High Density Planting: Visit with Paul Sloan of Small Vines Wines

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Kathryn and Paul Sloan

Paul Sloan is a viticulturalist, and he and wife Kathryn have their own label, Small Vines, for Pinot Noir (and soon, Chardonnay) they make from vineyards in the Russian River and Sonoma Coast AVAs that Paul farms. I originally got to know Paul through a friend at a wine dinner we both attended in April 2008, and since then he and Kathryn have attended a few other events hosted by our mutual friends, and I see them regularly at Pinot Noir oriented trade and public tasting events. I have found Paul to be thoughtful and articulate, and I’ve very much enjoyed his wines. He has a growing reputation as a meticulous and increasingly influential wine grower (he likes the term “vigneron”). He was inspired by studying and visiting Burgundy to bring back to the planting of Burgundian varieties in the North Coast high density plantings, and I’ve been fascinated by this development. I paid a visit to Paul and Kathryn recently to get a look at the vineyards Paul has planted, and to learn more from him about high density planting, the challenges he’s faced in implementing it, and its impact on the wines he’s making.

Paul’s Background
Paul started out in the wine business as a wine steward at John Ash Restaurant in the early ‘90s. It was there that he was exposed to fine Burgundies, and he got hooked. He enrolled in the Santa Rosa Junior College viticulture program and went to work for grape grower Warren Dutton of Dutton Ranch. In 1998, Dutton encouraged Paul to consider starting his own winegrowing company. Thanks to Dutton’s encouragement, and based on Paul’s conviction that close spaced, compact vines produce the most balanced and refined wines, Small Vines Viticulture was launched. Following six years of planting high-density vineyards for a number of growers, in 2004 Paul and Kathryn began leasing back some of the acreage they planted to gain total control of the farming and to furnish the fruit they would need to produce their own wine. In 2005, Small Vines Wines was born with their first harvest from the tiny Old Mill Vineyard, planted in 2001, the present site of their viticulture offices. This wine was released in the fall of 2007 as Small Vines 2005 Russian River Pinot Noir.

Small Vines Estate
By the end of 2007, after releasing and selling out their first Small Vines wine, the Sloans purchased a 12 and a half acre property outside of Sebastopol for the Small Vines Estate. This property was likewise planted, in 2009, and grafted in June 2010, to high density vines. Four and a half acres have been planted to Pinot Noir, four and three-quarter acres to Chardonnay, and two thousand vines of Pinot Gouges–the white berried mutation of Pinot Noir discovered in Henri Gouges’s vineyard in Nuits-Saint- Georges and that he started propagating in 1936–were also planted. The Sloans are remodeling and now live with their two children in the property’s farm house, which was built in 1890. They have plans to convert a large farm building on the site into their own winemaking facility.

Vine Density
As Paul explains in the video below, in the finer wine regions of France, like Burgundy, the growing of wine grapes arose from a culture in which everything was done by hand. When vineyards were replanted after phylloxera, spacing between rows was often just sufficient for humans, and horses, to pass through, but not much wider than that. The great terroirs of Burgundy are a precious commodity, and those lucky few who own them try to get as much fine fruit as they can from the small amount of acreage they own. Vineyards in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne typically have about 10,000 vines per hectare (4,050 per acre), with vines spaced about one meter (3.28 feet) apart within and between rows. Here in the U.S., however, agriculture has been much more dominated by mechanization, and the width of rows in vineyards has typically been dictated by the size of tractors and other equipment used to work the vineyard. Here, vines are commonly placed eight feet apart within a row and 12 feet between rows, for a density of only about 1,080 vines per hectare.

The spacing Paul has been using — a meter between vines in a row and four feet (instead of a meter) between rows – results in about 3,600 vines per acre. The vines grown in this fashion yield smaller berries and smaller clusters, so it takes more vines to generate pounds of fruit. He reports getting anywhere from one to three pounds of fruit per vine — as a result of leaving only one or two clusters per shoot — which is comparable to the yields in Burgundy. The average they’re getting throughout their vineyards is two and a quarter to two and a half pounds per vine, yielding a total of four and a half to five and a half tons to the acre.

As Paul points out, this kind of planting doesn’t work for every kind of soil and climate. High vine densities can work well in soils and locations that are of low to moderate vigor, but they’re difficult to manage and not recommended for soils with high fertility.

