Illustrating Sonoma Cabernet

The editors of Wine & Spirits asked me this Fall to take on a rather unusual project. They wanted me to get to know the shape of Sonoma Cabernet. As Joshua Greene, W&S Editor, presented it to me, as a group they could readily articulate the shape of Napa Valley Cabernet. That is, there’s a recognizable character to the famed Valley’s Bordeaux reds but that of those same grapes grown one county West is less well-known. 

Sonoma County stands as the largest of the North Coast counties. With its reach all the way from the Pacific, across several river valleys and into the Mayacamas that separates it from Napa Valley, Sonoma’s growing conditions vary widely. A few pockets in the region capture the ideal warmth-light-and-drainage combination needed for Cabernet. Greene asked if I would focus in on four of these sites, dig into what makes them unique, and articulate how those conditions show in the wine. Through illustration. My task was to draw the sites and wines, not how they taste, but their shape on the palate. 

To be honest, this was one of the hardest projects I’ve done so far in wine. It was an incredible amount of fun at the exact same time that I felt like I was having to change fundamental aspects of my thinking to make it work. Illustrating the shape of a wine and its relation to its site isn’t anywhere near as straightforward as illustrating tasting notes as I usually do here. The resulting illustrations bare imagistic relation to the sites from which they arise but really are meant to show what you’ll find in the bottle. Have you ever had a wine that tastes like a mountain? I drew two. (They taste like very different mountains.)

Having put so much into the project it was a wonderful bonus to then have the editors select my work for the December cover. The illustrations themselves appear flat inside the magazine coupled with text about the project and each of the sites. The editors also printed the illustrations and placed them, as if labels, on bottles for what turned out to be the cover. Here’s a preview… 

Wine & Spirits Dec 2015

The Shape of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon
text and illustrations by Elaine Chukan Brown

The Pacific coast, the Russian River and the Mayacamas Mountains shape Sonoma County. Vines fill the region, reaching up the ridge lines and blanketing the valleys.

The Coastal Range protects much of Sonoma County from the direct effects of the Pacific Ocean. But thanks to the Petaluma Gap and canyon folds within those coastal mountains, cool maritime air reaches vines throughout the county. It’s a Pacific chill that might only tickle Sonoma’s eastern side, but when I drink finely grown Sonoma County cabernet, I can taste that maritime breeze.

Perhaps it’s that I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Sonoma vineyards. I’ve begun to form associations between the conditions of the site and the experience of the wine, to associate angular tannins with mountain vineyards, and fuller, rounder wines with warmer temperatures or more generous soils. The place a wine is grown begins to take shape on the palate. It’s an experience that differs from that communicated in a typical tasting note.

Tasting notes describe a wine’s …

To continue reading pick up a print or electronic copy of the December issue of Wine & Spirits Magazine, available now. The issue includes an in-depth look at five regions from Australia via the recent Sommelier Scavenger Hunt; the year’s best Champagne, Barolo & Barbaresco, US Cabernets, Porto, and others; a dining guide to Montreal (my favorite); a look at pairing food with sweet wines, and more. Here’s a peek inside the December issue:

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California 2015 – early, small and distinctive

Sonoma Mountain CabernetAs I travelled across California this summer and autumn a few things proved consistent. Most vineyards – whether hillside or valley floor, North Coast, southern portions of the state or further inland – exhibited reduced yields via either smaller clusters, berry shatter or millerandage, and harvest came early. A warm winter followed by a chilly spring meant fruit set suffered. Reduced fruit set (this picture shows Cabernet clusters on Sonoma Mountain) and smaller berry size led to significantly smaller yields than usual, as well as greater concentration of colour, acidity, tannin and flavour. Weather conditions across the state, as well as California’s fourth successive drought year, created these common themes for America’s largest wine-producing state.

