Recently we were fortunate to visit a wonderful exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco featuring the work of 19th century artist Jules Tavernier and the Elem Pomo tribe from Lake County. It was centered around a remarkable painting by this French artist titled Dance in aSubterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California.
The painting, completed in 1878, depicts a cultural interaction on November 22, 1875, between Elem tribe in their Lake County homeland and outsiders associated with the Sulphur Bank Quicksilver Mining Company, who are portrayed standing in the roundhouse watching the dance.
Since acquiring our Dancing Crow vineyard near the shores of Clear Lake, we have become increasingly interested in the history, often tragic, of the region’s indigenous peoples and their living legacy. The abundant and diverse flora and fauna in and around the lake created a hospitable environment and the powerful elemental presence of the area, dominated by treeless Mt Konocti’s twin peaks, must have made this a remarkable place to live before the arrival of European settlers. Four different tribes inhabited the region; Eastern Pomo, Southeastern Pomo, the Wappo, and the Lake Miwok. Each group spoke a different language. The Elem homelands are on the eastern shore directly across the lake from Dancing Crow.
Among the gifts of the lake and its surrounds were many plants, including tule reeds, that provided materials for the extraordinary baskets, some big enough for a person to climb into, that the area is still famous for. Even canoes made of reeds were to be seen on the waters of the lake in earlier times.
The Tavernier painting was commissioned by Tiburcio Parrott, one of San Francisco’s leading bankers, as a gift for his Parisian business partner, Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Tiburcio is also famous in the Napa Valley as the builder of the winery now known as Spring Mountain, originally Miravalle, and later as the setting of the TV show Falconcrest. It was designed by the same architect as the Niebaum mansion at the Coppola winery (formerly Inglenook) and the Rhine House at Beringer in St Helena.
The painting celebrates the rich vitality of Elem Pomo culture, while also exposing the threat posed by White settlers, including Parrott, who was then operating the toxic mercury mine on the community’s ancestral homelands. In 1990 the mine was designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency and it continues to negatively impact the land and the lives of the sovereign Elem people.
While the deleterious effects of quicksilver mining, an adjunct of the gold rush, are still present, so are the Elem Pomo. Indeed, a contemporary tribal leader tells us in a video in the exhibit and online (see link below) that the roundhouse portrayed in the painting still stands, its design symbolizing a protective basket, and the dances are still being danced.
The annual cycle of growth in the vineyard is dramatic and beautiful. There are four “markers” during each growing season; the first is bud break when the new shoots first appear after the winter dormant phase, the second is bloom, or blossom, the third is veraison, when the red grapes begin show color, and lastly full ripeness and harvest.
Bud break occurred in our Sauvignon Blanc vineyard last week – the photo above was taken on April 5 – with the vines awakening due to the soil warming to 57F, activating the roots to overcome the winter slumber and causing the buds to swell as the leaves emerge and new canes begin to form. This is just a few days earlier than average for this location in the Big Valley AVA.
As we’ve discussed in a previous blog (The 2021 Vintage so far – July 2021), the unique climate conditions in Lake County mean that the threat of damage from frost can occur in the Autumn, at the end of the growing season, as well as in the Spring, which is more typical in neighboring Napa and Sonoma counties. It is still too early to evaluate potential frost damage from last fall. So far, the early varieties like Sauvignon Blanc seem to be fine, but we will know a lot more in the next two weeks as the buds lengthen to 6-8” canes. If this growth isn’t happening in some sites, or on some cane extensions, then we’ll know that it is a result of the frost. However, the recent oscillation between warm and cold weather has been ideal. Think of this as a slow awakening, versus being woken up by a loud bang!
We may even get another 1/2-3/4” of rain in the coming week (April 10-17). In this period of extended drought that would be amazing for the ecology of the vineyard and for yields this year, which we estimate could be depressed by around 10-15% due to lack of rain from January – March.
Here we go! The 2022 growing season is underway.
The first Chardonnay from Dancing Crow
2021 Dancing Crow Chardonnay
The first release from a new vintage is always cause for celebration and this year doubly so because the 2021 Chardonnay is a brand-new wine for us and it comes out of the gate with a gold medal from the 2022 San Francisco International Wine Competition.
