Thursday, April 26, 2012

Talking shit with Trey Fletcher at Bien Nacido Vineyards

Few vineyards in California -- or anywhere, really -- are as beautiful as Bien Nacido in Santa Maria Valley
Trey Fletcher, the new winemaker for Bien Nacido Vineyards, thrusts a pile of shit at my nose. "Take a whiff of that," he says.

Fletcher is creating single-variety compost for the large vineyard in Santa Maria Valley. He's got individual piles of cow, sheep, horse and goat shit, and he's experimenting to see which creates the best hummus for natural fertilizer for his vines. He may end up using horse shit on one Pinot block, perhaps sheep shit on the Chardonnay, just to see if it makes a difference.

Here, stick this in your nose, Blake! Straight from the horse's, um ...
The one he asks me to sample is horse. It's pretty early in the morning for this, but I lean forward to smell it, which is a lot less commitment than Fletcher, who enthusiastically plunged his hands right into the pile. It doesn't smell, er, horsey; it smells like rich dirt.

"Compost is a lot like wine," he says. "It ferments like wine, and you have to keep an eye on it. I love doing this. This shit is epic." Fletcher keeps sprinklers in his big piles of shit to make sure it doesn't dry out, because then it would turn to dust and blow away (and you wonder where house dust comes from.)

"You must go over big with the ladies," I say. Fletcher, 31, does have a girlfriend, but she doesn't share his love of manure. "The first time I did this, we inoculated a manure pile over 1/4 mile long. She wouldn't even let me in the bedroom."

Fletcher was hired in 2011 as winemaker for the fairly small label of one of Santa Barbara County's most important vineyard properties. Founded in 1973, Bien Nacido has allowed many of southern California's best winemakers to farm to their specifications without buying vineyards. That's why it shows up on so many wine labels.

"It's the poor man's estate," says Gavin Chanin, who at 26 has his own label, Chanin Wine Co., where he makes exciting low-alcohol wines. "It gives me a home base. I can get the vines farmed just as I want."

Bien Nacido is farmed biodynamically in many blocks, although individual vintners don't have to hew to the regime. But it is an integrated farm that also grows blueberries, avocados and Meyer lemons, as well as raising the mammals more for their meat than their manure. (The horses are for cowboys to herd the cows.)

"By growing avocados and blueberries, we can keep our farm workers year-round," Fletcher says. We wave at Zefe, the avocado farming supervisor, who has worked at Bien Nacido for 20 years. "Some people do exploit farm labor. That's something we have no interest in doing."

A San Diego native, Fletcher looks and sounds like a typical sunglassed, take-it-easy southern California guy until he calls out a greeting to Zefe in perfect Spanish. He also speaks French, a result of having moved to Switzerland after high school, where he worked in vineyards because it was a job. He didn't have his wine epiphany until he was drinking cheap wine in Chianti as a backpacker. "It dawned on me: someone's got to grow the grapes. Why not me?"

He moved back to the US and got a job in the fields at Silverado in Napa Valley. "They told me, you really ought to get a college degree." So he graduated from Fresno State and immediately headed to New Zealand to work for a French family that owns Clos Henri. Then he spent six months working for Michel Rolland in Salta, Argentina, coming home when he ran out of money. After a stint at Domaine Alfred, he spent the last few years at Littorai as associate winemaker.

It's hard to get a handle on what his winemaking style will be like because he just started before the 2011 harvest. But his hands-on enthusiasm fits in well at Bien Nacido. He wants to show me how steep some own-rooted hillside Pinot Noir vineyards are, so we hike up about a 40-degree slope, just for the heck of it. I wish Robert Parker were there with me.

"I'm going to take it to a very terroir-driven focus," Fletcher says. "No fining. All native yeast. We have filtered in the past, but going forward, the goal is unfiltered. I'm not an alcohol Nazi but the last four years of my life I can count on one hand the number of my wines that have been over 14.3."

It will be interesting to see if Fletcher can make wines that compete in quality with some of the big-name wineries -- Qupe, Au Bon Climat, Tantara, the list could go on for a while -- that make wine from Bien Nacido Vineyards. In the attempt, he is willing to get his hands (and my nose) dirty.

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Anonymous said...

I'm here with Trey Fletcher........

Allen said...

Very interesting article, Blake. Sounds like a smart and dynamic guy and I've long loved the terroir of Bien Nacido, especially as it manifests in Chardonnay, for years. That's the vineyard in California for my humble opinion.

Especially liked the part where he makes a point of mentioning that they do not exploit farm labor. I have heard from other sources that they are very good employers; always good to know, as many larger vineyards and wineries do not necessarily view farm labor in the same light....well, as individuals, rather than just....labor.

Peter said...

so does he Fletcher at Cheni wine Company?

Peter said...

Im Sorry, I meant Chanin Wine Company

W. Blake Gray said...

Peter: I don't get it. Chanin gets grapes from Bien Nacido, and I'm sure they know each other, but don't know if they work together on anything.

Peter said...

Sorry Blake, I missed the first sentence of your article where it says Fletcher works for Bien Nacido. I got curious to try his wine and was looking on the web site but it doesn't show any wines they make and just the wineries that buy fruit from them.

W. Blake Gray said...

Peter: Yeah, the Bien Nacido brand wines are really sold on the down low. One of the most interesting things about the philosophy of the vineyard is that the owners have always preferred others to make wines with the fruit from there.

In any case his first vintage won't be available for a while. Maybe try a Littorai wine, where he was working? I rather like those.

Peter said...

Great, Thanks Blake.