Interview with a Grape Grower: Bob Littell of Treborce Vineyards

Grape Growers and wine vineyard background

Bob and Joyce Littell holding the 2012 Treborce Vineyard Zinfandel from Wilson Winery, Double Gold Winner and Best Zinfandel at the San Francisco International Wine Competiton

Every day, Bob Littell goes for a walk through his Treborce Vineyards and inspects his vines, with pruners on his belt, tape in hand, and his dogs–German shorthaired pointers he rescued–for company. If he sees a problem developing, he can nip it in the bud, literally, or if he wants to keep an eye on a particular vine, he can mark it with colored tape so his vineyard manager and crew know to watch it closely. There’s a constant breeze in the vineyard in the afternoon, so Treborce Zinfandel grapes aren’t as susceptible to some of the challenges posed by the area’s prevalent fog.  Nonetheless, it takes continuous monitoring and hard work year-round to produce top-notch fruit, which is essential to making top-notch wine.

Treborce Vineyards, first planted in 1999, has been producing phenomenal Zinfandel and Petite Sirah grapes ever since. That’s why so many of the wines made from Treborce fruit have won awards. A relatively small property–a mere 10 acres of vines–has made a big impression in the wines of Dry Creek Valley.  We spoke to Mr. Littell about what it’s like to be a grower of wine grapes, his favorite vintages, and his impressions of Dry Creek Valley evolution in the 34 years he’s been there.

Q: How did you get into the business of growing?

A: We’ve been in Dry Creek Valley since about 1980. When we first got here, there was kiwifruit on our property, and we expanded by planting a lot more acreage in the boom days of kiwifruit-growing. Then, when we were finally in production of top quality kiwifruit, the price dropped from $.30/fruit to $.03, and we pulled out the kiwifruit, and decided we were going to grow nothing for a number of years. We were living in San Francisco and spending weekends and summers here. Then, eventually, as we watched the wine industry beginning to grow in the 1980s and 1990s, we decided it was time to plant grapes.

Q: Tell me about your vineyards and the grapes you grow today?

rootstock and scion grapevine graft.

Illustration showing how budwood from an older vine can be grafted onto newly-grown rootstock

A: About 15% is Petite Sirah, so 85% is Zinfandel.  The Zinfandel is divided into five blocks.  When we originally planted them, Bob Mauritson of Mauritson Farms went around in Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley cutting wood for grafting off of dormant vineyards, 100 year-old vines or more. We then grafted the budwood onto our St. George rootstock in 1999. We were trying to start off with vines that had done well in the Valley for many years and that formed the basis for wonderful old vine Zinfandels.

We grow on what we refer to as the Airport Bench. It’s up above the valley floor so we get more breezes and we’re not normally ever subject to frost so we don’t worry much about frost protection which is a great advantage.

Q: How many grapes does your 10 acres of land yield per year, on average? What if anything can you tell me about this year?

A: My aim is to harvest about 10 pounds per vine. Some vines will have much more than that, and some will have less.  It probably comes out to between 30-55 tons per year. In 2009, we were on the higher end, and it’s known throughout the industry that 2010 and 2011 were smaller yields. There is no answer yet to what our yield will be this year, because we picked about five or six tons on Friday morning, and we’re expecting to pick the rest on this coming Friday or Saturday. This year, my wife Joyce, the vineyard manager Bob Mauritson, the agronomist Rick Smith of Formative Fertilizer, and I all put our estimate on a piece of paper and we put them in a sealed envelope.  There’s no money bet on it, but we’ve all been watching the vineyard so closely for years. We all have a little different opinion of how much fruit is going to come off the vineyard. Some people say they can control it completely, but it’s very hard to do, because of Mother Nature. Some people say you can control the complete quality of the vineyard by cutting off mini clusters of grapes, thinning them down to so many clusters per vine–we’ve tried a lot of those things. For this vineyard, it doesn’t seem to matter a lot. The quality seems to come out every year. It comes down to luck, dedication, and good winemakers. Each of the wines taste differently, that’s the amazing thing.

Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel

Zinfandel grape vines in Treborce Vineyards

Q: I’m curious about the business side of things. How do you work with the wineries who buy your fruit?

A: It’s very hard to break in.  When we first planted 15 years ago, there were a lot fewer wineries and most of them either grew all their own fruit or they had relationships with the growers for many years. It’s hard to tell the first few years what a vineyards’ attributes are going to be.  Whether it makes wonderful Zin, whether it’s very tannic or fruity. When you find a winery you like, you talk to them and invite them up to see our operation on the Bench land, and the cleanliness in the vineyard and our farming operation and what the vines look like, the pruning methods that we do, etc. Slowly you develop relationships with the winemakers and maybe they would try two tons to see how they like the grapes in their own winery operation, and eventually as you’re in the business, and start getting some notoriety, some awards, when people can taste the finished product, then if you’re lucky and you’re producing good grapes, other people become interested in also buying your grapes. Today we do business with six or seven wineries, and most of them we’ve been doing business with for five to eight years.  Each year, each winery takes anywhere from five to 12 tons of grapes. Bob Mauritson has been with us ever since we started, and all the wineries pick at the same time over a one or two week period of time every year.  They all have written contracts with us.

Q: What have been your favorite vintages in Dry Creek Valley and why?

A: I think 2005, 2009, and I’m beginning to really like 2012. 2005 was the first year that we really got recognized for growing top-quality Zinfandel, and it was with a company that is no longer in business called Dark Horse Winery. The winemaker there got us gold medals at the Harvest Fair and 92 points in Wine Spectator.  It put us on the map.  I still have some in my cellar and it still drinks very, very nicely. You can get a lot of terroir out of the bottle. 2009 was just a wonderful year for grapes in Dry Creek Valley. Just about every winery that we’ve sold to made a wonderful wine.  Depending on the winery, some were soft and supple, some are more expressively fruity, and all are aging nicely. Just about all the wines we’ve tasted from 2012–and not all are released yet–have been truly fantastic. Wilson Winery’s 2012 Treborce Vineyard Zinfandel just won Double Gold in the San Francisco International Wine Competition and it was named Best Zinfandel, among 199 entries.

vineyard in Dry Creek Valley

Looking out onto Treborce Vineyards

Q: How has Dry Creek Valley changed since you’ve been there?

A: A lot more people, a tremendous amount of traffic on the roads, which doesn’t bother me much because I’m here on the ranch and I don’t see it. Our aim of publicising Dry Creek Valley has certainly worked.  It can be the quiet, bucolic valley much of the time, but certainly not all the time. The wineries, there’s so many here now–50 or 60 within three miles of me, so there’s a great proliferation of events and tastings, all of which are wonderful for the Valley, but it’s no longer the hidden place it was 15 years ago. It’s become a much more mature growing business. We planted redwood trees on our property that were about four or five feet tall in 1980, and people now think they’re old growth redwoods like they can see in the forests around here, because they’re 80 or 100 feet tall and five or six feet around. There’s a wonderful group of people who love this place who have moved here. The town of Healdsburg has changed tremendously.  There are 38 or 40 restaurants now. When we first were here, there was only one!

I should say, we moved here full time in 1991 from the city, decided we had to live here full time and not go back and forth, because we loved it so much; the weather, the climate, the vistas, the people, just the easy lifestyle.

Our gratitude goes out to Bob Littell for sharing his story.