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Yorkville Cellars: Celebrating 20 Organic Years

by Dave Soref

When Deborah and Edward Wallo bought their charming 110-acre Mendocino County property with its three beautiful ancient oaks back in 1986, they weren’t expecting to turn it into an award-winning, certified organic winery where they would raise three children; but that’s exactly what ended up happening.

“We were living in San Francisco when we made our first trip up to Mendocino,” Edward Wallo tells Calmful Living. “We fell in love with the area and started looking for a property there the next week.

“We found that some of the available properties had small vineyards,” he continues. “My wife, being English, grew up with claret on the dinner table and was pretty exposed to wine. I come from Italian heritage and we also had wine on the table all the time. So, at least from the consumer standpoint, we knew a fair bit about wine and were open to the idea that having a small vineyard would be enjoyable and interesting. And things kind of evolved from that.”

Saying that the Wallos knew “a fair bit about wine” might be somewhat of an understatement. Before settling in Northern California, they lived in a number of countries throughout Europe, where they further developed their passion for and knowledge of viniculture. Edward Wallo lists France, Italy and Germany as the three countries where he and his wife learned the most about wine, spending practically every weekend on tasting tours.

“We lived in Paris and visited, I believe, every wine region in France. We lived in Italy but were only there a year, so we didn’t cover it all, but we did cover most of it. And in Germany we actually lived in the wine country, in the Rheingau; so we were five minutes from vineyards and tasting rooms there and covered all the German wine regions.”

Deciding to Go Organic

At the time the Wallos originally settled into their new Mendocino property, located in the town of Yorkville (population 317), it was ranchland that already contained a few acres of neglected Sauvignon Blanc vines. Using the latest organic practices, they were able to restore those vines to thriving, healthy plants. Over the next few years the vineyards were expanded to thirty acres, and the first estate wines were bottled in 1994.

In regard to that initial decision to go organic, “We just felt it was the right thing to do on all levels,” Wallo says. “From everything you read about it, organic makes more sense. Right off the top, more pesticides are dumped on wine grapes per acre than any other crop, ahead of numbers two and three, which are tomatoes and strawberries.

“In a longer-term view it seemed right in terms of raising our family on the property next to it, and for our workers. We’re also at the top of the watershed of the Navarro River [which leads down to a state park of second-growth redwoods]. Everything that would be on our vineyard would end up in the watershed. So for our workers, our family, and the sake of the watershed, organic just made a whole lot of sense to us.

“I grew up in Oregon, which is a very green state. It was the first state to clean up a major river, the Willamette, and it was the first to do a bottle and can tax that cleaned up the three-hundred-mile coastline and all the highways,” Wallo relates. “My wife’s family lived north of London. The local dairy delivered fresh milk every day. They had a local bakery. Everything was farm fresh and grown organically, because they weren’t using chemicals back then, and her father always composted and used rain barrels. So we each had those sensibilities in our heritage and upbringing.”

Yorkville Cellars was one of the very first vineyards to be certified organic, at a time well before the concept had entered everyday public discourse. “There were almost no organics happening to my knowledge anywhere else in the wine industry,” Wallo states. “However, even in the eighties, Mendocino was beginning to be the hotbed of organic wines. People here talked about organic winemaking, people knew about it, and they were learning by doing. But there wasn’t much in the way of suppliers and vendors, because nearly everyone had gone chemical except some of the old-time Italian farmers. Today,” adds Wallo, “there is a long, long list of commercially available products that are approved, whereas back then there was really nothing.”

Organic Viniculture

When shifting to organic viniculture, the Wallos had to endure critics warning that it would be too difficult; yet “in general the switch from commercial to organic doesn’t have to be as hard as people think,” says Wallo.

“There were certainly people who thought that it was ill advised, that we wouldn’t get as much crop, that we’d have constant problems,” Wallo recalls about the initial decision to go organic. “But I like to start the conversation by pointing out that through carbon dating we have proven that wine is at least 7,000 years old, and for the first 6,950 years wine was made from organic grapes, more or less.

