Bill Wertzberger has rescued several abandoned vineyards of obscure, out-of-style grapes around Sonoma County and brought them back to life.
It all started in 2008 when Wertzberger began rehabilitating the Soto family’s 10 year old merlot vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, which suffered years of neglect after Vicente Soto died. At the time the price of merlot was so depressed he would have been better off purchasing the grapes for $500 per ton, but instead he approached it as an opportunity to learn about vineyard management.
“The first one was as a favor to the Sotos who are longtime friends of the Teldeschis. The most important thing that I learned was that I enjoyed working outside. Having your hands on the plants and in the dirt literally keeps me well-grounded.”
After clearing the vineyards of wild blackberry bushes and pruning the vines, Wertzberger used mostly organic products to control mildew and pests, but with admittedly mixed results.
“I’m determined not to turn the place into a superfund site by taking shortcuts with heavy duty pesticides and herbicides.”
Bill Wertzberger is now called the grape whisperer of Sonoma County.
In 2009, Wertzberger began rehabilitating four acres of Golden Chasselas vines owned by the Raffaini family on Eastside Road in the Russian River Valley. Planted in 1962, the grapes were once sold to Italian Swiss Colony.
Neglected for 30 years, the plants had put their energy into replacing the wood instead of bearing fruit. After a few years under Wertzberger’s care, they began putting out more grapes. That first year, he picked a few hundred pounds of Chasselas; in 2011, he harvested over a ton.
Wertzberger’s unconventional approach to winemaking is reflected in his unique attraction to obscure grape varietals. Almost no one in California produces the Swiss-originated Chasselas, but Wertzberger has managed to champion the grape. His 2010 Chasselas is much drier than what’s produced in British Columbia and has lovely citrus and peach flavors on a full round body that finishes clean and refreshing.
In 2010, Wertzberger blazed through Larry Wright’s half acre of 60-year old French Colombard in the Chalk Hill district, another blackberry bush mess. French Colombard is another unfashionable grape, once used for jug wines. Wright told Wertzberger that years ago he’d sold the grapes to ItalianSwiss Colony, but then he removed most of the vines to make room for his wife’s horses. He gave them a rudimentary pruning every year but never sulphured.
“Fixing bad pruning is more work than fixing no pruning,” Wertzberger says of the vineyard. “Still, I got 900 pounds the first year and almost 1200 the second.”
Werzberger likes being called a grape whisperer, saying that when it comes to vines, he feels it’s more important to be a listener than a dictator.When approaching an abandoned vineyard, he says, “You can’t make a vineyard into something it’s not meant to be. You have to notice everything that’s going on with it and then respond appropriately.”
“Any accountant who was aware of the expense and labor I put in for a ton of grapes would say I was crazy and a terrible businessman. But so much of the old vines in this area were ripped out to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. What a shame.”Although Wertzberger is leading the way in his holistic approach to wine making, he has yet to inspire followers.
Wertzberger’s story is that he does it all, from berry to bottle. He brings heirloom vines back from the dead. He personally cultivates over half of the grapes he uses and he and picks all of his grapes. He makes all of the wine, and he bottles each wine by hand. He paints the artwork for his labels, which he slaps on by hand. When a store orders his wines, it is usually Wertzberger delivering the cases. An unaccomplished musician, he might even serenade the vines with his guitar.
One might say he’s a trailblazing winemaker and a grape whisperer. Other might say he’s an oddball guy, making oddballs wines. But Wertzberger is more modest.
“When people ask me what my function is, I say that I prune the vines and put the labels on the bottles; plus a few other steps in between. ”When he began making wine in 2002, Wertzberger sourced grapes from anywhere he could get good cheap fruit, no matter how obscure, and he was happy to grab second or third pickings. His breakout vintage was the 2005 Monson Vineyard Merlot, a lush, sexy wine that opened doors to many outlets in the San Francisco Bay area. Wertzberger soon began sourcing Syrah from the Gibson Ranch at McDowell, which he says has the oldest block of Syrah vines in North America, planted in 1947. His Grenache and petite Sirah are planted there too, but his favorite McDowell vineyard is the “Y” block Syrah, grafted from the original old vines.
After years of making Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, Wertzberger decided his heart lies with Rhones. In 2011, he made Carignane, Valdiguie, Grenache, Mourvedre and Counoise as well as Colombard and Chasselas. Not exactly marquee varietals in Sonoma County, but standard fare for an iconoclast.
“I once told a grower that the difference between European and US wine making is that one follows traditions and the other follows trends – usually blindly. So I’m hoping to be more of a leader. And I am happy with my role in keeping those old vineyards alive.”
Which is the stuff of a great wine story.
By Mari Kane