Jim Schultze of Windy Oaks Estate pt.2

Ξ June 13th, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Winemakers, Wineries |

As you may have read in part 1 of my interview with Jim Schultze, owner (along with his delightful wife Judy) of Windy Oaks Estate, are driven by an intimacy with the traditions of Burgundy. Though their fondness for France is evident, they are more accurately understood as well-traveled citizens of the world.
Of Mr. Schultze I can certainly say he is a fine winegrower. He has carved out fine vineyards on rolling slopes that set the visitor’s mind alight. There is no monotony of monoculture here. All about one sees health and vigor. The winery doubles as the tasting room, not unusual for the Santa Cruz Mountains, but it affords the visitor a chance, when luckily open, to ask after the aesthetic facts of the craft, take a walk up to the namesake oaks. And Jim Schultze is always ready to inform and entertain. Ask the right question, you get the right answer.
I encourage the reader to explore their website for additional info and insight into this gem of an estate.
Admin What are the sources of Windy Oaks’ Reserve wines, is it a blend of barrels, different blocks?
Jim Schultze It tends to be mainly Bay block, the steep block you see down here, facing the Bay. And a bit of Henry’s [block]. But I am not wedded to those blocks. It’s funny. Those typically produces a lot of barrels with the characteristics I described for the reserve.
Henry’s block is actually a good example of how terroir trumps clones. That is all the Waldenswil clone, UC Davis 2A, and a lot of California winemakers say that’s not a good wine clone. It has big, open, loose clusters, large grapes, a low skin to juice ratio. So it doesn’t make really elegant Pinot. On our site we get tiny clusters, small grapes, super-high skin to juice ratio, and it’s always part of our reserve blend.
We also do a block designate with part of it because I like it so much on its own. So that’s just a good example of how terroir is so critical if you just let it express itself in the wine! (laughs)
And how much time do you spend in the vineyards?
JS I’m out here almost everyday. I have a vineyard foreman, but I take care of this little block, the SBC [Special Burgundy Clone] block myself. I’m out in the vineyard because I feel if I am really going to instruct my vineyard foreman on what needs to be done I need to understand what’s happening. So I want to be in daily touch with what’s happening in the vineyard.
I had a conversation with Will Bucklin recently, and he spends hours every day, not only on his organic farm but in the vineyard. He said the best tool he ever got was a dog!
JS (laughs) I can believe that! Depending on the time of year… two weeks ago I was out here for five or six hours a day in my little block here doing some of the leaf thinning and shoot thinning, and some of the early tucking.
As you can tell by looking at the vineyard we don’t use any herbicides or anything like that. We actually have a permanent cover crop. We weed-whack in the vine rows, so we’ve got here 15 miles of weed-whacking that’s done typically twice a year. We do it in the middle Spring, and we’re doing it again right now. That should be it for the Summer unless we get some rain.
And the cover crop?
JS It’s a mix. You couldn’t tell by looking at it here but there is actually a lot of clover. In the Springtime we have a shredder/chopper, we go through and mulch everything up. That’s when the clover gets mulched in the ground. There are some natives in here. I try to let it determine what it’s going to be itself, although I do like some of the Australian clovers. They really have a lot of dense, green foliage to them. They’re not invasive.
We don’t use any pesticides. We’re primarily organic but my feeling has always been I want to do everything I can to maximize the quality of grapes. In some years we have really high botrytis pressure in the mountains. I have not yet found a good organic botrytis spray.
I would agree with you. Sometimes there is nothing you can do…
JS Are you going to have sub-standard grapes and make sub-standard wine? Or adhere to some philosophy? I adhere to my philosophy which is to do everything I can to maximize quality in the vineyard. Then it minimizes what we have to do in the winery. That’s my objective for the winery: to do as little as possible! (laughs)
When the Festival commences (June 6th-7th for the West side), unfortunately this will not be posted in time, but for subsequent Vintner’s Festivals, do you bring folks up here, to the top of the vineyards?
