New York Racing Association motto: "For the betterment of the breed."

Rancho Tierra Rejada is still a going concern. The Paso Robles area now has more than 26,000 acres of vineyard and is the fastest-growing wine region in California. But I do not miss being an owner. I am happier being a consumer. Sometimes very happy.

Excerpted by permission from Make Your Own Rules by Wayne Rogers with Josh Young © 2011 Wayne Rogers and Josh Young, AMACOM, New York, New York.