Growing good grapes at Shaker Ridge Vineyard

Budbreak in primitivo grapevines in May 2010.
Photos courtesy of Andy Standeven.

At Shaker Ridge Vineyard (http://www.shakerridgevineyard.com) in El Dorado, California, they’re not looking to produce quantities of mediocre grapes. Owner-operators Elizabeth and Andy Standeven are trying to grow the best grapes; after all, they’re scientists – he’s a toxicologist, and she’s a zoologist and anthropologist – trying to make an equation work.

Growing involves science, and Andy says that all good science begins with observation. However, what he’s observed is that most producers are under pressure to produce, so there isn’t enough time for more science and experimentation. The Standevens have taken the time to do some revealing experimentation, and the science has shaped their philosophy of growing. They are committed to continual improvement of viticultural practices by using careful observation, literature review and experimentation.

“There’s not a lot of science out there,” Andy says. “There’s more of a need for maximum yield, not necessarily maximum quality, so it’s hard to find good data, even on simple issues. There’s a lot of hearsay, though. You ask five people and you’ll get five answers. It takes a lot of time to do a proper study.”

Elizabeth says it’s complicated by the variety of soils and dozens of rootstocks and varietals in grape growing. In other words, the laboratory is as certain as the weather. In the industry, they know those interested in wine and those interested in the science, the fermentation. As home winemakers they know the most, and best, of both worlds. “I’ve found that having a chemistry background makes me a better grower and a better winemaker,” Andy says. “I know what to look for.”

Barbera grapes are just one of the varieties grown at Shaker Ridge Vineyard.

Located at a 1,500-foot elevation in the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area (AVA), they admit that their soil isn’t the richest, but they make the most of it. They focus on quality over quantity, believing that any patch of land can produce flavorful fruit.

On their 39-acre property, the Standevens have 7 acres planted in grapes, and they believe they’re maxed out at what they can do well. Shaker Ridge is producing 15 to 17 tons of grapes a year in a quality-based managed field program that produces outstanding fruit. “Our clients have terrific palates and know the difference,” Andy says.

Getting started

The Standevens hunted for a spot in the Sierra Foothills for several years before purchasing their property in late 2000. Shaker Ridge is in the southwest corner of the El Dorado AVA, a subregion of the Sierra Foothills AVA.

The vineyard is located about halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe in an area that’s rich in history, with a climate that’s ideal for grape growing – a “Mediterranean climate,” with dry summers. Elizabeth says proper air drainage is important, and even a slight variation in local altitude can make it 5 or 10 degrees cooler due to the topography, which can mean the difference between frost damage and avoiding disaster. Having taken training courses in viticulture, Elizabeth knew the best way to manage the frost issue was with good site selection.

In late 2001, they began clearing the site. In May 2002, the Standevens planted most of the vineyard with equal amounts of head-trained barbera and primitivo grapes. Fall 2006 marked the first time the barbera and primitivo harvest was commercially viable. To control fruit load and increase sun and air exposure during the growing season, they thin shoots and fruit. In 2003, they planted an additional 0.5 acre of primitivo grapes and added several rows of experimental plantings.

Andy Standeven pitchforks grapes while his father-in-law directs a neighbor.

In 2005, according to the website, the couple “broke ground on a 0.75-acre port vineyard featuring five traditional Portuguese varietals in proportions suitable for a field blend of port wine, all on vertical trellising.” The first crop was harvested in 2007. The plan was to find one winery client to buy the entire field. The plan worked, but like much of the progress they’ve made, perhaps not to perfection. However, they continue to promote and model the concept, and Andy produced his own port, which won best of show at a county fair.

“It’s still an education,” he says. “Often, the best wine comes from blending, and blending is catching on in the mass market.”

This year, Shaker Ridge is offering shares in its quinta field of Portuguese varietals, at a fixed price of $189 each. They tried this once before in 2011. Each of the 12 shares grants the holder one-twelfth of the total production. The harvest date will be a single weekend, driven primarily by the ripeness of the predominant grape, touriga nacional.

According to the website, Shaker Ridge’s viticultural practices include “minimizing the use of herbicides, drip irrigation to conserve and control water usage, and hand harvesting and sorting of grapes.” The Standevens are not organic growers, but they try to follow the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing.

The business grew from Andy’s love of wine. After earning his Ph.D. from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, his first job was in southern California. “I was within driving distance of wine regions, and it just snowballed from there,” he says. “I began venturing further afield, and then we found this area, fell in love and married along the way. Elizabeth loves wine and the mountains.”

They planted primitivo and barbera based on taste, but also because the varieties had a proven growing record in the region. Primitivo is similar genetically (a cousin) to zinfandel, which had been grown in abundance, but the Standevens opted for more of a niche market approach. Primitivo and barbera were obscure when the Standevens planted them, but both were increasing in popularity. “With 7 acres, we weren’t going to compete in volume, or with others with 50-year-old vines,” Elizabeth explains.

Challenges

Once the initial varietals were established, the next hurdle was preventing powdery mildew, which affected the vines in the first few years. They found a solution to the problem in 2006.

In May 2002, the Standevens planted most of the vineyard with equal amounts of barbera (seen here) and primitivo grapes.

The key to preventing the fungus is the regular application of sulfur and Stylet-Oil or other chemical compounds, accompanied by careful monitoring. While the Standevens didn’t invent the solution, they weren’t using it enough in the previous years. “You have to prevent and arrest it, not control it, or it will attack every grapevine,” Andy says. “The fruit grows, then splits, and then the birds are attracted, but with the mold, the grapes just weren’t usable for wine.”

With the fungus controlled, they suddenly had 12 tons of fruit, but not necessarily a market. So the Standevens sent out approximately 40 one-page letters to wineries in the region. They received only one response.

Elizabeth Standeven drives a tractor pulling a trailer with a bin full of barbera grapes.

Fortunately, Oakstone Winery, which shares a sensibility and interest in the science of growing grapes, bought the entire field. Unfortunately, Oakstone burned to the ground, then consolidated operations with a sister winery, downsizing to a third of its previous production levels.

So Shaker Ridge had to cultivate buyers once again. Slowly and consistently, the Standevens have found buyers, both wineries and home winemakers – all enthusiasts who appreciate better grapes. Home winemakers appreciate having access to the grapes “the big boys get,” Elizabeth says.

They have innovated to make their work easier, like the netting system Elizabeth designed to keep out the birds. It’s used to cover the port varietals that ripen early, attracting the birds. “If we did nothing, the birds would eat the entire crop,” Andy notes.

Tempranillo grapevines under white netting.

The netting is propped up on poles located at the ends of the rows, with high-tensile wire supporting the netting from pole to pole. With the netting 8 feet above the vines, the Standevens and the equipment can fit underneath. The netting can easily be rolled up when it’s not needed. “It’s practical for a 5-acre vineyard, but might not be for a 500-acre vineyard,” Andy says.

They also plant an assortment of fruits, berries, vegetables, nuts, herbs and even some grains – about an acre enclosed in deer fencing – for the family, including Anna, their 9-year-old daughter, to eat. The orchard is planted next to the barbera. There are 50 blueberry plants, and as of last year a small pistachio crop. “There’s very little we can’t grow here,” Andy says.

Last fall, they experimented with producing acorn flour – a staple of the local Native Americans – and using it for cooking. “We really enjoy eating home-produced foods and sharing them with those who visit,” he says. “That’s immensely satisfying for us.”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.