Monday, March 13, 2006

The Soil Master: Dr. Gordon Dutt, Sonoita Vineyards

Dr. Dutt has an ingenious way of dealing with one of the greatest threats to his Arizona vineyard.

Ever since Sonoita vineyards lost almost everything to Pierce's disease a few years back, he's had to fight the zillions of sharpshooters--nasty little insects that spread the disease--by turning their love of fruit against them.

See, the only thing the little bastards seem to love better than grapes is blackberries. Knowing also that the bugs must have 100% humidity to breed, and subsequently follow water sources, he planted a thick barrier of blackberry bushes in between his vines and the natural source of water coming down from the mountains. These he dosed with lots of pesticide. They dine on blackberries, and then they die.

It takes a man with the decades of experience and knowledge Dr. Dutt has to come up with such a brilliant defense. The entire Southern Arizona wine growing area owes a great deal to his research in soil efficacy and water quality. In my long talk with him, he shared some thoughts about some of the vine's best friends, or worst enemies: dirt, weather and water.

Interview with Dr. Gordon Dutt:

C&D: What made you decide to do research in Arizona, to find out whether grapes would grow here?

My first job, when I got my PhD from the University of California at Davis, I came over here (Sonoita, AZ), and I was pretty well versed in wine grapes...and I was shocked that there were no wine grapes here. And...a horticulturist wanted to get together with me, as a soil scientist, and he wanted to work with me on table grapes. So we went out to Yuma (AZ) and started doing cooperative research on water quality for table grapes. And so we'd drive back and forth and have a lot of time to talk. And what he told me made no sense, whatsoever.

What did he tell you?

Well, he told me that the reason they weren't growing wine grapes was that the grapes wouldn't get sweet enough. And of course, everything I'd heard in California was that the sweeter grapes were in Southern California, where it's hot. And, of course, at that time, California was trying to convince the rest of the world that the only thing that was important was climate...that the soil was something that the grapes were just rooted in, and that's a bunch of B.S., but they were trying to convince the world of that.

What's important about soil?

Soil and climate, you cannot separate. Any good soil scientist will tell you that the soil...the climate is imprinted in the soil. You can't separate the two. They work together to make the grape what it is. Where California really made a mistake...the 20-point system (The Davis 20 point system) does not adequately account for soils. Until they came out with the...Aroma Wheel, they never had any real way to evaluate the effects of soil. The main effect of the soil is in the nose. I was over (in California), took my Cabs over there. to have some of the really great wineries evaluate our Cabs. And I was smelling all of theirs, and--ah!--you didn't have to ask which came from the flood plain, and which came from the hills.

How does the terroir here affect the grapes?

Our soil is identical to the Cote D'Or in Burgundy. It's a developed soil. It's acid at the surface...and you have a weathered clay layer that doesn't shrink and swell. Below that is calcium carbonate. The Pinot Noir...the first four or five years (we grew it), it wasn't very good. It has to get rooted down into the soil. Because when it's all up in the acid soil, it (isn't very good).


The wines of Sonoita vineyards are solid, simple wines with good balance. The whites lean in toward the sweet, por la gente, but don't snort: there's an art to creating even the tourist wines. I've tried a lot of them so far, and the main thing that separates the good ones from the really crappy ones is acid balance, just like any sweet wine. His are sweet but crisp, with nice, complete finishes that make them perfect for picnics. There are decent red blends as well, including the Antelope Red, a blend of Cabernet and some stray Nebbiolo he bought from another grower. This was my favorite of the bunch. There's also a rose Dr. Dutt makes from the Mission grape. Again, no snorting, people: it's not bad, and to boot, there's a genuinely charming story behind the wine that can really only be fully appreciated if Dr. Dutt tells you himself.

Dr. Dutt does more in the vineyard now than in the winery; he's hired a younger winemaker to help him get the grapes to bottle. He confided in me that he and his new partner butt heads on style often, the younger vintner insisting that the grapes be allowed to hang longer on the vine. But I got the impression from our conversation that, by one method or another, Dr. Dutt usually makes things happen his way.

It was a pleasure talking to you, Dr. Dutt. Good Luck to you.

Did you catch my very last post? I had to post one on top of the other. Be sure to scroll down to read about Callaghan Vineyards.



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