January 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

Grower Interview JAMES ONTIVEROS

Experience buying grapes for Gallo and Kendall-Jackson makes selling them easier

by Laurie Daniel
Grower Interview JAMES ONTIVEROS
A ninth generation California farmer, grapegrower James Ontiveros continues to learn and experiment in the vineyard.
The Santa Maria Valley is in James Ontiveros' blood: His ancestors owned the 8,900-acre Rancho Tepusquet land grant in that part of northern Santa Barbara County, and he's a ninth-generation California farmer and rancher.

In addition to his current role as director of sales and marketing for Bien Nacido Vineyard and Solomon Hills Vineyard in Santa Maria; French Camp Vineyard in Paso Robles; and the custom-crush facilities Central Coast Wine Services and Paso Robles Wine Services, Ontiveros farms his own 8-acre Pinot Noir vineyard, Rancho Ontiveros in Santa Maria Valley. He sells his fruit to high-end producers like Loring Wine Company, A.P. Vin, Hug Cellars and Dain Wines. And he keeps some of it for his own label, Native9. The name is a nod to his family's nine generations of farmers.

Ontiveros, a graduate of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo with majors in crop science and fruit science, started his wine career in grower relations for Kendall-Jackson and Gallo of Sonoma. In addition to his own Native9 brand and Rancho Ontiveros, he's a partner in the Alta Maria Vineyards label with Sao Anash and winemaker Paul Wilkins (also the consulting winemaker for Native9).

W&V: You spent several years in grower relations for Kendall-Jackson and Gallo of Sonoma, and also managed some of Gallo's Sonoma County vineyards. What did you learn in those jobs that helped you with your own vineyard?

Grower Interview JAMES ONTIVEROS
James Ontiveros: I learned to pay attention to all of the little things. I had already planted my first block of Pinot Noir before I went to work for K-J, Gallo of Sonoma or Bien Nacido. That said, doing grower relations, I had a learning curve that was entirely based on getting to walk 25-50 different vineyards per week, with the owners, managers or both; talking about all of the decisions they had made, and what they were or weren't happy with and what they'd change if they could. That was an incredible opportunity to experience all of those vineyards in the North Coast and Central Coast of California, seeing many counties (nine), regions (dozens), climates, soils; learning rainfall patterns, trellis types, varieties, rootstocks, clones--all the basics, if you will. Then using all of that information and making decisions on how to handle those basics, based on the vines' response, and seeing how that ultimately translates into potential wine quality. The career opportunities I've been offered and taken have been critical in so many ways. I'm truly thankful. Learning how to match up the right buyer and seller was also a critical lesson. Now that I'm on the selling side of the table, all of that prior experience as a buyer sure pays off. I know the expectations that a buyer has that can't be built into a contract, and often there can be a real disconnect there. My prior experience as a buyer has helped in understanding that.

W&V: Can you provide a specific example of something you learned that helped you later?

Ontiveros: Bien Nacido is a perfect example of something that has taught me about figuring out your strengths and focusing on them. When the wine industry first took off in Santa Barbara County in the early 1970s, it was very undefined in terms of knowing what varieties would perform well. What the market and sales opportunities for fruit from this area would be was also unknown. It would be fair to say that a lot of homework and research were done to make educated guesses; but without historical knowledge of what the end product would be, they were just educated guesses.

What surprises me is how many of those decisions were excellent, and some of those original plantings continue to produce beautiful wine today. When Bien Nacido Vineyards was planted in 1973, two of the largest varietal commitments were Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Other varieties planted at the time were Gewürtztraminer, Riesling, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Time has proven that the quality and marketplace for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have continued to be very strong over the years, which is why Bien Nacido has become a very well known producer of those two varieties. That on its own wouldn't have been enough: Partnering with talented winemakers who were able to bring our product and region into focus was critical to the success we've known to date.

Although the Gewürtztraminer and Riesling in our area were great in terms of quality, the marketplace wasn't rewarding enough to continue with those two varieties. Merlot does exceedingly well from a quality standpoint at Bien Nacido, but from our area it seems to have a smaller audience as a variety. Therefore, we've shortened our position to a few exceptional, high-quality clients and removed the remainder. With Cabernet Sauvignon, time proved there was less of a market at Bien Nacido, so we focused on Cab at French Camp Vineyard in Paso Robles, a hand and glove fit for the market expectation. My point being, focus on what you can do best, and what suits your customers and the market expectations. I certainly was conscious of that when I planted Rancho Ontiveros 100% to Pinot Noir.

W&V: How did you decide what clones and rootstocks to use at Rancho Ontiveros?

Ontiveros: Each planting has had a different theme behind it. My first planting was a mix of a lot of different things, trying to get a good understanding of the new plant materials that had just made it into California from Burgundy, as well as some older ones. I was hoping to see what would work best on my site.

After soil analysis and making significant soil additions and amendments, we began deep ripping in the fall of 1995 to 4-foot depth. Fall being the time of year when the bare ground has been dry the longest, we always rip then. Ripping dry soil helps to fracture the sandstone below the silty, sandy loam called the Garey series that makes up most of my topsoil. In 1997 I planted all dormant bench grafts, with rootstocks of 3309, 420A, SO4 and Freedom and Pinot Noir clones 113, 114, 115, Pommard and 2A. This was done on 8-by-6-foot VSP with drip only (two 0.5 gallon per hour emitters per vine). This vineyard was watered judiciously in attempts of growing a lean, hearty vine, for better or worse. I've loved the quality, but my average yield is less than 1.75 ton per acre.

