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The NIMV Principle

Of course, you’ve heard of NIMBY – “not in my backyard” – where people agree that something may be a necessary evil, but only as long as they don’t have to personally deal with it.

A generation ago, winemakers became more interested in what was happening in the vineyards than was the previous generation and subsequently decided that was where their wines are made.  Decreased yield?  I’m all over it.  Leaves thinned on the shady side?  Been there, plucked that.  Mildew under control?  Spraying trumps praying.  Better harvest labs?  Let ‘em hang! 

Bad weather?  NIMV – “not in my vineyard.”  Man figured out irrigation could offset drought almost as soon as he found out that farming, however promising it looked, was sometimes more labor-intensive and iffy than the good old days when he was a happy hunter-gatherer.  But sometimes there is too much water falling on our heads – especially if those raindrops are frozen. In Mendoza, where hail is a huge problem, many vineyards have wire netting stretched over them.  NIMV!

So when winemaker Kale Anderson of Pahlmeyer Vineyards in Napa Valley thought he was getting too much heavenly water, something others may desperately need elsewhere, he decided to take care of that, too.  Anderson had this one block of mountain Cabernet Sauvignon that was too vigorous, even when he cut off irrigation and made the vines go cold turkey – what’s called dry farming in the Golden West.  “We decided to go one step further than dry farming,” he says, by artificially inducing drought conditions.

Since preventing an Act of God needs to go on the ballot in California, Anderson figured that while he might not be want to keep raindrops from falling from the skies, he surely could stop them from sinking into his vineyard during the rainy winter season.  How?  Cover the vineyard floor with tarpaulin, all 2.5 acres of it.  “I wanted to get it down last year right after harvest,” he says, “but I couldn’t get in there until early December.”

What he and his crew did was cover the vineyard floor with rows of clear tarp anchored down with sandbags to keep them from billowing.  The runoff water would be collected in a pond and reused later.  It took a few days, but it was in place when the rains – fairly mild this season – came.

How has the experiment gone thus far?

“Knock on wood, but everything looks where I wanted,” Anderson said in an interview last week.  “As it was a clear tarp, we had a greenhouse effect with our cover crop.  And the bud break was two weeks earlier than adjacent blocks, probably because of higher soil temperatures.”  The tarps came off in mid-April, and Anderson hopes the vines will need less management during the growing season.

“But we won’t know how well things worked until the wine is made and even aged for a while,” he says.

When I talked to Anderson, he thought he was the first to try tarps in weather managing a vineyard.  But a friend of mine on the East Coast, a winery owner, says, “Oh no, we considered it, and Petrus actually did it.”  Indeed, a little research showed that the legendary Pomerolian did floor its vineyard just before harvest in 1992 to prevent expected rains from saturating the soil.

It was a lousy vintage, one of Bordeaux’s worst in recent decades.  Parker only gave the ’92 Petrus a “90,” yet he called it one of the two best wines of the vintage.  After explaining that Petrus and Trotanoy tarped their vineyards in September, Parker concludes in his Bordeaux wine book, “It was a strategy that obviously paid off.  Interestingly, this technique was declared illegal by French appellation authorities in the late 1990s when utilized by several of [Petrus owner] Moueix’s  rivals, Michel Rolland and Jean-Luc Thunevin.”

The French take their terroir seriously and don’t like to screw around with it, even when it means enduring lousy weather and other Acts of God.  California winemakers, as they do live in the New World, value their free will and the protection of their precious vines even more seriously.

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