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In this episode, host Zach Geballe sits down with Brenae Royal, the vineyard manager at Monte Rosso. Here, Royal explains her career path — entering agriculture right out of college and joining the Monte Rosso team. After years of working with her team and watching the grapes take off, Royal has become a tried and true Zinfandel lover and established viticulturist.
While phylloxera wiped out many of the nation’s oldest grapes, Monte Rosso managed to retain Sémillon and Zinfandel vines that are over 100 years old. Royal explains the care that goes into maintaining this historic vineyard, and the thoughtful wines it yields. As Royal approaches her seventh vintage as Monte Rosso’s vineyard manager, she lists the wines fans should look out for. Among these is her own favorite, the Gnarly Vines Zinfandel, which uses the vineyard’s 100 plus-year-old Zin vines.
Here, Royal explains to listeners why grape growing is a year-long venture and the care that goes into maintaining every vine so it can produce the exceptional wines Monte Rosso is known for.
Or Check out the conversation here
Zach: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes in order to focus on a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with Brenae Royal, vineyard manager of Monte Rosso Vineyard in the Sonoma Valley. Brenae, thanks so much for your time.
Brenae: Thank you for having me.
Z: Yeah, my pleasure. I’ve been meaning to talk to you on the podcast for a while because you are in such an interesting position working with what might be one of America’s oldest and most storied vineyards. Can you, for our listeners who aren’t as familiar, explain where and what Monte Rosso even is?
B: Yeah, so I’d go as far as describing Monte Rosso as one of California’s grand cru. Monte Rosso was established back in 1886. So Emmanuel Goldstein and Samuel Dreyfus were grocers in San Francisco and actually purchased about 75 acres in the southwest section of the Mayacamas Mountain Range, which by 1886 started planting the first grape vines. And so this is over 130 years old, present day. So at the time of establishing the vineyard, they planted Sémillon, Muscat, Burger, and Zinfandel. But soon after, phylloxera wiped out most of California’s vineyards, and so they replanted in 1893 onto a rootstock — most of which was St. George. However, working then in an ampelography project in 2019, we do have 135- year-old Sémillon in 2021.
Z: Oh cool.
B: So super, super-cool stuff. We’re still farming it. They also completed a three-story, gravity-fed winery that still sits on the property as well. So the vineyard was set up to not only just grow wine but to make it as well and then to sell it. At this time, the vineyard is known as Goldstein Ranch. Emanuel himself passes away right before Prohibition, but by this time they are selling fruit, and it’s highly regarded. And so through Prohibition, they were selling the fruit. Louis M. Martini was one of the purchasers. And when he established his winery in 1933, he was utilizing Monte Rosso fruit. As the Goldstein family wanted to take a step back into San Francisco and get away from the farming, they sold the vineyard to Louis M. Martini in 1938, and it was three generations of the Martini family that grew it from its initial 75 acres planted to its present day 250 acres planted. And it was actually Louis M. that planted the first Cabernet vines in 1940. So we are still farming those today. That is our Los Ninos block. But it really was the Martini family that took the vineyard from its initial dry-farmed planting to establishing irrigation and to just diversifying the varieties available on the mountain range. As the Martini family wanted to take a step back as well, they sold to the Gallo family in July of 2002. And so the Gallo family, as the present owners of the vineyard, we have maintained that 250 acres. Overall, the vineyard is 575 acres. So quite a bit of land up in the Mayacamas Mountain range. We sit at an elevation of 690 feet up to 1300 feet. So we are above the fog line. We are southwest-facing, so on a very clear day, you can look out and see San Francisco. We also have a ton of influence from the San Pablo Bay. We’re a hot vineyard, and we’re planted in predominantly a Red Hill clay loam. We’re not too far from Mount Veeder, so we have a lot of volcanic, iron-rich soil that really ties everything together and makes Monte Rosso wines as distinct as they are.
Z: Gotcha. And when in that process, the history you described, did the vineyard come to be known as Monte Rosso as opposed to Goldstein Ranch?
B: So when Martini bought it in 1938, he renamed it in 1940. So Monte Rosso, Red Earth.
Z: Gotcha. Very cool. And you mentioned a little bit about the initial plantings there. And I’m really curious, there probably aren’t very many, if any, vineyard managers in America who get to work with vines that old. To say nothing of 135-year-old vines, but even vines that approach 100 years. And I think this is one of the things I’m most curious about — I think probably our listeners are — I envision and this is probably wrong, I envision treating a 100-year-old vine kind of the way you would treat a 100-year-old person, like very delicately. But is that right? I mean, do they need gentle hands? Or they’ve survived so much that they can kind of take whatever you can throw at them?