However, wine quality in a year such as 2015 will be highly dependent on the health of the vineyard. In regions with higher portions of shatter and shot berries, producer’s propensity to sort to avoid sharp acidity and bitter flavours will also be an important factor. When it comes to the release of California’s 2015 wines, we can expect to see a significant drop in single-vineyard bottlings, and in the boutique rosés from California that have been so popular these last three years. While we should expect much smaller volume in fine-wine sales specifically for the 2015 vintage, there will be little impact on the number of bottles of California wine available overall since before 2015 California experienced three good-quality, high-volume years in a row. As a result, many producers are still loaded with stock from 2012, 2013 and 2014. While fine-wine enthusiasts will have to work harder to secure their favourite producer’s cuvées from 2015, most consumers are unlikely to notice a drop in availability for wines from the state in general.

The role of drought in the quality of 2015 wines

As the drought continues, farming decisions have become progressively more important to wine quality, even in vineyards reliant on irrigation. The 2015 growing season was marked by temperature variability throughout. That combined with the drought meant that continual attention to the vineyard proved especially important. Along with increased vineyard attention has come a need for farming decisions made increasingly vine-by-vine. Brook Williams owns and farms Duvarita Vineyard just west of the Sta Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley appellations in Santa Barbara County. As Williams explains, ‘We were more aggressive with pruning in February since it had already been a very dry winter. …

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A Search for Radiance

Bob Varner

It’s evening in March. We’ve just finished barrel-tasting 2011 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with Jim Varner. The conversation has focused on a calm but passionate exploration of the principles expressed behind the wine. Listening to Jim’s account, what becomes clear is that the focus is one of supreme gentleness. The subtle power of such an approach echoes through the wines as we taste them. Twins Jim and Bob Varner have now celebrated 18 vintages making wine from their Spring Ridge site, though they began planting it 34 years ago. From it they produce wines under the Varner and Neely labels, Bob managing the vineyard and winemaking, and Jim running the office and business. Spring Ridge rides the rim of Portola Valley, on undulating slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Valley had not been cultivated to vines when the brothers began their project.

Through much of the Santa Cruz Mountains, vineyards grow out of sight from each other, giving winemakers a sense of isolation from outside influence that is rare to most wine country. The region still echoes today with solitude, though it also carries in it some of the deepest, most respected heritage of California wine.

In the 1870s, Paul Masson, a Burgundian winemaker, found his way on to the elevated slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains and established vineyards for sparkling wine. The fog and cooling influence of two bodies of water-the San Francisco Bay to the east, and Pacific Ocean to the west -combined to offer the structural assets of a cooler climate needed for sparkling wine. In the 1940s, Masson’s enterprise led local entrepreneur Martin Ray to establish even higher vineyards and to begin making varietally specific wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and later Cabernet Sauvignon, an enterprise essentially untried in the state before. The site would come to be known as the historic Mount Eden.

To continue reading this article continue over to the World of Fine Wine website where the article appears in full for free online. Here’s the link:


California Wild Fires

As some of you know, California has been hit again and again this year with wild fires. Lake County alone is currently suffering its fifth this summer.

The current Valley Fire, as its come to be known, has been particularly devastating. It started midday Saturday (this weekend) and escalated to 40,000 acres in only 24 hrs, and has continued to spread to 61,000 acres with only 5% containment.

Even harder, the fire has forced substantial evacuations as it has moved through towns and residential communities in Southern Lake County, North Napa Valley, and Eastern Sonoma County. Thousands of people and their pets are displaced, many having lost everything to the fire.

How to Help

Evacuation centers have been established in both Lake County and Napa Valley.

There are also numerous sites accepting donations of goods, toiletries, clothing and shoes (of all sizes and ages), and personal items. Please call ahead if you want to make a drop off.

There are several animal care facilities accepting donations of pet food, bedding, collars and leashes, etc for everything from dogs and cats, to chickens or rabbits, and horses and livestock.

Following is the information I have been able to gather.

As always, monetary donations are most helpful.