JS People come here and have picnics. This year, if the weather is good, we set up a little wine-pouring bar. People can come up and buy a glass of wine, and just sit here and enjoy the view, enjoy the day. There’s shade from the oaks, or sun if you want it. I guess it’s obvious why we named the winery ‘Windy Oaks’ is the oak trees up here. Sometimes this ridge gets pretty windy. One of my sons actually was talking about different names. He said we ought to call it Windy Oaks because of the beautiful oak trees. We like the name. And the estate, Windy Oaks Estate, signifies the fact that we grow all the grapes ourselves. We don’t buy grapes.
Exactly. Do you propagate this particular (SBC) Burgundy clone?
JS Yeah. We do. I started actually with 8 little plants brought from France, well, they were 8, 9 dead twigs. I stuck them in the ground and 8 of them grew. Over a period of years we’ve taken more and more cuttings. We graft everything on rootstock that does very well here, fairly low vigor plants. We’re developing a new little block down below Bay block. Then, on our neighbor’s property, he asked us to develop a two acre Syrah vineyard. That’s the new one over there. So, a few years from now we’ll start producing a Windy Oaks Syrah. It should be pretty interesting since it is such a cool climate here. It should be very intense and have a lot of complexity to it.
Pinot is now being grown all over California. And it is in barrel for a very short time, if at all. Oak chips are very often used, etc. For many folks it has become the new gateway wine, just as Merlot was some years ago. Of course, its complexity in better expressions can be daunting. So I wonder if in the last few years there has occured the ‘merlotization’ of Pinot? I mean, it is being homogenized, standardized as happened to Merlot, not to mention other grape varieties.
JS Yes. The problem with Pinot, I think moreso than any other grape, is the extent you grow it in a warmer climate it gets very simple and thin very quickly. Chardonnay is that way too, to an extent. They talk about the oaky, buttery California Chardonnay. I think in reality it is not because of the winemaking techniques that those wines end up oaky and buttery; it’s because the grapes are grown in relatively warm places. The Chardonnay grape, like a Pinot, if it’s grown in a relatively warm place it ends up producing a simple, uninteresting wine. Those components, in the case of the oak and butter (the diacetyl comes from the malolactic fermentation), that comes to the fore because there is not that much else there!
We have very high malic acid levels here. I know our Chardonnay has very high levels of this so-called buttery component, but, in fact, our wines taste like white Burgundys. They have no butteriness to them at all. And that’s because there are all these other things going on. It’s not a blank slate. There is a lot of complexity to the wine. And so, that butter just recedes into the background. Likewise our Chardonnay is barrel fermented and in barrel for 18 months yet it doesn’t have much oakiness at all. And that is because we have such a high natural level of acidity, a really good acid-fruit balance. Again, the oak is there but in the background. The complexity of the wine comes through.
We’re getting good set in the SBC fruit this year. This weather has been kinda perfect; not too hot, not too cool. You can see the flowering. These brown caps, these have actually set. The clusters are slightly larger than normal size this year. And there are a lot of them. It could be quite a good harvest. Time will tell.
How did you choose your trellising technique?
JS Well, I studied all the different trellisings and I decided that it was really important, because of the Pinot Noir’s thin skin and its susceptibility to things like mildew, that it was really important to get good airflow. This trellis is designed to maximize the airflow. All the blocks, except little Henry’s block, are orientated towards the Bay so we get the breeze blowing up the rows. And we remove some leaves in the fruiting zone where they are thick to enhance the airflow. Normally, some of these would not be as visible as they are. The ideal is one leaf layer between the fruit and the outside of the canopy. That gives you sort of dappled sun-light on the clusters, so it’s not baking in the sun all the time but you are getting a little sun-light to thicken up the skins slightly and enhance some of those components in the wine ultimately.
And irrigation?
JS Well, we actually, in a normal year, get about 55 inches of rain in here in the Winter. We end up dry farming about 80% of the vineyard. But we have the irrigation as a kind of a back-up. We needed it when the plants we’re very young to get the vineyard established. But it’s mostly a back-up so if we do have a very dry year, which two of the three last years have been very dry. We were down last year about 40% of our normal rainfall and the year before was almost 40%. So in those years we usually end up irrigating a little bit.
