A grand dream
Ryan Johnson is taking Red Mountain terroir to the extreme.
Grand Rêve Estate Vineyard sits high above Col Solare Winery on Washington State's Red Mountain, as seen in the background on the left.
As if planting on a steep slope wasn't challenging enough, add rock, caliche, and widely varying soil types. Developing Grand Rêve Estate Vineyard on Red Mountain is not for the weak, requiring a strong heart and soul.
In pioneering the first mountainside planting on Washington State's Red Mountain near Benton City, Ryan Johnson and partner Paul McBride are taking vineyard planting to the extreme. From the bottom of the estate vineyard to the steep top, the elevation changes from 960 feet above sea level to 1,230 feet, with slopes ranging from 22 to 30 degrees. Though only 13 acres of their 20-acre parcel are plantable, they found nine different soil types, varying from silty loams to caliche to sand.
"We didn't have the intention of taking it to this extreme," Johnson said to a group of growers and winemakers attending the summer grape tour sponsored by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. "When we started, we had no intention of planting this steep hillside," he said, adding that they were initially stymied in how to proceed with planting the site.
Their original thought after purchase of the parcel that sits above Col Solare's winery and estate vineyard was to plant the signature varieties of Red Mountain—Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. But as they looked at soil maps and dug nearly 60 soil pits, Johnson said they found such an array of soil types that they didn't know what to do. Even after reviewing a soil report compiled by consultant Dr. Alan Busacca, a former Washington State University geologist, he said they still struggled to make sense of it.
Johnson, who has a decade of experience managing vineyards on Red Mountain (Ciel du Cheval, Cadence, and others), tells how he left the soil pits open for a year and would often visit the site, wandering the steep ground and studying the pits. "Finally, we came up with a plan to design the vineyard around the soil, elevation, and soil aspects. Our entire focus was 'let's express this terroir.'"
Planting the estate vineyard began in 2007. The first full harvest is expected in 2010. The estate grapes are destined for Grand Rêve Vintners, a winemaking collaboration that began in 2004 to match Red Mountain grapes with an all-star cast of Washington State winemakers. The translation for grand rêve is "great dream."
Design of the vineyard blocks was based on soil type and transitions. Thirty-four blocks are contained with the 11 acres that have been planted. Some blocks are as small as one-tenth of an acre. Johnson explains that matching varieties and clonal selections to soil type was an involved process.
For example, in one block that is less than an acre in size, they found three different soil types with distinct soil transitions. To deal with soil transitions within a row, they put irrigation valves on both row ends so they could irrigate independently from both ends of the drip line.
In an attempt to match the variety with soil type, they planted Cabernet Sauvignon where Warden silt loam was found, Syrah where caliche (layers of cemented calcium carbonate) was identified, and Cabernet Franc on the well-drained, coarse, loamy, Scootney soil.
"We must have lost our minds along the way," Johnson said. "We got these romantic ideas after looking at the great European vineyards of Hermitage, the Côte Rôtie, and Priorat, and thought that maybe we can plant the hillside. It's entirely insane. But our hope here is that with all these little tiny blocks, the vines will express themselves to the best of their capabilities."
In addition to matching variety and clone to soil, they have also tried to match training systems. The vineyard has enough different trellis systems to resemble a research trial.
Even more challenging than coming up with a vineyard plan was the site preparation and planting, which turned out to be an "expensive adventure." Johnson initially tried to plant without ripping the ground, and drilled some 1,000 holes with augers. But the t-posts used for trellising slid as they were pounded into the sloping, rocky ground, causing them to stop and start ripping.
"It's so darn expensive to put steel into the ground up here," he said.
Every irrigation pipe was sleeved as it was put in the ground because of the difficulty encountered in backfilling the trenches. (A skid steer was used to bring sand from another location of the parcel to cover the trenches.) "Four of the blocks have four sets of pipes," he said, adding that every single pipe had to be sleeved, including the risers.
Day-to-day farming of the steep site is also proving to be expensive.
During the design and planting process, Johnson envisioned using all-terrain vehicles to perform vineyard tasks like spraying for weed control in the narrow rows. But he's learned that much of the vineyard is too steep for ATVs, which means that tumbleweeds must be kept under control by hand hoeing. Next year, he hopes to use a backpack sprayer or helicopter for crop protection sprays.
Johnson and his partner have high hopes that their hard work and investment will pay off. Winemakers already are starting to line up for purchase of the coming harvest, he said. "In this economy, we need to make our investment back. The cost of farming here is so ridiculous that we hope we can break even."