“When you put it in that context, it’s not some whiz-bang new thing that’s hard to understand. It’s really just a matter of not using all the petrochemical additives and whatnot that commercial farms chose to do in recent times. With half a million acres of wine grapes in California, it would make a big difference if they weren’t being farmed chemically.

“We have a thirty-acre vineyard. When you’re talking about smaller vineyards like that, it’s really fairly manageable to farm organically. It’s just more expensive and more paperwork.” Wallo estimates the cost of growing wine grapes organically to be roughly 125 percent of what it costs to grow commercially.

“[pullquote]The main challenge to farming wine grapes organically is the added costs of having to handle each vine about a dozen times during the year[/pullquote]. It starts with pruning. We have 21,500 vines, and each one is hand-pruned. Next it has to be suckered [a second stage of pruning where the lateral shoots are removed]. Then as the vines grow upward, the trellises have to be maintained, and you have to reduce the competition under each vine for all the nitrogen that the vine needs to grow and then mature the grapes.

“The biggest single cost we have is extra manpower. People think that the chemicals and tractors are expensive, but really they’re dirt-cheap because conventional farms use the equivalent of industrial-strength Roundup. They can basically spray twice and kill all the weeds under the vines; two quick sprays of fairly low-cost materials and they’re done with it.”

Organic growers like the Wallos instead rely on more time-tested methods. “We put sheep in the vineyard most years until the vines start coming out. They both give us fertilizer and eat a lot of the weeds and grasses; but they don’t get it all, so a person has to go up to all 21,500 vines with a hoe and a shovel and deal with all those remaining weeds and grasses. Hence organic takes a little more effort. There are some extra steps involved. Even if the step takes just three minutes, when you multiply that by 20,000, it adds up to a lot of man-hours.”

Quality versus Quantity

Down in Modesto and the San Joaquin Valley, they want as much fruit as they can get because it’s going into jug wine; but quality and quantity are opposite, Wallo indicates—not to disparage jug wine, but to illustrate the difference between the two business models. “They’re all about volume and they don’t get very much money per ton, so they try to get as large a yield as they can.

“To get better quality, most wineries up here on the North Coast send guys out to thin on several occasions—to take fruit off the vine so that the remaining fruit is of higher quality,” he explains.

“Harvest—which is the last thing we do every season—involves gently picking the grapes by hand, placing them into small buckets, and then putting those buckets into a small bin that goes right to the winery.

“We’re a family boutique winery, so our distribution is quite limited. That said, we’ve been able to grow over twenty years; and now, with so many new and small operations, by production size we’re in the top third of California wineries.”

Harvesting on a smaller organic vineyard can provide a greater sense of satisfaction than an industrial-scale operation. Talking to Edward Wallo, there is a sense that he and his wife have gone out to every vine and personally inspected each bunch of grapes, turning them over in their hands more than once through the course of the year, noting the individual progress each bunch has made; so that when the harvest is done and the grapes are being pressed, it feels more like two gardeners overseeing their handiwork and remembering the scents of the fields and the warmth of the sun that went into each grape than two CEOs adding up numbers.

“A lot of the celebration is ongoing,” Wallo says. “When you have a product that you’re so directly linked with, it’s fun to just crack open a bottle and feel the pride as you enjoy a glass of something you have grown and made all the decisions on: when to pick it, how to blend various grape varietals, the kind of barrels in which to store it, and when to bottle. There are numerous decisions for every bottle of wine.”

A Multilayered Operation

The feeling of ongoing celebration is a reflection of the 365-day-a-year nature of owning and operating a winery, which requires wearing many different hats, depending on the season. The work doesn’t end when the last bottle is corked.

“I can tell you what month it is by what I’m doing,” notes Wallo. “That’s because we’re not only in the farming business but also in the product-making business. And we’re in the retail business, because we have a tasting room in the middle of thirty acres of vineyards. We’re also involved in the distribution side, since we ship our wines to various places both in the States and internationally.

