June 9, 2006

by Jill Kramer

Pinot Noir loves to break hearts. No surprise, then, that this most seductive and elusive of wine grapes likes to grow in Marin county -- right where any vineyard owner is lucky to break even.

Mark Pasternak first heard Pinot Noir’s siren song in 1982 and he’s been chasing her ever since. He nailed her a few times -- and has some top-rated vintages to show for it – only to have her slip away, leaving him empty-handed and out of pocket. Last year, his whole crop was wiped out. Yet he’s back again this year, most of his 18 acres planted with Pinot, anxiously watching the skies. Some guys never learn.

Pasternak was the first Marin grower to try his luck with Pinot Noir, but several others have followed his lead. Though none of them has made much of a profit yet, the movie “Sideways” gave them all a boost. Sales of Pinot have soared ever since Miles, the film’s main character, rhapsodized over its challenge and allure. The grapes, said Miles, are “hard to grow…thin-skinned, temperamental,” but with the proper coaxing, can produce a wine that is “haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling.”

Pasternak first planted Pinot after learning that the grapes like a cool climate, something his West Marin ranch shares with the more famous Pinot-loving areas in Oregon and the Sonoma coast. He bought the 65-acre plot in 1971, when he was 19 years old, with the help of his father, who manufactured beauty supplies. Pasternak grew up in Los Angeles with the dream of someday living in the country with horses, making his living on the land. He started out raising livestock, living in a trailer while he slowly built his sprawling ranch-style home out of salvaged redwood.

He’d never farmed a day in his life – at least, he says, “no legal, commercial crops.” He took some viticulture classes at the junior college in Santa Rosa, asked a lot of questions and made a lot of mistakes before mastering the art of grape-growing. Now he’s in demand as a vineyard manager. He helped plant the vines at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch down the road, and has had a hand in managing most of the other Pinot vineyards that have popped up around West Marin. “You know how a supermarket has a loss leader? Well, my vineyard’s kind of my loss leader,” he says. “It got me work, which I really like doing.”

Pasternak meets me in downtown Nicasio, a dot on the map where the rich and famous live next door to ranching families that have been here for generations. Downtown consists of one long, low, red tile-roofed building at the bend in the road. Occupying one end of the building are a post office and tiny grocery, at the other end a saloon, restaurant and nightclub owned by Huey Lewis’ former band manager Bob Brown and his wife, blues singer Angela Strehli. Pasternak, small and impish, wears a white cowboy hat, thick glasses and a short, scruffy grey beard. He stops to pick up his mail, then leads me to his pickup truck and drives me up to his Devil’s Gulch vineyard. As the truck climbs up the winding dirt road, we get spectacular views of the soft, rolling hills dotted with clusters of trees, and the ranches nestled in the valley below.

Pasternak parks the truck at the top, where thousands of grapevines are staked. “This is all Pinot that we’re looking at here,” he says. Each woody stalk is split, the two halves reaching out in opposite directions along the wires, like arms with fingertips touching the vines on either side. Green leafy shoots grow straight up out of the split stalks, each shoot bearing two or three clusters of buds that look like miniature grapes. “These are coming along,” says Pasternak, holding a shoot and passing a thumb gently across one of the clusters.

The critical time, known as “fruit set,” is probably two or three weeks away. The buds will burst into bloom and subsequently turn into berries. “What happens is the little caps get brown and blow off. But if it rains, they get stuck. They’re too soggy to fly off.” That’s what happened last year, when Pasternak lost his whole crop – the fruit didn’t set. On this day in mid-May, the sky is overcast and there’s moisture in the air. If Nature is unkind, Pasternak could get wiped out again.

He gets by with diversification. He grows asparagus in between the vines, harvesting 30-50 pounds a week, selling it to local restaurants, which also buy his rabbits. He also raises horses on the ranch with his wife and runs a summer day camp that gives kids the kind of farm-life experience he always craved as a boy. But even with all his other ventures, watching months of grape cultivation get washed away by the rains is still devastating. And this season’s weather is also critical for next year’s crop.

“From about now until August or September, the vine is deciding how many clusters it’s going to have next year, depending mostly on sunlight,” says Pasternak. Rain during flowering may limit fruit set, but plenty of sunshine for the rest of the season will promote lots of fruit the following year. “You can have a terrible crop one year because of the rain and still have good fruitfulness the next year, which is what happened with the Pinot Noir this year -- the fruitfulness is a little better than average. But last year was the best fruitfulness I’ve ever seen and the worst crop I’ve ever had. It’s very frustrating.”

