BUTLER RANCH is a Biodynamic single vineyard in Mendocino County in the North Coast of California. It was created and owned by Fetzer Vineyards who use it to produce a Syrah-dominated red wine for their Bonterra range.
TERROIR | The Butler Ranch is located west of Highway 101 near the town of Ukiah, and rises from 520-670 metres (1,700 to 2,200 feet) facing east and north. The total landholding comprises 360 hectares (900 acres). Butler was a sheep farm in the nineteenth century, a ‘you-pick’ cherry orchard in the twentieth century and via Fetzer a vineyard at the start of the twenty-first century. Butler Ranch overlooks another of Fetzer’s Bonterra range vineyards, the McNab Ranch.
BUTLER RANCH VINEYARDS | 36 hectares (90 acres).
VINEYARD ESTABLISHMENT | Butler Ranch overlooks Ukiah from steep slopes. Planting these with vines in 2001-2002 and doing so as Biodynamic from scratch risked causing erosion because of the machinery involved. To prevent this, Bonterra’s then vineyard chief, Dave Koball, sowed clovers and grasses in spring. ‘These bind the soil over summer to stop it from drying out and blowing away. We layed down hay as a mulch over winter. Hay mulching is very time-consuming but worth it. We had really heavy rain here in autumn 2003 but the clarity of the water running into our drainage channels showed that our topsoil, which has taken hundreds of years to form, was staying on the ranch and not ending up on the valley floor and in the local river.’
GRAPE VARIETIES | Butler is planted with red grapes from both Bordeaux and the Mediterranean. Red soils suited to red wine production. Koball aligned the vine rows 208–218 degrees to true north. He says ‘This is about optimal for us in Mendocino. We look for the angle of the sun at two-thirty to four-thirty in the afternoon in July–August, when the heat is at its most intense. If your rows are oriented wrongly then grapes on one side of the row won’t get ripe while those on the other side will be shrivelled and raisining.’
MALBEC | At Butler Ranch in Mendocino County, California, Dave Koball told me ‘The Malbec vines are cane pruned to double guyot, with each vine 5 feet (1.52 metres) apart. The number of spurs depends and can be up to 8 or 9. These can then be thinned off.’ Koball says he has never grown Malbec before, and is learning that it is prone to ‘shatter’ in spring. What this means is although the vine’s spring flowers are fertilized by pollen, without which there is no chance of a crop, these fertilized flowers fail to set a crop (each flower should become a seed bearing grape). This occurs when there is unsettled weather in the period after fertilization (like in 2002). Koball says to alleviate this the aim now is ‘to thin [remove] the vine shoots or bunches late in the season, before harvest, to penalise the vine and encourage it to set more fruit the following year. This costs more money in terms of seasonal outlay on annual labour costs but makes a huge difference in fruit set long-term.’ See coulure.
PRUNING | The vines at Butler are drip irrigated but, Dave Koball told me ‘the ranch’s exposed position and the lack of overhead sprinklers for cooling means vines can suffer sunburn, hence most of the vines are spur pruned with permanent, woody shoot bearing arms on either side of the vine trunk or what we call bilateral cordons. The leaf canopy on the cooler, or sunrise [north-facing] side is tucked in, whereas the canopy on the hotter, afternoon [south-facing] side is left untidy or what we call “floppy” to give some shade protection to the emerging grape bunches. The tucked in side allows us easier penetration of sulphur dust which we use to control powdery mildew [oïdium], especially late in the season when the leaf canopy is developed and consists of thick shoots and big-sized leaves. My previous experiences with spur pruning vines to a bush system, rather than to horizontal cordons, has convinced me that it is much harder for sprays to penetrate adequately a bush vine’s canopy late in the season, to treat against mites for example which are at their worst late in the season. This is especially true of bush vines on hill slopes, which is the case at Butler. Biodynamics is all about prevention, rather than cure, so if you organised your vineyard with this in mind from the start you save time, money and can stay on top of things, rather than always playing catch-up.’
ROOTSTOCKS | Dave Koball said he planted Grenache Noir, a late ripener, on 101-14 Millardet et de Grasset rootsock (V. riparia x V. rupestris) as ‘an earlier maturing rootstock so we could pick the fruit off early each year, before its tight, big bunches which are prone to rot get caught by Mendocino County’s late harvest rains. Most Syrah is on 101-14 as this gives more balance and needs less intervention than 3309C, which is more susceptible to nematodes and likely to crop more excessively than 101-14. The Cabernet Sauvignon occupies Magnesium (Mg) rich soils so the rootstocks selected were 110 Richter and 4453MGT. R110 is very vigorous, and as Mg rich soils tend to have a devigorating effect on Cabernet a balance would be struck between vigour and over-vigour. Also, R110 tends to delay ripening which should allow more hang time, which should mean physiological and analytical or sugar/acid ripeness coincide. The 4453MGT rootstock is used in the most magnesium-rich soils because it does not take up soil nutrients so easily, in other words we won’t get the excess of magnesium we find in the soil in the vines as well.’
MITES | For mites the first line of defence is to introduce predatory mites such as Metaseiulus occidentalis; the second line of defence is Stylet Oil (from JMS Flowerfarms) which is permitted (on the Organic Materials Review Institute or OMRI list).
BIODYNAMIC CERTIFICATION | Certified Biodynamic by Demeter.
BONTERRA, THE BUTLER | For ‘The Butler’ single vineyard bottling, mainly Syrah is used, with 20 percent Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah. The blend ages for 24 months in a mix of new and used French oak barrels, which are minimally toasted to avoid a disconnect between the oak flavours and the wine flavours: blackberry, black cherry, black pepper and cloves. Try with grilled mushrooms or a lamb chop with rosemary and garlic. / 2007 Mendocino County AVA 81% Syrah, 9% Grenache, 6% Mourvedre, 4% Petite Sirah. 14.2% alcohol. 900 cases. 2012 Rich, ripe, well extracted, oak still settling down in 2018 when tasted during my ‘Biodynamic Pioneers’ masterclass, VINCE wine show in Budapest 05th April 2018. / 2013 Mendocino County AVA 80% Syrah, 20% Mourvedre, Grenache and Zinfandel. Made by Bob Blue. Each varietal was individually allowed to ripen to peak maturity before an extended harvest. The blend was aged for 24 months in French oak, 60% new. 15.2% alcohol. Rich fruit when tasted at the International Biodynamic Wine Conference, San Francisco 07 May 2018.
Butler Ranch, 13601 East Side Road, Hopland, CA 95449, United States of America