Provident Credit Union’s Fire Relief Fund UPDATED
100% of the proceeds will be distributed to nonprofit agencies in the Lake County community to assist in the recovery effort. Additionally, Provident will match proceeds up to $5,000.
Donate in branch.
Donate by Phone: 
Phone: (800) 632-4600, opt. 0
Donate by mail: mail a check payable to Lake County Fire Victims Fund c/o Provident Credit Union to this address:
ATTN: Lake County Fire Victim’s Fund
Provident Credit Union
303 Twin Dolphin Drive
Redwood Shores, CA 94065

Redwood Credit Union
has started a fund in partnership with The Press Democrat and Senator Mike McGuire to assist those affected by the Lake County fires.

Mendo Lake County Credit Union

they have set up a fund specifically for fire relief and guaranteed all funds will be used for those impacted by the fires.

Wine Country Animal Lovers
are doing tons of work to help pet evacuees and coordinating efforts through shelters and pet hospitals throughout the region. They are also accepting monetary donations, which are being dedicated to those affected by the fire.

Red Cross donation site. Indicate disaster relief.
If you donate via Paypal you can add a note designating #ValleyFire

To register for Red Cross Assistance American Red Cross “Safe and Well” website
call 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767) to let families know you are safe.

Middletown Mustangs High School Football Team UPDATED
The Valley Fire started the weekend prior to Middletown High School’s Homecoming week. At least 1/3 of the football team lost everything, including their gear. Emergency funds don’t typically cover the cost of replacing athletic equipment. The team from El Molino High School, which the Mustangs were scheduled to play this week for homecoming, have started a fund to replace athletic gear for the Middletown team. Sports are a great way for young people to move forward productively. The Mustang’s team have expressed their desire to get back to practice.


Two primary evacuation centers both being led by the Red Cross:

Kelseyville High School
5480 Main Street, Kelseyville, CA

Napa County Fairgrounds
1435 N Oak St, Calistoga, CA.
Petaluma Animal Services and Wine Country Animal Lovers are available for evacuated pets and animals.


Big Valley Rancheria Gymnasium
1002 Osprey Court (off Soda Bay Road), Lakeport, CA.
There is space for parking of self-contained RV’s outside the shelter.

Clearlake Senior Center
3245 Bowers Avenue, Clearlake, CA

Cole Creek Equestrian Center
4965 Steelhead Drive, Kelseyville, CA
With or without livestock.
Space for self-contained RV’s, trailers and tents.

Kelseyville Presbyterian Church
5340 Church Street, Kelseyville, CA

Redwood Empire Fairgrounds, Fine Arts Building
1055 North State Street, Ukiah, CA
They have facilities for shelter of small animals and can also house some large animals.
Directions: Coming from Lake County, take N State St exit and head south. Go through two stop lights and take a left past KFC.

Seventh Day Adventist Church of Lakeport
1111 Park Way, Lakeport, CA
Space for self-contained RV’s.

Lakeport Auto Movies
52 Soda Bay Rd, Lakeport, CA 95453
Space for self-contained RVs, trailers, and campers only.
Please check in at movie theater office.
Dump station available in Library Park near launch at 5th St in Lakeport, No potable water to fill tanks.


Moose Lodge in Clear Lake
15900 E Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, CA 95423
(707) 998-3740

Methodist Church in Clear Lake
call Cindy at 1 (408) 821-2443

List of donation centers. You can add to the list as well.

Napa County Fairgrounds
1435 N Oak St, Calistoga, CA.


Lake County Horse Rescue is taking large animal evacuees.
4949 Hellbush Drive in Lakeport. 707-263-0278

Lake County Horse Council has additional equestrian rescue information:

People wanting to offer help housing / transporting horses should follow and post the following pages:
Sunrise Horse Rescue
Cole Creek Equestrian Center
Sonoma County CHANGE Program

Petaluma Animal Shelter is helping to coordinate pet care at the Napa Fair Grounds

Wine Country Animal Lovers is helping to coordinate pet care at the Napa Fair Grounds
and with shelters throughout the North Coast

Emergency Boarding Assistance is available at animal hospitals throughout the North Coast. Animals must be up with current vaccinations but at hospitals where there is still room doctors are offering free shots to get animals current. Here is a list of hospitals. Please call ahead.

