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Winemakers in Silicon Valley THE FINAL TEST: Dhruv Khanna of Kirigan Cellars strives to be worthy of a tasting room nearly a century old. Photograph by Jamie Soja

Inventing Solutions

Before Slater's transformation into a self-proclaimed "mad scientist" (mad crazy, not mad angry), Slater gravitated toward the arts. He DJ'd for his college radio station, played in garage bands and took classes in wine appreciation long before his retirement led him to buying his vineyard in 2003.

Unsurprisingly, the inventor turned farmer has some other ideas to work on with Haynie and SJSU, like building a system to measure heat in the earth, which affects the final quality of the grape.

"Wine grapes all ripen at slightly different times," Slater explains. "There's a long rule-of-thumb average that we call heat summation, which tells us that each different varietal needs a certain amount of heat to ripen. It's not a precise number, but it's a way to gauge things."

Each growing area has a unique heat summation value, a different number of days at a certain temperature. Pinot noir grapes, for example, need 25 100-degree days to ripen well, Slater explains.

When it costs so much to plant a vineyard and takes a five years to reach full production, there's a lot at stake in measuring the outcome, which varies dramatically mile to mile.

Slater's vineyard rests in a half-maritime microclimate, where cool weather varietals thrive. Five miles east into Gilroy, it's maybe 10 degrees hotter, and those same grapes would wither. Mapping the specifics would do a lot to boost the quality of local varietals, Slater notes.

"It behooves us to know that informational value since it changes rapidly depending on your exact location," says Slater. "I envision making a huge array of a vast amount of informational systems, every mile or two, so we could develop a map of the soil's heat-summation zones to figure out what varietals are appropriate to plant there in the first place."

If he does that, it would mark the first time anyone has studied the region's winegrowing capabilities so precisely and in a way that helps anyone interested in planting here.

Crafting an Image

Wine is a lot about perception. People buy a bottle because the label is eye-catching, they know something about the vineyard or they trust its reputation. A recent survey conducted by the local wine association found that people associate the 30 or so South Bay wineries with the words "family" and local."

The market perception doesn't really acknowledge that these small wineries can produce fine wines that rival those of major corporations. The assumption is that they market value-priced wines, say for $10 to $15 a bottle, which they do, but that's not all they sell.

You could find local wines on the shelves in major supermarkets and some food stores. The more established wineries, like Guglielmo Winery and J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, move tens of thousands of cases a year and win accolades in wine competitions. Others, like Lightheart, are still trying to get the word out that they even exist, let along craft a delicious quality wine (which they do for $19 to $40 a bottle).

"We are local, we often are family-owned, but we're trying to show people that we can make finer wines," Haynie says. "We're working to make better wines and to become more established in the minds of people."

Haynie says he's trying to spread the word, through the association he heads, that small local wineries can produce top-shelf product. He also hopes the stories of the people behind each winery, and the Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism that seeps into local viticulture, will appeal to local agri-tourists and wine lovers. The valley's proximity to an international airport, hotels and major urban centers should make the quick getaway to the South Bay an alluring prospect, he figures. It's just that more people need to think of the valley as a destination.

"People like knowing how a wine was made and who made it," Haynie says. "We take special pride in being able to tell people that we touched every bottle, we engineered this product from start to finish. It's a science, but always, it's a labor of love."

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