Dancing Crow was launched with a Sauvignon Blanc from our home vineyard in Lake County and in the hands of winemakers, David and Katharine DeSante, we were able to craft a distinctive style from this varietal on this location with the wine showing freshness and complexity at only 12.5% alcohol. This style has held up in each vintage since 2015 and we think it demonstrates that this area of California is capable of producing a truly unique New World Sauvignon Blanc. Sourced from a vineyard with a terroir very similar to the Sauvignon Blanc, this Chardonnay builds on that legacy.
The Growing Season
The 2021 vintage in Lake County shows remarkable potential, with its exceptional quality and concentration of flavors. Spring growing conditions, in our 1350’ elevation AVA, prompted bud break a week earlier than average, raising the risk of frost. While our fruit set was decreased, due to the persistent drought, we harvested with near perfect temperatures in August. We began picking about a week earlier than normal and once the fruit began coming in it was clear that the quality was going to be some of the best in recent memory. Low winter rainfall contributed to a lighter-than-average crop, but the loose bunched clusters, facilitated steady ripening, which in turn led to particularly balanced and flavorful grapes. The defining factor for the 2021 harvest was the degree of concentration observed when we harvested clusters with the same number of berries, but only half their normal weight in most cases. This vintage will be remembered for its flavorful wines, developing additional complexity over time.
The fruit for our Chardonnay was hand-picked at 21.5° Brix and whole cluster pressed. This wine is 100% Chardonnay, coming from 30-year-old, CCOF certified Organic vines near Lakeport – one of the coldest sites in Lake County. For this offering, our winemakers utilized classic Chablisienne type winemaking methods, with 2/3 of the fruit being fermented in stainless steel tanks and the remaining 1/3 barrel fermented in neutral oak. The wine was lees stirred to develop depth, then chilled to prevent the malolactic fermentation.
Winemaker Sensory Impressions
This Chardonnay showcases aromas of green apples, white hedge flowers and lime blossoms that gracefully make way for flavors of poached Russet apples, Meyer lemon and honeycomb, that are best described as a combination of wildflowers and beeswax. The mouthfeel is elegant and bright, followed by an extended citrus-inspired finish.
If you would like to buy some of the 2021 Chardonnay, please click HERE
What is sustainable viticulture?
People often wonder what the term “sustainable” really means. We were interviewed on this topic recently and thought our answers to the questions would be of interest.
Describe your climate-friendly practices, such as mulching, conservative agriculture, etc.
We make sure that every vineyard we work with has a soil preservation program and cover crop management or mulch application program. For example, we apply mulch at Old Stake and at Dancing Crow Sauvignon Blanc vineyard we use an organic max tilth builder cover crop that is a “plow down” mixture. We would use more bio-diesel in our tractors, but it tends to freeze and become a gelatin like goo at our temperature due to the high climate freeze in winter. It is going to be 17F tomorrow (Dec 27th 2021) in the vineyards!
Describe your soil management and soil fertility practices.
Soil management starts with minimizing compaction and increasing tilth (water and air retention) that fosters bio-diversity. Compacted anaerobic soils are bad for biodiversity and produce lousy wines. So, we manage our cover crow and / or mulch applications to maximize the return of nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon back to the soil at the right time of the year. Our vineyards can only be cultivated during the shoulder months of the rainy season. This awareness helps to incorporate the cover crop when it will do the most good. If we apply man made fertilizer, we always pair that with an organic addition as well so that we can preserve the soil ecology.
Pruning material is mowed back into the vineyard so that it composts into the soil. We don’t burn our pruning wood unless we get crown gall in a vineyard. We haven’t yet.
Describe your crop management practices.
We really try to grow as much fruit as we can at our altitude (1,350-3,000 feet). This sounds like we are overloading the vines, but we only get surprisingly low yields from the sites.
Old Stake (Old Vines): 2.5 tons/acre
Dancing Crow Sauvignon Blanc: 3-4 tons/acre
Old Stake Cabernet Sauvignon: 4-4.5 tons/acre
Describe your weed management practices.
