On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Allison Wilson, the director of vineyard operations at Cliff Lede Vineyards in Yountville, Calif. Wilson details her origin story prior to working at Cliff Lede Vineyards, which she describes as being filled with luck, timing, curiosity, and hindsight. Wilson says she is now working her “dream” job at Cliff Lede Vineyards, noting the winery’s small, intimate setting. This allows her team to work together without much conflict.
Then, Wilson gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how she cares for vineyards amid climate-change difficulties, and how she plants grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Tune in to hear the new, exciting developments happening at Cliff Lede Vineyards.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe and this is a “VinePair Podcast” conversation. We bring you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so that we can explore a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I have the privilege of speaking with Allison Wilson. She’s the director of vineyard operations at Cliff Lede Vineyards. Allison, thanks so much for your time.
Allison Wilson: Thanks, Zach. It’s so nice to finally get to talk to you again.
Z: I know! You and I had the opportunity to talk a little bit down in Napa Valley where you’re based back in the bygone era, I believe September 2019. Little did we know. Let’s start with giving me a bit of background, both about yourself and your origins in viticulture and then about Cliff Lede Vineyards as well.
A: I’m currently director of vineyard operations at Cliff Lede Vineyards based in Yountville. Prior to Cliff Lede, I was thinking about it earlier, my origin story is a combination of luck, timing, curiosity, and hindsight. When I look back on how I got here and decided to do this, there’s a lot of different paths that I could tell. I grew up in the East Bay, and I had a great uncle who had a vineyard in Livermore Valley. We would go down there for harvest parties and weekend trips, and it was just a whole different life than growing up in the East Bay, and I was always interested in agriculture. Fast forward when it was time to go to college, and this is where it was a series of curiosity and luck. I decided to study fruit science. Personally, I just thought that it was funny at the time, a 17-year-old applying to college. Partially, I was interested to do something that was totally out of my realm. I went down to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and studied. I was the only student that wore rainbow sandals to class, and it took me about three years to buy my first pair of boots when a professor told me I was going to chop a toe off when I was digging holes to plant pistachio trees. And I started working in a tasting room down there. It was then that it clicked that this crazy thing that I was studying could actually be a career, and I wouldn’t have to end up in the Central Valley farming walnuts and almonds. I could end up in the Napa Valley farming grapevines.
Z: Sounds a little nicer, I agree.
A: It sounded more appealing to me, even though I do respect my brothers and sisters who farm the nut crops all throughout California. I am happy to be in Napa Valley. I just started applying for jobs, and I got really lucky. I met Oscar and his father, Salvador Renteria, and was hired on with them. They asked me to start about a week after I graduated, so I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I wasn’t quite sure what job I was showing up for on that first day, but I showed up, and they took me under their wing and really helped me cultivate my career. From there, I got involved in industry groups and met Remi Cohen, who was previously with Lede Family Wines. I have been with the Cliff Lede team for a little bit over six years now.
Z: Let’s start with a very simple question, but one that I love to talk about with people who work in viticulture. Our listeners are a mix of people who are wine enthusiasts and people in the trade. Your job is often the most mysterious to people. Not that winemaking itself doesn’t have its mysteries, but it’s a piece of the puzzle. You go visit a winery, you probably go to the tasting room, you taste the wines. You may get to go out in the vineyards depending on where you are. Frankly, even someone like me who is a professional, you look at a vineyard and go, “OK, great. Looks pretty, cool.’ Most of us don’t have the agricultural or botanical sense to really know what we’re looking at. At a basic level, when you’re looking at either a vineyard as a whole, a row of vines, or an individual vine itself, what are you looking at?
A: Wow, it’s such a loaded question. Well, it’s just as romantic as you make it seem.
Z: Oh, good.
A: No, I’m joking. When I look at a vine, what do I think? Every single vine — and it sounds corny, especially when we have densities of more than 1,500 vines per acre. Every vine really is an individual plant. Sometimes we have to figure out as grape growers how to get the best expression out of that plant in the bigger picture of everything. I think a lot of times we who are viticulturists who farm, we want to sit there and dial in every single vine. But sometimes we need to walk away from it and look at how we’re going to make the whole vineyard produced with the nuance that the winemaking team and eventually the consumer is looking for, if that makes sense.
