To economically survive these days, every wine grape vineyard and winery must continually evolve or else face a closed door by consumers looking for the latest and greatest products elsewhere.

One of the many operations embracing change is Hahn Family Wines, a family-owned, premium grape vineyard and winery operation based in Soledad in the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) in Monterey County. The operation was founded in 1979.

“Pinot Noir is at the core of our operation today,” said Andy Mitchell, Hahn Family Wines director of viticulture.

“The Santa Lucia Highlands has ideal conditions for growing Pinot Noir,” the veteran grape grower said. “The area’s microclimates and soils, along with various clonal and rootstock combinations, unite to form great complexity in the grapes.”

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The elevations of Hahn vineyards range from 300-1,200 feet.

Mitchell manages wine grape vineyards totaling 1,100 acres, including about 40 clones. The majority of the acreage is Pinot Noir – about 620 acres with 20 clones. Other varietals include Chardonnay (13 clones), Grenache (1), Merlot (2), Pinot Gris (1), Malbec (2), and Syrah (5).

Hahn Estate is the largest grower of Pinot Noir (350 acres) along the 17-mile-long SLH AVA.

Hahn’s three vineyards in the SLH cover 653 acres: the 146-acre Lone Oak Vineyard featuring Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris; Doctor’s Vineyard – 243 acres – Pinot Noir and Syrah; and Smith & Hook Vineyards, 253 acres – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache, and Malbec.

Two vineyards about 10 miles to the south on the Salinas Valley floor in Arroyo Seco (Arroyo Seco AVA) include: Ste. Phillippe – 290 acres – Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Grenache; and Ste. Nicholas Vineyards – 171 acres– Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Change is in the air

Turn the calendar back 15 years to 1998. The Hahn operation was much different. Large plantings of Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, filled the vineyards. The focus was on big, ripe flavors.

Today, the focus is Burgundean varietals.Optimal maturity, including fruit harvest at just the right time, gives wines finesse.

“I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the dramatic change in the makeup of these vineyards,” said Mitchell.

After removing vineyards, replanting, and grafting on the estate’s Smith & Hook vineyard, a mere three short rows of Cabernet Sauvignon remain.

Mitchell laughed, “It makes really good jelly.”

His rationale for the varietal shift was to better target varietals with the cool growing conditions on the emerald “Highlands Islands” in the SLH AVA.

Each year, about 10-15 percent of the estate acreage is converted to new clones of Burgundian and Rhone varietals with decisions based mostly on market demand.

“Clones to a winemaker are like what a palate is to a painter,” Mitchell quipped.

“The unique characteristics of the local terrior, combined with the clones, give our grapes and ultimately our wines complexity and layers of flavor.”

The Hahn family is very pleased with the end results. Mitchell shares that other factors have also played into Hahn’s success, including teamwork from the vineyard to the winery and vice-a-versa.

“When I first started with the company in 1998 we were essentially vineyards that had a winery,” Mitchell reflected. “Today we are a winery that has vineyards.”

Success a team effort

A large part of the turnaround is tied to Paul Clifton, Hahn’s general manager director of winemaking. Clifton tastes most grape lots on the cusp of the harvest. He makes the final call on the harvest dates.

Updated cultural practices and other methods have added to Hahn’s success.

This April, the Hahn family partnered with Mesa Vineyard Management to manage the day-to-day operations of the estate vineyards.

On pruning, Hahn’s tries to prune each vine to its potential to create a balance vine throughout the growing season.

Hahn’s has four Pellenc Model 8590 selective process viticulture vineyard machines to carryout various vineyard tasks, including the plug-in Visio pre-pruner unit to remove canes from the wires.

The final pruning pass is by hand using a battery-powered, hand-held pruner from Electrocoup. Mitchell conducted a survey several years ago which revealed the Electrocoup pruners increased worker efficiency up to 30 percent.

“The results are less worker fatigue and increased worker productivity,” Mitchell said.

Shoot thinning begins in mid-to-late April to generate good airflow and improve the benefits of treatment applications.

Leaf removal is 100 percent by hand for the high-end grape programs. Leaves and basil laterals are removed from the canopy interior, leaving an outer layer of leaves to protect against sunburn.

In many “B” blocks, a Clemens leafing machine is used to improve pest management efforts.

Most of the vineyards are trained with the vertical shoot positioning system (VSP). The Smart-Dyson system is used in selected blocks to open the canopy and reduce hand-leafing needs.

The SLH is an ideal terrior for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and for powdery mildew and mealybug, both managed with integrated pest management.

On nutrients, Mitchell embraces s “spoon feeding” approach for plants; based on petiole, leaf, and soil analyses, plus well water testing for nitrogen levels.

The cool climate creates an extended “hang time” for the grapes. Some vineyards elsewhere complete the grape harvest before Hahn’s starts in mid-to-late September.

Mechanical harvest

Pellenc’s selective process harvesters pick about 80 percent of the grape crop, including higher-end grapes.

“The machine actually picks grapes cleaner than a hand crew, and has the flexibility to harvest grapes at night,” Mitchell said.

Chardonnay grapes and most Pinot Noir grapes are picked at night to minimize oxidation.

Hahn’s target production is: Pinot Noir – 2.5-5 tons per acre; Chardonnay 4-6 tons per acre; Syrah – 4-6 tons; Grenache – 5-7 tons; and Malbec 4-6 tons.

About 85 percent of Hahn-grown grapes craft Hahn estate wines.

Hahn’s has two wineries – Hahn Estate Winery in Soledad and Cycles Gladiator Winery in Lodi (San Joaquin County). The wineries produced about 400,000 cases of Hahn estate wine last year.

The labels and price points and labels include: Lucienne - $50; Hahn SLH - $30; Hahn Winery - $14; and the Cycles brand - $12.

The remaining Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes are sold to wineries including Testarossa, Calera, Pisoni, V. Sattui, and Hope and Grace.

The most common rootstocks include 101-14, 420A, 1103 Paulsen, SO4, Teleki 5C, and 3309.

In the SLH vineyards, water requirements are 8-12 inches in the ancient alluvial soils. The vineyards in Arroyo Seco consume about twice that due to sandier soils and warmer temperatures.

Other management practices bid well for the operation. For bird control, the use of falconry successfully dissuades large flocks (“dragons”) of starlings and blackbirds away from the grapes.

The Hahn operation participates in the Sustainability in Practice (SIP) program. Insectary rows are planted each spring between every 10th row to create a habitat for beneficial insects to remain in the vineyard.

Key beneficials include the ladybird beetle and lacewing. The insect larvae are veracious eaters of mites and mealybugs.

Clifton and Mitchell are pleased with the Flash Détente processing equipment from the Della Toffola Group utilized at the Cycles Gladiator Winery. The winery is one of about a hand full of California wineries utilizing the Flash Détente technology.

Mitchell says the system quickly heats grapes and fully extracts the grape’s contents in a vacuum chamber. The process helps remove any off flavors affiliated with under-ripe fruit and botrytis issues.

The future

Looking out five years from now, what is on the Hahn drawing board? Expanded SLH production is a top goal, including the medium to higher-tier brands of Pinot Noir.

Mitchell said, “Case production of Hahn Estate SLH Pinot Noir in the Highlands is about 5,000 now. We’d like to increase production without changes to quality.”

As Mitchell readied to get back to work, he confided his favorite wine to drink.

“It’s Pinot Noir with Grenache as a close second. We produce a Rhône blend that is very food friendly; maybe as food friendly than Pinot Noir.”

cblake@farmpress.com

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