In Europe, where growers have stayed with high density plantings, they’ve needed to use narrow tractors, or tractors designed to function over rows (in France they call the latter “tracteur enjambeur”). Paul first started out using an Italian crawler, but it was so often down for servicing that he switched to a French over-the-row tractor, the Caval, which he’s found a lot more reliable.

The four-foot apart rows Paul uses permit the vineyard to have a 48-inch canopy (spacing of only a meter apart would permit only a meter of canopy). Paul explained that, unlike the relatively low fruiting heights common in France, the radiant heat from the warmer California soil requires a higher fruiting elevation – a greater distance from soil surface to the lowest growing fruit on the vine to better control the ripening process. He’s also found that a taller canopy helps the grapes to retain more acidity. To accommodate the taller California stakes (employed to raise the fruit further from the ground), some redesigning of the Caval frame was required. The Small Vines’s Cavals are also fitted with a 40 horsepower Kubota engine, larger than the standard engine of the Cavals used in France.

Clonal Selections
I asked Paul what lessons he had learned about selecting clones that work best with high density planting and the sites he is farming in the Russian River and Sonoma Coast. He said that when they started, in 1998, all the growers he worked with wanted the Dijon selections that were all the rage at that time. What he’s found is that, in the California climates he is working with, some of those Dijon clones “fall apart” in the high heat and low humidity of late summer. So in current plantings, he is using more of the California “heritage” selections — the Calera, Swan, Pommard and Wadenswil clones or selections, as well as AS2, 459, 943 and Mariafeld — which they find hold up better in the temperatures and low humidity of mid- and late-September here. They’ve also learned that prolifically producing clones like 828 and 459 can do well in very low vigor locations.

Here’s Paul’s response regarding clonal selections:

In the Vineyard
Here’s Paul describing the Old Mill Vineyard, planted in 2001 to Dijon clones, and the activities involved at this time of year in thinning out the vine canopies:

And here’s Paul describing the Small Vines estate vineyard, a relatively sandy vineyard, that was planted in 2009. He explains the use of a cover crop there, and describes the different irrigation blocks:

Winemaking
Below is a clip of Paul describing the winemaking process at Small Vines. They destem most of the grapes, and keep the grapes cool for five to seven days before they let them warm up and start fermenting. They use ambient yeast (they’re making the wines at Copain’s Custom Crush facility, so there’s plenty of yeast present in the environment there). Total maceration is 14 to 18 days. When fermentation is complete, they drain the tank for the free run juice, and keep the press wine separate. After tasting it, and trying blends the last few years, they’ve been selling off the press wine. As a result, they average about 50 cases to a ton of fruit. They’re using one-third new oak on the Russian River cuvee, and 40-50% new oak with the vineyard designate wines. With some of the new barrels, Paul has experimented with removing the wine after six months and putting it into more neutral barrels. He likes very much using these then “half used” barrels for the next vintage. Malolactic doesn’t usually finish until about February. The wines remain in barrel for about 14 months before bottling, usually in January. Paul has had advice and assistance from consulting winemaker Byron Kosuge.

For the Chardonnay from the estate vineyard, whose first vintage will be 2011 with an expected yield of about 300 cases, Paul expects to pick between 22.5 to 23 brix. He is planning to use 20% stainless steel and one-time used barrels. He is looking for good acidity, structure and minerality.

Recent Vintages
In the clip below Paul compares the current vintage, so far, to 2010 and 2009. June 2011 was the wettest June ever in their area. He reports that crop levels are balanced, and they’re planning on some fruit thinning at 85% of veraison. He expects that harvest will likely be late: mid- to late-September rather than early September. The summer was likewise cool and mild in 2009, Paul’s favorite vintage so far, with less of the rain they had this spring and June.

The Wines
In our tasting, Paul let me see how Small Vines’s first vintage, the ’05 Russian River, was progressing, and we also tasted the 2006 Sonoma Coast bottling, which also now has a few years of age on it. The ’05 Russian River was good, especially the more vibrant second bottle we tried, but the ’06 was excellent, showing even better, with a few years of age, than it has when I’ve tried it a couple of times before. We then tasted through Small Vines’s recent releases, the 2009s, which were also very strong. For drinking now, I’m enjoying most the Russian River cuvee, but there’s a lot of depth and power to the Baranoff Vineyard bottling, which should be excellent in a couple of years. The MK Vineyard bottling is also gorgeous, but likewise needs a year or two of bottle age before it will be showing at its best.

