Touring Preston Vineyards and Farm
In 1973, after studying viticulture and oenology for a year at UC Davis, Lou Preston, and his wife Susan, moved to a small parcel with Dry Creek running through. The experience would place them in the middle of a community of Italian families multiple generations into life in the region.
What is now known as Dry Creek Valley became home to a push of Italian and Swiss Immigrants in the 1800s. The region developed a vibrant agricultural community growing some grapes, but more readily prunes, apricots, apples, grains, pears, walnuts, berries, and beans–essentially all the crops that enjoy warmer weather and help a community in relative isolation thrive. Wine’s mono-culture seen today did not thoroughly take root until the 1980s.
The effect of the Preston’s move from the Central Valley to Dry Creek was to put in direct contrast the more industrial style farming taught at Davis with the family driven agricultural of his Italian-immigrant neighbors. Preston explains that it is thinking back to the families he became a part of that inspires him. “What captures my imagination is the old way of doing things, in grapes and farming in general.” Today, Preston of Dry Creek brings together diversity farming carrying a focus on sustainability with enough of the right technology to simplify the labor. Over time the size of that original small parcel has expanded to 125 acres.
Moving onto the original property, the Prestons inherited a mix of prune trees, and old vine zinfandel. That first harvest the family harvested the prunes, then pulled the trees and began planting more vines. By 1978, Preston brought in farm and vineyard manager Jesus Arzate, who has been developing the sites sustainable and organic program ever since. Arzate works not only with the vines, but the plants throughout the property, as well as the animals.
Together, Arzate and Preston have worked to increase native plant vegetation (as a support too of the helpful bug and bee populations), develop olive and citrus groves, apple orchards, and work to restore the creek bed through planting native trees along the creek side. The effect of rebuilding the creekside has been to increase the soil density thanks to winter deposits from flooding, and help improve the spawning habitat for trout.
One of Preston Vineyards more recent projects has been the development of their own compost. All of the grape and olive pommace, tree pruning, garden and animal waste are recycled through their compost and then recirculated back through the property. Preston refers to the project as exciting, describing it as “managing the spirit of a place” through the preservation and recirculation of the land’s microorganisms. Our first stop in the visit was the compost pile. As we drove away he referred to it as “the farm’s altar.”
Once grape harvest is complete the property’s sheep and chickens are introduced into the vineyards to help assist with natural fertilization and pest control. To keep the animals safe and more readily managed, Giuseppe lives with the herd.
When I moved closer to the ewes to take their picture, Giuseppe moved between me and the sheep. Good dog.
the Preston Farm chickens
Matt Norelli has been with Preston Vineyards for over 20 years, officially becoming winemaker in 2000. As a result, Norelli has helped oversee at least two significant changes in the Preston project.
Preston Vineyards was one of the few places with a tasting room open in the mid-1980s. As ubiquitous as the concept is today, at the time it was uncommon to walk into an open tasting room alongside a winery. In 1996, Preston built their current tasting room adjacent to the winery building, and the baking and farm store areas of the property.
What is more unusual is that in stepping into his role as head winemaker, Norelli also helped cut the wine production to less than a third of its peak. In doing so he assisted in the Preston shift from wine to a more diversified farm. At exactly the same time, Norelli clarified the recognizable Preston Vineyards style with a focus on clean fruit expression touched by an interest in earthiness.
In touring the Preston Vineyards Farm, Lou highlights various ways in which farming practices focus on the sustainable health of the property. Intentionally shifting ground crops is one such example. This bare plot contained Sauvignon Blanc that had severely declined in productivity. The piece will rest and then be replanted with a grain crop for the bakery program. Baker Lindsay Challoner has been experimenting with heritage grains for bread. The cleared parcel gives the opportunity to grow a greater range of grains to play with further.
Farmer Rebecca Bozzelli develops the Preston gardens rotating crops by season. We asked her to discuss further the importance of crop rotation. As she explains, in gardening it is important to rotate crops for the health of the soils, and so too the health of the food produced. By rotating crops with different root depths, the nutrients are allowed to develop or deplete at differing levels. In changing out plant types, plant-specific pests have little chance to increase in size and so are less likely to become firmly established in a garden. Soil-borne diseases tend to occur with various plant families (like tomatoes and potatoes with soil blight) but die off after 5 to 6 years. So, by planting by family, then waiting the 5 to 6 years before replanting the family in that same spot soil-borne issues can be avoided too.
Lou walking through the cabbage and kale. Rebecca has just started experimenting with use of the biodynamic treatments. She hasn’t used them before but so far she can report that the resulting leafy greens are HUGE. I saw ’em. They’re HUGE.
Much of the Preston Vineyards property is on the flats along Dry Creek but they also own a hillside area on the Western slope that they refer to as Zin hill because of the 100+ Zinfandel vineyard that had grown there through the 1980s. The vines currently growing here are from cuttings of those original vines. Part of the hill they are currently allowing to rest. To the right you can see some of their olive trees, interplanted with citrus fruits.
The Preston Vineyards’ tasting room offers not only their wine to sample or buy, but also samples of their olive oil, and various books that they’ve found useful for their farm philosophy.
Next to the tasting room, Preston Vineyards also showcases a farm store where their own produce, breads, and farm eggs are available for purchase.
Rebecca Bozzelli has also helped develop a community focus in the gardening, including a “U-Pick” pumpkin patch happening now next to the tasting room and farm store. The pumpkin patch is one example of Preston’s expanding its focus on community engagement.
At the end of the 1970s, Preston became the first to plant Syrah in Sonoma County, and among the first of the new adopters of the Rhone variety in California. There were sparse plantings of the grape in California in the late 1800s (with the oldest still existing vines found in Mendocino), but no new plantings were made again until the 70s. Today, Preston’s Rhone program has expanded to include a wealth of red grapes, as well as white. The wines are available both as classic, clean blends, or as single varietals in the tasting room.
Zinfandel was already established on the site when the Prestons purchased it, and they have continued to grow vines taken as cuttings from the historic vines. They have since also expanded into a refreshing, clean with greenery notes, and good acidity expression of Sauvignon Blanc, one of their signature wines.
Norelli let us sample some of the 2012 and 2013s. Incredibly, the 2013 crop was even larger than the 2012. 2012 also marks the start of a new experiment in making no sulfur, whole cluster Syrah. The 2012 example right now shows beautifully integrated with fresh blue-and-purple fruit and flower, Italian sausage, and nice earthiness. In 2013 he mixed in 10% viognier, offering a brighter lift in the flavor presentation. It’s too soon to tell how this wine will come together but it has nice components and strong structure that show promise. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a bottle of the 2012 when it’s ready.
Thank you to Lou Preston. Thank you to Jesus Arzate, Rebecca Bozzelli, Matt Norelli, Lindsay Challoner. Thank you to Ken Blair.
Thank you to Michelle McCue, and Anne Alderete. Thank you to Jameson Fink.
I had a great time.
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Truly one of the greatest vineyards in the world and one of my very favorite places on earth. You can feel the respect and cohesiveness that Preston has with the Dry Creek valley, not only in their wines but in all of their produce, breads and olive oil. If you haven’t been, go! A loaf of bread, a splash of organic olive oil, fruit and a lovely L. Preston in the courtyard behind the bocce ball court with good company is as close to heaven as you can come on earth.
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