Thinking Like a Grapevine: Interview with Winemaker John Williams

So how does a grape vine know how to make these incredibly important decisions? It’s measuring the angle of the sun and the phase of the moon, and the tug of the planets, and the temperature in the soil, and the moisture content in the soil, and the kind of pheromones the fungi in the soil are giving off. When the birds come through the vineyards, and the insects, and what life stage they are in, and when the acorn’s falling off the tree next to it, everything in its environment is a clue. This is the life of a grape vine.

John Williams of Frog’s Leap winery was one of the first winemakers to use organic grapes in the Napa Valley. Frog’s Leap has a LEED certified tasting room and the winery runs on solar power. Arty Mangan, Restorative Food Systems Director for Bioneers, spoke with John at the winery.

ARTY: John, you are a winemaker as well as a farmer. What are you growing?

JOHN: Besides grapes, we grow 40 other crops. Peaches, pears, figs, apples, cherries, nectarines, pomegranates, olives, etc. We’re farming a little over 200 acres of grapes. On every farm, we have small sections of other crops. It’s not big acreage, we do it for the biodiversity. Most of our fruit crops we’re turning into products– marmalades and conserves, hot pepper sauce, honey, and olive oil. That’s what we sell in our souvenir shop instead of coffee cups and ashtrays. We are offering something we actually make on the farm.

ARTY: You’re one of the pioneers of organic wine in California.

JOHN: We don’t think of ourselves as pioneers, but we’ve been certified organically grown since ’88. There were a handful of other early organic wineries, Fetzer Frey, and Couturri. None of us knew what we were doing. I called up Fetzer and said, “Hey, can I come up and see what you’re doing?” He said, “Yeah, we have this guy Amigo Bob [Cantisano] that tells us what to do.”

ARTY: Amigo’s influence is widespread in organic agriculture in California.

JOHN: Yes, so we brought him in thinking he was going to tell us what we can’t spray and what we can’t do, and instead he started talking about how you build healthy soil and how you bring the life back into the soil and back into the farming system.

Doing that, we started thinking, it’s great that we have healthy soil, but where do my farm workers live, how much energy are we using? What about our water? What are we constructing our buildings from? What are we doing with our waste? I think it helped us build an awareness that we ran a living system, and that we needed to nourish the whole system, not just the growing part of things. There’s still plenty to learn on how to get better.

ARTY: Where does labor fit into the living system?

JOHN: The biggest reason we have the other crops is to fill in the labor calendar because the grape work is about 9, 9½ months of labor, and not all continuous. If you want to keep full-time workers, you have to find other stuff for them to do. We can go from picking grapes to picking olives, to pruning peaches, to getting garden beds ready, then to pruning grapes. In the farming operations, there’s about 25-30 multi-skilled full-time workers.

It’s been a huge benefit, because now labor is a rate-limiting step for a lot of people, and skilled labor even more so. People are switching to cordon pruning. Everyone knows it’s not as good for the sauvignon varieties as cane pruning, but they simply can’t stay with cane pruning because you need to have real skilled workers to cane prune. Anyone can cordon prune.

ARTY: The ethic of taking care of those workers and their families also makes good business sense.

JOHN: We find this time after time in all the things that we do. It’s like our LEED certified building. What a nice guy to build a LEED building, save the environment, right? It has increased worker productivity exponentially.

ARTY: Really? How?

JOHN: Natural light into every working space, no VOCs from paints, and no off-gassing of your insulation and carpeting. It literally affects your brain. People are getting sick in the workplace. You can’t understand why they’re getting sick all the time. It’s from living in a toxic environment. We don’t have any of that.

ARTY: Are all of your grapes are dry farmed?

JOHN: Yes. We don’t even have irrigation infrastructure in the vineyards. All the great wines- Bealieu, Inglenook, Stags Leap that won the Paris tasting, the Chateau Montelena and Robert Mondavi- that have established a reputation that made Napa a premier wine region globally, every one of them was from a dry farm vineyard. Irrigation wasn’t introduced until 1976. It really became popular in the mid-to-late ‘80s and early 90’s. Now wine makers will tell you they can’t grow grapes in Napa without irrigation, which of course is complete horseshit.

ARTY: How does dry farming affect yields?

JOHN: It doesn’t negatively affect our yields. In every other great wine-growing region in the world, irrigation is not allowed by law. Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, all the EU countries, no irrigation is allowed. And for a very good reason. It tends to force over production of grapes and wine.

ARTY: It’s an economic issue.

