A recent epiphany has led me to believe that greatness in wine can be a result primarily of superb fruit, insightful grape growing and winemaking, and most crucially a distinctiveness that is born of various factors, including terroir.
This most complex argument includes the premise that there is a paradigm that defines what a wine must have to be great, and this includes, with varietal wines, the notion that a wine displays a varietal identity. A Cabernet Sauvignon that doesn't taste like a Cabernet Sauvignon is sort of worthless.
As I tried to come up with a way to personalize it and make it relevant to readers, I realized the best way to achieve this was to find a winery that typified this distinctiveness with a broad range of wines that were all exemplary in the way they achieved excellence.
Reustle - Prayer Rock Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley of Oregon, which was awarded the Small Winery of the Year award in 2012 by the Riverside International Wine Competition, could be used to display why greatness and distinctiveness often were hand-in-hand partners.
What sets Reustle apart from other wineries is that each varietal wine he produces, from the well-known and stylish such as Riesling to the less well-known and truly distinctive such as Gruener Veltliner, were planted only after owner Stephen Reustle had researched in detail where to put what.
Interestingly, the material that launched this quest to put the right plants in exactly the right place came from an Australian. The key was the John Gladstone book Viticulture and Environment, A Study of the Effects of Environment on Grapegrowing and Wine Qualities, with Emphasis on Present and Future Areas for Growing Winegrapes in Australia.
By looking at various factors related to each grape and realizing that he wanted to make wines that had a varietal distinctiveness all their own, Reustle spent more than a year making decisions, risking the loss of a year's worth of crop and wine revenues to make sure the vineyard was set up in the most appropriate manner.
Reustle moved to California from the East Coast to spend a year exploring areas in which to make wine.
"For me it was a combination of trying to find the best site to grow world-class grapes," he said, and he was all set to buy a Sonoma Coast property near where Flowers Vineyard & Winery had established a fine operation. But during the lead-up to purchasing the property, Reustle ran into snags.
"Some issues I was looking at were access to water, a friendly local government, the right soils, the right aspect to the sun, an adequate labor force, and I wanted south-facing slopes."
The 200-acre Sonoma County property had only 60 usable acres, "but more importantly there was a lack of water and an unfriendly government. Rather than welcome a new vineyard to the area, there was actually a group around Flowers that was set up to keep vineyards from coming in!
"Compare that to what happened when we went to the Umpqua Valley (in 2000)," Reustle continued. "The county extension agent, Steve Renquist, offered to come out to our site and advise me as to whether it was appropriate for grapes, and which ones, andhow to develop water resources. And many other issues."
Renquist even suggested the removal of some Douglas fir trees to make for more consistent vine growth. "Also, there was a labor force here. They had no labor pool in Sonoma (2000), but there was one here."
Reustle carefully mapped out 40 acres based on a number of parameters. Reustle says he merged various data into a heat-unit number, "and that shows you which vartietals would grow best on which site."
Reustle has numerous grape varieties that each produces a distinctive wine, not the least of which is a startling Syrah that normally displays a lovely black pepper component.
The planting formula showed Syrah should grow in a cooler part of a slightly warmer vineyard. "Most people grow Syrah in a warmer site than I have it in," he said. "If you plant Syrah in a cooler area, the varietal character will come out. If it's a warmer area, the varietal isn't as pronounced."
Reustle said he looked at climate data year to year, from 2006 and 2009 (warm years) and compared them with cooler years, such as 2005 and 2010. And the cooler years made a wine that was much more like the Northern Rhone.
"Syrah is the last thing that I pick," he said, and he targets the fruit to be lower in sugar than he could easily get if he left the fruit on the vine longer. He has harvested Syrah as low at the mid-21s, and the varietal intensity he gets is exciting.
Another success story is his Gruener Veltliner, a grape that Reustle was the first to commercially produce. Most of it is planted on a commercial rootstock (101-14), but a 1.5-acre block is on its own roots. And he says, "That block every year produces our Reserve. So what impact does the rootstock have on the taste of the wine? I don't know, but we get a fascinating white pepper, chamomile and green tea aroma in that wine."
Those looking to amplify their distinctiveness in their vineyards would do well to look at Stephen Reustle.
Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).
This story was originally published December 20, 2012 4:14 PM.