Sunday, July 31, 2011

Organic Grower Profile: Elk Mountain and DiRicco Vineyard - Dry Farmed with Percherons!

Tallman Inn
One day I drove over the hill from Ukiah to Upper Lake to see what the "undiscovered" Lake County wine scene was like. I stumbled into Upper Lake, sans guidance or guide book, but saw signs for Lake County Wine Studio and, after having a look around the ritzy Tallman Hotel and the Blue Wing restaurant, wandered in for a look-see.

Susan with Hagafen Riesling, Atascadero Creek SB
The proprietor Susan was very friendly and told me they had three organically grown wines to taste from Lake County grapes - and I could try two of them.
Lake County Wine Studio
One was a Sauvignon Blanc from Atasacadero Creek winery in Sonoma, but it was from grapes grown right up the road from Dana DiRicco's Elk Mountain vineyard. "She has horses, too," Susan told me. "She uses them in her vineyard."

So on a more recent trip, I went to visit Dana and her vineyard along with the Percheron draft horses she and her husband Dr. Glenn Benjamin, an exotic animal vet (he works at Safari West in Santa Rosa), rescued from Canada.

The two purchased the Elk Mountain property, which backs up against the wildlands of the Mendocino Forest, partly to house the rescue horses. A 26 acre vineyard just happened to come with the property. "We weren't looking for a vineyard," says DiRicco, who still owns an Alexander Valley cattle beef ranch.

But Dana's family, the DiRicco's, coincidentally had a long history of growing grapes and making wine in Sonoma for several generations. DiRicco originally meant "of the rich."

"My grandparents had a vineyard in Healdsburg, and were part of the Italian Swiss Colony era," she says. Her brother and her son-in-law are both in the wine business as well. The name DiRicco is well known from the generations of growers and winemakers. Even in the old country, DiRicco says, "my grandmother grew carnations which she sold to the cathedrals in Florence." Her Florentine relatives still live in same stone house in Tuscany.

But back to the horses...Back in the bad old days of the last decade, when Premarin, an estrogen replacement, was recommended for women, it turns out (I never knew this until talking to Dana) that mares were being inseminated just for the purpose of obtaining pregnant mare urine. Draft horses, including Percherons, were in high demand as they have bigger bladders and produce more urine. Brutally the babies were being killed after being born. After recent scientific studies cast doubt on the use of Premarin, thousands more horses were being killed as the whole urine industry came to a screeching halt.

Dana DiRicco went from rescuing Percheron horses to using them in the vineyard and showing them nationally. She now has a California state champion mare and is writing a book about the mare called And Then Came Hera.
Windermere's Inferno is being bred with Dana's Hera
In 2004, DiRicco went to a web site with listings of rescue foals. She drove to Canada and brought home four. As luck would have it, the foals she took were from Meadowlark Ranch which had been selectively breeding for a century. She fell in love with the foals, who had show quality bloodlines, and began hitching them up and showing them.

She now has state grand champion mare, Hera, who also placed second in hitch riding in Calgary and Denver, the two main competitions in Percheron hitch competition.

Hera is now being bred with the world champion Windermere's Inferno to breed future show horses for Dana.

She also integrated them into the vineyard. In the fall and winter months, she grazes the horses in the vineyard after harvest and later uses them to spread manure to fertilize the fields.

"I got some antique manure spreaders and they pull them through the vineyards," she says. They also cut the hay with a hay rake. "We make them do some of the work - it's good exercise for them."

The vineyard is planted in sauvignon blanc, which is what Elk Mountain is known for, as well as some port grapes. Andrew Forchini, her son in law, is the vineyard manager for the property.

Dana has five vineyard-designated wines made from the vineyard - including two Sauvignon Blancs and two dessert wines. Atascadero Creek makes a Sauvignon Blanc as well as a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc and a red blend of some her port grapes. She's also sold grapes to Old World Winery which will be using both varietals in their wine.

In addition to being organically grown, DiRicco's vineyard is dry farmed. "The water table is high enough here so we have never had any irrigation here," says DiRicco. The property backs up the the hills of the Mendocino Forest, with millions of acres of wild lands - including a bear and her cub as well as a mountain lion.

She converted the vineyard to organic and got CCOF certification.

"I grew up in Sonoma County," Dana says, "and the creeks were alive. Now they are all dead. Here there is so much abundance of life - the bass, the frogs, blue herons, and great egrets, osprey...there are tons of wildlife." DiRicco says that the local mountain lion often suns himself on their patio. "A bear lives up the gully behind the pasture over there - we lose a few grapes every year to her and her cub."

She also raises honey and olive trees on the property and a few walnut trees.

"Northwest Lake County has the best farmland, soil and water," she says of the region. The Elk mountain area is also a quieter haven for country living.

DiRicco is now a CCOF inspector for vineyards all over Lake County as well as a board member of the Lake County Winegrape Commission.  "Of the organic growers, we have almost every variety of grape," says DiRicco, "--cabernet, sauvignon blanc, merlot and more." As an inspector, she says she gets to meet "very nice people, conscientious farmers - so many beautiful ranches. And the people are the kind who like to live under the radar - courteous, helpful, polite."

I asked her why so many organic growers think that CCOF certification is too much paperwork or too expensive. "I don't understand how they can say that," DiRicco says. "You get 75% of the certification fees back from the U.S. government."

For instance, a grower her size, with 26+ acres, pays $1,000 in fees, but gets back $750 in refunds or a total of $250 to certify 26 acres - about $10 an acre.

(So the next time someone you ask about being certified organic tells you they're not certified, you might bring this up.)

U.S. House Rep. Mike Thompson
By far the most influential Lake County grower is St. Helena native Mike Thompson, the U.S. House Rep. for the area, who has a 17-acre vineyard in Lake County (he sells to the organic brand Bonterra). He leads the Congressional Wine Caucus.

He's driven home the wine industry's message that it's a $162 billion business that provides the equivalent of 1.1 million full time jobs. (I wonder what percentage of those are field workers.)

Other organic growers in the county include Steve Devoto, of Devoto Vineyards, whose family has large vineyard holdings. Devoto's father was a judge in Kelseyville. Devoto's grapes go into the Hagafen White Riesling, which is the other wine you can taste at the Lake County Wine Studio.

Catspaw Vineyard, run by Buz and Terry Dereniuk, is another organic vineyard.

While grapes are popular, they haven't taken over from older orchards to the extent that they have in Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa. The valley floor oaks of Napa are mostly gone, and the pear orchards in the Sanel Valley are few and far between, but in Lake County, the walnut orchards are still widespread.

"The walnuts have survived here because they are still a good, money producing crop," DiRicco says. She also says that Lake County's climate and biodiversity mean walnut trees don't have to be sprayed - or at least not much. "It cuts costs for the farmer not to spray," she says. "And why would they?"

Just then, Dana's tenant, Nick, who works as the bar manager at Blue Wings, drove up so I had a quick chat with him. He reminded me this used to be wine country before Prohibition as well. "Some of the oldest vines in the state are here," he says, of Lake County. "Those old Zinfandel vines on the Kelseyville bench - they were always grown organically."

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