“Serendipity” is a word that Lou Preston uses often when describing the life that he and his wife, the artist Susan Preston, share at their Preston of Dry Creek farm and vineyard. Serendipity brought them to the land, and serendipity has, for four decades, helped them see how best to serve the land.
Farmers, vintners, bread bakers, oil makers, the Prestons steward some 120 acres in north Healdsburg. But they’d probably be somewhere else doing something else if Lou’s family hadn’t sold its Russian River dairy in the early ’70s just when he was ready to take it over and if he hadn’t been a restless junior accountant with a Big Eight firm who was given BV Winery as a client.
“Andrei Tchelistcheff had just retired and had been replaced by a new hotshot winemaker,” Lou says, “and it was so exciting that I thought, ‘I don’t want to do what I’m doing on this side of the desk, I want to be on the other side of the desk.’ That’s what prompted me to take a leave of absence and go to UC Davis to learn and that’s what led to what I’m doing now.”
At Davis, Lou audited classes and steeped himself in the UC method of enology. He and Susan came to their land in 1973, starting with just 35 acres. Over the years, the neighbors sold to them, and today Preston of Dry Creek stretches for some 120 acres down to Pena Creek and up to the ridgeline.
Italians settled the Dry Creek Valley and brought Old Country ways with them, planting walnut trees to shade the south side of the house, keeping some apple trees for feed and for pleasure, planting to prunes and other stone fruit, and keeping those vines and olive trees necessary to provide the household with enough wine and oil for the season.
The Prestons embraced some of the old ways while pursuing the new ways of grape growing as counseled by UC Davis. But gradually, the land itself began to tell them what it needed. And what it needed was more.
“The diversification didn’t come until we had been growing grapes for 20 years,” Lou says. “I had already become concerned about the conventional methods people had used for vineyards and we had stopped using [pesticides], but there came a point where I wanted to go the extra mile and actively learn organic farming.
“I didn’t know what it was all about,” he says. “I thought that you just stopped spraying and everything would be just fine. It took quite a bit of learning before I came to realize that it’s a very positive, proactive form of working with soil, nutrition, and environmental protection.”
Organic farming expert “Amigo” Bob Cantisano convinced Lou and Susan to make the switch, including embracing the fairly radical act of adding compost to their vineyards.
“He said, ‘The first thing that you’re going to have to do, Lou, if you’re going to go organic is that you have to buy as much compost as you can afford and put it everywhere,'” Lou remembers with a laugh.
“We thought about and said, ‘OK.’ That was the beginning of the change and that was toward the end of the ’90s.”
The land itself was changed by the Preston’s transformation. They planted miles of hedgerows to encourage beneficial predator insects to do the work that pesticide had previously done. They introduced animals to graze, beginning with chickens, and adding Katahdin “hair” sheep — a wool-less variety better suited to people who hadn’t ever raised sheep. They tried pigs but pigs root when they graze and of course, when the sows went into heat, local wild boars raided the herd, avid to mate. Even so, they might try pigs again.
“There’s this wonderful feeling that the property takes on when there are animals,” Lou says. “The presence of these living beings. They’re either cute or they’re full of energy and they make these great sounds and they bleat or they crow and that became part of our story – an important one. I would never now not have animals.”
Making wine, Lou also bakes bread. He and Susan produce oil from their own olive trees. The garden that once sustained just them and their children has expanded to several acres, producing food year-round. Grain for Lou’s bread was planted. Bounty is everywhere.
Using Old World methods and habits is one way to salve land that’s been scarred by years of misuse. After obtaining an organic certification for the property, the Prestons went a step further and in 2015 obtained a Demeter cert, being officially a biodynamic farm, practicing methods that go beyond organic.
“Organic is OK, but we came to realize that there’s a mechanistic approach to it,” Lou says. “It’s about what you don’t do, and it doesn’t focus as much on the life of the soils and the life on the land. Biodynamic farming really pays attention to life energies, whether they’re from cosmic influences or from herbal preparations or from cycling nutrients that are native to your property back in to reinforce the personality of that property. It’s different from organic.
“It’s difficult to describe,” he says, “but you can feel it, you can sense it, there’s a sixth sense that we don’t have any more but our predecessors in older times did, the native peoples did. Biodynamic farming in a way is re-learning this sixth sense or practicing it so that it becomes absorbed and a part of us.”
Now of a certain age, the Prestons are considering what might happen to their land when they’re no longer here to steward it.
“Land in California is a temporal thing,” Lou says. “People come and inflict their agendas on the land and then they go. We feel that it’s important for the land to speak for itself. We feel that we can protect it for the future; we’re looking at ways to ensure that the integrity of this land will persevere.”
You find yourself in a place and a time that just feels right. Perhaps it’s serendipity.
“We’re residing on this continuum, we’re not here forever,” Lou says gently. “We just help to guide it. The continuum goes on.”