Continuing Grower Education with UC Davis

Clay Gantz (right) with Dr. Kaan Kurtural, assistant Cooperative Extension specialist in viticulture at UC Davis

Clay Gantz (right) with Dr. Kaan Kurtural, assistant Cooperative Extension specialist in viticulture at UC Davis

It has been over eight years (can you believe it?) since Celeste and I planted our vineyard in the Russian River Valley. While I can’t count the number of things I’ve learned in that time, I was nevertheless intrigued when I received the announcement for a four-day UC Davis course on grapevine production. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to get caught up on the current science of grape growing and winemaking, and also I hoped that the course would help me pull together some of the disparate threads of knowledge if gathered over the past eight years. Sort of a “unified theory of grape growing.” My enthusiasm grew when my daughter, Angelina, expressed interest in attending the course with me.

Our classmates seeing a pruning machine in action at UC Davis’s experimental vineyard in Oakville.

Our classmates seeing a pruning machine in action at UC Davis’s experimental vineyard in Oakville.

We split our time between a hotel conference room in Napa and UC Davis’s experimental vineyard in Oakville, driving daily from our home in the Russian River Valley. Unfortunately, our time in the vineyard was cut in half by the unrelenting torrential rain that week. The course was a nice mix between presentation of the results of cutting-edge academic research by professors and researchers and talks and demonstrations of the practical application of that research to day-to-day grape production.

Several things stand out to me as valuable take-aways:

In the academic world, climate change is treated as a given, and people have long since moved on from debating whether it is happening or why to how are we going to deal with its consequences, in this case in the world of viticulture. A lot of time was spent discussing how to mitigate the impacts of the effects of climate change (e.g., increased heat during the growing season) through changes to our vineyard design and farming practices.

The related question of how to farm effectively in an era of diminishing resource availability (e.g., less water, less energy and less labor) was also a unifying theme. Topics such as using various technologies to make better irrigation scheduling decisions, recent developments in mechanical pruning, leafing and harvesting and their impact on grape quality, how to best monitor and correct for nutrient deficiencies and current developments in integrated pest management (e.g., using natural predators to control pest infestations) were all interesting and highly relevant.

Also, the use of new technologies, such as drone mounted remote sensors to quickly and accurately monitor vine nutritional status over an entire vineyard, will make current operations much more efficient and cheaper.

Also, I’d say that if you ever get the chance to spend time with farmers, take it. They are generally wonderful people. Ultimately, I treasured the opportunity to spend time with Angelina, exploring the complex world of wine grape farming.

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Clay Gantz and the Joys of Tractor Therapy

Clay and Celeste Gantz

Clay and Celeste Gantz

Clay was recently asked to submit a bio for his company newsletter that focused on him as a winegrower. The rest of us loved this snapshot of him, so we voted to post it here. Enjoy!

My interest in wine began during my freshman year in the dorms at UCSB, where our standing Friday night jam sessions were enlivened by Gallo Hearty Burgundy. I later learned that Gallo Hearty Burgundy had, in fact, nothing to do with Burgundy, but I did like it anyway.

It never occurred to me that one could make wine at home until I ran into a guy pressing grapes in his driveway to make wine for his restaurant while walking my dog in the Berkeley Hills. Celeste and I later wandered down to the local winemaking supply store (there are such things) and left with a five gallon carboy. One thing led to another and after about ten years of making wine successfully (believe it or not I won a silver medal at an international wine competition), I found myself enrolled in a UC Davis three year, science-oriented enology program for individuals employed in the wine industry, which I finished in 2010.

In the Fall of 2009, on a lark, Celeste and I drove up to Sonoma County to meet a broker specializing in rural properties. We bought the first property he showed us, four days later. It felt right, and it has turned out to be right for us. With the help of one of my Davis professors, we assembled a team and planted a vineyard to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. One step at a time, and we are now in our ninth year of farming. We have sold each crop to Kosta Browne Winery. For those who aren't familiar with the wine industry, they are among the top two or three Pinot Noir producers in the Russian River Valley, which (in my opinion) makes them among the top Pinot Noir producers in the world. I tell people who don't know the business that our journey is like graduating from high school and becoming the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees. No pressure! But, it keeps us on our toes.

You can’t rush things, and you can’t slow them down—not at all like practicing law.


Along the way, I was privileged to be elected to be the president of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, which is our association of winemakers and grape growers. It was a crash course on the wine industry and very challenging. Having served as managing shareholder of the Steefel firm during the period culminating with our combination with Manatt, I think I am in a unique position to compare the legal world with the wine world. Believe it or not, I think lawyers are probably easier to manage (though they talk a lot more than farmers or winemakers, as a rule)!

These days, as far as my wine industry life is concerned, I really consider myself a farmer. My winemaking is limited to small batches for our friends and my family that I make in my well equipped home winery and lab. As strange as it may sound, it really is a way for me to communicate my love for all of them and it also satisfies some of my creative urges. Working in the vineyard gives me peace, and there is something humbling about farming--mother nature sets the schedule, and you have to take it as it comes. You can't rush things, and you can't slow them down--not at all like practicing law. I call it "tractor therapy."

