Lexi: What was the worst thing or moment that ever happened in the business, grape growing or winemaking over the last 45 years?
Greg: There is no singular event that stands out to me as a disaster or worst moment, but rather events or situations that we've had to deal with and overcome. Changes in the general marketplace or a downturn in the economy can be distressing but rarely are momentous or catastrophic and can be handled by changing marketing strategy. And in wine making we've never had a situation that has been disastrous on any scale. Perhaps some years and some varieties are not ideal, but the fact that we grow over 30 varieties mitigates the chance of having a completely poor year.
If there was a distressing moment it would be the periodic frosts that have occurred in the vineyard over which we have little control other than running overhead sprinklers for frost protection---which has its own set of dangers. I recall one spring frost on our Peek vineyard Chardonnay at the 3,000' elevation when we had to make the decision of whether or not to turn on the sprinklers. Madrona vineyards is just across the canyon from the Peek vineyard and Dick Bush(the owner of Madrona) and I would converse over the phone on frosty nights about what strategy we would use for our frost protection. There are multiple factors to be considered when using overhead sprinklers to protect from frost. The principle of this type of protection is that turning on sprinklers will coat the shoots and buds with water that will then freeze at 32 degrees F. and protect the buds as long as water is continually applied which will hold the bud temperature at 32F. And the water must be continually applied well into the morning until the ambient tempera- ture raises enough to melt the ice that has been formed over the buds or emerging shoots. The physical; principle is that as water is applied and freezes, it gives off a certain amount of kilocalories of heat during the freezing process that will hold the temperature from dropping below 32F. That principle will hold as long as the ambient temperature does not fall below about 26F, after which no amount of sprinkler application will protect and everything freezes. The other factor that also needs to be considered in frost protection is at what temperature to turn the sprinklers on. Initial logic would indicate that you would turn them on before the ambient temperature reaches 32F but temperature physics is more complicated: relative humidity plays a factor as well. When relative humidity is high you can turn them on at close to 32F and see no damage, but when the relative humidity is low and the air is dry you have to turn them on much earlier, say at 36F, to raise the humidity closer to 100%. But this evaporative process of raising the humidity causes a drop in temperature, thus the need to start it at a higher temperature so when it reaches 32F there will be no further drop in temperature.
All this is to point out that it is a complicated decision making process with a lot factors to consider. And Dick Bush and I had thought through all these elements, made a plan of action, and turned on our sprinklers at the correct moment. And to first indica- tions we had done everything right; the air was calm, the ice was forming on the buds and shoots, and everything was going as planned. So we said good night to each other and went to bed assured we had done everything right. But in the middle of the night a severe north wind developed that swept the sprinkler protection away and introduced cold, dry air over all but the south side of the vineyard destroying the protective effect of constant water application. Surveying the results of our best-laid plans the following day our conclusion was that we would have been better off to have done nothing rather that turning on the sprinklers, since sections of the vineyard that we didn't frost protect showed little or no damage.
So what can we draw from this experience? To never frost protect? As usual there is no good answer since there have been other frosty nights that we've run sprinklers and saved the crop---multiple times. I think you just have to chalk it up to the inherent hazards of farming where you never have complete control over the weather and just do the best you can.
Lexi: What would you consider the highlight of your career?
Greg: As usual it is difficult to point out one instance as the "highlight" of one's career, some events being more subtle, but in the long run significant, such as the first crop of grapes we harvested or the bottling of our first wine. Or maybe the sale of the first bottle of wine in the old tasting room. But if I had to pick out some prominent events that were definitely "highlights" I would point to the selection of our 1980 Merlot as the "American Champion Merlot" and being invited to the Four Seasons restaurant in New York to pour it along with Hollywood celebrities such as Burgess Meredith, Maureen Stapleton, and opera singer Beverly Sills. And that was followed up with our Merlot being poured twice at White House State dinners, one for the Prime Minister of Japan and the other for the President of Algeria. And on the heels of that our 1980 Zinfandel was selected to be presented at all the events when Queen Elizibeth II visited California in 1984. A special label was designed incorporating the British flag and the official seal of the State of California. There seem to be a flurry of events in the early 1980's that gave prominence to our wines as well as to the emerging region of El Dorado.
