A&E

Silicon Valley winemaker

Portola Vineyards, Palo Alto's only winery, eschews high tech for old-world techniques

Driving up Page Mill Road, past HP, Theranos and Stanford University, the road toward Portola Vineyards begins to curve, slowly snaking through the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. An unassuming gravel road leads into the property where, amid the redwoods and grape vines, it's easy to forget you're in Silicon Valley. Portola Vineyards, situated within Palo Alto's city limits, is the only remaining winery in Palo Alto.

Indeed, Len Lehmann, owner and winemaker of Portola Vineyards, takes pleasure in recounting how, once upon a time, Palo Alto and the surrounding area was known for its vineyards and its wine. He says it like it's a bit of unknown history -- so few people associate Palo Alto with winemaking.

"There's a heavy tradition of winemaking in this area which has been forgotten, but this was the epicenter of winemaking in the Americas," Lehmann said. "The French and Italians came to the Bay Area with the Gold Rush and noted that the climate was perfect for winemaking, and so they imported European vines."

Lehmann noted that a tour bus full of visitors wanting to see Silicon Valley occasionally makes its first stop just outside the vineyard. The tour guide makes the point that this is the "antithesis of Silicon Valley," Lehmann said.

Or, maybe just a relic of what it used to be.

On a warm afternoon, Lehmann sat in a grove of trees on a shaded, wooden picnic table overlooking rows of his grapevines and recalled that winemaking was never something he had deliberately planned to do. In fact, like many in the Bay Area, Lehmann has a background in tech. Before he began to dabble in winemaking, he either founded or co-founded three companies.

In the interview, he spoke of the differences between the "ag economy and the tech economy," describing agriculture as humbling, especially in light of the challenges nature throws at you. Lehmann noted that the timeline in tech is very compressed, calling it a "game of survival." Planting a vineyard has a high capital cost, one that slowly yields fruit over time -- a business model that generally goes against the tech world's tendencies.

"The original plan was to grow fruit and use the land productively, but then my wife bought me a small press and de-stemmer," he recalled with amusement, referring to a device used to separate grapes from their stems.

He began planting in 2003. Today, Lehmann's certified organic vineyard and micro-winery is a small-scale operation, producing around 1,000 cases a year. The winery's distribution is hyper-local, selling at select stores in the Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Portola Valley area.

It turns out the French and Italian immigrants knew what they were doing when they began to cultivate grapevines in the Santa Cruz Mountains. According to Lehmann, the cool band of temperature in the area is ideal for the burgundian grape, which produces chardonnay and pinot noir, two of the varietals Portola Vineyards is known for, although it makes others.

Sales Manager Danusia Szumowski, who worked as assistant winemaker last year, described this grape as a "finicky, thin-skinned grape, susceptible to mildew."

"We really baby it," Szumowski said. "Each vine gets touched at least 10 to 15 times at various points over the course of the season."

This kind of attention is not something every vineyard can afford to do, she said. Many vineyards are mechanized. In contrast, Portola Vineyards harvests the grapes by hand, which, Lehmann explained, allows for a safe and controlled way to gather them.

On a recent afternoon, Lehmann said he was coming up on one of the most difficult decisions a winemaker makes: when to harvest the grapes.

"Unlike oranges or apples that can be on the tree for a long time, wine grapes are at their prime for only about three or four days," he said.

If picked too early, the flavor isn't fully expressed and tannins can be harsh, but if picked too late, the taste can become jammy, he said.

He and Anthony Triolo, Portola Vineyards' assistant winemaker, were keeping a close eye on the weather, which plays a central role in the process.

They were also anticipating calling their 200 members, many of whom pitch in on the major harvest day every year. Lehmann described the harvest as a "celebration" during which there's a potluck lunch, people bring their children and members hand-harvest the grapes allotted for that day. After this, grapes are transferred to a crush pad where members can participate in foot-crushing.

"(Foot-crushing) is considered a high-end technique. The proponents say that the foot is the perfect instrument for crushing grapes. It's soft enough that it doesn't damage the seeds, and damaged seeds release an objectionable tannin," Lehmann said.

The bins of crushed grapes are then moved into the sun for about a week to begin native fermentation, during which the native yeasts on the skins of the grapes begin the fermentation process. Lehmann then presses the grapes by employing a hand-actuated basket press, an ancient technology, after which he allows malolactic or bacterial fermentation to take place over the winter months.

At the conclusion of this carefully monitored process, the barrels of wine will be cooled, stabilized and held for another one or two years before bottling. Once it's bottled, it's held for another one to two years before release.

For white wine, the process is slightly different. In order to achieve a fruitier wine, the fermentation is kept cool by circulating propylene glycol. It's then kept in oak barrels for about four months before it finishes aging in stainless steel.

Throughout the year, Lehmann and Triolo's time is spent monitoring and maintaining the vineyard and the wines, from pruning to shoot-thinning, canopy management to placing bird nets over the vines, and finally to bottling in February.

"Our members -- to the extent they're interested -- have the opportunity to help tend the vines, participate in the harvest and crush and make the wine ... many of our members choose to get pretty involved," Lehmann said.

Triolo, a member-turned-employee, recently moved to Portola Valley from France. He had an interest in wine and asked Lehmann if he could take a look at the winery.

The amount of involvement Lehmann encourages in his vineyard harkens to an age-old tradition in Europe of community involvement in winemaking.

"I actually have memories -- not only with grape harvest, but also with olives ... Kids from school would take class trips to go harvest, you know, work the fields. And, I was kind of looking for a setting like this -- a nice, relaxing way to learn about winemaking," Triolo said.

This is part of the culture of the winery, which Lehmann describes as a "community-supported winery," modeled after Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. CSAs provide subscribers regular shipments of produce and oftentimes, opportunities for members to work at the farm and follow what's happening in the fields. It's an educational experience as well as a way to closely connect the farm to its consumers.

Since planting those first vines more than a decade ago, Lehmann's life has taken on a different tenor.

"Life has a peace now. It's measured. There's something to do each season," he said, adding that there's something spiritual and grounding about making wine.

After all, he noted, even in the heart of Silicon Valley, the winemaking technology hasn't changed.

Comments

1 person likes this
Posted by keyko pintz
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 23, 2016 at 8:06 am

Great Article about an Excellent Wine. Thanks for keeping the wine making tradition alive in Palo Alto and thanks for creating such exquisite hand crafted wine while building community.


6 people like this
Posted by A group of two
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 23, 2016 at 11:33 am

That is all great. However, they do not accept groups less than five people. The only other chance to visit them is during one of their summer jazz concerts which happen about four times a summer.
Good luck to groups under five.


Like this comment
Posted by NoMoPa
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2016 at 6:46 pm

@A group of two - I've never tried to visit, but the wine is good. A group of two can finish a bottle at home, no problem.


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