My second vineyard planting, in 2000, was a bit more specific. Hand-selected vines were tagged during the growing season, trying to achieve consistent material for dormant cuttings. The clonal selections I chose were based on clonal lots of wine I had tasted in the prior vintages. These clones were Swan, Benedict (a selection from Sanford & Benedict Vineyard) and 1A (not 2A). This planting was all on 101-14 rootstock, with 8-by-5-foot VSP. I gave more irrigation in the developmental years, and the vines are more vigorous and a touch more productive, averaging closer to 2 tons per acre. I believe the overall health and consistency of the plant material was stronger from the beginning.

W&V: Why do you have everything on a VSP trellis?

Ontiveros: VSP works well at my ranch for several reasons. First, with a very cool, windy, low-vigor site, the VSP helps the shoot growth by utilizing the vines' apical dominance. It also lends itself well to good air movement through the canopy and capturing sunlight at all times of the day. Generally speaking, I don't think anything else would prove better for the type of farming I am doing.

W&V: What are the predominant pests you have to deal with, and what do you do about them?

Ontiveros: Mildew and botrytis are always an issue in a high relative humidity Region 1 climate. Vertebrate pests, like deer, birds, gophers and squirrels, are my biggest headaches, though. This is probably worse than most places, since my vineyard is pretty isolated. To combat these problems, we have installed deer fencing around each block, while still leaving open corridors for the deer and other animals, including our livestock, to pass through the remainder of the ranch. Owl boxes have been installed to assist with gopher control, and we also use hand-trapping. Bird netting is applied over each vine row prior to veraison each year.

W&V: When you plant 21 additional acres this spring, is there anything you'll do differently?

Ontiveros: In addition to a special 1.9-acre own-rooted, multi-clonal block that I'm planting for Native9 (see sidebar), we're using 8-by-4-foot VSP with overhead and drip. (I've added overhead irrigation to the mature plantings, too, for the cover crop and frost protection.) As you notice, we have shortened up the spacing between vines from the original 6 feet to our secondary 5 feet and now 4 feet between vines. Based on the fact that my clients have been happy with what they have had before, quality-wise, we are hoping to continue with the status quo with regards to our farming practices. The other significant change is that we went from a ripping depth of 4 feet in the 1997 and 2000 plantings to a ripping depth of 7 feet, which should allow for better drainage. Although with our arid, low-rainfall climate (the 100-year average is less than 13 inches), our drainage isn't usually a problem.

W&V: You'll be more than quadrupling your current acreage. What sort of adjustments will that require in how you run the vineyard?

Ontiveros: I have been trying to divvy up 8 acres to more than seven winemakers. Other than Brian Loring, my longest-running and biggest client, everyone received roughly 1 ton per vintage. Now each winery will have their own rows, and acreage planted for them. Over the long term, this will provide my clients with more consistency and fewer surprises. In addition, it has given my clients the opportunity to select their clonal preferences.

W&V: What do you find most rewarding about farming your own vineyard?

Ontiveros: When I get such amazing feedback from those who tell me how much they enjoy the wine from my vineyard, it's truly a pleasure. Starting Native9 has taken that to a whole new level. It's given me an even more close-up view of how each decision made in the vineyard translates directly into the wine. That is truly exciting for me.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Although she grew up in wine-deprived surroundings in the Midwest, she quickly developed an interest in wine after moving to California. She has been writing about wine for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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Planting an own-rooted Pinot field blend

Grower Interview JAMES ONTIVEROS
Raul Ramirez supervises the 2005 harvest, now in release, of the Native9 blocks at Rancho Ontiveros.
As part of his vineyard expansion this spring, James Ontiveros will plant a 1.9-acre Pinot Noir block for his own Native9 label. For this block, he's planning a multi-clonal field blend on its own roots, using clones 115, 114, 113, Pommard and Mount Eden.

"This was inspired by the realization of how much I've liked the multi-clonal co-fermentation of Pinot Noir for Native9," Ontiveros says. "The idea is to push the envelope of a wine driven entirely by its site year after year, not its clone or rootstock, or how it tasted in a bench blend one clone at a time. My last trip to Burgundy got me thinking about this. It's not about clone there; it's about site."

The block, he says, will be planted with 4-by-4 spacing on a VSP trellis, and irrigated with overhead as well as drip.

But why not use rootstock? "I believe there is something unique about own-rooted vines," Ontiveros says. "We've loved the wines coming from vines on rootstock, but I think there is some merit to the argument that a vine produces more naturally on its own roots, so I want to give it a try."

The blocks he already uses for Native9 are farmed in similar fashion to the rest of the vineyard, with one exception. "The main difference between Native9 and the rest of the Rancho Ontiveros clients," Ontiveros says, "would be our focused attempt at bringing as much whole cluster into our fermentation as possible. The key to this is achieving as high a level of lignification as possible on the stems. I have picked lower-vigor sites that seem more conducive to achieving this lignification."

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Posted on 02.19.2016 - 06:56:04 PST
I miss the savory, olivaceous Caparone merlot, and I wish Mr. Ontiveros had saved that portion of Bien Nacido he sold to them