I use a piece of technology called a pressure bomb/pressure chamber to directly measure the water content of the plants. I like to slightly stress the plants. The interesting thing about grape vines is there is not a direct relationship between the moisture in the soil and how much water the vines are taking up. That depends on the environment, it depends on the mineral content of the soil, the particular clone, the general climate, etc. It’s been traditional to water based on the amount of moisture in the soil; it turns out that doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the water content of the plants. You need a slightly expensive technology that allows you to do that. I think it’s a wonderful thing.
The first year we used it we reduced our water consumption, the plants were quite a bit younger then, but we reduced our water consumption by almost 60% that year. Rain-wise, that Winter, the previous Winter, had been the same as the year before. We were comparing apples to apples over the two successive vintages in terms of water in the soil. So we reduced water usage by more than half with this technology.
We also use some infrared technology to identify stress in a block or some plant, we can then go down the rows to look at the canopy for variations, and where there are significant variations you know that plant is getting overly stressed. In those situations we’ll individually water the plants if there are just a few of them. We’re trying to create a very even canopy, slightly stressing the vines, so as to get as much intensity of flavor as possible without harming the long-term viability of the plants.
And with dry-farming you get a greater biomass in the roots. Have you done a biomass analysis of a vine?
JS Yes you do. We have, but we’ve never gotten to the bottom of it! A mature vine. one that is ten to fifteen years old, can go down 20 to 25 feet if it doesn’t hit an impenetrable layer. The one vine we did that on we got down to about and we stopped. But it was thick going down at that level! (laughs)
So in a dry year we might end up irrigating say, late August once, and then late September once. Just enough to keep the plants going without having them shut down. Again, we’re harvesting so late. We need the plants to keep going! (laughs)
What is your water source?
JS We’ve got a well here, a good, deep well. We’re a 1000 feet, the well is down about 250 feet, so it’s still 720 feet above sea level. The water quality is pretty good.
At this point in the interview we drove down the vineyard slope, back to the winery. On the way down I took a pic of the new Syrah plantings and of the newer vines propagated from the SBC block on top, a great spot for growing grapes.
Does the deer fence surround the property?
JS Yes, it’s 6 1/2 feet high. That’s our biggest pest. The thing of it is deer can jump that high but only if they’re frightened. We’ve never gotten a deer in the vineyard that’s jumped the fence.
So the tasting room is incorporated into the winery.
JS Yes. We’re too small to have separate facilities.
Where are the pillars? Where’s the faux marble?!
JS Exactly! Exactly! You won’t find it here. (laughs) This area here we use, obviously, as our bottling area. We’ve got a computer-controlled basket press which I really like because I’ve programmed it for the press to run for over an hour. It runs into a tank which is blanketed with Argon gas. It is a very gentle type of press. The thing about it is that it is very gentle, but 95% of the wine goes down through the press cake. It acts a kind of filter of the lees and you’re getting a few more skin components out of it.
Then we go directly into barrels, so I don’t settle at all. Despite the fact we’re in barrels so long we don’t rack our barrels. So the entire time the wine is in barrel it’s on the fine lees. I really believe that they nourish the wine and they definitely protect it from oxygenation. We’ll stir the lees periodically until we go through malolactic. Then the wine sits undisturbed. It also allows us to bottle everything unfiltered and unfined. Even our Chardonnay is unfiltered and unfined, which I think is unusual in California.
Gravity works! You just have to give it time to work. I find that after, oh, 15 months the wine has gotten very clear. Then we take the wine out of barrel and bottle by gravity. We have a state-of-the-art bottling line we bought a couple of years ago. It is very unusual for a winery of our size, but I thought it was really important because we do quite a few small lots throughout the year. I like the quality this bottling line provides, and also the flexibility it gives me. It’s got some patented technology. The company that makes it is Italian, they are the largest bottling manufacturer in the world, GAI. The fillers, for example, we fill by gravity but they’re hollow-core, and as the bottle is filling it is continually injecting Nitrogen into the bottle, flushing out all the Oxygen. I’ve found that this really minimizes ‘bottle shock’. And within a couple of weeks after bottling the wine tastes to me like it did before going into bottle. So we don’t suffer long periods of bottle shock. We can release the wine anytime after that.
