Peder Norby and his wife Julie wanted an estate home — something large-scale (3500 square feet, plus a guest house), something customized (retractable, accordion-style walls, something worthy of the Scandinavian custom of house-naming (they went with Heron's House after twice finding the birds on the Carlsbad lot they chose for a building site). But they also wanted something community-friendly (they positioned the house to maintain one neighbor's view of the lagoon), something unostentatious (long lines and deep earth tones), and most importantly, something tied integrally to the surrounding landscape.
"The ethos," says Norby, "was to blend in and respect nature, be part of it." To that end, "we're trying to pull in native plantings from the hillside," and they're giving over a fair portion of their yard space, not to grass, but to grapevines. "Two of them are Vitis Californica, which make terrible wine but wonderful foliage. They're going to be espaliers going up over the house's deck elements." (Not to suggest that the decision to plant vines was any kind of designer's afterthought — "Hey, honey, you know what's low-water and attractive?" The Norbys knew they wanted to plant a vineyard, to the point where getting a south-facing hillside exposure was a priority in site selection. "My wife and I are both wine drinkers," says Norby, "and it was, like, 'Can we do it?'" During site inspection, they added a pH reading to the soil examination, and once they start getting fruit, they'll send plant samples to UC Davis for evaluation.)
The rest of the roughly 130 vines — planted earlier this year — are mostly Sangiovese, with a little Cab and Cab Franc thrown in for good measure. "It's the basic recipe for a Super-Tuscan," Norby says, "so I'll be doing some straight Sangiovese, plus some blends. And I'll be making a rosé," bleeding off some of the juice during fermentation to increase the concentration of what remains.
Norby planted Sangiovese — specifically, the Brunello clone of that grape — because he likes to drink it. Also because Italian varietals are the specialty of his neighbor Pete Anderson, who lives three blocks away. "I was lurking on several websites," recalls Norby, "and one of them was for the San Diego Amateur Winemaking Society. I read where Lum Eisenman is the mentor for winemaking, and Pete Anderson is the mentor for grape-growing." The builders were ready to start pouring concrete for the patios and sidewalks, "so I figured I'd better e-mail Pete." Anderson had been watching the house go up and was happy to share the lessons learned from seven years of grape-growing in a coastal climate.
What that means, first and foremost, is powdery mildew, which thrives in the relatively moist and temperate clime of Carlsbad. Not for nothing are there rosebushes planted alongside the vineyard — roses show mildew first, acting as canaries in the coal mine for the vines. The wide row spacings are designed to allow for plenty of air circulation, which helps to keep things dry. Happily, Norby's first year has been a mild one for powdery mildew, and so far, he's been able to fight off the white dust with an organic oil spray.
Second is the matter of herbaceousness, which can plague grapes that don't get a lot of high-heat ripening. "Orfila in Escondido has that wonderful draped canopy effect with their vines — one shoot-positioning wire and the vines just draping over. That's a really good strategy when you're dealing with 100-degree weather," to protect the grapes from sunburn. But in Carlsbad, you want all the sun exposure you can get, "so we're just going to hedge-prune."
Norby also joined Anderson and his fellow amateur winemakers in buying fruit from hither and yon, so as to get a little experience before he starts vinifying his own fruit. "I'll clean the driveway and the buckets, just do whatever I can to hang around and learn. They're really helpful in sharing what they know." So far, he's working mostly with Anderson's equipment, but the guest-house garage is eventually going to serve as a winemaking facility, and once it's time for the finished wine to age, it'll get pumped into the barrels down in the semisunken wine cellar. (Norby favors miniature 15- and 30-gallon barrels for maximum flexibility when it comes to blending and varietals.)
The end result, he hopes, will be about 1000 bottles a year of Heron's Flight wine. Between personal consumption, friends, family, and charity, he doesn't anticipate any trouble in getting rid of it. And that is enough. "This is not Phase One," he assures me. "We're not thinking, 'This is just the beginning.' If I can find a few acres around here, I won't rule it out, but to be a home winemaker is just fine."
Of course, that doesn't mean that someone else won't try for something bigger. "In my opinion, what we're doing, what Pete's doing, is kind of a little pilot project, to see if we can get a good bottle of wine," he says (even as he acknowledges his status as a newcomer). "I think it's the backyard guys that are going to prove or disprove whether you can do wine in San Diego County on a commercial basis." He mentions Twin Oaks Valley Vineyards, and also "people like Lance and Julie Gillette from Encinitas. They have something like 24 Viognier vines, and they won their division at the fair. We're drinking wine now from when Pete's wines were four years old, and the wine is pretty darn good. He just won a double gold up at the Orange County Fair. The grape quality is going to be there, I think — the question for commercial viability will be pest management and disease management." He notes that a couple of small commercial growers in Fallbrook are buying (or have bought) land in Temecula, so as to allow for increased volume.
And of course, "the whole tripwire event for Props D and E here in Carlsbad was when Robert Goldstein tried to buy 40 acres for a vineyard." When Carltas — the development arm of the land's owners — declined, saying that another developer already had an interest in the property, Goldstein went digging. Suddenly, "What Happens to the Land" became a hot political issue. The fallout — from a viticultural perspective, at least — is that "now you have some of these land guys thinking, 'Grapes? Can you do that here?' They're a little bit interested." So is Norby. "The whole idea that you have to be in Napa or Sonoma to make quality wine has been blown up, I think. Julie and I drive up to Paso Robles probably four or five times a year, and as you get north of Santa Barbara, you see strawberries in the flatlands and grapes on the hillsides. We're growing some pretty damn good strawberries in Carlsbad, and we used to grow a lot of grapes down here."