When David Hirsch bought his wild far away mass of land way up on the high north coast of Sonoma County in 1978, it was intended to be a retreat. He had a home and a robust business as a woman’s clothier at home in Santa Cruz; he didn’t need niceties at his get-away.
Not that there were any. No water, no electricity, no structures marred the rugged 1,100-acre parcel that formerly had been home mostly to sheep.
But there was the ocean 1,500 feet below, there were fir and conifer trees, there was volcanic soil and metamorphic rock and deep gullies and chilly fogs and freaky night heat and, as Hirsch came to discover over the ensuing years, fragments of weather from every part of California flowing vigorously and regularly across his hills.
He certainly didn’t intend to farm wine grapes on the land. No one in the vicinity raised anything more delicate than lambs or redwoods. When in 1980 a Santa Cruz winemaking friend pronounced the land excellent for Pinot, Hirsch decided it would be a kick to put in a bloc, adding a couple of blocs of Riesling for good measure, trying out a little hobby patch on two acres. Just for fun.
That original Pinot still thrives today, one of 68 acres planted to Pinot with some Chardonnay to balance, arranged in some 60 different parcels. Because that’s how crazy this land is. Temperatures can range 20 degrees within a mile. The soil composite of one parcel seems to have come from a continent different from the one beside it. It might have.
This unruly tract so extremely defined by the San Andreas fault that the 1906 earthquake remains a fresh story drew Hirsch all the way in. By 1987 he had moved his family there, having “gotten the bug to be a grape grower,” he says.
He grew and sold fruit until he got the wine-making bug. There’s really nothing prosaic about it. “While the wealth is in the land,” Hirsch recites, “the cash flow is in the bottle.”
Errors were certainly made and nature certainly bore them badly. Regularly receiving 80 inches of rain a year, Hirsch’s land was inundated with 150 inches during the El Niño storms of 1998. Poorly chosen rootstock and bad planting practices made it apparent, Hirsch says, that “we had made some serious mistakes.”
In partnership with his farmer Everardo Robledo, he studied up on soil, became a self-proclaimed amateur agronomist, and embarked on “a new approach to farming.” Today, the land is biodynamically tended with an eye to its holistic health.
And if there is one stone truth, it’s that biodynamic farmers are poets. Paying attention, that’s all it is.
“We’re on the San Andreas Fault,” Hirsch explains. “Below the tectonic plate, you’ve got that molten material of Mother Earth, that pure earthen material, and if you’ve ever been on new lava and you smelled how fresh and vital it is, you know.
“You get a sense of how the Earth was before when it was young and innocent and fresh and that whole energy – the enormous pressure, the North and Pacific plates rubbing against each other – that energy is coming up and that infuses the site here.”
When he first bought the land, Hirsch thought of it as “Appalachia East,” he says, and reckoned it would take about 200 years to heal it from the ranching, the logging that helped rebuild San Francisco after the ’06 earthquake, and the topsoil loss. He’s willing to wait.
“The reason that we’re doing all of this is restore the health of the land,” he says. “And then we discovered that the vineyards are a gold mine. They can support the restoration of the land. We don’t have to carve it up into 10-acre vineyard sites.”
This gold mine depends on liquid, the entirely eccentric, deeply delicious, tremendously female, award-winning Pinots that flow each year from Hirsch’s tanks to a few thousand cases eagerly purchased only by allotment. Hirsch (actually, his daughter Jasmine, the winery’s general manager) tells you which and how many of his wines you can buy, not the other way around.
Distinguished by what the winemaker doesn’t do, Hirsch Pinots exactly reflect the 60 parcels from which they’re sourced, the pounding winter rains that drench those parcels, the Fresno heat that blows over some of them at 2am, the thin trampled hillsides they cling to, the vital pulsing fresh young molten earth below them all.
“The Buddha said that if you’re looking for perfection, the only perfection you’ll find is the average of billions and billions of imperfections,” Hirsch says. “That’s Pinot. It’s the most adaptable of all the varieties; it’s the most sensitive to the environment.
“It’s like people,” he continues. “Anyone who tries to make ‘the perfect Pinot’ is missing the point. It’s really better to trust in your site, be responsive in the active mode, listen to the site, listen to the vines, taste the fruit, let the yeast make the wines.
“Throw out all of this technology and over control of the site, and the Pinot will reveal itself.”