Z: Absolutely. I want to put a pin in that conversation about the information flow between you and the winemaking team because I think that’s something I do want to ask about in a minute. I also want to ask, when it comes to managing vineyards, especially in a place like Napa Valley, where I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the cost of doing everything is high — the land is expensive, the resulting wine is usually expensive. This is a silly question, but do you ever get nervous? It feels like there’s more at stake every time you prune or drop fruit. Does that ever enter the thought process?
A: Oh, all the time. It’s a simultaneous thought. I was joking with a few girlfriends who do what I do the other day, because it’s extremely difficult to kill a grapevine and you have to work really hard to kill a grapevine. At the same time, every single year we’re making multimillion dollar decisions. At Lede Family Wines, we have our estate vineyards, but we also have long-term growers that we purchase fruit from, such as the Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard. We have full control over what happens, viticulture-wise, in that vineyard. All the way down to how much fruit we’re going to drop on the ground. Every time you make a decision to leave some fruit on the ground, you’re potentially making pretty expensive decisions. We had that push-pull of, it would be really hard for this vine to actually die. That’s nice security that we have, and we joke about it. Then the pull, of the tiny decisions we make season to season is going to be impactful financially and also impactful physiologically for that vine, five to 10 years into the future.
Z: I want to ask one more slightly difficult question, hopefully not too painful of a question. Obviously, you’re in Napa Valley. This past September, in addition to dealing with everything that we’ve all been dealing with since last March in the U.S., you guys had serious fires. My sense of geography isn’t perfect. I don’t have a perfect recollection. Was there a risk to your vineyards during those fires? What was that period of time like for you and for your team?
A: This last year, it seems like there are fires almost every year. Our estate vineyards were not directly in the path of the fires, but we unfortunately had some grower partners who were definitely in the path, especially up on Howell Mountain and Diamond Mountain. This year, the fires versus 2017 came a lot earlier in the growing season, and there was a longer sustained time of smoke exposure. As a team this year — because of all the smoke exposure — after we brought the fruit in and made the wine how we normally would, we sent it off to the lab. Mainly, we brought the team in to have some sensory panels on the wine. We decided that we were going to skip the 2020 vintage.
Z: Oh wow, OK. I wasn’t necessarily aware of that, but that is interesting. I’m sure this will be an ongoing conversation, not just for you and for Cliff Lede, but for growers and winemakers throughout Napa. One that we will, I’m sure, explore further on the podcast. I’m curious now stepping into this nexus point between you and your team and the winemaking team, what is that relationship like? Obviously, you’re all working together to produce the best wine you can. I don’t think there are a lot of conflicts, I hope. In terms of how you communicate with the winemaking team, what is going on in the vineyard, how do they communicate to you, and what they’re looking for? What is that relationship like?
A: At Cliff Lede, we’re a pretty small team in our estate. We have 60 acres of estate vineyard. Then, we have those long-term grower partners that I mentioned. This will be my seventh vintage at Cliff Lede and my seventh year with Christopher Tynan, our winemaker. We’re super lucky to be able to develop this longer-term relationship and start to understand each other and how we work better. I would say that our information flow is not even a flow. It’s a constant of working together. We walk the vineyard pretty much weekly during the growing season together. I get the opportunity to go into the winery and taste lots with them, albeit sometimes when we’re tasting 90 lots, I get a little bit overwhelmed and I can’t hang sometimes. But I get to take part in all of those tastings and the information flow is just as good as it possibly could be. Come harvest time, we all fall into our roles. I schedule the harvest with Chris. I get him out into the vineyard every single day to get his opinion on where he thinks the fruit is. I push samples onto him, whether he likes them or not, in hopes to entice him to make decisions. Then, I deal with all the operations and logistics of what we’re going to bring in. His team helps me determine how much capacity we can bring in every day based on tanks. It’s a really fun relationship. Being at such a small winery, it allows our team to really work together every single day to decide what we’re going to do in the vineyard.
Z: I’m curious, one of the things that are really interesting to me about that relationship and how it evolves is that it does work both ways. Have you changed any specific ways about your viticultural practices based on a response from the winemaking team? Are there things that you do differently now than when you started six years ago?
