What is in this article?:
- Six decades of grape growing for Los Alamos, Calif., farmer Joe Carrari produces compelling history.
- Carrari was awash in an acre foot of wine and going broke when he created Dago Red California coastal red wine.
- Dago Red was far ahead of Two Buck Chuck and has a gold medal to prove it.
- Bulking wine not for faint-of-heart growers.
Joe Carrari spends his time at Rancho Alamo, a 3,600-acre ranch at Los Alamos. He leases out 400 acres for vegetable production and the rest is foothills where cattle are grazed.
It put him in good stead with many grape growers.
Like the time he interviewed with Paul Masson at Soledad, and he was asked what he thought about grafting over 75 acres of Pinot Noir to Chenin Blanc because the Pinot Noir was not producing.
“I never did like Pinot Noir. It is hard to set a crop, and it ripens very quickly. Birds love it,” explains Carrari.
Nevertheless, he did not necessarily agree with the decision to graft over the Pinot as Masson’s management was considering.
“I did not think I had all the facts. I asked Vince Petrucci (California State University, Fresno viticulture professor) to come over to take at a look it,” he says.
The duo recommended it be spur pruned rather than caned pruned. It was pruned to two spurs and 15 tons of manure was spread. The result was two canes per vine and 6 tons per acre.
“It went from nothing to 6 tons per acre in 13 months,” he says. “You cannot be expected to have all the answers in this business, but you should be expected to know where to get the answers.”
He found himself farming a block of Muscat that was faltering for no clear reason.
“The spurs looked like toothpicks. The vines were ready to die,” Carrari. He had various clues as to what might be the problem, but nothing was obvious.
“I suspected salt build-up. Muscats are very sensitive to salts, and we were irrigating with a well with 8.2 pH water,” he said.
Carrari decided to create 18-inch wide French drain 6 feet deep down every other row and apply 5 tons of gypsum per acre. “The vines developed luscious growth the next year, and we got 1 ton per acre. I called it my chemotherapy treatment,” he laughs.
Over the years, Carrari developed a two-row hydraulic stake driver as well as propane burners for leaf thinning and weed control.
Birds are a perennial problems and Carrari’s mechnical prowess tackled that issue with a unique solution. He bought several large mobile, mechanical air compressors. He positioned in them in the vineyard to cycle compressed air through overhead sprinklers used for frost protection to scare the birds away.
Hawk kits, cannons and foil streamers never work, according to Carrari. The air spitting intermittently from the sprinklers did. “We went from 20 percent bird damage down to 4 percent. The only damage was on the edge of the vineyard.”
The 78-year-old Carrari has slowed down. He sold his vineyard a few years back. He still consults and his 1973 Chisholm Ryder grape harvester still harvests a few grapes. He also keeps busy making sure the irrigation systems are working properly on the 400 acres of vegetable ground he leases on the 3,600-acre ranch he bought when he sold his vineyard.
The rest of the ranch is foothills where cattle are grazed.
He sits often on the porch of his remodeled 1918 ranch house with his dog Angel overlooking the vineyards below. He doesn’t miss the backbreaking labor of farming, but still has that entrepreneurial spirit that has been part of his almost eight decades.
“Wine grape prices are on the upswing. There was a short crop last year and big demand for grapes this year. If someone wants to plant a vineyard, now is the time to do it,” he says.
Not only is the coast doing well, but “they are doing a great job with the wines from the valley and getting good prices for their grapes.”
However, he does not expect to see large coastal vineyard plantings like there were in the in past decades. It’s too expensive and water availability has become an issue. New plantings likely will come from the pullout of older, less desirable varietals. Or from vineyards that have been grafted over a couple of times and need to come out.
And, the industry has matured and learned from past experiences when too many grapes were planted for the demand.
Joe believes the newer Rhone style varieties recently planted or grafted will be the next big California varietal story. Whether the likes of Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Pinot Grigrio will make it as big as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon remains to be seen, but they are gaining in popularity. He planted them in his vineyard and coastal winemakers are embracing them.