The loss of Ulises Valdez

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All of us were saddened to hear that Ulises Valdez passed yesterday.

Ulises was one of the first people I met in the wine industry and he had a huge impact on me. When we were doing preliminary soils testing in our vineyard in 2009, our soil scientist rented a backhoe to dig pits. As we were in the field digging, a guy in jeans and a straw cowboy hat walked up and introduced himself—it was Ulises. Turns out we had rented the backhoe from him (unbeknownst to me) and he was curious as to what the heck we were up to! Coincidentally, my teacher and mentor Kristin Lowe had, the day before, mentioned Ulises’ name as one of the top farmers in the Russian River Valley and someone we should seek out if we went forward to develop our vineyard. The next day, there he was standing in front of me. Some things are meant to be, I guess.

Ulises’ story has been told many times and by many people. What strikes me is that it is, in my view, a uniquely American story. No Mayflower involved--Ulises immigrated here from Mexico, raised himself up, became a citizen, and started a family and a farming business which now employs over 100 people. His Chardonnay was served at the White House to the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, which always struck me as fitting. When we were last in DC visiting our daughter we were pleased to see he was featured in a Smithsonian exhibit on Hispanic winemakers. Though hard work, determination and the opportunity that America offered, he had made the leap from farm laborer to a winemaker whose wine was served in the White House.

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From that first meeting, Ulises went on to become our advisor and mentor. He helped us develop our vineyard, was our first vineyard manager and, I’m sure, his involvement in our little vineyard gave our customers the confidence to give us a shot. Along the way, he transferred some of his passion for quality and exacting farming standards to us through his example.

My “Ulises” story is this: One day, I was irrigating the vines and I noticed that an animal had chewed through the drip line along Laguna Road, creating a “geyser.” I saw it, grumbled and started walking back to the barn to get the supplies to fix it, turned around and walked back. I arrived in time to see Ulises’ truck pulling away. In the time it had taken me, he spotted the problem while driving by at 45 miles per hour, jumped out, fixed it and was off about his day.

I’m grateful to have known Ulises, and all of us here in the Russian River Valley will miss him. He was a true icon. Our hearts go out to his wife and kids.

Ulises with Celeste and Clay after our first harvest in 2013.

Ulises with Celeste and Clay after our first harvest in 2013.

Harvest 2017 at Gantz Family Vineyards

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Gantz Family Vineyards measures itself on quality and not quantity, but after last week's harvest, we were pleased with the results. As a relatively young and small vineyard experiencing only its fifth harvest, the main thing we want to see is improvement year over year. We were pleased to see growth in 2017, with an abundant amount of Pinot Noir fruit harvested and delivered to winemaker Kosta Browne Winery.

As it goes with farming, it was down to the last minute before we were absolutely confirmed on the picking date/time. It was supposed to be at 2 a.m., Wednesday morning (September 13), so Celeste figured she had time to rehearse with her a cappella group Tuesday evening, come home for a nap, and start fresh. No such luck! Our vineyard manager, Jim Pratt of Cornerstone Certified Vineyard, announced that picking would start at 10 p.m., Tuesday night (September 12). So Celeste left rehearsal early and hit the ground running! We like to provide lots of "fortifications" for the crew; Clay made sure the crew knew where the snacks were and proceeded to make pot after pot of coffee.  

Both of us help with the "sweep" harvest, picking up the grapes that the crews drop or miss. But later in the evening, it became apparent that because of our new leafing strategy, it was hard for the guys to find and pick the fruit, particularly in the Pommard and Calera blocks. So Celeste decided to go out and pull leaves away, just ahead of the crews; it's a task she's planning on taking on again next year. She can't do it all, but it certainly helps.  

The crew started at 10 p.m. and finished at 6 a.m., working through the mild, 61-degree night. Just as the last crew member emptied his tub into the bin, a few raindrops began to fall. As the last bin was fork-lifted onto the truck, the rain started to pour in earnest, complete with lightning and thunder. We couldn't believe our luck! 

Delivery at Kosta Browne Winery

Delivery at Kosta Browne Winery

The Mariafeld 23 clone, which we introduced into the vineyard last year, performed better than expected and Sam Ausburn, Kosta Browne's viticulturist, was pleased about the quality. It was a nice result, especially because deciding to replace some of our Calera with the 23 wasn't an easy decision. We do feel like the results validate (at least initially) some of the steps we took for the first time this year:

  • The fourth cane in the Calera calmed the vines and resulted in better set.

  • A new leafing strategy helped protect the grapes when we had the Labor Day heat spike.

  • The grapes seemed to respond well to a regulated deficit irrigation strategy.

Because it is farming, we have to give a big nod of thanks to Lady Luck. Our row orientation (E-W) combined with our leafing strategy helped to protect the clusters from the hot weather. An E-W row orientation is unorthodox, but we picked it (with counsel from our former vineyard manager Ulises Valdez and Kris Lowe) because of the way our site was laid out and because, in our spot in the Russian River Valley, we were not too worried about sunburn. This year was not ideal for growers by any stretch -- with heat spikes, wide temp fluctuations and rain during harvest -- so we feel like we were very fortunate.

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