Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Inside Look at Michel-Schlumberger

One of the highlights of the Wine Bloggers' Conference this past weekend in Sonoma was the vineyard walk Saturday morning. The early birds got to pick from 5 options, but chronically late me got there when the vans were pulling away and hopped in one of the last ones. Turns out I stumbled upon the best one by pure dumb luck--as we turned onto the Michel-Schlumberger property nestled into the Wine Creek Canyon part of Dry Creek Valley, Allan of Zephyr Wine Adventures confessed that M-S was the company's top-rated wine walk in Sonoma. He didn't want to influence people's choices by telling them that ahead of time, but I'm sure that's the reason he and conference co-founder Joel Vincent of Open Wine Consortium were along for the ride--and walk.

Winemaker Mike Brunson, a fourth-generation Sonoman, led us through a 20-acre parcel on Bradford Mountain that was formerly a tractor-repair property that had never hosted vines until 1998, a year after Jacques Schlumberger and his wife Barbara purchased it. The winery is committed to organic farming and also employs some biodynamic practices. Mike pointed out that the adjacent winery is also organic, providing a haven for wildlife and peace of mind for M-S as there is no chemical drift.

The permanent cover crop in the vineyard preserves the soil structure and ensures that the water run-off into Wine Creek is clean, important for the salmon and steelhead that spawn in the creek during the spring. M-S is critter central, with fish, sheep, raptors, chickens, etc. all on the property. The winery has four resident Babydoll sheep who, along with another 10 the winery brings in periodically, roam the rows nibbling on the grass and cover crop, keeping it down to a manageable level and "fertilizing" as they go. "They're the basset hounds of the sheep world," Mike said, explaining that they have short legs that let them pass under the irrigation lines but don't allow them to reach the berries. He pointed out the blocks the sheep graze in are more healthy than those that don't get paid a visit by the Babydolls.

The down side of a permanent cover crop is that it provides a gopher-friendly environment. In 2002 M-S lost 700 vines to gophers, Mike noted, so after that year they doubled the number of raptor perches in the vineyards. "They came and ate like it was a burger stand," he laughed, pointing out that the big trees on the property also encourage the presence of raptors. M-S has resident chickens that the winery uses for insect control, manure for fertilization, and egg white fining for the red wines. Mike noted that organic farming means you have to be proactive rather than reactive, so the crew at M-S builds up the soil with nitrates and an insectory mix rather than dumping fertilizer on it.

After pulling a bit of a hill in warmer-than-expected temperatures that led to many of us working up a decent sweat, we paused to taste some barrel samples waiting for us on a picnic table in the shade under a big oak. The '07 Petite Verdot was an inky purple color with roses and voilets on the nose; M-S uses that varietal for clout in the middle of some of their wines. Malbec is also used for that same purpose, and the '07 sample had serious spice on the nose and palate. Mike said Malbec does very well on the property, with that varietal's vines so balanced that they stop growing on their own at the desired height of about 18-leaves up. Even during this very dry season (no rain since February), which saw the M-S vineyard crew watering more than ever, the Malbec didn't need more hydration than usual. The taste of the '07 Cab Franc was lighter than the other two, but has the unmistakable green pepper quality of that varietal, although Mike said M-S keeps the green component down using tactics like canopy management in the vineyard and the use of newer oak in the winery. The brown spice notes are more highly desired, but getting that takes careful berry sorting, as Mike notes just two green berries in the whole bunch will produce green flavors.

After the walk we were treated to a scrumptious lunch catered by Santi Restaurant in Geyserville. Sitting at a long communal table under another goregous oak giant on the side lawn of the elegant winery building (with a courtyard reminiscient of the enclosed Carmen villa garden at the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain) conjured up feeliings of being in the Provencal or Tuscan countryside. We were served baby greens salad with goat cheese, fig, and almond; braised pork shoulder on a bed of rapini and fennel; bread with M-S' own home-made olive oil; and a chocolate torte for dessert. Ha, some of the other conference attendees got a boxed lunch!

I guess I really did luck out...