Viva Voce: The Story of a Field Blend
Dear Friends and Family,
I hope this finds you enjoying spring blooms and staying well. With respect to the circumstances, I have moved into an off-grid tiny house in an isolated meadow on the forest’s edge. Here, I am tending the new acre of Chasselas vines I was able to plant last fall. I have learned a lot in this past month of relative solitude – about farming, about solar power, about myself, about what spring feels like in the dense woods and in an open field. I have stepped into a new, quieter rhythm. Unhurried for the first time in recent memory.
My human connections, while less frequent, have taken on a different quality – deeper and more comforting. I am encouraged by the creative ways that people are finding to continue to come together - singing or clapping from balconies, sharing meals over Zoom. There is something innate in our need to connect, to collaborate, to support each other, to share stories, and to learn from each other. It is beautiful to see so many people embracing and celebrating this part of what makes us human.
So, the story I have to share today is about a new wine release but more importantly, about a friendship and collaboration. I met Joey Myers in 2011 on a hot, dusty summer day while he was mowing grass fields at Soter Vineyards where I worked. Since then, we’ve spent many nights together in the company of friends around a bonfire or a dinner table, bantering about wine or poetry or the meaning of life. Joey has a truly unique and important perspective on our endeavor, having grown up farming vineyards in the Willamette Valley with his Dad in addition to being a deep thinker, a good talker, and an avid reader.
A professional vineyard manager by day, Joey has also been farming his own tiny “wine patch” in the coast hills outside of Carlton. It is his chance to “re-search,” to “look again” at the way we are farming winegrapes and why. He has planted a field blend of Pinot noir clones and aromatic white varieties and created his own unique system for trellising and management. In 2018, having recently accepted a new job, he didn’t have time to spend on his own harvest and offered me the unique and singular opportunity to work with his fruit. This wine has been in progress for the past twenty months, but the results of our collaboration are finally ready for release. Since this is unquestionably a wine crafted and a story written in the field rather than the cellar - making me as winemaker simply the transcriber - I thought it best to let Joey explain his background and inspiration in his own words. What follows are excerpts from a phone conversation Joey and I had recently in which he shares pieces of a special and still unfolding story.
"So that was the environment I was raised in - examining all these different approaches to grape growing with the intent of making great wines, but it was with high levels of manipulation. That was the mode of the day. Everything looks like a park or like a golf course, and every cluster was hanging perfectly at 2.46 tons/acre, and we spent a lot of money farming that way.
Once I started to mature and get some experience outside that insulated bubble, I started to realize, man this is so much broader, and starting to taste some wines, especially internationally, where you would go meet a winegrower and yeah he’s got some stuff that’s, oh the base wines he makes, but it was always more interesting to ask him, what are you doing that’s outside the box? What’s the exception in your cellar? And I found that those were the most compelling wines, to hear what people were doing that was not maybe so safe. And to level of the way they were growing their fruit. For some growers maybe that was going organic but for the most part, they were getting creative. They were getting creative with the way they approached the grape growing and how much that influenced the wine, that’s the eternal question. What are the effects of our work on the wine? But a lot of times it’s something that can’t be explained other than the joy that they get from having something that’s different and from learning from it.
One of the big experiences for me was working with head trained vineyards in Calistoga. I worked for Etude Winery and we sourced a bunch of fruit from the Frediani Family Vineyard which is over on the Silverado Trail. They had plantings back to the early 1900’s. One of the interesting things about it was you walk around in those vineyards and its like walking around in a field. You’re not walking up and down the rows, and you can actually look at things and see, that one kind of looks funny over there. Let’s go look over there. And I really appreciated the interaction.
And so, it was a whole different approach from a philosophical standpoint, and that really sparked an interest in me. At the same time my Dad and I were replanting our blueberry farm to grapes. We had always joked about a Fukuoka "do nothing" Vineyard to eliminate as much of the manipulation as we could and still focus on proper exposure and quality. We settled on this kind of sprawl system similar to some of the stuff I saw in Napa. Wider spacing, it has some catch wires to support the growth but not straight VSP. So we developed that system and planted it and it started to work.
By the time I was home from traveling and had had these experiences, looking for a place of my own. Ok, how am I going to do it? So I decided to take it one step further than a sprawl and actually just attempt a head trained system with Pinot noir. I settled on an 8x8 spacing, then I tried out the goblet system, but I had too much breakage in the spring from the wind. We have those storms that come through in June, and half the shoots would come off, so I had to move away from cordon pruning and move to cane pruning. But the other thing that I think is a game changer as far as the methods is this pre-bloom leaf pulling. Because when you talk to people about head training up here the first thing that anyone will tell you is that oh, it’s too congested and your exposure is all screwed up, and you’re going to get mildew, and you’re going to get botrytis, which I think is true.