B: Depends on what aspect you’re talking about, but I always kind of joke that it’s my geriatric section of the vineyard. We’ve actually got about 50 acres or so of 100-plus-year-old vines. And so they’re incredibly fragile. So it’s very tedious how you have to approach each farming practice, and both the Sémillon and the Zinfandel, or the Zinfandel is a little bit younger at 128 years old this year.
Z: It’s a baby!
B: Yeah, yeah. It’s, you know, an adolescent. But it’s very tedious. So when we’re going through and pruning, it’s a lot of attention to detail with understanding how those vines performed the year before. So you’re looking at the canes, you’re looking at the vigor. Did we have too many positions on those head-train vines? Did we not have enough? Are we leaving renewal positions in the right places? How is irrigation? If we have irrigation in there, we still have pieces of the vineyard that are still dry farmed. And so we don’t have opportunities everywhere. So you’re paying a lot of attention because at the time of pruning, which is now, you need to envision these vines when they’re six months out into the season, when they’re at full canopy. For as old as these vines are, they are still incredibly vigorous. And 2020 was quite the anomaly for a million and one reasons. But our 128-year-old Zin had an average of four, four-and-a-half tons to the acre, and that is quite the anomaly. So these vines can still give you quite a bit of fruit. But understanding the levels of stress that they can handle at their old age, having an experienced crew, as we do at Monte Rosso, to understand what it is that we’re looking for as far as production, because we’re kind of at the mercy of what they give us. You can always take fruit off, but you can’t add it back on. But you also don’t want to get greedy. So, it’s a lot of TLC. It’s a lot of time. Monte Rosso’s got 54 established blocks, but even within those blocks, if you include the sub-blocks and just the different areas that we’re farming for, you’re well over 100 different sections across the ranch. So having the experience of the team to understand what it is we’re trying to express out of different regions in the vineyard, what these vines have done and to be able to make a decision, find a vine. Because as I’m sure you’ve seen in pictures, none of those vines are the same. So one vine might take you two minutes, the next one might take five. But you have to be able to look at it and understand what did this vine do and how do I farm it so that I maintain or elevate quality in the wine, but also extend its vine health and its livelihood?
Z: Gotcha. Is there a significant difference in those older vines in terms of when the fruit ripens, or are the differences pretty minimal?
B: No, it’s pretty extreme, actually. I was in a couple of Zinfandel meetings earlier, and that’s probably the most significant where you can see it all the way through harvest. These old vines are usually on rootstocks like St. George that can get down 20-plus feet in the ground. So they have access to water and nutrients that have been leaching through the soil for decades. So while they’re stressed, they utilize water and nutrients as they see fit. So whenever we’re going through farming practices, we’re always managing those vines first because we don’t want to be wasting resources on wood that we won’t keep. But they’re also first to do most things. So Zinfandel is always out the gate with bud break and everything else. In fact, I was looking at bud break today because in both 2018 and 2019, I already had an inch of growth. So they’re usually off to the races. And same thing with Sémillion. Sémillon is more gnarly than the Zinfandel is. But through this season, it’s always kind of first and it’s definitely about two weeks ahead of Cab. But then even when we’re sampling for harvest to make a harvest decision, you can pick the fruit one day, and in the field it’s probably, let’s say, 23 Brix. But if you let it soak up overnight or if we harvested and let it soak up and tank, you could see an increase of two to four Brix.
Z: Oh wow.
B: And that’s very, very unique and more pronounced in the old vines than anything else on the property. So the old vines will definitely give you more of a challenge and more opportunities throughout the season. And then in the wine, you really have to be strategic about when you’re going to pick and just maintain the alcohol levels in the wine, and the quality that you want to have and the nuances that you want to express. You have to watch the old-vine Zins more than anything else because they can get away from you.
Z: So I want to talk a little bit more about the wines that are made from the fruit you grow. But I want to take a moment to come back and sort of touch on how you came to Monte Rosso and what your own background in viticulture is.
