Terroir of Tech: A piece written by Pinot Noir enthusiast
We are proud to publish this thoughtful piece penned by a friend and long-time observer of CDLT, Ryan Mercurio. Ryan is a San Mateo-based Sommelier, UC Davis graduate and Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir enthusiast. Way back in 2010, he was working in our “shared space” while we were building the winery, so he got a first-hand look at our process, literally from the ground up!
Terroir of Tech
With tools that would make a Burgundian winemaker jealous, Dr. T.J. Rodgers and winemaker-wife Valeta Massey are bringing a little bit of The Valley to the peaks of the Peninsula.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Clos de la Tech is all in the name. The vineyards and winery were planted and built by founding CEO of Cypress Semiconductor and Silicon Valley gentry, Dr. T.J. Rodgers. Fermentations are monitored by wireless sensors. The winery itself is a feat of engineering, folded into the top of a hill in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The hype thus far has been about the groundbreaking technology being developed by Dr. Rodgers at Clos de la Tech. But it is a dedication to Old World style, not just New World tech, that has emerged in the hills above the Silicon Valley.
The Clos de la Tech estate is anchored by the 163-acre Domaine Lois Louis. This is the site of the winery’s production facility and largest vineyard, 80 acres of Pinot Noir named for Rodgers’ mother. The Twisty Ridge bloc runs across the top of a hill that, despite dogmatic environmental criticism, did not count any trees among the casualties of its construction. Cote Sud is the middle third of the vineyard, trapesing down the ridge toward the forest. And the bottom bloc will go to the newly designated Santa Cruz Mountains Estates. The Domaine is flanked by such storied Santa Cruz Mountains producers as Ridge Vineyards (most recognizable label), Thomas Fogarty Winery (incubator for a handful of well-groomed winemakers in Santa Cruz and elsewhere), and Kathryn Kennedy Winery (among the first in California with a female winemaker). A dramatic maritime influence often results in a distinct saline minerality in the wines, especially Cote Sud.
All around is equipment designed by Dr. Rodgers, the inventor. A tractor inspired by those from the dizzyingly steep slopes of the Mosel Valley in German Riesling country rappels down the vineyard rows by cables and pulleys. A giant French press also presses wine grapes, the first of its kind that makes press fractions all but obsolete. (At the pressing stage, wine is often separated according to how much pressure was used to squeeze the juice from the wine. ‘Free run’ juice is most valuable, with subsequent pressings of a lower quality due to bitter tannin extraction and generally greater handling and manipulation.) And fermentation is monitored wirelessly, through much publicized sensors developed by Dr. Rodgers at UC Davis. No doubt such equipment was doubly necessary this year: ‘This is the fastest harvest we’ve ever had,’ says Valeta Massey, assistant winemaker and wife of Dr. Rodgers. Even with all this tech, however, the power couple insists that this really isn’t the focus of the brand.
Clos de la Tech takes its cues from the Old World, albeit with the precision and rigor expected from two electrical engineers. Native yeast fermentation is standard practice at Clos de la Tech (Using ambient yeasts to ferment wine is analogous to culturing your own sourdough starter instead of using packaged yeast). Wines are aged in French cooperage, and grapes from the estate are crushed by foot, with the belief that this plodding technique is gentler on the notoriously finicky Pinot Noir than a typical machine crusher (Though currently in development is a device that will simulate this stomping, mechanical feet and all). The above-mentioned French press, though a newly patented technology, is likewise extremely gentle on the fruit.
Massey sees their application of technology through a wide lens, aware of the visibility of their work at the winery. She highlights one experiment in particular that has the potential to disrupt the entire agriculture industry: ‘One of the most important things that have yet to be developed are real-time sensors for leaf water potential.’ To determine an optimal amount of watering for a given vine or bloc, vineyard managers measure how much, or how little, water is being held in the plant. The formula is not so simple, however, as stressed vines produce more concentrated grapes—and therefore more complex wines; stress, at least in premium winegrowing is desirable.
Deploying such sensors to transmit real-time data would make it far easier to find the sweet spot between drought conditions and water-bloated grapes, a node in the development of the increasingly popular precision agriculture approach to large-scale farming. Because of the sheer amount of data collected by the sensors already employed at Clos de la Tech, Massey will hire interns next year for the first time. ‘We’re still not at full production,’ says Massey. ‘And we love data.’
The winery is not open to the public. Instead, visitors are directed to The Half Moon Bay Wine and Cheese Company, also owned by Dr. Rodgers. It doubles as the tasting room for Clos de la Tech and hosts tastings for the local wines on its shelves. Many are also from the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, which Rodgers and Massey are more than happy to stock. Clos de la Tech hired a dedicated marketing team for the first time this year, Massey tells me. ‘We’re just doing our small part to really push the Santa Cruz Mountains [appellation] as a brand,’ she says.
Of course, I just had to ask Massey about drones—wouldn’t the most technologically advanced winery in California (and therefore, the World) experiment with drones? After all, their largest domestic application has so far been to agriculture. Indeed, the team at Clos de la Tech has run several trials using drones to mitigate disease pressure in the dizzyingly steep vineyards, naturally citing labor costs as the most expensive part of vineyard operations.
I also asked Massey about their cellar operations: are the grapes fermented together or separately? Are the lots for Domaine Lois Louise blended in the field, at barrel, or sometime in between? She says it varies from year to year, then gives me an Old School answer, perhaps revealing her true winemaking style: ‘Sometimes, having all the options is the best approach.’
Massey and Dr. Rodgers have proven the capability of the Santa Cruz Mountains to challenge the best sites around the world for transcendent Pinot Noir, first with immense reflection on vineyard site and layout, and second with technology. ‘We monitor the wine in high-tech fashion,’ says Massey. ‘We make it very old-fashioned.’
What I tasted:
2009 Domaine Lois Louise, $42: Dark, dark cherry—extremely approachable with a saline edge—whole cluster fermentation shows in astringency and tannins. A perfect Burgundian introduction to Santa Cruz Mountains. 75% new oak, but certainly not the focus.
2009 Domaine Lois Louise Cote Sud, $62: Dark again, like the forest surrounding the vineyard—piney, evergreen component with same bracing tannins. Although Clos de la Tech ages the wines for at least four years before release, this definitely still has time. Earthy, mushroom component will develop further in 8-10 years.
2009 Domaine Docteur Rodgers, $102: Daym silky smooth, deceptively approachable if decanted. Full-bodied, graphite minerality like a chalkboard. Camphor edge. The perfect Christmas techie wine—Holiday spice notes and a computer chip.
To read more on Ryan's blog, please click here.
Clos de la Tech Pinot Noir is currently available for purchase here.