Story David Bolling
Photos Steven Krause
It has become an almost universal mantra of wine making that great wines aren’t made in the winery, they’re made in the vineyard.
Fair enough. But how do you make a great vineyard?
There was a time, not that long ago, when if you wanted to make cabernet sauvignon, you bought some cabernet vines and stuck them in the ground and waited for the grapes to grow. No more.
Just ask Steve Ledson.
“When I was a kid,” he says, “ We didn’t get into any soil or climate stuff. We just said, ‘Oh, let’s plant some cabernet.’ And, what ever… Today, we go through a very detailed scientific process.”
That may be the understatement of all winemaking time.
Ledson, if you just came to town, is a Sonoma Valley institution, with his hands in real estate, construction, wine and hospitality. His family has been making wine since 1868, when they produced a pretty tasty zinfandel/Alicante blend, the old fashioned way, without the science.
Ledson has three wine labels, one for his eponymous brand headquartered in the gothic “castle” on Highway 12 near Kenwood, one called Zina Hyde Cunningham Winery with a tasting room at the Ledson Hotel in Sonoma, named for the ancestor who first made that 1868 wine, and a third label for the new vineyard high up Cavedale Road with a view all the way to San Francisco. Which brings us to the question of how a great vineyard is made.
In 2012, Ledson bought the 200-acre ranch on Cavedale, already planted with 65 acres of cabernet and a few other varietals, all of it pretty run down. “The vines were stressed,” he says, “the irrigation and trellising was falling apart.”
But despite the poor quality of the existing vines the vineyard had at least three very good things going for it—location, location and location. Situated in the prestigious new Moon Mountain AVA at up to 2,000 feet above the Valley floor, and sitting adjacent to the iconic Monte Rosso vineyard famous for some of the best red wines in the County, Mountain Terraces, Ledson was sure, would be capable of growing gold.
So he looked at the property as a do-over, almost starting from scratch.
And as much as he knows about making wine—which is a lot—he knew he didn’t know enough to tackle what he named Mountain Terraces by himself. So he reached out to one of the of the preeminent (and most expensive) vineyard consultants in the state, a PhD soil scientist named Daniel Roberts with blue-ribbon clients all over Sonoma County.
“We put up a weather machine,” says Ledson, “We wanted to know a lot of things about the weather. Temperatures over the season, heat degrees building, since each varietal has a different heat degree profile. Temperature, dew points, heat degrees, wind velocity, angle of the sun, which determines the direction we plant the rows. You look at some vineyards, the rows are going in two or three different directions. Do we go north and south or east and west? You can walk a vineyard and literally taste differences in the grapes. Temperature changes are variable, so that has to be plotted”
Building a modern vineyard also means getting close to the soil. “So we dig 10 soil pits per acre; we’re looking for lots of different things. How will the soil hold water, are there sticky hard pans. How are we going to rip this soil, how does the water go through it. You do a soils test to look for nematodes. In the Kenwood vineyard we planted mustard to beat down the nematodes. And Davis has a rootstock—GRN-1—that nematodes don’t like. And all of your root stocks and buds have to be tested for disease.”
Then, continues Ledson, the soil has to be “matched with a root stock with specific vigor, and we compare our data with vineyards from around the world, in Italy, France. We look at the match of varietals, root stock, clones. We look at the scores of those wines. All this stuff goes into the equation. It’s so much different than when I was a kid.”
Then there’s the question of row spacing, the width of the rows and the spacing of the vines. Everything makes a difference. And the rocky soil also has to be cleared so that the vineyards can be efficiently planted and harvested. The result is mountains of boulders bordering some of the 65 acres of vines.
The weather data provides crucial information. “We ran the weather machines for two years,” says Ledson, “we needed two years of data. Then, once you’ve decided what you’re going to do, you file a VESCO permit (Vineyard/Orchard Site Development Permit) with the county.”
The permit is 19 pages long, requiring reliable information on environmentally sensitive sites, vegetation, drainage, hydrology, farming practices, erosion and sediment controls, geologic hazards, flood hazards, a confidential crop acreage survey, pesticide use, frost protection registration, frost protection system inventory, and on and on and on.
There are different rules for flat versus hillsides, there is the issue of erosion control, and you have to test your water.
“So you’re at least two years out before you file your permit,” says Ledson. “And the permit can take a couple of months or a couple of years. Then, once you get a permit, planting on flat ground could take a year. On a mountain side, it could take three years.”
So, he says, next you put your plants in the ground, but you don’t get any crop until the third year. You drop fruit the second year because you want to put all the energy into the root system. We pick in the third year, but the grapes don’t have the depth of character you want in the third, fourth or fifth year. In about the sixth year the quality is really beginning to develop.”
He stops and runs a hand over his chin. “It’s a 10-year deal,” he says: “Before you can really reap the rewards of your investment. 10 years.”
And how much is that investment per acre. Ledson isn’t sure off the top of his head but, he says, “It’s a lot.”
Hearing all this, you are compelled to ask, what difference does all this make to the consumer?
Ledson smiles. “They say you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Well, you can’t make a great wine from poor grapes. On the other hand, you can make a shitty wine from great grapes if you screw up.”
In Ledson’s case, not screwing up means not being greedy about the crop yield. This meticulously crafted and cared for mountain vineyard could easily yield four or five tons of grapes per acre, or more. But he’s only harvesting two tons per acre because he is dropping so much fruit on the ground. Less fruit means the fruit that is allowed to fully ripen is more mature, complex, more vigorous, and makes much better wine.
And now, Ledson says, “We’re producing some of the best cabernet in Sonoma County, we’re selling about half the fruit to major, high-end wineries. The fruit is phenominal.” The other half goes into Mountain Terraces bottles, including a block of grapes that went into bottles selling for $225 each. “We sold it out.” That same wine was awarded a 97 point rating in Robert Whitely’s prestigious Critics Challenge in San Diego.
The majority of the Mountain Terraces fruit is cabernet sauvignon, but there is also some syrah, mourvedre and grenache, along with viogenier and all five Bordeaux varietals.
Perhaps the last words on Steve Ledson’s Mountain Terraces vineyard should be saved for Daniel Roberts, the man who guided its restoration. This is how he describes the site at the conclusion of a consulting report.
Says Roberts, “You can purchase the perfect site in terms of climate and soil, but still ruin the site by poor decisions in planting.“When Ledson Winery purchased the Mountain Terraces property, the vineyards were a mess. The fruit was good due to the climate and the soil, but we knew the fruit could be improved through more attention to the detail of pruning, irrigation and fertigation. Years and many thousands of dollars later, the wine coming from the original vineyards is vastly improved. A serious replanting program has been started with better rootstocks, cabernet sauvignon clones, and attention to row direction. The wines coming from the new planting are exceptional.
“Mountain Terraces is unique due to climate, soil and management. The human factor, management, is actually just as important as climate and soil. The French word vigneron refers to a family that farms the grapes and makes the wine, which certainly is apropos for Steve Ledson.
“Steve Ledson’s unrelenting quest for perfection is very prominent at Mountain Terraces Vineyard and is proven in every bottle of wine from this incredible vineyard site.”