JOHN: People who irrigate here can get a lot more tons per acre, but then they frantically try to pull grapes off to get their vineyards back in balance. That’s not a good thing. With dry farming, you find yourself closer to the ideal tonnage because you’re relying on the intelligence of the vine to regulate its own crop based on its own knowledge of how much moisture is in the soil and what its fertility rate is and so on. You’re engaging the vine’s brain to grow grapes. We call it thinking like a grape vine. What’s a grape vine thinking about out in the vineyard? Is it how to get 96 points from Robert Parker?

ARTY: [Laughter] That’s what’s driving the rest of the Napa Valley.

JOHN: Well you laugh, but do you think the vine’s thinking about how to make the vineyard owner wealthy? No, it’s thinking, “How do I get my babies ripe so birds will eat them and shit the seeds somewhere else, and I’ve got to get ready for winter.” Right now, it’s thinking, “When do I break bud?” It’s got four different mechanisms to measure, to know when it’s time to break bud. Any one of them has veto power over the other three. This is the deep, intelligent life of the grape vine.

Think about everything that a vine has to do. Think about its procreation. Producing the berry is a huge part of its function because it spreads its seed. But, if its berry is tasty and the bird takes it before the seed is ready to germinate, it’s suicide, essentially. So, the vine’s function to get its berry ripe is to spread its seed. It’s an incredible decision process.

Prior to maturity, the vine protects its berry by having no sugar, no flavor, no color. It’s bitter because the tannins hadn’t polymerized. No smell. That’s how it protects its berry. Then one day when It’s time, it starts to harden its seeds and metabolizes its malic acid to produce energy, to produce the esters and color. It starts to polymerize the tannins. All this to get to the magic point that says to the birds, come and spread my seed.

Why does a grape vine turn its berry purple? To make red wine? No. It’s to attract birds. Why are white grapes so much more aromatic than red grapes? Well, they use smell to attract the birds, not color. This is the life of a grape vine.

So how does a grape vine know how to make these incredibly important decisions? It’s measuring the angle of the sun and the phase of the moon, and the tug of the planets, and the temperature in the soil, and the moisture content in the soil, and the kind of pheromones the fungi in the soil are giving off. When the birds come through the vineyards, and the insects, and what life stage they are in, and when the acorn’s falling off the tree next to it, everything in its environment is a clue. This is the life of a grape vine.

In conventional farming, they line the crop up in rows and cut off their heads and poison the soil with chemicals, and kill all the microorganisms in the soil. They shoot all the birds. They kill the insects and cut down every other living plant in the proximity of the vine, and then wonder why the vine doesn’t know when it’s time to get ripe? It’d be like putting a human in a box and painting it black and giving them plain food and water, and then asking them to write poetry. It just doesn’t work.

It’s about a deep connection to the soil. The hormones that produce these changes in a grapevine are produced in the last two or three cells of the growing tips of the tendrils and the root tips and so on. That’s where all the brain comes from. This is why we talk about having a smart plant. A grape vine that’s deeply connected to its soil and its environment is going to make these incredibly important decisions that will bring that grape into perfect balance.

A lot of people think balance is something the wine maker does, but it isn’t. It’s something the grape does. Anything you have to do in the vineyard is a corrective to imbalance, essentially. We believe that it is so important to have a vine deeply connected through its rooting system. It’s not like we’re trying to starve the vine of water. It’s why having the vine develop in the deep rich biological organism of the soil is so important. It’s why having biodiversity in your farming system is important, because all of this is how we give information to the grapevine to make the decisions.

ARTY: What a wonderful expression of botanical intelligence! We’ve just had multiple years of drought, what kind of decisions do the vines make in response to that?

JOHN: Oh, they love it. First of all, grapevines are deeply drought-loving plants. They love to put their roots down deep. Now they’ll use their intelligence to say, let’s hold back a little bit on the yield this year until we know, because last year we got burned a little bit. That’ll be part of the character of that vintage, but quite honestly, in all these drought years, Napa got a minimum of 20 inches of rain, which is almost twice what a grape vine needs to produce a full crop. So, we didn’t have drought years from a grapevine point of view here.

ARTY: In terms of the quality from a wine maker’s perspective during those dry years, what was your impression?

JOHN: We’re pretty excited about them, not because we had lower yields, but the vines, we think, were intelligent enough to say, “Let’s put a little more rooting out.” They were bringing in these additional flavors from new soil that they were exploring. They are pretty interesting wines. But you don’t want to brag them up too much because then you get a bunch of rain and you’ve got to brag up the rainy year too.

It’s all about this idea of engaging the intelligence of the vine itself, and allowing it to do the heavy lifting and wine making.

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