No two grains of sand are alike – or so a geologist will tell you – and the same goes for fistfuls. Take, for example, a microscopic photograph of grains of sand. What we believe to be a uniform substance (silica, just like the dictionary tells us), is in fact a random conglomeration of particles from many varying origins, depending on where and how the sand originated. Not only is every handful of sand different, but sand can vary greatly from one area to the next.
This past spring, vines went into the ground on our very own land, a five-acre postage stamp in the Solomon Hills, on the western side of the Santa Maria Valley AVA. We dubbed that postage stamp The Warner Henry Vineyard, after my late father. When we purchased the property it was basically a sand pile, a house on a hill surrounded by oak trees, chaparral, and pale-colored dirt. The land here had never been farmed, despite the world-class vineyards that have sprung up on all four sides of it.
Planting new wines is a leap of faith. You can do all your homework – test the soil, choose just the right location and microclimate, find a good water source – but whether your grapes are world-class or just plain average is left to the gods. A friend of my father’s once purchased a site that was surrounded by some of the most famous Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma, and professed to my father that due to the vineyard’s location, the future quality of wine was a sure bet. Fast forward twenty years and no combination of high-tech farming practices, night-harvesting, or world-famous winemakers can make a great wine from that vineyard. The old adage was proven ever-true: you can’t make a good wine from bad grapes, or in this case, a great wine from mediocre ones.
One thing that is a known is that Pinot Noir loves sand. Grape vines in general love its drainage, which means the vines send roots deep in search of water, and the soil never gets too soggy (which makes a grape vine get lazy and produce flabby fruit). But what about the mineral components of the soil, and how does sand influence flavor? Some viticulturists will tell you that farming in sand is like growing hydroponically – the only nutrients in the soil are what you put in it from the outside. I believe that is true to some extent, but then I harken back to the microscope, and what it tells us about sand composition. Sand does, in fact, impart a flavor to the wine, and not just due to soil amendments.
When the land was cleared of all hubris there were two distinct types of sand on our hilltop. One was white and the other reddish-brown. James Ontiveros came up for a visit one day and told me that two sand formations were at play here: the Marina Series and the Arnold Series. Without getting too scientific, the Marina soils (reddish brown) are ancient sand dunes that were once at the shore, and the Arnold (white) is decomposed sand stone of even older origin. A close-up picture of either one reveals a mixture of rock types, many of which are calcareous rock, as well as bone and shell fragments from sea creatures, mixed with clay and other organic material. A formula, we hope, that will make for happy vines.
A test of our soil revealed that it did, in fact, have a good amount of organic material, and by all accounts was very ‘healthy’ on the spectrum of soil fertility. We dug test pits all over the property and learned that the sand went very deep – deeper than the backhoe could get to. That spells very good drainage. We added the recommended soil amendments – organic compost, with a small dose of gypsum (for moisture retention and aeration) and lime (to adjust the soil’s pH). A few weeks later vines went into the ground.
The vines have now seen their first season of growth, and look happy, as far as we can tell. But the big question remains: will the Warner Henry Vineyard eventually achieve greatness? We won’t know until enough sand has run through the Lumen hourglass.