In our fast paced, razzle dazzle world of endlessly cool wine it can be a little hard to remember that, for the winemakers, things develop slowly, grindingly over years. Even in California, where it can seem like producers are spoiled for choice when it comes to magical vineyards, securing sourcing is a long term project. It’s not uncommon for a new winery to produce a bevy of one-off bottlings in their early years as they scramble to deal with seemingly-steadfast sources drying up just as unforeseen opportunities materialize.
For Martha Stoumen, leasing Benson Ranch and its elder sister, Chiarito Vineyard, represent a paradigm shift, an opportunity to enact her farm-first attitude to winemaking and work with some seriously killer terroir.
The story begins thirty years ago with John Chiarito. Like making pasta and bread, the Italo-American Chiarito family viewed wine as a humble family practice rather than the daunting scientific task most Americans imagine it to be.
In order to supply his winemaking venture with his father, John established the two sister vineyards in a ruggedly traditional fashion. Planting a vineyard is an act of supreme patience: it can take three years or more to get a meaningful bounty of grapes with classic planting methods. For most folks seeking to start a vineyard, that’s a pretty daunting proposition in the first place but John opted for a super tradish, even more time intensive approach. In the early years, John elected to employ a super old-fashioned method of developing deeper root systems by deep plowing, essentially pruning the roots to encourage the roots to explore below. Wicked cool from a flavor potential standpoint but it sets the first harvest back 5-7 years from initial planting. The vineyard was planted without irrigation to drought resistant rootstock, field grafted two years later and, as the vines matured, John cultivated willow to use the whips to train the vines up as they matured. Old school old school.
In 2019, Martha started farming what had been John Chiarito’s backyard vineyard in Talmage just to the South East of Ukiah on the eastern side of the Russian River. He planted nearly 30 years ago with cuttings from the legendary Fox Hill, a vineyard of historic significance that was started with dozens of vine cuttings from Portugal and Italy smuggled back to the US in the owner’s suitcase.
Compared to the manicured vineyards around it, Chiarito Vineyard is all wildness. The vineyard is bracketed by fig, olive and walnut trees with peach trees punctuating the blocks, “you’re in Italy when you’re there” Martha says fondly. Situated mid slope with a gentle incline, Chiarito is an 8 acre plot with 5 acres under vine, primarily planted to Zinfandel with some Nero d’Avola and Petite Syrah on loamy soils with pockets of gravel. The shifting groundcover tells a story of greater geologic variation but Martha’s still building her relationship with this charming vineyard. “One thing I’ve noticed,” she says “is that Chiarito is more rustic, way more savory.”
The vineyard has always been farmed without chemicals but after John sold it in 2017, it was farmed less intentionally. During this time, an irrigation system was put in place that Martha uses very sparingly. As a consequence of this system, however, Martha isn’t able to cross-cultivate the way she likes and so instead of turning the earth like she does at Benson Ranch, Chiarito has become an experiment in no-till farming. With the tall grasses and the free-form bush vines, Martha affectionately thinks of the plants here as “little octopus vines crawling across the soil.”
Although Benson Ranch is the younger of the two vineyards, Martha has leased it since 2015. “I stumbled on a glorious vineyard to work with” Martha says of the 16 year old site. The vineyard is well-drained sandy loam without the clay layer so common to the area that traps excessive, disease spreading moisture. As a result there’s very little mildew pressure and so almost no need for sulfur applications. They mitigate drought risk by using an old farming trick of deeply turning over the soil in dry conditions producing a dry, dusty mulch layer that works like a sponge to draw up water from the low water table.
The vineyard slopes down hill from West to East giving them a gentler sun with Petite Syrah at the top, Negroamaro in the mid slope and the largest, easternmost block planted to Nero d’Avola. The Nero d’Avola block is split at an angle across two soils with the Western, upper portion composed of a sandier loam with an orange hue from oxidized iron. In this section, the vines produce larger clusters with a heavier canopy, yielding a more concentrated juice destined for Martha's red wines. Leaning East, the soils become more of a true loam that’s "like pillowy moon dust" when the ground gets worked. The plants here, allocated to her rosé, are smaller berried, with a lighter canopy.
Martha associates the site with what she calls a “polar acidity, like a tight corset.” The brightness allows Martha to leave the grapes on the vine a little longer. “Because the acidity maintains, you can let it get kinda plush. ”
2019 'Mendocino Benchlands'
This reunited pair of vineyards has encouraged Martha to resurrect one her first bottlings, 'Mendocino Benchlands,' a blend of semi-carbonic Nero d'Avola and destemmed Zinfandel that takes inspiration from Ceresuolo di Vittoria of Sicilian fame. A mix of fruit from Benson Ranch, Chiarito Vineyard and their mother vineyard, Fox Hill, the wine pays homage to the rich history of Italo-American viticulture in California.