The Marin winegrowing industry is small -- only 80 acres in cultivation, as opposed to 42,524 in Napa and 56,186 in Sonoma. Rather than compete with each other, the growers have formed a close, supportive community. “There’s enough room for all of us to succeed,” says Jonathan Pey, whose winery buys grapes from two other Marin growers, Stew Johnson and Tom Stubbs. That fruit is blended with the grapes he grows on nearby land leased from the Corda family, who also grow their own crop. Mark Pasternak and Glen Alexander co-manage the vineyard for Pey. “We have a close little group we call the Marin County Winegrowers Association. We meet every couple of months and I don’t know if we actually get much done, but it’s fun. Virtually all of us are farming sustainably and many of us are farming organically, which is in line with what Marin county is all about. We very much consider ourselves stewards of this land.”

Pey and his wife Susan produce four Marin wines on two labels: a Pinot Noir and a Reisling on their Pey-Marin label; a Merlot and a Vin Gris on their Mount Tamalpais label. Both Peys have been working in the wine industry for 20 years. Jonathan recently took the leap, leaving his corporate job at Mondavi to devote himself full-time to his own winemaking. Susan works as a wine buyer for large restaurant groups, tasting hundreds of wines a week. “She has an exceptional palate,” says Jonathan. “I think that helps us when we’re making our wines, so they taste really, really good – which is the end game I guess. We like to blend in fruit from all three vineyards to make a more complex wine. Each tiny plot of land has its own flavor profile. So when you put them all together, 1+1+1=4.”

Each year the Peys make 300 cases of each of their four wines. That compares to tens and hundreds of thousands of cases produced by major wineries. But Jonathan says he’s after quality, not quantity. “In today’s technological world, these big factory wineries can manipulate the wine to make it taste a certain way, but it doesn’t really speak to its provenance. We’re trying to make wines that really speak to this rugged, cold climate, to the place rather than the process.”

Dan Goldfield, the first winemaker to discover the commercial potential of Marin vineyards, says the grapes grown here impart unique flavors to the wine. “There’s a character to it,” he says. His Dutton-Goldfield winery makes Devil’s Gulch Pinot Noir from Mark Pasternak’s Nicasio grapes. “There’s a focus to the Pinot, a wild berry. The berries are so small that you get a lot of spice. There’s very, very little juice, so you get a lot of intensity in the fruit. And the Chards have a brightness that I love.”

Wine buffs say Pinot Noir is especially likely to develop unique characteristics. “The lure of Pinot Noir is that it’s so different from different areas,” says Rusty Gaffney, whose newsletter, Pinotfile, has 6,000 subscribers worldwide, and whose website gets 80,000 hits a month. A retired physician from Orange county with a silly sense of humor, Gaffney’s motto is “If you drink no Noir, you Pinot Noir.” He spent a day in West Marin last year, visiting all the vineyards and ending up at Pasternak’s house for a tasting of every Pinot made from Marin grapes. “For me,” he says, “the wines that stood out were the Dutton-Goldfield, the Sean Thackrey [both made from Pasternak’s grapes] and the Pey-Marin, Berry flavors, with lively acidity, are pretty characteristic of the Pinot Noirs from that area.”

Another special appeal of Pinot Noir is that it changes in the bottle. “If you buy a Merlot and cellar it, it’s going to taste pretty much the same. But Pinot Noir changes over time,” says Gaffney. “It develops a lot of interesting secondary characteristics. There’s just more going on – the aromatics are more complicated. Merlot just doesn’t have the sophistication that Pinot Noir has.” But like any prima donna, Pinot Noir must be handled with care. “You can toss around Cab and Merlot grapes at the winery, but you just can’t make good bulk Pinot Noir, it’s too hands-on.”

Though Gaffney says Marin’s Pinots are at least as good as those produced anywhere, outside of Northern California they’re virtually unknown. “The quality is there,” he says, “but the quantity isn’t.” None of the Marin growers is producing enough fruit for more than 1200 cases a year. Not only is the acreage small, the tonnage per acre is low. Growers might get 15 tons of grapes per acre in the Central Valley, three or four tons in the Napa Valley or Russian River area. In Marin, the best anyone does is two tons – in a good year. That’s partly due to the weather conditions, partly to the labor-intensive hand-farming practices.

“When it’s almost time to harvest, maybe two weeks before harvest, we go through the vines and we cut off the fruit that isn’t ripening,” says Mary Stubbs, who, with her husband Tom, just received organic certification for their vineyard. “That way, the clusters that are uniform will ripen more and get more intense in flavor. You want to get all of the energy into the good clusters. And it takes out the tartness you’d get with unripe fruit.”

The Stubbses have been gradually boosting production over the last ten years. This year they’ll be up to 1200 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Mary is hoping they’ll finally see a profit. “When we started,” she says, “Tom said, ‘this is a lifestyle – we’re never going to make any money on this.’ And I said, ‘watch me!’ And he says, ‘I’m still watching…’”

The Stubbses still get income from Tom’s real estate investments, though he left his career renovating historic buildings in San Francisco. “He took a year’s sabbatical four years ago,” says Mary. Tom grew up in a farming family in Staffordshire, England and decided to take over management of the vineyard from Mark Pasternak, who still consults.