A: Yeah, definitely. I came from vineyard management before. Before I was at Cliff Lede, I was managing a vineyard about 2,000 acres with 60 different clients that all had different varietals, different wine programs. I didn’t get to work with winemakers very often when I was in vineyard management because I was just another person on the list in charge of one specific thing. Coming into an estate operation like Lede Family Wines that had been farmed and planted by David Abreu, we had brought it in-house. Farming was totally new to me, and it’s the dream, right? You want to have one crew and one estate to refine all of the techniques you use. When I came in, I was able to do so much more handwork than I ever did before. A lot of shoot-tying, a lot of passes to really sculpt the cluster to just have that fruit hang, ideally, with the right amount of sun. That was really the big change for me coming to an estate operation.
Z: Let’s talk a little bit about from a higher-level perspective. Most of what you’re growing at the estate vineyards is Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux varieties, but also Lede Family Wines does a fair bit of Pinot Noir. Because those are two varieties that are both pretty well known to most people, and I think my understanding are pretty different from a bit of a cultural standpoint. Can you talk about, as a grower, what the main differences are between those grapes? In terms of what you do would do as a viticulturist year to year. Also, where do they do best?
A: Again, prior to coming to the Cliff Lede, at Renteria, we farmed a lot of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Carneros. I have a little bit of background in that. I thought about this question of the difference between Cab and Pinot — again, another loaded question. It’s like a religion, right, they all start from the same basis and then they branch off. They’re both grapes. That’s the thing I can say about them and how they’re similar. Pinot Noir is such a delicate, tight cluster. I think that the word actually derives from pine or something like that. I don’t know French, but I think that that’s correct. Cabernet Sauvignon is so much thicker-skinned and resilient. Then, also just the climates that they’re grown in. Cooler climates, hotter climates. The interesting thing about the Pinot Noir and Cabernet, for us at the Lede Family Wines, is we acquired this property down in Carneros. It was 86e acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and we pulled it all out and replanted it all. Then, we have replanted some Pinot and Chardonnay, but we’ve also planted Cab, Cab Franc, Merlot, and some fun other varietals down there. We’re actually going to get the opportunity to really grow Pinot and Cab at the same location and see, side-by-side, what they do. We really feel like Bordeaux can do well in Carneros, and it’s the beginning of a new experiment for the Lede Family Wines.
Z: Excellent. Just to clarify one last thing for me in this. Often, when I talk to winemakers about the difference between varieties like Cabernet or Pinot Noir, they talk about what you mentioned — that Pinot Noir is delicate, Cabernet Sauvignon is hearty. Does that extend beyond the cluster itself to the vine more broadly? When you’re making decisions about everything involving the vine, do you not have to worry about that? It’s just centered around what the differences in the cluster are?
A: The clusters are a big part of it, and then the climate. It’s hard to say because I was thinking about this a lot and I don’t have a lot of sites that have both Cab and Pinots. It seems like comparing apples to oranges a little bit. In Carneros, you’re going to have that cooler weather. Anderson Valley, as well, you’re going to have that higher pest pressure. That’s a big one. A program for mildew prevention in Pinot Noir versus Cabernet is going to be night and day. It’s going to double in the number of passes for the Pinot Noir. How much of that is climate, and how much of that is the varietal? I’m not sure yet.
Z: We’ll have to circle back in a few years when that Carneros property is more fully established and find out. You mentioned that there’s this newer property in Carneros. Obviously, there are the properties in Napa Valley and then the Anderson Valley. From your personal perspective, are there varieties that you’re not currently growing that you would just be excited to try your hand at?
A: There are! And luckily, at this new 86 acres out in Carneros, Cliff gave me free rein to plant a few “experimental blocks.” Some of the varietals that I’ve always wanted to plant, I’ve always wanted to grow, we’ve planted down there. We have some Gamay Noir, which I just love. I like drinking it. I think it’s an interesting grape for still wine. We plant a little bit of that. We planted some Marsanne and Roussanne, which there’s just not a whole lot of that in the Napa Valley. I don’t know if the hankering for that is from the Central Coast beginning, but I just want to see how it does in Napa. I think that we have a lot of Sauvignon Blanc, and maybe there’s room for a few more varietals down there. I’m actually getting to grow a few new grape varieties that I think could be pretty interesting.
Z: Very fun. Then, another fun thing for me, at least, and I hope for you, too, about the estate property in Yountville, is that you guys have some olive trees. I think that in so many parts of the world — California included — grapevines and olive trees go hand-in-hand. Can you talk a little bit about what growing olive trees is like? Was that new to you when you came to Cliff Lede?
A: I knew you were going to ask about the olive trees.
Z: I asked a lot about them when I was there in person, too.
