John Williams, owner of Frog’s Leap Winery and a pioneer on the Napa organic scene, is a man of analogies. When asked about grapes from irrigated vineyards, he conjures up an entirely different fruit.
Irrigated grapes, Williams says, lack the flavor of those from dry-farmed vineyards like his own. “It’s like bland tomatoes that are grown hydroponically. So what do you do with a flavorless tomato? You serve it with salt and pepper, balsamic vinegar and basil with mozzarella on top.” And that’s precisely the kind of manipulation he sees happening with wines produced on irrigated vineyards, too.
“They leave the grapes on the vine longer to develop flavor, which makes the sugars, and alcohol, go up and up,” says Williams. “So wines that have 14.5 percent alcohol or higher become about winemaking and not soil or grape growing. Given a choice, I think most consumers would prefer to drink more wine to get drunk than just one glass.”
Williams first started dry farming in 1998. A non-irrigation process of tilling and mulching the top layer of soil so it absorbs more water, it forces the roots of the vines to dig deeper to seek natural hydration. “Enough of a hippie to be interested,” Williams consulted local organic experts when the first years of working his vineyard weren’t producing the results he wanted. Today, his award-winning, certified-organic vineyard produces nine types of wine, most of which hover around the 13% ABV mark, and 60,000 cases a year.
Williams’ dry-farming philosophy may seem radical given California’s climate, save for the fact that there was no irrigation in Napa Valley until the 1970s. “If you ask people today, they’ll say it’s impossible to grow grapes without irrigation, which is a revision of history,” he says. “Dry-farmed vines are better hydrated because the grape roots grow down into the soil to get moisture that’s cool. It’s like putting your feet in an ice bucket on a hot day.”
Organic growing practices have instructed the vision of his entire vineyard, from the ground up. “It got us thinking, ‘What kind of fuels are we using in our tractors? How much energy are we using and where is it produced? What materials do we use when we construct a building? What do we do with our waste?’” Though modest about it, Williams says his vineyard is the first to have received LEED certification, and his operations have run on solar power since 2005. “I’m probably most proud of our sustainable employment practices,” he says. “All of our farm workers are full-time, benefited workers.”
Next year marks Frog’s Leap’s 30th anniversary, and Williams thinks winemaking is now at a crossroads. “Because of the unbelievable influence of critics, this modern style of high-alcohol wine is being exported all over the world. Their palates have lost any sense of nuance. Even in Barolo, families are fighting amongst themselves about whether or not they want to change their winemaking strategies. It’s a creeping problem.”
So how can you know if the wine is a tomato and not a grape? It’s as easy as reading the label. “If there’s an overly high alcohol content, it’s a good indication of what a winemaker’s thoughts are. They knock you over the head and drag you into the cave by the hair. If that’s where wines are headed, I’ll still be on this train.”