I definitely have found that this not a “do nothing” vineyard. It is more work than I anticipated and mainly that work is in my canopy management, but this method that I really pioneered here in Oregon was pulling leaves before bloom, and where I’m doing that, it’s really improving the environment. With this system, especially cane pruning, I’m able to have an infinitely variable vine balance, because on smaller vines maybe I have a small cane that’s only 9 or 10 shoots, but some of my vines where I have actually tied up two canes, those are carrying 40 buds. What other system do you know of that you can literally still drive a tractor through it and have that much variability to match the strength and the balance of the vine. I mean, do you farm to your weak vines or do you farm to your strong vines? What I’ve found is, that I have to do both."
[I ask Joey about his concept for planting different clones and varieties]
"It’s a field blend of clones that I like in proportions that I like - that I’ve had success with in the past. So there’s a little bit of that formula in there. One of the biggest things that really turned me off once I got into the thick of things was that it was so compartmentalized – you picked the block – or pick half the block this way and half the block another way - and then you ferment it in four different ways, put it in four different barrel regimes, and then it all went back to blending. Just cutting it up and putting it back together. And a lot of times it’s good and it’s nice, but it’s easier for me to recognize producers still to this day than for me to recognize places. Really exceptional wines speak beyond that, and a field blend is a big element of that. As for the whites I have up here, they would all be considered aromatic, cool climate varieties commonly grown next to Pinot noir. So I feel like they are helping with acidity and they are helping with the aromatics. They are giving a little touch of love that you can’t put your finger on but it’s there. It’s a small percentage of vines in here that are whites, nothing that will stick out like an elbow. I'm a collector, and it's a unique collection of clones and varieties."
[I ask Joey about the ancient texts to which he refers often when talking about farming winegrapes.]
I took some courses through WA State Extension, and the lead professor on it was Markus Keller. He’s a Swiss guy and studied under my friend Werner Koblet in Wädenswil. He and Verner did a bunch of research together, but he is also from a wine growing family, not somebody who came out of biology or chemistry or something. He came from a family where you get up in the morning and you go pull leaves. So, he’s a guy who asks why from a winegrower's perspective. I would recommend his anatomy and physiology book. I read it pretty much every year.
One of the things that he would have in his textbook were these quotes from the Roman and Greek guys. And when he would explain something, he would give the Greek root terms. It really piqued my interest. So, this is Marcus Cato, this is Columella, this is Virgil, this is Hesiod. Pliny the Elder wrote about viticulture. There’s a fair bit of information about what they were doing. And one of the funniest parts of it is, we are still arguing about the same stuff today. When to pull leaves, when do you cultivate - how many times do you dig your vineyard? I even got into looking at some of the figures and numbers they had and translating that into hours per acre and doing a basic cost analysis of what these guys were doing.
It was really interesting, because it’s the concept of Viva Voce right? It’s the living word. The way that I learned to grow grapes is not from textbooks. It’s by learning from people and listening to them talk about what they’re doing and seeing what they’re doing. Taking all that into account and that’s the fact that viticulture is just that- it’s a culture. It depends on where your background is and what your experience is. Same with winemaking. You can, a lot of times, follow somebody’s lineage, who they learned from, and it says a lot about their methods.
That’s the idea. This living word. This word of mouth. This living history. And I feel like what I’m getting to do here is apply that concept to a region and to a variety. I’m writing a new thing in the same lines. It’s a re-search, it’s looking again. Taking another look – and taking another look as far back as people have grown grapes.
I feel like so many trends or so many things that people want to latch onto in the world of viticulture and winemaking are all so rigid. What I’ve found or what I have gratification from is that actually, I’m having more fun doing it the other way. Taking the lines out of it. Getting rid of all the wires and just figuring out this other way. And it’s beautiful. It’s working really well. I feel like I’ve had a lot of problems, but I’ve also had a lot of success. So, it really has been a great way for me to grow personally and professionally and taught me a lot of things about grapevines that I never would have been able to observe in a traditional system – you know – just going to work. There’s no right way, but there’s some ways better than others."
In 2018, Joey and I produced just shy of 30 cases of the red field blend from his wine patch. It's name “Ninth Path,” comes from a little mention Hunter S. Thompson makes in a letter to a friend, which you can find linked here. Joey has teamed up with another good (and extremely talented) friend LJ Brimfield to bottle other vintages from his site under a label called Lines of Man, which you can learn about on Instagram @lines_of_man.
I’m beyond grateful for this chance to collaborate with and learn from such a thoughtful and inspiring friend. I'm excited to share this story and this wine with you. I continue to learn from Joey every time I speak with him, and as I begin to farm my own tiny wine patch, I hope to follow in his footsteps - writing a new thing in the same lines.
While limited, the 2018 Field Blend is now available to purchase and ship. The wine was 60% gently hand-destemmed, made without inoculations or additions, lightly basket pressed, and moved only by gravity. If you are an Oregon resident, please order directly from my online store here. For residents of all other states, please click here to link to VinoShipper, which allows transport to most locations. Weather permitting, I will ship orders each Monday following the day on which it is placed.
I hope you find as much interest and joy in this collaboration as I have. As always, thank you for sharing the journey. Sending my best from this meadow in Oregon.