Branciforte Creek Vineyard: Complex, Elegant Pinot Noir—from the Vineyard to the Glass

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_aThe Early Days
There’s a vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains that dates back to the mid-1800s. It is known today as Branciforte Creek Vineyard, and is part of one of the oldest continuously operated grape-growing regions in California—a 300-acre site originally called Rancho San Andres, in what is now the Vine Hill District, above the city of Scott’s Valley.*

The region was established in 1863. According to a manuscript written by Robert Jarvis Sr., as told to him by his late father George Millen Jarvis, George bought cuttings from France and planted them in his vineyard. Around 1865 George’s brother, John Jarvis, arrived from Oregon and bought a ranch across Blackman Gulch to the east of Vine Hill and developed a vineyard. He built a road to connect with Branciforte Road. That road is Jarvis Road. (By 1868, the Jarvis brothers’ plantings comprised 90 percent of the 300 acres.)

Jarvis Vineyard during the 1908s. (Photo by Jeff Emery)

Jarvis Vineyard during the 1980s. (Photo by Jeff Emery)

Branciforte Creek Vineyard is located on Jarvis Road, just one mile from Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard’s historic Estate, formerly called “Jarvis Vineyard.”

Fast-Forward to 1988: A New Generation of Farmers
As noted, Branciforte Creek Vineyard sits on a site that had produced grapes continuously since 1863. However, it had become fallow over time but was reclaimed in the late 1980s by Dave “Woody” Wood and his wife Jennifer.

The Pinot Noir that had been produced by Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard impressed Woody so much that he decided to breathe life back into this once fallow land. So, he broke ground in 1988, planting both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on St. George rootstock, a hefty rootstock that does well in this vineyard’s sandy soil, which has very little nutrients. Later, Woody grafted the Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. From this vineyard, Jeff Emery co-produced his first vintage of Branciforte Creek Pinot in 1991, when at the time he was assistant winemaker to then Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard owner-winemaker Ken Burnap.

A vineyard worker serenades dormant Pinot Noir vines at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

A vineyard worker serenades dormant Pinot Noir vines at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
(Photo by Ken Swegles)

Farming, however, was not in Woody’s blood, so from 1992 to 2002 he contracted the tending of the vines to local winemaker David Bruce and Bruce’s then vineyard manager Greg Stokes. Emery didn’t make wine again from that vineyard until 2003—after he purchased Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard (the name, equipment, and inventory) from Burnap, who retired.

In 2007, Emery took over the viticulture activities at Branciforte Creek Vineyard. When it was first planted, the vineyard was established on a vertical trellis system for cordon pruning but was changed over to cane pruning to ensure better fruit set, as Pinot Noir tends to be apical-dominant—the shoots grow upward to get more light, and thus undergo photosynthesis. Emery explains the advantage of cane-pruned vines: “Cane pruning lets you leave behind a cane each year with one to two bud spurs for the next year. So you get all the fruit off this one cane.”

Jeff Emery samples grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

Jeff Emery samples grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

The vine rows run east and west and thus get the morning sun, which moves over the vines during the day, finally setting on the west side of the vineyard, welcoming the cool nights. The downhill side of the vineyard (which is 750 feet in elevation) faces somewhat south and experiences more shading, which varies throughout the summer. Emery calls this section the “banana belt” because it gets warm but not scathingly hot, and the fog comes in but doesn’t linger forever. “In a normal summer, there’s a seven- to ten-day cycle where there’s a good balance of sun and fog,” says Emery.

This balance is perfect for the vines, which need the cooler nights to maintain their acid. Since acid slowly goes away as fruit ripens—day after day, week after week—Emery is careful, not to “burn out acid,” as he puts it, in disproportion to sugar development by ensuring that the grapes are not overripe at harvest time. “I don’t like a strawberry soda pop [type of] Pinot,” he adds.

Early morning at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

Early morning at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

A No-Fuss Approach to Viticulture
Emery and his crew farm Branciforte Creek Vineyard somewhat modestly. Vineyard maintenance consists of mechanical weed control (mower and weed eater). Herbicides are not used—instead, native vegetation is left to grow during the season, and a good amount of wild mustard provides the vines enough nitrogen.