B: Yeah. So I don’t come from a farming family. I was the lone grandchild that wanted to work in my grandmother’s garden, mostly doing flowers, but doing a little vegetables here and there. And I got into FFA because I wanted to travel up and down the state for free. And I started raising pigs, doing all of the judging teams. And then fast-forward to 2008, I got a scholarship to attend Chico State under animal science, but did not stay in animal science too long because they do have a meat slab. And that’s where my emotional connection kind of drew the line. But I started drinking wine in my senior year of college, and Apothic Red was my jam. So when I got to my last career fair, I saw E&J Gallo there with a magnum of it. And I basically went up screaming like, “OK, how do we make this? I love drinking it. I’ve never seen a grapevine closer than being on I-5.” But, you know, I have a crops and horticulture degree. Let’s make this work. And after a very, very long, two-hour interview, I got the job at the end of March or something, and then I ended up starting. My first day was a week after graduating from Chico State, and then my third day on the job was at Monte Rosso. And I can tell you that it was not love at first sight. That was my first time seeing a rattlesnake up close in person was on Monte Rosso. I believe on my first day, I was covered in three layers of the red clay loam. I had run over my work phone. To this day, there is not a block that designates different blocks from each other. So being on expansive Monte Rosso and trying to figure out A) where I’m at, and then B) just hearing all of its legacy from people. Anybody who gets to be associated with Monte Rosso or works with the fruit or is tied to it in some way, speaks so highly of it. So here I am this 24 year old. Like, what? There’s no cell reception. It’s difficult out here. You’re two miles from the nearest highway. It’s a situation. And so it was definitely a struggle. But I completed my six-and-a half month internship and then a couple of months later came back as the viticulturist across both Monte Rosso and the Russian River properties that I was working on. And then 11 months into that role became the vineyard manager of Monte Rosso. So it’s been very, very fast and furious. But there’s no better place to learn. And 2021 will be my seventh vintage as the vineyard manager. So it went from being this daunting place to be now I’m having to pinch myself every day because I get reminded almost daily of vendors being like, “Do you know, people pay thousands of dollars for a weekend to what you get to wake up to?” And, you know, just working with people. My irrigator, this will be his 40th year of dedication to Monte Rosso. So my team’s been working on Monte Rosso longer than I’ve even been alive. So I’ve really come to just — it’s beyond falling in love. I will forever and a day think about Monte Rosso because it’s such a legacy to be a part of. And now that we’ve implemented things that are going to progress the vineyard for hopefully another 100-plus years, that is very special to me. So I take a lot of pride in being the vineyard manager and being able to farm these vines.
Z: Absolutely. So just have one more quick question about that, and then I want to talk about the wine a little bit. So when it comes to the team that you work with, about how many people are full-time dedicated to Monte Rosso?
B: About 25. So we can get through this season up until harvest with 25 people. And that’s just kind of the luxury of having Cabernet Sauvignon planted to almost half of the planted acreage. So in a normal-weather year, you get a really nice separation between Zinfandel and the other eight varieties, and then Cabernet Sauvignon.
Z: And let’s talk a little bit about Cabernet, because I bet that that’s for most people who have had a Monte Rosso vineyard wine, it’s probably been a Cabernet. Not obviously exclusively, but that is, as you said, sort of a good portion of what’s grown there. Maybe first from the vine and grape side, what distinguishes Monte Rosso Cab? And then maybe also, in your experience, in the glass?
B: So growing-wise, I would say mountaintop Cabernet versus valley floor Cabernet, you’re just going to see a little bit more stress, but you’re still getting pretty average yields across the board. Monte Rosso is a little bit more difficult because we’re farming everything from one years old to 81 years old. And we also have nine different trellises in our Cabernet Sauvignon, depending on what block you’re in. And then we’ve got 16 different spacings. So the complexity is inherent to where the vineyard is. So I think for us, certainly being on the mountaintop and certainly being on Monte Rosso, we just see a little bit more stress. So we see tighter clusters. We see a lot more concentration in the fruit. And then regardless of it’s Cabernet or any of our other varieties, you get this Monte Rosso signature, which is very much driven from the volcanic, iron-rich soil. That terroir of acid and tannins and big, structured wines that over time kind of relax and balance out a little bit, but upon initial release is a bit of a fruit bomb. If you’re not used to a high-alcohol wine, Monte Rosso wines are just, like, not for the faint of heart. They’re going to be big, and they’re going to be very expressive. And I think something that’s so lovely about Monte Rosso is that it just signals a very ageable wine. And so we’ve had wines from the ’60s that are still drinking and still have life in them. So Monte Rosso is incredibly distinct. Cabernet, I think, is the most expressive and the easiest one to pick up. But across all of our varieties at Monte Rosso, you get the signature of spice, acid, tannins, mineralogy. It’s incredibly unique to Monte Rosso, versus the other Cabernet Sauvignons.