If you want to foster dogs/cats, please complete an application with our rescue partners at Sonoma Humane Society ~ they are also accepting donations!

Pet Food, supplies and donations can be accepted by our rescue partners who are also working with us at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga:
Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch
Petaluma Animal Services

How to volunteer: You are welcome to visit the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga and check in with a coordinator to see what you can do to help. It might be cooking in the kitchens, refilling water bowls for pets, organizing piles of incoming donations, etc. and these needs will be ongoing as long as the evacuation center is up and running.

Pet Lost and Found Pages:
Valley Fire – Lake County Lost or Found Pets
PET Lost and Found for Lake County Fires
Napa Valley Equine
Lake County Animal Care & Control


If you or someone you know needs help handling distress from the wildfire please call the following Distress Hotline for assistance. They have access to a range of resources that can help.
Call: 1-800-985-5990 (they have Spanish language speakers available as well)



Mail for the evacuated areas has been re-routed and is available for pick up at the following locations:

For Cobb and Clearlake Riviera:
Kelseyville Post Office
5500 Gaddy Lane
Kelseyville, CA 95451

For Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake:
Clearlake Post Office
14500 Olympic Drive
Clearlake, CA 95422


Lake County Tribal Health and St. Helena Clearlake Clinic have same day appointments available to evacuees: Call 263-8382 or 995-4500


Sonoma’s Far Coast: A haven for pinot noir

Wine & Spirits pinot noir

We step out of the forest into a glade where light pours through. Ted Lemon has guided me to the top of a hill at 1,200 feet of elevation in The Haven. He has been farming half of this tenacre property since 2001, using biodynamic methods, and he left half of the land wild.

“This is why it’s called The Haven,” he says of Littorai’s estate vineyard. The surrounding forest and coastal scrub provides animal habitat to foster biodiversity. Behind us, pinot noir, chardonnay and chenin blanc grow from a mix of shale, iron sands, compressed clay and serpentine.

These hills are part of Sonoma’s coastal mountains, most of which remain covered in conifers, too steep for cultivation. Vineyards have only arrived in the last 30 years, almost all planted in the 1990s or later on the gentler slopes and hilltops. (Until 1994, when Williams Selyem, Kistler and Littorai came knocking, even David Hirsch’s now sought-after fruit was going to Kendall-Jackson for blending.)

To read the rest of this article click on over to the Wine & Spirits Magazine website. It’s currently free-for-all there. Here’s the link:

In Praise of Discomfort

I’m at my best uncomfortable. I blame my parents though it isn’t really their fault. They raised me commercial fishing for salmon from the age of 9, till I retired in my early 20s, and it’s shaped my life ever since. I’ve spent my adulthood retraining simple habits I picked up fishing like going without food, water, or the bathroom as some faulty testament of fortitude and strength. Even so, summers still I schedule myself for work past the point of fatigue and revel along the way in pulling it off semi-gracefully. Part of me still admires the capacity to work beyond apparent human limits, as if it isn’t really me that pulls it off. I just get to be part of it. This July, for example, I completed the first half day of a visit with a migraine and the producers never found out. The man that drove me that day graciously helped track questions during the interview, for which I am endlessly grateful. I could keep up with the conversation. I just needed help connecting a few of the dots. My notebook is still full with notes of their wines, the vineyard, and their story. It’s good fortune that gives me the opportunity to meet with so many producers and I want to give them that time when I travel. Had I cancelled  to recover I would have missed the chance for that meeting. It’s hard to explain how much joy I find in simply listening to other’s stories (though I don’t always just listen).

