The Occidental vineyards define the western edge of where pinot noir can be grown successfully on the Sonoma Coast.
Since the early 1990s, Steve Kistler has believed that the climate and soils on the uplifted marine terraces and ridges around the town of Bodega would be ideal for growing distinctive and Burgundian-style pinot noir.
The Occidental vineyards are planted atop a southern-exposed ridge at elevations of 400-750 feet, with an expansive view of the pastoral lowlands below. Looking west from both our Bodega Headlands and Bodega Ridge properties, we can see the waters of the Pacific Ocean through a notch in the hills formed by the Estero Americano, one of the several creeks flowing westward through the ranches. These lowlands and watersheds create the natural channels that bring wind and fog from the coast directly through Occidental’s vineyards each and every day.
These vineyard sites are vulnerable to erratic maritime weather conditions throughout the growing season. During flowering and set in the spring, the vineyards are exposed to powerful spring storms and prolonged periods of dense, damp fog – conditions that significantly reduce set and can limit yields to less than two tons per acre. In some years, like 2005, yields were almost nonexistent and it was not economically feasible to pick certain sections of the vineyards. Throughout the summer months, the vineyards face constant disease pressure from the fog that rhythmically rolls in from the coast each evening and will sometimes blanket the vineyards until noon the following day.
While the Occidental vineyards are challenged by their proximity to the Pacific Ocean, wine growing in this climate comes with distinct advantages. The maritime conditions moderate the temperature in the vineyards – daytime highs are cooler while nighttime lows are warmer than just a few miles inland. The modest diurnal temperature variation allows the fruit to ripen slowly throughout the day as well as the night, a phenomenon experienced only in a true coastal environment. This slow, steady ripening promotes the development of fruit that reaches true physiological maturity at lower sugar levels.
The field selections planted in the Occidental vineyards represent years of experimentation and refinement, and are a fundamental component of each site’s singular character. Back in the early 1990s, the initial field selections were collected from two grand cru vineyards in Vosne Romanée. Steve first propagated these selections as individual mother vines in order to identify which selections had the desired characteristics to be used in future Occidental plantings. The first step in the process focused primarily on cluster morphology: size, weight, thick- or thin- skinned, and the tendency to produce a large percentage of “hens and chicks” in most years. Finally, small batches of wine were made from each of the most promising selections to determine which produced wines with the highest natural acidity, color, concentration, and finesse. Over the next decade, Steve continued to refine these proprietary selections of pinot noir, ultimately planting his best selections in all the Occidental vineyards.
Occidental’s goal in wine growing is to farm sustainably, relying heavily on organic techniques to maintain a natural balance in the vineyard and to keep man-made inputs to a minimum.
Occidental’s approach seeks to develop vineyards that are as naturally self-regulating as possible, in order to best withstand the unpredictable coastal conditions. One point of emphasis is to promote the development of thicker-skinned grapes, which are less susceptible to the inherent disease pressures from these maritime sites. We also preserve native cover crops in the vine rows to provide habitat for beneficial insects and to prevent erosion.
Canopy management is particularly important in a coastal climate. This includes leafing, shoot positioning, green dropping, and fruit thinning. Occidental’s vineyard crews carefully tend to each vine to ensure that the clusters receive the proper amount of sunlight and air circulation.
After a long growing season, harvest in the Occidental vineyards often occurs in October. Each year Occidental’s goal is to pick its fruit at the early edge of ripeness, and it is important that all clusters on a vine be at the same level of ripeness. This requires the vineyard crew to make multiple thinning passes in August and September, as well as a final pass the day before harvest, to eliminate immature fruit. Even though yields in these vineyards are already painfully low in most years, it is still necessary to make these final thinning passes to produce pinot noir of the highest quality.