These are excellent wines that give substance to Paul’s claim that “small vines” resulting from high density plantings can make really great, complex and ageworthy Pinot Noir. I can’t wait to try the Small Vines Chardonnay from the Small Vines estate vineyard when it’s available. I’ve had the chance to sample the small quantity of Chardonnay Paul made from purchased fruit in 2007, and it was quite impressive.

For my detailed tasting notes on the wines I tasted with Paul, see below:

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Older Vintages

  • 2005 Small Vines Wines Pinot Noir – USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
    1st bottle: Slightly bricking medium cranberry red color with pale meniscus; maturing, herbal, tart cranberry nose; tasty, tart cherry, ripe cranberry, herbal, mineral palate with good balance; medium-plus finish (18-19 mos. in barrel; 1st wine Small Vines produced; Paul Sloan felt this bottle lacked the “brightness and liveliness of fruit” it usually has)
    2nd bottle: Slightly bricking medium cranberry red color with pale meniscus; nice, mature, subtly spicy cherry, raspberry nose with a touch of herbs; nice, vibrant, tart cherry, raspberry, black raspberry palate with integrated oak spice; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2006 Small Vines Wines Pinot Noir – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
    Medium dark cherry red color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; rich, ripe raspberry, black cherry, black raspberry, black cherry nose; tasty, rich with fruit but elegant, black cherry, black raspberry palate with subtle spice and good balance; medium-plus finish (1st vintage of wine from Matt and Ann Keller’s MK vineyard, planted in 1999 to Dijon clones 667, 666, 115 and 114) (93 pts.)

2009

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  • 2009 Small Vines Wines Pinot Noir – USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
    Medium dark ruby color with pale meniscus; very appealing, ripe cherry, floral, baked cherry, black cherry, black raspberry nose with a touch of herbs and hint of roses; tasty, rich but balanced, ripe raspberry, ripe cherry, delicious red fruit with a plush core of tart cherry; medium-plus finish (14 mos. in barrel) (93 pts.)
  • 2009 Small Vines Wines Pinot Noir MK Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
    Dark ruby olor with pale meniscus; really gorgeous, floral, rich raspberry, black cherry, black raspberry, subtle berry and spice nose; elegant, youthful, silky textured, ripe black raspberry, black cherry, rosehips palate with a touch of cinnamon; could use another year or so and go for 10+ years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
  • 2009 Small Vines Wines Pinot Noir Baranoff Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
    Very dark ruby color; youthful, intense black cherry, black raspberry, deep and brooding nose; tight, youthful, rich, complex, black cherry, blackberry, black raspberry, berry palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (about 10% whole cluster) (92 pts.)
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4 Responses to High Density Planting: Visit with Paul Sloan of Small Vines Wines

  1. J.R. Young says:

    Great write up Richard. I may be a bit biased as I really enjoy the Sloans as much as their wine, but it is great to hear the details of what Paul is doing from planting, to farming, to harvesting, to sorting, to barreling. I’ve enjoyed the wines thus far and am anxious to see how they produce as many of his vineyards are approaching 10 years of age. I think when we tried the 2005s at the dinner where we first met Paul they were 4th leaf.

  2. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Thank you, exclent article, and I have wondered about who was going to make more advances in growing techniques, to match the higher Calif. temperatures and still make wines of finesse and lower alc. I had not heard of Paul Sloan before, and hope this idea works and becomes more common. I think / hope that Calif. turf can make wines as fine and complex as Burgundy and Bordeaux without running into the problem of high alc. and low acid due to the heat here.

  3. wine growing says:

    You’ve got great insights about wine growing, keep up the good work!

  4. Andrew says:

    Excellent article. I had the privilege of working with the Sloans in their vineyards and on their 2009 Pinots. They are true innovators and there is nobody out there as passionate as Paul. These wines will outshine any CA Pinot and it’s exciting to think what the vines may do in another 10 years.

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