Victor Edwards is a student of the grape. Texts from UC Davis, The American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, and Vinquiry rest on a shelf in the barrel-storage room at Edwards Vineyards and Cellars in Ramona, propped up next to a binder full of Practical Winery & Vineyard magazines. He is always eager for new information and amazed by how much there is of it in the wine world. Oak barrels provide a good example: You want French, Hungarian, or American? American? Okay, grown where? Pennsylvania, Iowa, or Missouri? How heavy a toast? How much new? How much used? And so on.
So he was frustrated by famed viticulturist Richard Smart's visit to San Diego last summer. "I've read all his books, and the stuff he writes in magazines. He described a unilateral trellis system in an article once, and it was like the culmination of years of my own experience -- I just said, 'Yes. '" (Unilateral cordons, since they don't require the pruning used to create bilateral cordons, may start producing usable fruit faster.) Edwards had hoped to learn from the master; instead he got a talk about Australian market share and site-analysis services. About grape-growing, Smart kept things general. "He said that anywhere on the Western seaboard within thirty miles of the ocean was prime grape-growing land, because you don't get a lot of rain during the harvest season, and you get just enough of that onshore drift" from the ocean to keep things cool. "He said, 'You guys have it made here. '"
Edwards knew better. He's been growing grapes in Ramona for a dozen years and getting wine out of them since 1994. "As soon as we bought our first house," says his wife Beth, "the first thing he wanted to do was plant a vineyard. Not a garden, not a lawn, not a swimming pool -- a vineyard."
That planting was highly experimental. On a quarter-acre lot, Edwards grew Carignan, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel on three different trellising systems, and with both above- and below-ground irrigation. He learned that he couldn't water his vines enough to get them to fill out a lyre trellis and that his wife wasn't quite tall enough to get the bird netting over the top of it. He learned the importance of sun exposure; the vineyard was situated near an olive grove, and his Petite Sirah never developed the intensity he desired. And he learned that he did not "have it made" when it came to growing grapes. "Some years, we get a little bit more of that onshore drift; some years we get a little bit less. When it comes in, you can get some drizzle in September." Water that close to harvest is anathema. As the grape swells with moisture, "Your sugars start dropping, and your acids start dropping, too. Sometimes, you're forced to pick less-than-ideal fruit."
He learned from experience that conventional wisdom -- sometimes dictated by the enology experts at UC Davis, sometimes by other experts -- doesn't always hold. "Carignan has always been said to be a powdery-mildew magnet. I found that it was Zinfandel -- a cloud just has to pass by in September, and the Zinfandel starts growing fuzz. The Carignan doesn't go for another two weeks, and it's not epidemic. I think San Diego County is probably the better place to grow it."
Experience also taught him that Cabernet Sauvignon might succeed south of Sonoma, maybe even south of Paso Robles. "I got my '02 Cabernet from a vineyard in Rancho Santa Teresa, which is similar in terms of onshore drift. I had consulted for them, and they never paid me. Then I found out they were selling. They said, 'We have this fruit; would you like it?' I said, 'Let me come by and taste it.' Their gardener had done whatever he'd done," without paying excessive heed to Edwards' counsel, "but he'd done a pretty good job. I tasted the fruit, and I was thinking, 'This is pretty good.' Underripe Cabernet can have those bell-pepper/green-bean flavors, and this was already past that point.
"Still," he continues, "I had to get the fruit off the vines before escrow closed, which was in a month. I came by every couple of days and told the gardener whether or not to water, and I was rather pleased. I was getting some nice cherry qualities in the fruit, and I was thinking, 'This shouldn't happen,' because so much Southern California Cabernet has that bell-pepper flavor. I've come to the conclusion that it has a lot to do with canopy management and the vigor of the vine," too much green on the vine leading to too much vegetal flavor. "This just lucked out. They sold the vineyard, and the new owners aren't quite as interested in doing what I suggest, but it encouraged me to reconsider Cabernet." That '02 is just about ready for bottling under the Edwards label, and it led to his planting Cabernet along the top of his new, commercial vineyard.
The most dramatic example of experience over education, however, might have come with his '04 Petite Sirah. "Lower down on the hill, you get a lot more of that onshore drift. The fruit was up at 23.5 brix" -- brix is a measure of sugar content -- "and it was hot that week. The fruit was almost ripe enough, and the heat could only help matters. I said, 'Okay, Beth, we're going to pick.' We organized a party for Saturday, but for two or three days before that, we got that onshore drift -- and a little drizzle. The Petite Sirah grapes are like sponges; if you get some moisture in the air, they just soak it up. I told Beth the night before, 'I don't think we should pick.' She said, 'You can't do that. We've got all these people showing up! I've got the food lined up! You're crazy. Don't worry about it.'
"So I'm picking this stuff, and I'm tasting it, and it's just not doing it for me. I stopped the picking at the halfway point, and we went and crushed it up. I ran the chemistry, and it came up lacking -- 22.5 brix. I freaked out, because everything I've read, everything I've been taught says that it's got to be up around 24.5--25.5. So I said, 'Okay, let's stop there. It's not going to hurt us to leave the rest of the fruit down there and see what the weather does. The next week brought a Santa Ana, so the grapes went from 22.5 to 25 in seven days."