And I have in a pinch bottled by myself. You just put some empty bottles on the one end and walk over to the other end and a completely finished bottle comes out. I’ve done thirty to forty cases by myself.
You still use cork, of course.
JS Yes. I think screw caps were actually foisted on us by the aluminum companies because, think about it, cork is a totally renewable resource. Every ten years you back to the tree you last harvested from, strip off the bark and cut out the cork from the bark. Ten years later that tree’s grown, you go back to the tree and strip it off again. Instead of using Aluminum, which is very energy-intensive to make. And screw caps have a slightly higher spoilage rate than corks, a little over 3% for a screw cap. We find with corks that the suppliers have gotten so good, the quality control is so good, we typically have one corked bottle in forty to fifty cases.
That’s consistently what I hear. From Michael Broadbent to Gary Vaynerchuk of WL; one in every 300 to 400 bottles under cork. But some folks continue to insist on 10%.
JS I don’t know where that comes from. (laughs)
Some wines benefit from screw caps, of course.
JS Some wines, like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, are meant to be drunk right away, screw caps are fine. But for wines that will really age well, like ours will, with a lot of structure, I really like the cork. We’re sticking with corks. (laughs)
JS Here’s our barrel room. We use about 50% new French oak barrels every year. I’ve found a furniture maker down in Paso Robles I’m going to give some old barrels to, and have him make some lawn chairs. We’ll see how that goes. He makes beautiful outdoor furniture by taking apart old barrels, reshaping the staves. The wood is so beautiful.
To get really tight-grained wood like this you need to be in a marginal growing climate. There are a couple forests in Burgundy, near-by Burgundy, that are that way. The wood from these barrels in over 150 years old. It comes from government-controlled forests, and they auction off a small percentage of the trees each year. It turns out, it is one of the things the French government does very well, they actually have more board-feet of barrel wood today than they had two of three decades ago. Again, it’s a totally renewable resource.
Have you thought about writing a book?
JS I’ve thought off and on. I just don’t have the time. Since I started the winery my vegetable garden has really deteriorated. I don’t even have time for that. Maybe someday, if my son does really get involved in the business. I do love travel. We wouldn’t mind living in France for a few months of the year.
Do you remember your first medal?
JS That’s a good question…. We’ve been really fortunate in that early on we thought we needed to get recognition somehow. So we submitted, we were only making one wine, that was one Pinot, we submitted it to the San Francisco International, I think it was. I might be wrong about that. (laughs) We won a Gold Medal out of the block with our first wine! A problem with competitions is palate fatigue of the judges. It all depends if you are at the beginning of a flight or at the end, the judges you get.
The international competitions tend to appreciate a little more the subtle nuances and elegance in wines. It seems like non-international competitions, though it’s hard to generalize, look for something that really stands out, that hits them over the head.
This year our first two releases of the ’07s, our 2007 Estate Cuvée and our 2007 Terra Naro, we submittet them to the BTI International Competition in Chicago and the Pacific Rim International Competition. They both won Gold Medals. There are others! The vineyards are very consistent.
Well, this has been absolutely great fun. Who is that in the picture? John Muir?
JS (laughs) It’s actually Monet in his garden. We’ve visited his garden. They’ve restored them. They actually look very much like they did when he lived there, in Giverny. I just love that picture. That must be back in the Twenties, around that era. Monet in his garden. Lovely.
Thank you, Jim.
JS You’re welcome, Ken.


One Response to ' Jim Schultze of Windy Oaks Estate pt.2 '

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  1. Lab Monkey said,

    on June 13th, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    Really enjoyed this one. Going straight to wine-searcher!

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