Drilled cover crop in fall, after harvest. Alternate row vine drying (retention of cover crow in every other row). Cultivation of rows by mowing all rows but tilling every other row (disk and harrow that is dragged after) during April-June only. We try to minimize our broad leaf weed profile with our cover crop blend but we have had issues with Morning Glory (AKA: “bind weed”) in the blocks that are newly replanted. We will clear this up with shovels and then use a spray of glyphosphonate (not glyphosphate, aka “Round-Up”, which has been banned in our vineyards since 2018) to manage this problem. One application usually works.
Describe your insect & pest management practices.
We use pheromone traps to disrupt the mating cycle for the Virginia Creeper (invades from pear orchards)
Other than that, a spray of stylet oil (organic) is fine for leaf hoppers in June if they become problematic (1 year every 3-4). We don’t have any other pest issues in art due to the mountain climate of Lake County.
We do spray for powdery mildew in May and June. Sulfur dust (organic) is applied and then we follow up with something like Flint (a Sterol Biosynthase inhibitor or SBI) in early July since it is too hot to apply either sulfur or stylet oil. Three sprays total for the season.
We have not fenced our vineyards. This permits them to remain viable wildlife corridors. We get lots of deer migrating through. Sometimes they eat the young shoots, but we can accept that as a “nature tax.” The Dancing Crow Vineyard itself is home to a set of bee hives from the local bee keeper. They are a good gauge of our spray practices. We want to make sure that we remain bee friendly. Dancing Crow also has a resident owl population. We maintain their home in our barn provide them with a nice set back of trees from the vineyard to maintain that wildlife corridor.
A New Winemaker joins the Team
We are very pleased to announce that Jason Driscoll has joined the Dancing Crow winemaking team.
Jason’s first foray into winemaking was a job at Elsom Cellars, a small family business in Woodinville, WA. He later moved to California to follow his dream of becoming a chef. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Saint Helena and had apprenticeships at several prestigious local kitchens including Terra and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.
Finding himself in the heart of the Napa Valley, his love of food gradually translated into a love of winemaking, and ultimately, the slower pace and in-depth process of the cellar and vineyard drew him in full time.
Jason initially worked for our winemakers David and Katharine DeSante during Dancing Crow’s inaugural 2014 harvest as an intern, adding his elbow grease to our beloved first vintage of Sauvignon Blanc. He then moved on to create his own brand, Hibou (www.hibouwine.com), that allows him to make wonderful Chardonnays, Cabernets and Pinots, by sourcing from vineyards throughout the North Coast growing region.
However, as fate would have it, Jason has circled back to us at Dancing Crow, with his wealth of talent and knowledge, and we are fortunate to have him.
The 2021 Growing Season
In our July blog about this year’s growing season, we explained how below freezing temperatures in November of 2020 affected our Sauvignon Blanc vines. Now, with the harvest complete, we’re adding fire and drought to the equation!
Most of you already know that Northern California Wine Country has been plagued by wildfires over the last few years, and almost every North Bay winegrowing region has been directly impacted by flames. There are also indirect impacts of smoke from fires that can be many miles away. Thankfully, in 2020 Lake County avoided a major fire, but the northern part of neighboring Napa County was hard hit and air quality in the entire region was poor-to-bad for well over a month.
This impacts vineyards in several ways; the odors of smoke can directly alter the flavor of the grapes; the filtered sunlight can slow ripening and the deposits of ash can have dramatic fertilizing effect. Even a thin covering of ash across a vineyard can amount to 4 tons per acre and it contains an amazing array of microminerals such as phosphorous, potassium, selenium, aluminum and copper. These are rare finds for the vines and they absorb them eagerly, banking the precious fuel for future metabolic activity. This is what we saw at Dancing Crow this year and the result was extremely vigorous canopy growth, building on a similar effect from the frost recovery described in the July blog.
Surprisingly, the primary method of reproduction for grape vines is not fruit and the resulting seeds, but the canes themselves because when these touch the ground they will begin to root. It is extremely efficient form of reproduction as every cane roots (100%) whereas perhaps only 1 in 500 seeds will produce a viable plant. (This is also why grapevines can be so easily cloned with a simple cutting). We trellis and train vines partly to prevent the canes from reaching the ground and thus encourage more fruit formation. With such potent canopy growth this year the vines said to themselves (as translated by winemaker David DeSante) “If we keep this up there’s no way we won’t reach the earth sooner or later. Who needs grapes?” The result was a smaller than usual crop, building again on the effects of the earlier frost damage.