Powdery mildew, a fungus indicative to the Santa Cruz Mountains, is more common and is controlled via the spraying of sulfur early in the season. Fortunately, 2014 was good weatherwise—not much mildew was present, so spraying was minimal. Emery stays on top of mildew control, given his long history of working vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “The text book interval is overkill,” he says. “A lot of it [viticulture] just comes down to budget.”

Eutypa is another disease that sometimes affects the vines. Caused by the fungus Eutypa Lata, Eutypa produces cankers that appear typically on one arm of the vine, moving toward the roots and ultimately killing the plant. As a result, some replanting has taken place.

Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir vine succumbs to a gopher. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir vine succumbs to a gopher. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

The vineyard is pretty much spared when it comes to bacterial disease. For example, Pierce’s Disease is not an issue, since the property is not located near a riparian zone.
Pests of the vertebrate kind include birds, which eat the berries but are not a major threat since netting is used. Gophers, however, are more of a nuisance, but their numbers are small.

There are some issues with insects such as mealy bugs, which the ants eat because they live off of the honey dew that the bugs secrete. To combat mealy bugs, the crew applies natural orange oil to the vines, which suffocates the critters.

A Vineyard that Delivers, Time and Time Again
Branciforte Creek is unique in its ability to bear fruit that produces a wine whose character is consistently exceptional year-over-year, with interesting complexity. One exceptional vintage was 2007. “It has lots of spicy and floral complexities,” says Emery, comparing it to 2004, which he says was a much hotter year, resulting in a more fruit-forward wine without as many savory complexities.

Pinot Noir cluster, Branciforte Creek Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

Pinot Noir cluster, Branciforte Creek Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

This depth of complexity, says Emery, has everything to do with the Pommard clone—in which the vineyard is planted—and the site, which he insists trumps the viticulture. “This clone is very distinct when it comes to white pepper, savory spice and a floral, perfume character.”

The soil too greatly influences the wine. The upper block of the vineyard (which is 800 feet in elevation) is basically a sandbox, in which pests such as Phylloxera—a tiny aphid-like insect—cannot live. In a cooler climate such as the Santa Cruz Mountains, the soil benefits the vineyard by draining well and retaining heat. Because of this, the vines can produce a highly aromatic wine. One sniff of the Branciforte Creek wine is all it takes to understand this aspect of the terroir. However, this block requires irrigating two to three times more than the lower section where the soil consists of sandy loam and clay. The combined soil types here impart a muscular character to this Pinot Noir—this is not a wimpy wine.

A Sense of “Place” in Your Glass
To describe Branciforte Creek Vineyard as nothing more than just 4 acres of Pinot Noir would be, well, an insult. There’s a Zen-like quality to the place that can be experienced during early morning harvest when the fog lingers over the vineyard, caressing the vines. Dew clings to the grape clusters, puffs of dust rise gently with each step through the rows, the air is brisk and the silence is hauntingly beautiful.

B40Creek labelThe wine too will haunt you, as its garrigue permeates your soul. Redwood, bay leaf, sage, thyme and fennel surround more delicate, deep round notes of lavender, perfume, dark cherry and rhubarb. Savory spice, dried leaves and damp earth dance among these layers, which are enveloped in noticeable acidity. (For more on the wine, read The Composition and the Creek: Listen, Sip and, by All Means, Weep)

This vineyard has low yields—due in part to the nature of the Pommard clone—and represents what Emery says is “the best of ‘old school’ Pinot Noir, before all of those cola- cherry-focused ‘modern’ clones became so popular.”

Branciforte Creek Vineyard is one that shows off the best attributes of what the Santa Cruz Mountains offers in terms of complexity in Pinot Noir. Adds Emery: “An excellent combination of clone and site, this vineyard celebrates the non-fruity elements in Pinot that make it a fascinating variety.”

* “Late Harvest: Wine History of the Santa Cruz Mountains,” The Late Harvest Project, Michael, et al., Santa Cruz, Calif., 1983.

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