Alder Springs: Far Out Grape Growing at the Top of the World

Alder Springs: Far Out Grape Growing at the Top of the World

by Holly Madrigal

Just outside of Laytonville, California, the view from Alder Springs Vineyard feels like the top of the world; I can see the far mountain ranges of northern Mendocino County across the vines. It is not on what would be considered the “beaten path” by many people; even as someone well trained in country living, I had to backtrack half a mile to find the proper entrance.

The truth is, Alder Springs Vineyard is somewhat out of place in this section of Mendocino County. Most wine grapes in the area hail from the Anderson and Russian River Valleys, yet Stuart Bewley, owner and viticulturist, sought out this location for one reason: excellent soil. Bewley, an inquisitive traveler who delights in solving puzzles, toured the world in an effort to discover what combination of factors make for great wine; surprisingly, that quest led him here, a solid three hours from the Bay Area.

He shared a story of visiting Pichon Lalande in the Bordeaux region of France. In 1982 they produced an extraordinary wine, so magnificent that people wrote odes about it. Stuart went to see what set this wine apart, his interest piqued since this same vineyard had turned out a horrid vintage just three years earlier. Also intriguing was the fact that the neighboring vineyard had a long track record of delicious releases costing over $300 per bottle.

Bewley visited in a spring downpour and was startled to see that Pichon Lalande was thick with mud; the neighbor had excellent drainage throughout their property. 1982 had been a very dry year, and through this realization and others, Bewley surmised that the combination of complex soil biology paired with the ability of the vineyard to drain and pull oxygen into the ground helped grow the most coveted grapes.

Cut to 1993 when, after extensively researching California geology and climate, he hit upon the exact combination of traits he was seeking in his Laytonville vineyard. Formerly a logging town, the common wisdom suggests that Laytonville is too cold for wine grapes. “I think common wisdom is not necessarily right,” says Bewley.

23 years later, he has proven his theory correct. “96% of the wine grown in the U.S. is from six varieties,” Bewley explains. “Those make good wines but they are not the most diverse or interesting. There is way more intriguing stuff out there that we haven’t even tapped.” This pioneering perspective has led to grapes with excellent flavor and a complex make up, used for both the Alder Springs label and sold at a premium to other vineyards. Alder Springs has grown to include 140 planting blocks and 13,000 vines, all of which are tended to by hand by Bewley, viticulralist Tom Piper and a crew of 21 full time employees. Some varietals hold familiar names, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Less common are grapes such as Mourvedre, Picpoul Blanc, Marsanne, Counoise, Tannat, Grenache Blanc, and Cabernet Franc. Stuart points to an area lush and green in the summer sun. “This here is the lunatic fringe. This one plot has 40 different varietals.” He and Tom Piper have learned over time, what grapes work in this mercurial climate.

Yet wine grapes are not the only systems that have been pioneered here at Alder Springs. This vineyard has set the bar for ecological management systems: cover crops and native grasses are planted to reduce erosion, and an inverted French-drain system of pipes runs below the vines to filter and draw moisture down through the roots and into the bordering salmon bearing streams. Bewley has pushed the envelope on organic, frost protection methods. He sustainably manages the timber on the property and sequesters carbon. “We’re going to grow grapes here but we are not going to hurt the environment to do it,” he says.

Admittedly, there could be a challenge in selling grapes from this natural, hard-to-reach spot to wineries three hours away in Sonoma County, but Bewley remains undaunted. “It tends to be a somewhat self-selecting group. Only the passionate arrive,” he explains. His confidence is validated by those driven by the desire for both quality and varietal exploration, who show up seeking the best.

As the sun sinks low over the vineyard, we discuss the Alder Springs legacy. Is it the air, the breeze, the water, or the farmer that makes great wine. “It is all of those things,” Bewley proposes. “And those who have tasted our wine from our vineyards for many years and taste a glass of our wine blind can say, ‘That is Alder Springs.’ The terroir is that strong.”

From this vantage point, seemingly on top of the world, it is easy to believe him. Looking out at the mountain ranges in the distance, it seems clear that wine produced from grapes grown here would indeed be something different, coveted, and truly special.