Random Ramblings of a Weary Winemaker: How Dry I Am

by Peter Wellington

El Brujo - Fri. June 20, 2008

It’s official, this has been the driest spring in N. California recorded history. It’s also been one of the coolest, so the vines aren’t showing any signs of moisture stress yet. Shoot growth is well below normal for this time of year in all the vineyards I’ve looked at in Sonoma Valley and bloom is later than usual. It’s been a lot windier than normal, too. Farmers always talk about the weather anyway, but it sure has been a strange year so far. I don’t have any idea of what’s in store for the rest of the growing season because I don’t have my own personal weather forecaster anymore.

Enrico “Joe” Gallo sold us our vineyard in 1986. His father-in-law, Ben Biehler, had planted it, starting in 1892, and Joe started working with Ben when he married Ben’s daughter in 1933. Joe lived in wine country all his life, and right across the street from our winery from 1935 until his passing ten years ago. I have never met an American who was more in tune with the earth than Joe. He knew which doe had given birth to twins the previous year, when and where certain mushrooms would appear, etc. He paid attention to bird, animal and plant behavior and used that, along with other signs, to predict both short and long term weather with startling precision. Several of the old-time growers in the area asked him regularly for predictions. His predictions made the NWS look like they were using a ouija board.

Over the years Joe taught me where the worst frost spots were, ripening sequences, soil variations and how to identify all the grape varieties. He offered wisdom, opinion, a lot of history and lore, and his two cents worth on politics, sports, sex and religion. He was individualistic and open-minded and had strong moral values that combined very socialistic left wing ideas with a bit of far-right libertarianism. He doused wells, including ours (seemingly unlimited), scared away government employees, and, best of all, predicted the weather so well that my vineyard guys took to calling him El Brujo.

Joe used to come over and tell me it was going to rain on such and such a date, and I only half way paid attention, thinking it was just the ramblings of my retired, somewhat bored neighbor. After a couple of years I started paying more attention because it seemed like he was often right. Once I started writing down his predictions I realized he had abnormal abilities and was pretty much always right. Time after time he predicted rain weeks in advance, to the day, or, at worst, one day off. Droughts, floods, date of last frost – he didn’t predict, he knew. I’ll never forget Oct.3rd the year before he died. He drove over on a very warm, cloudless afternoon (he wasn’t walking much at that point) to apologize for the mistaken prediction he had made in late August that we would have our first real rain of the season on Oct. 3rd. A storm had passed well north of Sonoma and was headed over the Sierra Nevada on its way east. The NWS was predicting clear and warm for the next week plus. Oct. 4th we awoke to heavy rain; in a rare occurrence the storm had come back from the east. I once asked Joe, very diplomatically, if he would consider sharing his methods with me, passing them on to another generation. He had already told me of 3 day and 7 day cycles, moon phases, watching the migratory birds and the oak trees, but I asked him if he might describe how he integrated all those factors. He came back the next day and said he had started to write stuff down but got to the point where he realized “ultimately it comes from here” (touching his heart). I still miss you, Rico.

Take My Wine, Please - Tues. July 1, 2008

Thanks to Penkauskasd for the following questions: “I'm particularly interested in your distribution channels and the regulations you struggle under. Who can you sell to? (distributors, restaurants, direct to consumers, w00t, retail stores, etc,) Why would you sell in that channel? What are the regulations? Why do the regulations differ? Who benefits from restricting your channels?”

In California, our state winemaking license allows us to sell retail (from a maximum of two locations), direct to restaurants and retailers and to distributors. When prohibition was repealed by constitutional amendment in 1933, the states were directed to write their own liquor laws, including drinking age limitations and how, when, where, and by whom alcohol could be sold. Naturally, in every state, distributors “influenced” their legislators to write laws that gave them as much of a monopoly as possible under the law. Illinois is the first state to reverse this policy at all, with a “self distribution” law that went into effect June 1, 2008, allowing small out-of-state wineries to sell direct to restaurants and retailers. Until the Supreme Court decision a couple of years ago, we could sell direct to consumers in only 11 “reciprocal” states, most without restriction. Many of the states have had to rewrite their laws in light of the court decision, and this has opened up a number of states for retail sales and shipping. Ironically, some of the former reciprocal states have become more restrictive and controlled.

Direct to consumer is generally the most profitable venue for us, but shipping is much costlier and less efficient for small amounts than larger shipments to distributors. Also, distributors actively market our wine in their states, resulting in much higher sales volume, albeit at a lower per case return. Cult wineries like Williams-Selyem or Screaming Eagle can sell almost all their wine at retail, but most of us need to sell to restaurants and retailers, and to use distributors to do so.

The federal government’s greatest interest in the alcohol industry is revenue collection (the ATT collects more money per dollar of its budget than any other govt. agency, including the IRS), and that is an important concern for many states as well. We have a lot of reporting and tax paying to do for most states where we distribute or sell direct.

Finally regarding who benefits from restricting our channels? The national wholesalers’ organization spends a huge amount of money lobbying against any law changes that would lessen their control of wine sales. It does put a lot of small wineries in a bind because there aren’t enough distributors for all the brands now in existence, and alternative channels still don’t exist in many states.