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…
July Rising filmed in Lake County
Lake County is a bit off the beaten path, lying between two of California’s major highways, 101 to the west and Interstate 80 to the east. All the roads into the region are narrow and winding as they climb to the 1400 plateau where Clearlake sits.
It is unusual to find a film that uses this county as a location, but we are delighted to have discovered July Rising (2019). Not only are many of the locations very close to our vineyards, but they also highlight the beautiful pear orchards that the county has long been famous for. We not only see the pears, but also some of the equally famous crows!
July Rising was written and directed by Chauncey Crail, who is part of the family that owned and farmed Dancing Crow before we bought the vineyard. He features a bottle of Dancing Crow in the movie – our first product placement! Thanks Chauncey.
Here’s a plot summary – When sixteen-year old Andy inherits her grandfather’s orchard and becomes the ward of her aunt from the city, she must navigate the path to her future from a small town where choice and agency have never been options for young women.
2020 Rosé – Top of its Class
Our 2020 Rosé of Syrah from Lake County is the first wine we’ve released from the new vintage, which is always exciting. We’re also delighted to have stellar recognition for the wine right out of the gate.
At the recent 2021 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition this wine was chosen as the Best Rosé in the entire SFCWC, which is the largest wine competition of North American wines and features nearly 5,700 entries from over 1,000 wineries.
You might enjoy these two short videos of our winemakers, David and Katharine DeSante, talking about the Syrah vineyard which produces the Rosé and their winemaking process
Here’s some more information about this lovely wine, which is perfect for the spring season.
The 2020 Growing Season
The Lake County 2020 vintage was an interesting one to say the least. Between COVID-19 and the wildfires in the surrounding counties of Napa and Sonoma it was definitely a challenging harvest. However, we are learning how to adapt and excel when Mother Nature throws a few curve balls our way, and we are very enthusiastic about the quality of the wine we produced from this vintage. For 2020, Rosé and White wines from Lake County are showing particularly well, with lighter yields but exceptional grape quality. The weather was mild through most of the growing season, followed by a manageable heat spike in September, which meant that harvest began slightly earlier than normal.
Winemaking and Tasting Notes
The Syrah grapes were hand picked at just 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. We added a little of our Sauvignon Blanc for brightness and aromatics.
The color of this wine entices with its pale pink hues. On the nose, aromas of floral jasmine and Alpine Strawberry abound. After the wine eases over the palate, flavors of ripe strawberries and Bartlett pears become readily apparent. The finish boasts notes of clover honey accented by a refreshing minerality. Much in the French style, this Rosé delivers just a suggestion of color, but follows with an abundance of freshness, complexity and flavor. Alcohol: 12.5%.
New Grapes for Old
Dancing Crow’s Old Stake 1901 Vineyard is an ongoing experiment in grape diversity 120 years in the making. So far we’ve identified over 20 different varieties, some dating back to the original plantings at the turn of the last century, all the way through to modern times and even into the future as we add new vines to replace some that are unhealthy or no longer productive. The palette of aromas, flavors and textures is always evolving.
While Old Stake produces a truly unique and complex red wine field blend, there are both red and white grapes in the vineyard; the white varieties not only add their own aromas, flavors and characteristics to the blend, they actually enhance the quality of the reds, and this carries through to the color of the wine as well – white grapes can actually catalyze the color of the reds though a process called co-pigmentation as you’ll see in this short Youtube video of winemakers David and Katharine DeSante. LINK
With all these factors in mind, one of the varieties we’ve selected as a new addition to the site is Verdelho – a white grape noted for its floral and citrus aromas that is grown throughout Portugal, where it was first planted as early as the 15th century. It is closely associated with wines from the island of Madeira where it was the most widely planted grape at the turn of the 20th century. The fortified wine named after the island was extremely popular in the American colonies, a favorite of Thomas Jefferson and used to toast the Declaration of Independence.
As one of the few heat-loving white grapes, Verdelho is well adapted to California where it has a long history. By the 1870’s it was extensively grown in what is now Amador County in the Sierra foothills. Currently there are approximately 200 acres in California are devoted to the grape, which has also been successful in the vineyards of Australia.
Among the reds we have chosen Niebbolo in part because of the success one of our neighbors on the Kelsey Bench has had with this variety. Originating in Northern Italy’s Piedmont region, where it dates back to the 13th century, this grape is best known for producing Barolo and Barbaresco, powerful, full-bodied, and highly tannic wines, often with a surprisingly light color.
It will be a few years before we see how these new vines contribute to Old Stake, by which time we will no doubt have discovered some new “old” varieties in vineyard.
If you’d like to sample this fascinating old world field blend, Old Stake 1901 is the only wine we sell in a three pack – currently offered at $99 or mix and match with any of other wines – HERE
Photo credit: By José Luís Ávila Silveira/Pedro Noronha e Costa – Own work, Public Domain