Average yearly rainfall in Lake County ranges from 34” to 38’ depending on location and this year to date at Dancing Crow Vineyard we’ve received just over 14”. This is basically the same as a damp year in Phoenix and similar to the extreme conditions that are prevailing across the state. The lack of water further restricts the growth of the vines and can be especially significant later in the year when the condition of the leaves has a great impact on acidity levels in the fruit.
This all sounds rather dire, and it is certainly a challenge for our viticulturalists as both wildfires and drought may be the trend rather than the exception going forward, but the good news is that lower yields tend create higher quality wines and this certainly seems to be the case for 2021 – we saw near perfect chemistry at harvest with lovely fresh flavors and excellent acidity. This may well turn out to be a classic vintage.
In our Old Stake Vineyard, where many of the vines have been in the ground for a good many years (back to 1901 in some cases) we saw yields 10% above normal! We believe this is due to the soil composition in the Kelsey Bench where we see three distinct layers; alluvial at the top, volcanic below that and clay at the bottom, around 12 feet deep. Any water that drains through the Bench on its way from the Mayacamas mountains towards the Big Valley and Clearlake is held by the clay where the deep roots of the old vines can access it. In this very particular location, the old vines thrived as though there was no drought at all.
It is also worth noting that the recent fires destroyed many trees in the hills and mountains which means less water is being taken up by their roots and some waterways, both above and below ground, are showing a surprising flow despite the lack of rain.
This is the kind of complex micro-differentiation between growing areas that is the essence of that much maligned term “terroir.” It is also what makes grape farming so interesting. The wine made from each year’s grapes will express these differences more clearly than any other agricultural product.
Exploring Sauvignon Blanc clones
In our July post we talked about how two different rootstocks, SO4 and 1616C, reacted to late autumn frost last year in the new block of our Dancing Crow Sauvignon Blanc vineyard.
Of the vines that succumbed to frost, 80% of them were SO4 and only 20% were 1616C. In viticultural terms, this is a highly significant result that will no doubt influence future Sauvignon Blanc plantings throughout the frost prone “Big Valley” AVA in Lake County.
It is interesting to see the vineyard as testing ground and not just the site of agricultural and economic production. There’s always something new to learn that will potentially benefit not only Dancing Crow Vineyards, but also, hopefully, winegrowers throughout the region. Without similar work and sharing done in the past by generations of growers both here in the US and in Europe, many of the current viticultural opportunities we enjoy simply wouldn’t exist.
In addition to experimenting with different rootstocks in the new block, we are also taking the opportunity to explore and evaluate the performance of four different clones of Sauvignon Blanc, among the more than 20 that are available.
Here’s what we have chosen to plant:
Sauvignon Blanc 1
SB1 was originally imported into California from Château d’Yquem in Bordeaux in 1884 by Charles Wetmore, who brought it to his vineyard in Livermore. The Wente family ultimately acquired the property sometime before 1925. Professor of Viticulture & Enology, Dr. Harold Olmo, collected samples for the UC Davis collection in 1958. SB 01 was first planted in the FPS (Foundation Plant Services) old foundation vineyard west of Hopkins Road in 1965. This clone is widely used in California and is also well known as the basis of the very successful New Zealand Sauvignon blanc industry, where it is known as UCD 1.
Sauvignon Blanc 530
This selection came to California from France in 1999 and is one of the few clones that comes from the original home of Sauvignon Blanc, France’s Loire Valley. This a purportedly earlier maturing clone, with a lighter crop and small juicy berries, that produce some of the most expressive and aromatic wines with good acid. Clone 530 also has some of the highest sugar levels, and the fruit offers an intriguing mix of tropical and citrus flavors.