A: I know. He’s going to ask me about those dang olive trees. I think in 2019, when you came by, that was right before they had told me “you’re going to make olive oil this year.”
Z: Yes, you were a little nervous, as I recall.
A: I was definitely really nervous. I was a little salty about it, I’m not going to lie. I’m a grape farmer. You’re confusing me with this other crop. You have to spray it at different times. It’s got different pests. I don’t even know when we harvest it. I was pretty new to olives at Cliff Lede. Before, I’d only taken part in spraying olives and irrigating them. When Cliff planted the property and redeveloped it, he planted a bunch of Italian varietals of olive trees there. I don’t know if his goal was to necessarily make olive oil or if they were there for landscape, but they planted the right type of olive trees. So we might as well make olive oil. We always had a partnership with someone where he gave him olives, and he made olive oil, and we would get some in return. Then, we just finally decided, let’s just give it a shot ourselves. So in 2019, we farmed olive trees, and against my better judgment, we harvested them. We took them up to Kelseyville, up in Lake County, to a cool custom crush up there and made our own olive oil. This was the first year that we had done it. I thought the olive oil was amazing. Some people on the team have some different opinions about it. We’re looking to dial it in a little bit better. Looking back now, I actually think that farming olives and making olive oil is really fun. It’s instant gratification. You get olive oil a lot faster than you get wine. I don’t think I realized that. I was already cooking with my olive oil a week after it got pressed. We were planning on making it in 2020. The fires got in our way and slowed everything. In 2021, we’re going to be making that all again, and we’ll see if it’s good enough to be available for the consumer.
Z: I think you make this interesting point that I observed a lot when I traveled to Italy. With olive oil, it’s almost the exact opposite of wine, where the fresher it is, the better it is, or at least the more complex it is. With aging, it mostly just loses that nuance. I remember being there around harvest time and getting some olive oil and everyone saying “you need to use this in the next month. Don’t take it home and parcel it out drop by drop. It won’t taste like much, or it won’t taste interesting.” The cool thing is that in wine, it is the equivalent of Beaujolais Nouveau. You want it at that moment, and then past that point it’s not that you can’t use it, but it’s not kind of as complex and special.
Z: One last question before I let you go. The thing that I’m also very curious about: One of the things that I’ve heard from a lot of viticulturists all over the place is thinking about ways to deal with ongoing challenges from climate change. Obviously, in Napa, that’s as much of an issue as it is anywhere else. In particular, one of the things that I’ve heard from a lot of people is that one of the tactics to combat the overabundance of sun and heat is denser plantings. Does that ring true to you? What are you looking to do or are already doing to be prepared for the shifting climate?
A: That’s interesting. I had not heard about the denser planting things. I think that it’s one of those questions that is a day-to-day question, but then a long-term question that we’re always thinking about. What can we do tomorrow to conserve water? What can we do to get through the season? As a whole, what are the long-term goals? A lot of the long-term goals you see happening with planting Bordeaux in Carneros is bringing new varietals throughout the valley. A lot of people are playing around there. But I think for us, what we’ve done, our Poetry Vineyard is hillside, western-facing, gets a ton of light, really dense planting, really low to the ground vines. It’s not a one-size-fits-all. We’re working on raising the head height. The vines don’t need to be right next to the ground. They don’t need that extra heat. We’re trying to find a way to get more hang time on those vineyards that have extreme exposure. If you come down before harvest, you’ll see our Poetry Vineyard is covered with shade cloth, just to give us a little bit more time to let those clusters sit on the vine and ripen optimally. I’m personally playing around with more vigorous rootstocks.My philosophy is, if we can get a rootstock that’s a little bit more vigorous and we can farm to reduce the vegetative qualities, then we have room to work with to shade those vines and to have a stronger sink to get the grapes to just stay longer. I think that everyone’s playing around on their sites with what they can do to get those grapes to hang longer, because we’re rounding the corner. Pretty soon, we’re going to be harvesting Cabernet in August, and you don’t want that. It’s a bunch of tinkering and figuring out what works best.
Z: Allison, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it. Look forward to continuing to see how the Cliff Lede Vineyards evolve and the new project in Carneros comes online and all that. Should be super exciting. Hopefully, before too long, I can come visit again, and you can tell me even more about the olive trees.
A: Yes. Thank you so much for having me on. We can’t wait to finally get to see people in person again.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.