This summer I’ve posted little here because I’ve been so busy elsewhere. For those of you that don’t know, when I’m traveling I’ve taken to telling the story of the people and regions I visit via Instagram, where it also routes to Facebook. There you will find photos of some of the people I meet along the way along with insightful quotations from our visit, or a factual dig into their story. For example, Phillip Hart walked me through his Ambythe Vineyard in Paso Robles where we discussed his work as well as the effects of the drought. Ambythe began harvesting this week.

Phillip Hart in his Ambythe Vineyard, Paso Robles

from Instagram: Phillip Hart walking his Ambythe Vineyard, Paso Robles

Paso Robles is just one of the regions I was lucky enough to visit. May began in Long Island, and then Chicago; June took me to Walla Walla as well as the West Sonoma Coast (again); July dug into Paso and Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County as well as parts of Napa. This month I’m catching up on articles and illustrations.

I’ll be writing more from these travels here through the rest of the year, as well as at, and elsewhere. I’m excited about work I’m doing for World of Fine Wine especially, as there I get to bring together my training in philosophy with my work in wine. It’s nice to recombine my professional worlds. In the meantime, here are a couple favorite photos from my travels looking at subjects I’ll be writing about more here.

Long Island

Christopher Tracy of Channing Daughter in The Hamptons, Long Island

Christopher Tracy, winemaker of Channing Daughters on the South Fork of Long Island, has some of the greatest creative latitude of any winemaker I’ve met. The winery sells the range of wines to prove it. He works too with soil scientist and viticulturist, Larry Perrine. Larry now directs Channing Daughters, but he arrived in Long Island at the start of the 1980s as a viticultural and winemaking consultant helping to solve nutritional problems suffered by the region’s vineyards. Together they offer a range of wines from classic chardonnays to Friuli-inspired white blends, to field blends made from the vines of Cornell’s Extension and Research Vineyard on Long Island’s North Fork.

Walla Walla

Norm McKibbenNorm McKibben led vineyard plantings in Walla Walla (W2) helping to expand quality vineyards through the region as well as inspire and support the work of others. His dedication to the W2 industry has been pivotal in so quickly establishing it as a celebrated region in the world. He is the founder of Pepperbridge and Amavi Cellars in W2 and helped maintain and expand the Seven Hills Vineyard – Sevein planting into one of the most sought after in the state.

Paso Robles

Mark Adams, Ledge Vineyard

Ledge Vineyards founder Mark Adams returned to Paso Robles and wine growing after a life in music and sound effects editing for major producers in Los Angeles. Today he makes some of the most delicious and drinkable Rhone wines of Paso Robles while farming his home vineyard in one of the few sandy soil sites of the county. In the last few weeks he expanded his family’s Ledge Vineyard planting to grow more Rhone whites and reds. Mark also makes wine just across the street with one of his long time friends, Justin Smith at Saxum.

Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County

At the top of Tierra Alta with Sonja Magdevski, John Belfy and Greg BrewerJohn Belfy (shown here center) has helped lead vineyard development and farming in Santa Barbara County‘s distinctive Ballard Canyon from its inception. His work established Jonata Vineyard and he planted and continues to farm Tierra Alta Vineyards as well, among others. Winemaker Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz (shown here left) is just one of the winemakers that sources fruit from his Ballard Canyon site and counts him as an inspiration. Greg Brewer of Brewer Clifton and Melville (shown here right) makes wine from Sta Rita Hills but credits John for support and encouragement received earlier in Greg’s career.

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The Return of Cal-Ital


By the early 2000s, Cal-Ital was dead. It was almost impossible to sell California wine made from Italian cultivars. During the following decade consumer interest in the phenomenon remained minimal and few sommeliers would consider such wines. Recently, however, there has been a renaissance of the category. But the return of Cal-Ital hasn’t been easy. It’s proven a study in resilience. It’s also meant a shift in philosophy. While much of the original Cal-Ital movement arose from producers making wines such as Sangiovese as a side project to their more central Cabernet focus, today’s Cal-Ital has meant a more complete shift in thinking. In the last several years, a handful of newer Italian-focused California labels have been launched, bringing breadth to a conversation that for a decade was maintained by only two or three producers.

