That’s how Clos de Amis winemaker Bruce Freeman describes the 2019 harvest in Ventura County.
“All that rain we had got everything all nice and soaked and wet,” Bruce explains, but all that moisture “kept everything really humid. The mildew just went crazy and if you were lucky enough to stay on top of it — it still got ahead of you!”
Everyone in Ventura County and Santa Barbara County too had a terrible time with mildew in 2019. Mildew stays on the buds and overwinters and starts as soon as conditions are right. Technology like a sprayer can reduce labor and help where used properly but the nozzle heads are tricky making it easy to think you’ve covered all of the vines when actually you missed sections
Bruce estimates that he lost about a third of his crop to mildew in 2019 and he’s heard that areas in Santa Barbara County lost 60%. All around it was a heavy loss year and growers like Bruce are “trying to wrestle with that. You pick the best stuff and then sometimes you’re picking stuff you really don’t want. Then on the sorting tables on the crush pad, you dump a bin on the table, and then throw half away. I had spent a lot of effort getting my barrels ready in 2018 and then the heat wave knocked them (the grapes) out and then in 2019 the mildew.”
“We lost quite a bit of fruit,” says Bruce. Fortunately, the Mitchell vineyard where he gets the fruit for his Chambang sparkling wine was spared only because the fruit is picked earlier to maintain acidity so he was able to stay on top of it. “As we were picking, we could see the mildew. If we’d let it ripen we would have lost the vintage” which is what happened to the nearby Olivelands vineyard which supplies the Chardonnay for his still wine and one year for his orange wine.
“Chardonnay in a coastal environment? You’re looking for disaster.”
It’s a lot of work and very stressful: “I know I worked my ass off,” says Bruce.
While some grape vines are more resilient, not the vitus vinifera, the grape that produces wine grapes. The 2018 vintage was also disastrous in Ventura County because of a rogue heat wave and nothing could be done.
“It’s been two disappointing years,” says Bruce. “I thought I was a competent grower but mother nature is pretty nasty at times.” Growing the grapes, making the wine, and running the business—it’s hard to do it all even with a hard working partner like Gretel: “You can’t run the business, make the wine, run the vineyard — there’s too much to do.”
In 2020, Bruce will leave much of the farming and vineyard management in the capable hands of Martin Ramirez and his crew; he’s glad Martin is taking them on, and he thinks he’ll have a nice crop on South Mountain this year. While in December Ventura County has had a lot of rain, hopefully it will dry out such that mildew won’t be as big a problem as in 2019 where Ventura County saw precipitation in June and the gray skies seemed continuous to people and vines that reached for the sun; read more about this is “Etiolation”
But you can’t keep Bruce out of the vineyards he loves:
“I do want to be in the vineyard – I can go up there and look and see what’s happening. We’ll do the finetuning,” Bruce continues.
“I have to concentrate on shit here and my health,” says Bruce referring to his recent cancer diagnosis. He is undergoing experimental treatment in Los Angeles that has had excellent results so far. “We’ll be up there fixing stuff maybe replanting. There’s some Petit Verdot that’s not making it.” Comparing notes with Martin, Bruce learned that there’s been a lot of vines from a particular grower that failed. He plans to replant with Petit Verdot, because “I like how it came out – it came out so smooth.”
According to Bruce, Gretel calls the Petit Verdot sex and violets…
“It’s nice to have a Bordeaux grape to do so well out here but I haven’t found a cab or cab franc that knocks my socks off from here.” He’s planted some cabernet sauvignon in Fillmore where it’s just a little hotter.
“Vineyards are so romantic. Wineries are so romantic. But they’re a lot of work,” points out Bruce. “The growers are under pressure to pay for their operation. The winemaker wants the best. There’s a little tango. From some of these boutique backyard vineyards there’s complaining “why’s this cost so much?””
Mildew is unforgiving – anything that is missed will mildew almost immediately and require more spraying. Even organic vineyards required weekly spraying with allowable products. All of this labor costs a lot of money but what choice does a grower have?
Too often these small vineyards are not planned or planted correctly. At one site in Ventura County, Bruce and Gretel were trying to net Malbec to protect the almost ripe fruit from the birds and “we were just sliding down bumping into bottom vines and we didn’t want to get hurt.” So he’s walking away from that vineyard and others like it unless owners terrace the land or plant in such a way that it is safe to produce a crop.
People plant a lot of pinot noir, and they expect to make a lot of money from it. “Everyone starts with a pinot because that’s the flagship.” However, “It’s difficult to grow and get a good crop so they use oak and put it in a big bottle.” Instead, pinot noir is really more like a Beaujolais: “People are convinced pinot needs to be over extracted.”
One change for next year is doing more mulching. Bruce mulched the sauvignon blanc last year “until we ran out and it kept the weeds down and keeps the moisture in.” He’s using material from the vines that have been pruned and from nearby avocados. As one who primarily dry farms, this is important.
The big news of 2019 is the release of the Clos des Amis sparkling wine, Chambang made from grapes from the Mitchell Vineyard. This is a traditionally made, very small production sparkling wine made from pinot noir grapevines that were “top worked” to chardonnay—meaning the chardonnay has been grafted on… save for the rare vine that got missed or the odd stray pinot noir cluster from below the graft where the buds are still alive. This will provide enough “pink” to make a rose which will be released by Mother’s Day or possibly by Valentine’s Day –and he can say it’s all from Mitchell Vineyard, located at the edge of the city of Ventura only a few miles fro m the sea.
Making Chambang is a slow process: first you grow the grapes, harvest them, make the base wine, then there’s the second fermentation for the bubbles, then the dosage is added (that’s bit of sweetness), then let it rest a bit, add the labels and CHAMBANG!
In the process, the bottles have to be racked and riddled or else they are way too cloudy with spent lees (yeast) in the bottles, it takes about three weeks to riddle them clear and Bruce can only do four cases at a time.
And there’s the matter of the closure.
While a big operation can do a traditional cork, cage and foil, or a winery might send the still wines out to make it into sparkling, Bruce is doing it all in house, and he can only cap the bottles. To make the presentation of the silver foil labeled bottles even more special, Bruce uses black with bubbles washi tape to attach a custom “Clos des Amis” bottle opener to each bottle.
LOTS OF CHAMBANG in 2019!
In 2019, Bruce made 8-10 different wines each with unique labels and all but the Chambang featuring local flora and fauna and a hiking trail to enjoy. In 2020 he anticipates making 600 cases In addition to Chambang, Bruce made an orange wine with extended skin contact which turned out to be an unexpected hit. He and Gretel also finally launched a wine club and regular tastings at the winery but appointment on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Expanded exposure too.
Looking forward in 2020 —
- Rose Chambang
- Experimenting making an aperitif with a bunch of elderberry with a little sage or somthine and something to fortify a wine and make a little appertif 14%-16% gets your appetitie stimulated not super sweet
- A tasting room
And growing, making, and drinking more Clos des Amis wine with his partner in life and wine Gretel Mays Compton!
Happy Sparkling Wine Day!
To read more of this series:
November: Dormancy and Syrah
October: Final Harvest and #MerlotMe
September 2019 in Ventura County Vineyards: Focus on Grenache
August: Fogust Harvest — Chardonnay for CHAMBANG!
July: No Sky July and Verasion
June: June Gloom and Etiolation
Ventura County Vineyards: May Gray
April: Leaf Pulling
March: Gretel Mays Compton
February in Ventura County Vineyards