2021 Merritt Island Chenin Blanc
Made by Chris Pittenger of Gros Ventre Cellars
Though not immediately distinguishable as an island on maps, Merritt Island is a tiny, 5,000 acre sub-appellation south of Clarksburg, within Yolo County. While we currently think of the Delta as a veiny network of waterways, islands, and farmland; in actuality it is the engineered floodplain of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.
These rivers meet the Pacific at the Carquinez Strait, and through the years have been diverted to provide much of the Central Valley and Southern California with fresh water sources not readily available close by. Early residents of the area were frequently subjected to flooding, and settlers made their subsistence through fishing, hunting, and timber.
In the 1860’s, California passed legislation authorizing the creation of reclamation districts, local entities organized and financed by residents to quite literally reclaim marshland in the hopes of converting it into fertile farm and grazing land. Merritt Island (Reclamation District 150) was formed in 1870 via the construction of eighteen miles of levees around the perimeter of these farmlands. The first bridge from Clarksburg across the Sacramento River was built in 1929.
Other noteworthy reclamation districts include Discovery Bay (District 800) and Tinsley Island (District 2108) owned and operated for kicks by the Saint Francis Yacht Club since 1958. While the Bureau of Reclamation is controversial for its environmental impact and wholesale adjustments to natural geography, it supplies water to one in five Western farmers across 10 million acres of land, which produces 60% of the nation’s vegetables and 25% of its nuts. So what the hell does this have to do with Chenin Blanc?
The Wilson family began farming Merritt Island in 1921, and still does to this day. Until AVA designation in 1987 it was contained within the Clarksburg AVA. Historically, most production on the island has been conventional and high-yielding, selling grapes to big industrial clients for mass-produced wines. Bogle is the only producing winery that calls Merritt Island home today.
But that’s not to say the land can’t produce great fruit. Producers like Chris Pittenger (Gros Ventre) and Kenny Likitprakong (Hobo & Folk Machine) have started sourcing specific blocks and working with growers on reducing yields and encouraging more sustainable farming practices. The loamy soil is fertile as can be, and maritime influences from the Bay Area bring temperatures down at night. This allows fruit to ripen longer, and varietals like Chenin are particularly adept at holding acidity late into ripening. I see this as part of a trend with many producers I work with. As fruit costs in more brand name locales soar, astute winemakers are tracking down less heralded sources and working with them in a more hands-on manner to achieve their desired effect.
When I open this bottle I imagine myself dockside somewhere on the Delta, enjoying the balance of fruit and acid, blissfully unaware of my email inbox or California’s deepening water crisis. And so we drift down the Central Valley…
2021 California Barbera
Made by David Scheidt of Mastro Scheidt Family Cellars
Two and a half hours south of Merritt Island, nestled between Fresno and the I-5 just west of the town of Mendota, we find Cardella Winery. The property has been in the family since 1902, when the Cardellas emigrated from Italy to Firebaugh. Cardella is within the small Panoche Circle of the larger San Joaquin Valley, the southern span of the Central Valley that produces 25% of the produce we eat on 1% of the nation's cultivated acreage. Within the Panoche Circle there are thirty different fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown within a five mile radius.
David Scheidt and fourth-generation proprietor Nathan Cardella both grew up and still live in Fresno. Nathan played baseball professionally in Italy for a time, and David actually umpired some of his Little League games growing up.
The San Joaquin Valley is America’s produce aisle, a reality that is in many ways attributed to the diversion of water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Deltas to the North. Delta water is the lifeblood that allows for this outsized contribution to American agricultural production, but it is not without controversy.
On one side of the aisle; environmentalists come down against the destruction of native fisheries in the Delta region, the negative impacts of industrial farming practices and the degrading fertility of overfarmed land. On the other side of the aisle you have farmers who advocate for job creation in rural communities, collective contribution to our kitchen tables and their need for water to maintain their livelihoods.
Have you ever driven down the 5 and noticed the “Congress Created the Dustbowl” signs? Those are the handiwork of Families Protecting the Valley, a local advocacy group that was established in 2000 but increased in visibility over the last few years during our latest drought. In 2014 six of the seven largest farming counties in California received no water from the Central Valley Project, the agency within the Bureau of Reclamation responsible for distributing water to valley farmers. This forced farmers to dig deeper into diminishing natural aquifers, lowering an already dangerously low groundwater table and putting the long term viability of the Central Valley at greater risk.
I’m not a scientist, and I can understand the perspective of both environmentalists and farmers. I’m also a realist, and I understand that Merritt Island isn’t going back to being wetlands, that the Central Valley will continue to be farmed, and that water will continue to be necessary and contentious. I don’t think this month’s red wine would be possible without Delta water, but what I do believe in is a more sustainably-minded future and more thoughtful use of our natural resources; two elements we find in our Cardella Ranch Barbera.
For years, the Cardellas have farmed for yield, and sold most of their crop to big industrial buyers like Gallo. In grape-growing, you tend to see a decline in quality with increase in crop-size. Cardella can farm up to 16 tons of grapes per acre conventionally for their big buyers, but between their own production and with partners like David Scheidt, they have begun cropping way down in favor of quality. This means less irrigation, more hands-on work in the vineyard, and ultimately a much higher-end product.
David’s blocks are farmed sustainably, and cropped at between 4 and 6 tons per acre. This means what fruit he does get is that much more concentrated, and can lead to the lovely bottling we hope you enjoyed this month. It’s a light, bright, chillable red wine, showing great acidity with juicy fruit throughout. I love that a wine of this quality can come off a place like the Cardella Ranch, and I love that producers like David are trying to do better by the Central Valley in their work there.
I don’t pretend to know what the long-term solution for California’s water crisis is; but I do believe that educating ourselves on its history and supporting thoughtful producers like Chris and David are steps in the right direction. I’d love to hear any thoughts, comments or feedback on this, and I’d love it if you forwarded this note to someone who might enjoy it. If you’re interested in trying these wines, they’ll be up on the site for the next couple of weeks. Thanks for reading and have a great week :)