Digging out of the Cal-Ital problem

California’s wine industry was historically rooted in Italian immigrants bringing cuttings from their home country but after phylloxera and Prohibition, plantings shifted predominantly to French cultivars. Before 1980 varieties such as Sangiovese existed only in the historic Italian-Swiss Colony of the North Coast. Barbera had a presence throughout the state but did not enjoy the prestige of other Italian varieties. It was seen as an able blender rather than as a varietal wine in its own right.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, a rush of interest brought Sangiovese to Northern California, made most famously by producers such as Robert Pepi; Atlas Peak in Napa Valley, co-owned by Tuscan winemaker Piero Antinori; and Ferrari-Carano in Sonoma. By 1997, 2,500 acres (1,012 ha) of the grape were spread across the state but the variety was primarily being made by vintners treating it as a side project while they focused on French varieties. Quality suffered. The unique needs of Italian wines were inimical to the techniques familiar to most California producers of Bordeaux varieties. By the start of this century, the almost two decades given to North Coast Sangiovese seemed inadequate to stabilise quality and critics were severe. Although producers in Southern California, such as Santa Barbara County’s Palmina, were also making Italian-inspired wines, critics looked to North Coast examples and declared Cal-Ital an experiment that had failed. Led by negative reviews, consumer interest all but disappeared.

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The Queen of the Bench

Congratulations on 25 beautiful years, Cathy!

“I feel like I’ve had a front row seat from the 1970s to now,” Cathy Corison tells me. Corison specializes in single-varietal Cabernet from Napa Valley’s Rutherford bench, and the recent release of her 2011 vintage marks the 25-year anniversary of her eponymous label.

In June 1975, when Corison arrived with all she owned – just the goods that fit inside her white Volkswagen bug – Napa Valley was an economically depressed, rural, and largely unknown farming community. Driving the length of the valley included swaths of unplanted land; today it is covered in vines. “There were about 30 wineries in Napa Valley in 1975,” Corison says. “I arrived in June. The Paris tasting was the next spring in 1976. It was a really exciting time.” The success of California in Steven Spurrier’s famous Judgment of Paris’ tasting would instigate a rush of interest in wine from the region after decades of struggle. Corison would be among the sprint pack bringing Napa into a whole new course of winemaking. …

To keep reading this article, you’ll have to check out the current issue of Noble Rot MagazineIf you haven’t read Noble Rot Magazine before, it’s likely right up your alley. That is, if you are into the kind of work I do here, you’ll find writing there you’re likely compatible with. Each issue of Noble Rot digs into the world of wine with a combined sense of playfulness and geeky fervor. 

You can order single issues or subscribe to the magazine, depending on which suits your interests. That means you can order just Issue 8, The California Special, that includes my Corison article, if you wish. But I recommend considering a full subscription. It’s worth the price.

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Following the Growth of the Vine

Looking into Barlow Homestead Pinot

The early stages of shoot positioning – Barlow Homestead Pinot, May 2015

Earlier this year, Jr and I visited with Paul and Kathryn Sloan of Small Vines to track green pruning and bud break at their Barlow Homestead Vineyard in the heart of Green Valley. Jr created a video interview of Paul on the two viticultural events, which you can view here:

In May, and earlier this month I returned to track two different phases of shoot positioning with Paul. In a cane pruned vineyard relying on vertical shoot positioning, repeated passes for shoot positioning serve as an essential step to the health and balance of the vines offering ample air flow and canopy management for the developing clusters.

The following shares an overview of the process and a look at the importance of shoot positioning in the midst of a year’s vineyard management.