Sauvignon Blanc 906
SB 906 is another more recent arrival, coming to California from France in 2005 and qualifying for the California Registration & Certification Program in 2007. SB 906, originated in the Gironde (Bordeaux) region of France and has been described as having an earlier maturity, good tolerance to bunch rot, producing very aromatic, full and balanced flavors. Our plantings of 906 at Dancing Crow are the first use of this clone in the Kelseyville area of Lake County.
Sauvignon Blanc 22
SB 22 is an Oakville Heritage selection from the Tokalon “I” Block, the oldest standing block of Sauvignon Blanc in California. Phil Freese, former Vice President of Wine Growing at Robert Mondavi Winery, encouraged UC Davis to preserve this plant material because he suspected that the vine might have been part of a very old vineyard that originated before the UC importation programs and modern Sauvignon blanc introductions. Pierre Galet, the famous French ampelographer, looked at this vine during one of his trips to California in the 1980’s and told Freese that it was ‘true Sauvignon blanc’.
This selection is known for producing wines with a fuller palate texture while retaining the distinctive aromas and flavors that are unique to Sauvignon blanc.
Dancing Crow’s plantings of this Heritage Selection (SB 22) are the first in Lake County.
As the vineyard matures, we will continue to explore the varied textures, aromas and flavors presented by this palette of clones and we hope that you, our customers, will benefit from the results of our experiment when you taste the finished wines.
Here are some further sensory evaluation notes on each clone from our winemakers, David and Katharine DeSante.
SB 1 – ability to exhibit key lime and tropical fruit flavors on the same vine. Can have a really vigorous canopy. A bit astringent when underripe – cilantro or lemongrass-like.
SB 530 – less green flavors early in the season. Apple and pear in the early season, more tropical later in the season. Less astringent skins.
SB 906 – later in the harvest, this grape has really tasty skins with a candied orange peel like flavor. Can produce a marmalade-like wine when very ripe and the skins turn gold in the sun. However, much more astringent when less ripe. Should be harvested last in our vineyards.
SB 22 – fuller texture and more tropical and melon like in flavor. Clusters are more round and less long. This may contribute to the way in which the berries ripen.
The 2021 Vintage so far
With this year’s harvest set to begin in the second week of August, the 2021 Vintage is about to move from the vineyard to the winery so we thought it might be a good time for a review, especially as it has been a very “interesting” year so far.
The 2021 vintage actually began as soon as the grapes were picked last autumn and the vines turned from producing and ripening fruit to storing energy/calories in their roots to get them through their dormant winter period and fuel new growth in the coming year.
If you have visited Napa or Sonoma wine country you will have seen large wine turbines scattered among the vineyards – these are part of a frost protection strategy that also includes the use of sprinkler systems. When frost threatens, they spray the growing vines with water which freezes and actually creates a protective bubble around the new buds keeping them safe at 32 degrees even as the surrounding air drops well below freezing.
This threat is a regular springtime occurrence in Napa and Sonoma, but in Lake County we see a different climate zone entirely and late Autumn frost can also be factor. This is partly due to elevation – Clearlake itself sits at 1329’ and vineyards are found as high as 3,000’. There is also northeasterly air flow late in the year, like the Mistral in France, that carries cold air into our region as well as Mendocino County.
On November 8th 2020 we recorded 19-20 degrees in our Dancing Crow Sauvignon Blanc vineyard near Kelseyville. The pond was empty having helped irrigate the vines though the hot summer and the vines stood unprotected. Among new vines that are only four years old, 20% were killed outright. These vines sit on two different rootstocks – 1616C and SO4 – and the toll was distributed accordingly. Of the vines that succumbed to frost, 80% of them were SO4 and only 20% were 1616C, so we lost 16% of our young SO4 rootstock vines and only 4% of our young 1616C rootstock vines. In viticultural terms, this is a highly significant result that will no doubt influence future Sauvignon Blanc plantings throughout the frost prone “Big Valley” AVA.
In the mature vineyard many canes were damaged by the cold so that fewer new buds appeared in spring this year. Our Old Stake vineyard, planted to a variety of red grapes, only 4 miles away and 100 feet higher in elevation, experienced no damage at all which speaks to the dramatic influence of terroir. In general the quality and yields of the red grape varieties seem unaffected by the factors that impacted the Sauvignon Blanc.
