MERRILL FAMILY:TEN QUESTIONS
Written by: Lynn Diehl - 2011
TEN QUESTIONS WITH LYNN DIEHL
SLO City News is a publication of Tolosa Press Newspapers. Read about the wine industry each week in their own words.
The Merrill Family – with its nine generations – is firmly rooted here. Mesa Vineyard Management Company oversees a lot of acreage and their Pomar Junction label reflects their commitment to quality grapes. They are among the founders of the Central Coast Vineyard Team, which promotes healthy practices in the vineyard. Matt Merrill, General Manager/Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery (www.pomarjunction.com) answers Ten Questions with Lynn Diehl this week.
January 13 – 19, 2011 • SLO City News
Ten Questions with Lynn Diehl
As we kick off 2011 in the vineyard and wineries, it’s appropriate to touch base with families who have been farming the Central Coast of California for many years.
Q: Matt – we certainly ended the year on a rainy note and that’s after we had rain last year. Certainly, it helped with water supplies, but what does it mean for Pomar Junction’s vineyard operations as you start the growing season in a few months?
A: As you already know rain is great for many reasons. We are able to hold off from irrigating the vineyard well into the summer months. This helps keep the newly stored groundwater in the ground; we don’t have to tap into it until later on in the growing season. The abun- dance of rain is also good for the root structure of the vines. The vine should be able to mine for more nutrients in a larger expanded area. The vine roots are able to thrive and expand through moisture. The only drawback may be in flooded areas as the vines have trouble with “wet feet,” but from what I have seen, they can be under water for a few weeks before drainage and still be fine. If it does stay wet it will make it tough to get into the fields for prun- ing. Hopefully we get a balance of wet weeks and dry weeks so that we can get work done in the vineyards, espe- cially before bud break.
Q: Have you pruned the vines already?
A: We have pre-pruned already. We have used a machine that we can also use for harvest to make the work easier for the pruning crew to do its job.
Q: Growers and winemakers said 2010 was a growing sea- son that presented challenges for a region that is often blessed with predictable weather patterns. From a wine- making and growing perspective was it a learning experi- ence?
A: As a grower I always look at the vines themselves to determine how they are farmed. In a cooler year such as this past one it was important to be sure to keep the vines from growing out of control by over-irrigating. Also by the end of the season it is important to see how the grapes are maturing. If they are maturing too slowly it is impor- tant to thin the crop down a bit to be sure that they can achieve full ripeness.
Q: What do you expect from this year’s vintage?
A: I think that some of our later picks, such as our Merlot and Cab Sauv, will have a slightly cooler climate profile than in most years. Our other varieties should be fairly normal for us. Q: Pomar Junction and Mesa Vineyard Management are family businesses – who does what and how did you all decide which area of the business you would be responsi- ble for? Kevin Riley is part of the winemaking team – explain how that works. A: Kevin Riley is our Head Winemaker. We meet with Kevin throughout the growing season to make sure that we are all happy with the way the vines and fruit is pro- gressing. Kevin’s job is to make sure the wine comes out with its own unique expression and is professionally main- tained. We know that you can take great fruit and still make terrible wine, so in essence Kevin wants to make sure that the winemaking doesn’t mess up the great wine grapes that we harvest. By what we have tasted for our- selves for several vintages now and seen from our cus- tomers, Kevin has done a very good job of this. My father is involved with the big picture aspects of Pomar Junction and all aspects of Mesa Vineyard Management. I managed 500 acres of vineyards for Mesa Vineyard Management (including 260 acres for Diageo - I helped get the Red Hills vineyard designation going after improving the wine quality from that vineyard). As Pomar Junction grew I was moved over to the General Managing position in June of 2009. This includes all aspects of Pomar includ- ing the tasting room, Pomar events, distribution, produc- tion, compliance, bottling, advertising and many other things. This job is very different than managing vine- yards, but it helped doing that job first when it comes to knowing the industry and conversing with customers. Vineyard managers don’t have much of a voice when it comes to the end consumer. I do think that my schooling at Cal Poly was very helpful for my new job as this new venture was a new aspect to the family business.
Q: You went to Cal Poly (fruit sciences, correct?) – did you always intend to continue the family farming tradi- tion or did you ever think you’d want to do something else?
A: I really did not know what I wanted to do when I was younger. I decided to go to work with my dad when I was 14 so that I could earn some money and get out of the house during summer break. The first two years were office work but after that my friends and I would do all sorts of different jobs in the vineyards during the sum- mers. As it turns out I learned a lot by doing so and as I went past high school I didn’t really have anything else that sounded better. I knew that someday when I graduated from college I would need a job and my best chance of getting a job would be with my father’s business. As I went further through school I knew I was on the right path as school became more interesting and easier the higher I went. I have a BS in fruit science and was a class away from a minor in ag business and wine and viticul- ture. I could have stayed a little longer to get those minor’s, but my dad had a job that was ready for me; he had purchased Pomar Junction Vineyard a few months before I graduated in June of 2002. As I went through school I realized that I had a huge advantage over many other students with my past experience of working in the vineyards and being able to have my father’s ear around for questions that I had. I soon realized after graduating that I had a knack for farming that must have come naturally from literally growing up in the largest vineyard in the world in King City (San Bernabe) and working in the vineyards.
Q: As a vineyard management company, Mesa Vineyard Management has a 30-year-plus reputation. At what point did it make sense to start making wine, as well?
A: Making our own wine is more of a passion thing than anything else. It is great to be able to talk to the end con- sumer as a family venture one-on-one and see their appre- ciation for the wine that you worked so hard to create. Hopefully it also creates a business in which we are in con-trol of our own destiny; we are not reliant on just a few clients to support our business.
Q: When you work with clients, does it help to under- stand all aspects of the wine production cycle?
A: It is definitely an added aspect that is helpful for our clients. It is good to know the production cycle. When grape prices are down, the vineyard owner can make bulk wine out of the perishable grapes. Grapes have a small window of time of being sold before they will rot. Bulk wine is less risky for the potential buyer as you now know what kind of quality you actually have and the window of time to sell it is now much longer.
Q: Your son, Ethan, is 9th generation Californian. What do you hope to pass on to him?
A: I hope to pass on a viable business that can expand to support them as it has supported me. I will also be able to pass on a sustainably farmed vineyard.
Q: As we head into the New Year, what’s new on the hori- zon in 2011 for your vineyards or wine line-up or busi- nesses?
A: We are excited to have our Syrah, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir coming from our home vineyard (Pomar Junction) as those blocks have now come into production the past few years. Some upcoming bottlings will include more SIP Certified Fruit from our estate vineyard. Our first SIP Certified Reds will come from our 2009 vintage and is getting close to being ready to bottle. We are also excited to host the Earth Day Food and Wine Festival on April 16. I think that it will be an amazing event to be able to taste wines while being surrounded by sustainably farmed vineyards.
Lynn Diehl is the owner and host of Wine Region News. The print version of “Ten Questions” may be edited for space considerations.