Shoot Positioning

Getting ready to shoot position with Bryce Potter + Paul Sloangetting ready to shoot position: (from left) Bryce Potter, me, Paul Sloan, May 2015

In a cane pruned, VSP trained site, shoot positioning serves as the next step after green pruning. While green pruning forms the basic architecture of the vine, shoot positioning manicures and directs the growth of the vine. Shoot positioning, then, occurs in multiple steps through vine growth.

The timing of shoot positioning depends on the growth of the vineyard in the particular vintage. 2015 brought a challenging spring for vineyards in Sonoma. With warm January and February weather, growth came early to the vines bringing early bud break and shoot growth. April and May then cooled off significantly, generating what is known as Spring Fever in many Pinot vineyards through the region.

Spring Fever + Frost Damage

Spring Fever is caused by the vine starting to grow from warm weather conditions, and then shutting down again when temperatures drop. Nitrogen gets locked into place in the vine, which in severe cases can lead to nitrogen necrosis in the leaves. In milder cases, as new leaves develop the vine recovers photosynthesizing through the upper leaves. Even so, with Spring Fever, vine growth is slowed – colder temperatures slow vine development, and in the case of nitrogen necrosis the vines ability to photosynthesize is impacted through leaf loss.

Frost damage can also show in damage to vine tips. When temperatures are cold enough, frost effectively singes vine tips, turning them brown and stopping shoot growth. In such cases, secondary shoots will sometimes push from the trunk of the vine becoming the focus for vine development that year.

Shoot Positioning 

Paul Sloan shoot positioning Barlow Homestead Pinot

Paul Sloan shoot positioning Barlow Homestead Pinot, May 2015

In vertical shoot positioning, shoot growth is managed through a series of steps moving wires into ever higher positions as the shoots get taller, or through tucking shoots between wires. Wires are placed on the trellis system in pairs that effectively create a sandwich around shoots as they grow, with one wire at the front and one at the back of the training system and shoots growing between.

Generally, moving wires is more desirable than tucking shoots as it is faster. In moving wires, however, it is important to be careful to avoid pulling leaves or breaking shoots. As vines grow, their tips and leaves will sometimes wrap wires, or other shoots. This must be managed when moving wires to avoid damaging vines. Tucking vines, on the other hand, is generally done for specific vines rather than entire rows and includes the risk of damaging shoots through breakage.

Wires are placed at the right height to support shoots maintaining a vertical position. Then shoots are spaced at approximately a hand’s width apart with clips used to hold the shoots in the best position between wires. The clips can be moved as needed to adjust to vine growth.

Clips for shoot positioning

clips used for shoot positioning. The C-shaped clips are biodegradable natural fiber and are used for when wires need to be held close together to maintain the shoot to secure the its position. 

Shoot positioning clip

The reusable black clips offer more flexibility and can be used to loop a shoot exactly in place, to offer wider spacing between wires, or to wrap a wire for even closer spacing. 

As vine growth continues, shoot positioning is revisited again and again to keep shoots about a hand’s width apart (in order to keep clusters about a hand’s width apart), and to manage any secondary shoot growth. Rows are approached individually. Wires can be positioned as is appropriate to vine growth in that particular row, or even partial row. Then, vines are clipped individually.

Ideal shoot position depends on the architecture of the particular vine, however goals remain consistent in each case. The goals of shoot positioning include a balance of air flow and leaf shade for clusters. The balance of cluster count per vine is generally established in the earlier step of green pruning as the number of buds allowed to grow determines cluster potential. How that balance is achieved depends upon goals of the farmer such as overall yield, and goals of the winemaker such as wine style.

When it comes to recognizing ideal shoot positioning in the vineyard, Sloan emphasizes the importance of knowing your vineyard. “There is no one right formula, one right thing to do. You have to read your vines, your vineyard. The more you pay attention, the better decisions you can make.” Sloan explains.