“For instance, in July and August our tasting room is particularly busy and it’s a lot more about the retail. September/October is harvest time and we’re going crazy with that. January/February is about the only time of the year we can do a little marketing, as the wines are all in barrels and there’s not much to do on the growing side.

“Then you go through the bottling cycle. You have to acquire all the materials—the bottles, the corks, the capsules—and get every label approved by the government. This all happens in the spring.

“[pullquote]It’s delightful watching our vineyard go from brown and bare in the winter to completely green and lush in the summer, to looking like a box of Trix cereal in September and October, with canopies going red, yellow, green and orange[/pullquote]. It’s wonderful being part of all that. Moving through our work cycle, with the product side, the growing side and the selling side, means that the work never gets boring. It’s not like going into the same office and doing the same thing every day.”

Putting the Family in Family Winery

The Wallos have raised three children at the winery: two sons, Leo and Ben, and a daughter, Rennie. “I think they all enjoyed growing up here,” Wallo reflects. “We have a pond that they boated in, played in, and swam in with the frogs. We had a small test vineyard where they each had their own row to work on; and living on acreage gives you the opportunity to do things that city kids don’t always get to do. When you’re young and imaginative and come up with an idea, there’s space to try it out.

“I think watching us work gave them a grounding, and now that they’re older they have a sense of pride in the idea of making a product, selling it and building a life around that. My wife and I believe that it’s left a very positive impression on them,” says Wallo.

“Both of our boys are over twenty-one now, so they have worked in our tasting room and assisted in various ways between college and other activities. Our daughter, Rennie, is not yet twenty-one, but she has lent a hand in the vineyard and is an expert at helping us pack and ship.”

In another example of what makes a family winery unique, Wallo explains where his daughter’s nickname comes from. “Her real name is Guinevere, but she’s always been called Rennie. Rennie is my mother’s maiden name, and the name of one of our two vineyards. We actually planted that vineyard before we named our daughter.

“Our other vineyard is Randle Hill, Randle being my wife’s maiden name. My mother was an only child, so there was no male to take the name forward. And my wife has a sister only, so there’s no male to take the name forward on that side either. We thought of it as a gesture for our families to name the vineyards after them.”

Giving Back

The demand for Yorkville Cellars’ wines consistently outpaces its supply, yet Deborah and Edward Wallo routinely set aside some of their bottles to give to charity. “One of the biggest ways an organization can make money is through auctions, and a major item at most auctions is wine,” Edward Wallo points out. “Our donations usually involve numerous cases of wine. We could give away more wine than we make in terms of the requests we receive. We get over one hundred requests a year, probably closer to two hundred.

“During the last couple of years we’ve gotten involved with about three dozen causes. We try to stay fairly local and often related to organic. It’s just part of giving back; I don’t think we’re any different than anybody else in that way. We do what we can.”

Reflecting on Twenty Years

Much has changed since Yorkville Cellars corked their first vintage twenty years ago. “The biggest change is probably that there’s a lot more competition,” Wallo summarizes.“There are 3,500 wineries in California now. There were something like 800 or 900 when we started, so it’s really ballooned.

“The increased competition has kept the pricing down for consumers, and they’re getting better quality and better variety; so it’s all been good on that end. But it’s gotten tougher and tougher to eke out a business—and in the last five years along have come the craft brewers [microbreweries], and they’re expected to double in the next few years. In our local region, I’d imagine there are twenty different microbreweries with tasting rooms. So that’s just more competition to get people’s attention and interest in adult beverages.”

But for Yorkville Cellars, which has been making wines with certified organic grapes since 1994, continued interest in their product seems a safe bet. “Last year was our best year yet, and we’re looking to beat that in 2014 while celebrating our twenty-eighth certified organic harvest,” says an enthusiastic Wallo.


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