What Makes a Vineyard Designate?

Rows of bare grapevines stand on a misty hillThere are two reasons for a winery to identify vineyard designate wines, as Eden Rift Vineyard has now done five times. Both reasons are in response to opportunity, but the opportunities are different. The first reason to have a program like this is in response to marketing department reports and focus groups, the second is in honor of the relentless call of the vineyard. As you can hear from the way I frame the choice, our story is certainly the latter.

When one acquires a wine estate, it comes not only with great potential (hopefully), but also with its share of agricultural baggage. Taken in its entirety, an estate can appear homogenous to owners who view it as an unbroken field without any substantial variation. Accordingly, they may farm somewhat generically, producing in the end wines that can be monolithic.

Upon considered reflection, however, a vital estate will take on the appearance of a complicated and vast puzzle, with some pieces holding more purpose and distinction than others. Within an estate farmed in this manner, vineyard designates may raise their hands, offering an opportunity for special attention. To earn a vineyard designate, a resultant wine has to tell a story different from the wines surrounding; it needs to tell the story of the place in a different voice. Mindful and principled farming goes a long way towards achieving this brilliance. Mother Nature provides the rest of the magic; just the right soil, aspect, the genetic material of the vines themselves, the architecture of the individual vine and vine age all work in chorus to create a memorable wine.

Since acquiring Eden Rift in 2016, a few blocks within our estate have proven to be of special interest. We recently named those blocks to further honor their differences and set a path forward, built on the estate’s past.

Lansdale Slope (Block Q)

Just over six acres, this small, extremely sloped vineyard is the one that first got us really excited about the potential of Eden Rift as an estate for Pinot Noir. The South facing slope is severely terraced, with three distinct “waves” across the width of the slope. Exposure to sunlight is slightly different across each row due to these ”waves”, and because this vineyard is terraced, each row has its own nutrient profile and water holding capacity. We struggle to see vine-available water towards the top and bottom corners of the slope. The stressed corners of this block bring a brilliant intensity, whereas the more accommodating center provides a more balanced profile. This block reaches an elevation of 1,600 ft. making it the highest elevation block on the estate.

The Lansdale Slope is planted to Calera clone Pinot Noir, which can be quite challenging, especially given that it’s planted in mostly Sheridan coarse sandy loam (82%) and dolomite subsoil on ascending terraces cut out of the mountain side. This creates an extreme environment with low water-holding capacity, exposure to wind, and small canopies to protect it from the sun. We train each vine to its capacity, shaping it to protect itself as much as possible. We do this by cross-cane pruning with little to no leafing. The trellis wires are loose enough to capture the shoots but not tight enough to expose the fruit to intense sunlight. Taken together, these factors create a dappled light effect and the canopy breathes freely.

The Pinot Noir from this block announced itself as remarkable during our first fermentations and through elevage. After a few consistently terrific vintages from this block, we anointed it the Lansdale Slope. In 2019, we harvested the first Lansdale Slope Pinot Noir. Though it’s still too soon to tell, we sense these wines will be age-worthy. The wine is named for Philip V. Lansdale, with whom many of the men of my family share a name. He was a Navy Lieutenant killed too young in Samoa in 1899.

Palmtag Block (Block P)

The Palmtag Mountain block is a mere four acres of low-yielding Mount Eden clone, with each acre producing a little over a ton of fruit. Brought to the United States from Burgundy in 1878 by vintner Paul Masson, this clone responds well to sedimentary soils. The soils at Mt. Eden consist mostly of Franciscan shale, which is well-drained, possessing limestone throughout. Similarly, the decomposed granite soils of the Palmtag Block are well-drained and are high in calcium and magnesium carbonate. Due to the fact that Eden Rift has no phyloxera, a portion of this block is own-rooted, making it one of the only “Franc de pied” blocks of Mt. Eden clone in existence.

The Palmtag Block is a middle ground between Eden Rift’s flat and terraced blocks. The Mount Eden clone is usually the first to finish fruit set and has an abundance of small clusters. We thin the fruit in this West-East facing block in early May, which allows for even veraison. The resultant yields are very small, resulting in a precise, elegant fruit profile.

After a few consistently distinctive vintages we anointed this the “Palmtag Block” in 2019. We chose this name in order to honor William Palmtag, who purchased this estate from Theophile Vache in 1883, making him the estate’s second owner. Palmtag had immigrated to California from his home town of Baden, Germany at the age of seventeen, hoping to succeed as a miner and prospector. Quickly finding that he couldn’t make a living in these fields, he turned to brewing. And then from brewing to winemaking.

Palmtag expanded the estate to 150 acres, and built a cellar from brick made on the property, increasing production so much so that it became the largest operation in the area. In the History of the State of California and Biographical Record of Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties (Professor J.M. Guinn, A.M., Copyright 1902, Chapman Publishing) Palmtag’s winery is described as having “a capacity of one hundred and forty thousand gallons, enabling the owner thereof to keep his port, sherry, and muscatel wines for four or five years.” We preserve the memory of his ambition, toil and vision in the creation of this block.

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