The frequency with which Sloan revisits shoot positioning in his Small Vines-managed sites allows him to rely on organic viticulture as well. The attention given to architectural points such as ample airflow and canopy management also serves his ability to keep track of overall vine health, and issues such as disease or insect pressure.

Vine Health and Flavor Development

Organic cover crop

Paul Sloan discussing cover crop choices in Barlow Homestead, May 2015.
Cover crop through Spring is valuable in organic viticulture as it supports soil health and also offers a habitat for beneficial insects. Vines are most susceptible to harmful insects in Spring, so planting cover crops between rows plays an important role in vineyard health through the balancing of insect populations.

Effective canopy management supports the overall health of the vine reducing disease pressure while also encouraging flavor development.

“What is important about shoot positioning for the organic farmer,” Sloan explains, “is to have air flow through the leaves and clusters.” How such air flow is achieved depends on the overall architecture of the vine.

In vines that include higher cluster count, air flow must be encouraged through leaf removal — too much of both fruit and vegetation doesn’t allow enough air flow — which also has the effect of increasing sun exposure to clusters. On the other hand, to preserve canopy for shade while maintaining air flow, the vine must be shaped in such a way as to reduce cluster count and manage leaf position.

In the case of Small Vines, Sloan chooses to reduce cluster count per vine and focus on high density planting. High density planting reduces the soil nutrients and water supply available to any particular vine, slowing growth, reducing cluster count and leading to a sense of density in the fruit profile.

The Role of Sunlight on Fruit Development

Barlow Homestead Pinot clusters

Pinot in Barlow Homestead, early June 2015 (getting ready to do another pass of shoot positioning but note the architecture of the vine places shoots and clusters about a hands width apart)

Sloan clarifies that air flow is not the only factor relevant to shoot positioning. “Even more important than air flow is sunlight. You want sunlight on every leaf, on every shoot” but not on every cluster. Sunlight on the leaves encourages photosynthesis, and therefore also vine growth and fruit development. Direct sunlight to clusters, however, changes the flavor profile of the fruit as well as the fruit structure. To put that another way, directing sunlight to leaves and away from clusters tends to keep flavors in the fruit fresher and brighter. (To read more on the role of sunlight in flavor development, see the following profile on Andy Smith of DuMOL:

Early sunlight on clusters often encourages thicker skin development (and therefore also more tannin profile), later sunlight on clusters changes the flavor profile of the fruit. Generally you can think of this sort of sun exposure as making flavors darker, moving flavors from fresh fruits to cooked fruit and kitchen flavors (such as caramel in the case of Chardonnay, for example). With reduced sunlight exposure on clusters, canopy management to promote air flow and reduce disease pressure becomes even more important. In this way, shoot positioning plays a role in both farming methods and wine style.

Vine Health and Wine Quality

Vine health also ultimately impacts wine quality. As Sloan explains, “The reason I am so emphatic about making wine from the vines I grow is because if I can keep walking vineyards, and I can move my crew where they’re needed, then I can affect wine quality directly.”

Sourcing fruit from multiple vineyards can be an excellent way for winemakers to get to know and express the signature of a region. Once a region is known, understanding the attention of a particular farmer is the next step to managing wine quality by finding an alignment between farming style and winemaking goals. In the case of Small Vines, Sloan develops and manages vineyard sites for others and makes his Small Vines wines from his own sites.

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West Sonoma Coast: A Guide

Near Sebastopol

If you were following along on Instagram, you already know I spent a ton of time visiting vineyards and winemakers throughout the mountains of the West Sonoma Coast. I’ve turned that several months I spent studying and tasting the region into a six-article series over on

Here’s the link to a guide for all six articles. 

The articles are pay-to-read but subscriptions at are pretty straightforward and affordable. The site offers excellent articles every day about wine all over the world, as well as news events as they happen.

Subscription is £6.99 a month or £69 per year ($11/mo or $109 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.