When growers and winemakers meet to discuss wines or the vineyards where the grapes are grown, you often hear the word “terroir.” This is the French term used to describe all the physical elements of a vineyard site; depth of soil, topography, character of the soil, amount of rainfall, climate, type of labor, closeness to maritime influence. In sum, any characteristic of the site that you can observe and measure.
Many growers and winemakers, however, believe that there is magic in a glass of fine wine that goes beyond the features that we can measure, including perhaps the history of the site. Who worked and farmed the site? What was planted and grown here before, and by whom? The joys and sadness of victories and defeats that permeate the land.
The MacLeods have now lived and farmed their 50 acres for 40-plus years. We have found dozens of small and large artifacts that tell us a lot about the original pioneers who cleared the land and farmed here. From the very first days, we have found finished cobblestones, defective cobblestones and lots of chunks of partially worked basalt – the basic raw material to make cobblestones. And just recently, in studying the foundations of the pioneer house that burned in 1921, we found that many of those foundation rocks showed evidence of cobblestone work.
I had already noticed that although this ranch soil had lots of stream-rounded large and small rocks, none of them had been used in the house foundation – only chunks of cobblestone material. In addition, the footings include a few regular red bricks. This says that even before the house that burned in l921 was built, there must have been a smaller home with a brick chimney.
The evidence suggests that even though the vineyard work was underway, there was a huge revenue-generating effort of painfully chipping out cobblestones one by one, along with regular, large building construction blocks. The rapid growth of San Francisco and Oakland generated a huge demand for building and paving stones. By1890, there were hundreds of men in Sonoma Valley making these stones. In the 1890s, quarry firms were receiving orders for 100,000 to 400,000 paving stones from all these wildly growing cities.
The hero in Jack London’s Valley of the Moon found a job hauling cobblestones to the Lawndale railroad station at the foot of our driveway.
Workers were paid three to five dollars per day. Really fast workers could earn six to seven dollars a day. Looking at all the large and small pieces of partial cobblestones we find here, a lot of this work must have taken place on our ranch. During this period, the cobblestone industry was the third largest in Sonoma County, after wineries and dairies. Cobblestone from our ranch and lots of nearby quarries were loaded on trains at the Lawndale train station.
Thinking about it, I suggest that the funds used to build the giant redwood barn on our ranch and plant the first vineyards here were obtained from cobblestone work. With the introduction of asphalt roads, however, paving with cobblestones gradually decreased, putting hundreds of men out of work.
Do all these years of intensive work and difficult times on this ranch now become part of our terroir? We have been winning senior wine awards for years with wine produced from the terroir of this ranch. I would say that the vineyard’s terroir remembers!
And now some news about our vines – Marie and her Sauvignon Blanc, Javier and his Zinfandel, and Cinderella and her Merlot. Those vines are having such success with their wines that it is hard to get a word in sideways. They spend way too much time giving each other high fives. Marie with her Sauvignon Blanc has been almost impossible. She and her grapes won the only U.S. gold metal for Sauvignon Blanc at the recent Sunset Magazine competition.
But as the grower and patron here, I have to say that there are some major problems brewing. So far, our water has been holding up with a greatly reduced irrigation schedule. If our water level falls significantly, we will have to drop some bunches on the ground. And we still have to find enough labor to do the critical jobs now due. For example, if the growing grape bunches do not get enough sun and air, the resulting wine can have flavors of grass and string beans. Our vineyard manager is short about 30 percent of our normal crew, and having a hard time finding more men. He reports that this shortage is widespread. One of our neighbors is lending us 10 men next week. This grape growing business is not for sissies.