Mary left her job selling magazine advertising 13 years ago, when the first of their three children were born and the family moved from San Francisco to live on their ranch full-time. “I said then I never wanted to put nylons on again.” But lately she is wearing them again, going to the finest restaurants in the Bay Area to pitch Stubbs wines. The day I meet her, she’s swapped nylons for slim-legged jeans and high-heeled boots. Stylish and petite, she looks like anything but a farm woman, even climbing out of her son’s ATV to show me around the vineyard. “When Tom said I would have to go out and sell our wine I said, ‘over my dead body.’ But it’s so much fun! The sommeliers and the restaurant people are so interesting – and they love our wine.”

There was a time when vineyards thrived in central and eastern Marin. Prohibition struck the first blow, but when land prices started climbing, agriculture no longer made economic sense. It was only political will that preserved West Marin farmland with strict zoning laws in the early ‘70s. Now 95% of Marin’s population is huddled close to the Highway 101 corridor running along the eastern edge of the county while the remaining two-thirds of the land is mostly parks and ranches.

Since 1980 the Marin Agricultural Land Trust has helped keep development at bay by purchasing conservation easements from ranchers. The Stubbs ranch was one of the first to make a deal with MALT. An earlier initiative was the Williamsom Act, in effect since 1965, which gives a tax break to California farmers who keep their land in agricultural production. That’s the motivator that prompted Herb and Debbie Rowland to grow grapes on their Pacheco Ranch, one of only two commercial vineyards operating today in East Marin.

The Pacheco Ranch is just off the frontage road that runs along the west side of Highway 101 in Ignacio. Standing at the edge of the vineyard, you can see the cars whiz by on the freeway. The Rowlands planted these grapes in 1970. “At that time, they’d base your tax assessment according to your property’s potential value. Here on a frontage road that’s zoned commercial, the best use would probably be a gas station or a motel or condos. And with that tax base, we couldn’t afford to live here,” says Debbie. “So the alternative was to go on the Williamson Act, which is an agricultural designation that took us out of that commercial property valuation.”

Herb is the great-great-grandson of Ignacio Pacheco, who received the original land grant for the 70-acre plot in 1840. He and Debbie live in the home built by his great-grandfather, a white wooden two-story structure with the feel of a museum. Old family photos adorn the floral-papered walls. The two front sitting rooms are furnished with antiques.

This is Cabernet Sauvignon country, hot and dry. Herb studied the temperature records and had the soil analyzed before putting in the original grapes. The Rowlands now have five acres planted, all with Cab, and they’re producing anywhere between 400 and 800 cases a year. “We do not irrigate, we’re all dry-farmed,” says Debbie, “so it depends on the water table and how dry the summer is and how the growing season goes.” It wasn’t long after the first planting that they were both possessed by the winemaking bug. They added a winery in 1979, in what used to be the carriage house. Herb, an attorney, manages the vineyard and his brother-in-law, Jamie Meves, is the winemaker. But although it’s a family affair, Debbie maintains that the business is “more than an expensive hobby. We’re serious. We make a really good wine. And because we’re all partners in the winery and we don’t have any paid labor, we can turn a little profit.” It also helps that “we’ve been here a long time and we didn’t buy the land,” she says. “And the buildings were here. But it’s still a struggle. You don’t do it if you don’t love it.”

The other East Marin vineyard is improbably located on Quail Hill, the rise overlooking Northgate Shopping Mall in Terra Linda. Eleven acres of Cabernet Sauvignon were originally planted in 1969 by an executive at publishing firm Commerce Clearing House, which used to have an office at the top of the hill. Steve Doughty acquired the vineyard in 1995, five years after planting 11 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at his 800-acre spread in West Marin. Two miles north of Point Reyes Station, out near the coast, the dairy ranch there has been Doughty’s main enterprise for years. These days, his biggest moneymaker is his bed and breakfast, a three-bedroom place right next to the tasting room, where tourists pile up to the bar three deep on the weekends.

Doughty uses most of his West Marin grapes for sparkling wine, a less risky undertaking than still wine, given the chancy weather conditions. “You pick the champagne grapes green, rather than getting them ripe,” he says. “But occasionally we let some ripen on the vine and make an absolutely beautiful Pinot Noir.” Doughty is a barrel-chested man in his early 60s with a face weathered by years of working outdoors. He makes a total 1200 cases a year of all his wines. “We have three girls that work the tasting room on the weekends, plus my wife and I, and we have a couple of people that work the vineyards for us, plus my wife and I. So after we get them all paid, we have a little bit to spend on new equipment. But we did find out how to make a small fortune in the wine business,” he adds. “You start with a large one.”