Z: So maybe setting aside Cab, is there another variety that you grow that is your favorite, whether it’s to work with or to drink?
B: Zinfandel. I am forever and a day a Zinfandel girl. I like drinking Zinfandel because I think it’s so, so expressive of what decisions were made in the vineyard. Going back to our head-trained Zin, we’ve got positions that are two inches off the floor, all the way up through over six feet. So you have so much variability in that type of vine training. And then Zinfandel itself is never uniform. So you have variability with airflow and sun exposure and ripening within the cluster. So we’re so intense about farming those vines just to try and make something that is going to marry well with another block. We have to have an increased level of scrutiny. So we’re always kind of babying those vines. And I used to call it a headache, but more times than not, it’s just a really fun challenge because you know you’re going to get something good. But because you know this wine is going to show everything you did in the field, you really want to get good. You want to hit the nail on the head. So because I can taste every decision we’ve made, vintage to vintage, I really, really enjoy drinking our Gnarly Vines Zinfandel. But then also, our other producers who make Monte Rosso Zin, you can really just taste through all the nuances that make Monte Rosso special, regardless of who’s making it. So, Zinfandel all day.
Z: Well, to that sort of thing you alluded to briefly, for people who are interested in trying wine made from Monte Rosso grapes, what are some of the labels to look for?
B: Two of our longest-standing outside producers would be Bedrock Wine Co. And Robert Biale Vineyards. So they would have the longest-standing besides Louis M. Martini that we can find Monte Rosso Zinfandel. And now a little bit of Cab.
Z: And then at Louis M. Martini, there are a number of different bottlings, all Monte Rosso, right?
B: Yeah. We have five flagships that are made at Martini. So we have our Cab Franc, we have our Malbec, we have our Gnarly Vines Zinfandel and our Cabernet Sauvignon and then a Mountain Red. So I’m not even being biased, but our wines here at Martini really are, I think, the most intimate expression of Monte Rosso. Just because Mark Williams and Michael Eddy and I are just always out there. I think we just like geeking out with each other, but we’re always out there making decisions throughout the season. So the best expression is going to be at Louis M. Martini.
Z: Very cool. And question for you, I think one thing that you mentioned is this is sort of “pruning season” for you and your team or has been, and I think sometimes people who aren’t as familiar with what grape growing actually involves — and I certainly put myself in this category — some of the time don’t realize just how much of a year-round process it is to some extent. So what does this February, March, April period look like? What are you guys looking to accomplish in the vineyard?
B: So, yeah, grape growing is definitely year-round. Even if you don’t have actively growing vines. Right now, we are wrapping up pruning and tying. So we’re really just laying the foundation of how many positions we want to see on a vine with an assumed “here’s what we expect, yield-wise.” So we’re tying things. We’re making sure things are structurally sound. Just thinking back to those head-trained vines that don’t have any trellis materials on them. We are working on our weed pressure and just really setting up to get going. We’re all kind of eagle-eyed out there right now because the weather’s been pretty warm in Northern California these last couple of weeks. So we are expecting bud break any time, and from then, that’s really going to kick off our season where we start looking at fertility and just planning. But now we have something to protect. So right now, it’s just the calm before the storm. But we’re always planning. I know for me, the vineyard’s alive, whether you have active vines or not. So if we’re worried about erosion control, if we’re setting up hedgerows for beneficial pests, if we’re doing landscaping, if we’re doing maintenance around the ranch, it’s pretty active all the time. And then for me, just planning out work. This is the time that I get to have a lot of one-on-ones with different winemaking teams to understand their goals, understand what we liked from the previous season, what we didn’t like, what we thought we can improve on, what maybe we need to redevelop. For me, I’m tasting through wines and just really understanding what my customers are after.
Z: Brenae, I really appreciate your time, your insight into, as you mentioned, one of the sort of grand cru vineyards of America. Really, really interesting to learn more about Monte Rosso and what it’s like to run an iconic vineyard. So thanks again so much for your time. Really appreciate it, and look forward to continuing to taste the wines down the road.
B: You’re welcome. Thank you so much, Zach.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits. VinePair is produced by myself and Zach Geballe. It is also mixed and edited by him. Yeah, Zach, we know you do a lot. I’d also like to thank the entire VinePair team, including my co-founder, Josh, and our associate editor, Cat. Thanks so much for listening. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.