Next, soon after budbreak, the vines started to produce much more foliage than usual to compensate for the potential lack of fruit and the vineyard canopy has a very different look this year. We have been working closely with our viticultural team, headed by David Weiss of Bella Vista Farms, with the application of high potassium kelp for example, to manage these unusual conditions.
The end result is a drop in Sauvignon Blanc yields and a projected harvest date of August 10th-12th which is 10-14 days early. As with red wines, a smaller crop is sometimes a more flavorful one and it will be fascinating to see how the fruit tastes once we process it in the winery.
We’ll keep you posted…
More Recognition for the 2020 Rosé
Dancing Crow started with a unique vineyard in the Big Valley region of Lake County, California. There is something special about the deep clay soils lying next to Clearlake, at 1400 ft. elevation in the shadow of Mount Konocti.
This terroir allows us to make a Sauvignon Blanc that is stylistically distinct – complex at only 12.5% alcohol with no “grassy” aromas. To see how exceptional this is, check out the other Sauvignon Blancs on the shelf next time you’re shopping for wine. If you find one that’s below 13% alcohol it will likely be from France, or perhaps New Zealand. This is a stand out wine.
We find very similar growing conditions at the Smith Lane vineyard that produces the Syrah for our Rosé and the resulting wine shares many characteristics with the Blanc, fresh, crisp, and flavorful, again at only 12.5% alc.
The 2020 Rosé has been receiving some good press recently. We already posted back in March about the S.F. Chronicle’s Best in Show award, as well as 90 points from the Wine Enthusiast recently, and just last week we heard about a Double Gold Medal and 96 points from the 2021 Sunset International Wine Competition.
Of course, we’re happy about this recognition, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so why not order some Rosé today? Especially good during these warm summer days.
Here’s some more about the vineyard and the wine
Our Rosé comes from 25-to-30-year-old Syrah vines on the Smith Lane Vineyard, whose name alone tells you how long the Smiths, who own the property, have lived and farmed here. Looking for a vineyard planted to Rhône red grape varieties suitable for a Rosé, Smith Lane was the perfect find. The vineyard is located at 1,300 feet on the lower portion of the Kelsey Bench AVA and sits on dark clay-loam soils where abundant willows and a nearby pear orchard indicate the riparian nature of the environment.
This wine was grown and harvested specifically to be a Rosé. By contrast, many Rosés are actually a by-product of red wine production, a solution to an unripe or overripe vintage. We add just a bit of our Sancerre-style Sauvignon Blanc to enhance the wine’s brightness and aromatics. For the 2020 vintage the Syrah grapes were hand-picked at around 21° Brix. 50% of the grapes are put through a classic “white pressing program” and the other 50% go through a “Champagne pressing” program. The former gives us more flavor and color, while the latter gives us a wine that has intriguing aromas and more elegant texture. Combining the two optimizes the qualities of the fruit and creates a fresh, subtle yet complex wine in the Provençal style.
Our new Old Stake label
Those of you who are fans of Dancing Crow’s Old Stake 1901 field blend may have noticed that we debuted a new label with the recently released 2019 vintage. It was designed by Dancing Crow co-owner Stefan Cartlidge and while representing the “old vines” that contribute to the wine, and the crows of course, it also pays tribute to a few of the unique qualities of Lake County.
First is Clear Lake itself – the second largest in California after Lake Tahoe and one of the oldest in the entire country. It sits at an elevation of 1417 feet and comprises almost 70 square miles. This formidable body of water helps to create a unique climate zone for premium grape growing.
Next the pears – Bartletts have been grown commercially in Lake County since 1885, shortly after being proclaimed “the finest in the world” at the World’s Fair in New Orleans. Beautiful pear orchards still adjoin our Sauvignon Blanc vineyard.
Then Native American basketry for which the region is famous. Numerous indigenous tribes lived in the area – Pomo, Wappo, Lake Miwok and Yuki among them and they were master basketmakers, using the great variety of reeds and grasses that still grow around the lake and its watersheds to craft not only extraordinarily varied and beautiful baskets, but also storage structures as large as a small tent and canoes made from tightly bundled tule.
And lastly the elusive owls who preside in the old barn next to the vineyard at Dancing Crow…