And just a few weeks ago I was selected along with the Bogle family for the California State Fair "Winemakers Lifetime Achievement" award and in their words: "lifetime contributors and pioneers in the wine industry, placing California wines on the map both nationally and internationally". In talking to the coordinator of the award about why I was receiving the award, he explained that so many of the pioneers were dying that he didn't want to keep giving "posthumous" awards. Some consolation that I'm still alive.
But if I had to select one thing that I'm most satisfied with is that fact both of our children, Justin and Lexi, have taken over most of the day to day operations and are fully committed to seeing that Boeger Winery will continue to progress well into the future. Although Sue continues to oversee the financial stability and I continue to manage the vineyards, it is a comforting to see the continuity of the winery assured.
Our first year of planting was 1973 and we planted 2-1/2 acres of Merlot, 4 acres of Zinfandel and 3-1/2 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. The next major planting was 1975 with 2-1/2 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, 2 acres of Chardonnay, and 1/2 acre of Flora. In 1975 we also made our first Barbera from a small experimental vineyard in Placer called Bald Hill. This ignited our love affair with what would eventually become our flagship wine.
5) Which grape variety, of the over thirty types you've grown and worked with, would you say is the "best" for this specific property and why?
It's difficult to select any one variety as "the best" for this property since so many do well at this location given its multiple micro-climates, slopes and exposures. But if pressed I would be inclined to prefer the Italian varieties which would include Barbera, Primitivo, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Aglianico all of which have performed well and have made intense, flavorful wines. In terms of a white variety, Sauvignon Blanc has been the most impressive.
6) Who have been the most helpful, or influential people, in your 45 years in business and why?
Another difficult question, but without a doubt the single most influential person in my 45 years of business has been my wife, Susan, without whose wise counsel and grounded economics, we would never have succeeded. I guess the reason is that we each had our own field of expertise; mine in the ability to farm, have a vision of what I wanted to do in my life- which was to grow grapes and make wine. Sue had the ability to rationally analyze whether what we were doing made economic sense, and if it did she developed a plan to see that it worked. Although her academic background was Philosophy, she had prior practical experience running her father's physicians office. Accounting and cash flow were second nature to her. In fact, after running the ranch for a few years, she realized we were still in the red (financially) and she decided to go back to college at Sac State and take classes for a Master's degree in Business and Finance and used our business as a model for her research paper. What she found out was that our experience was perfectly normal for a start up agricultural operation--they usually didn't get into the black for 5-7 years. And then she instituted sound financial accounting practices, computerized the business, established the tasting room as well as setting up a wine distribution system for both a local and a national sales network. This was followed up by wine promotions, sales events, office staffing, and all the other details of running the business side of the winery. And all this while raising two irascible children.
My father was another important person in the first 10 years of starting the winery. He was a master mechanic, engineer, and designer. He spent days repairing tractors, improving the farm equipment, building fence pulleys and tighteners. The most impressive project he tackled was to design and build our first wooden barrel racks. They were a marvel of design and engineering: both aesthetic and practical, designed to carry the load of hundreds of wine barrels and to withstand the forces of a potential earthquake. These are still in use today and are a focal point of the wine storage area. Using his carpentry skills he designed and built our first tasting room bar as well as reinforced the whole structure of the old cellar.
It goes without saying that Ed Delfino, besides initially getting us to establish in El Dorado, was a continuing source of help and assistance in both the regulatory and political realm in the County. He was instrumental in having wineries become a part of Apple Hill going so far as to expand the boundaries of the region to include us. He also encouraged me to become a member of the Agricultural Commission, an appointed body that is advisory to the Board of Supervisors as well as helping form an agricultural coalition to lobby the Board on all aspects of agriculture. He encouraged the formation of El Dorado Winegrape Growers Association as well as the El Dorado Winery Association. He was also was key to the establishment of seven Agricultural Districts throughout the County based on current agricultural operations, soils mapping, and the potential for future growth. In these districts minimum parcel sizes of 20 acres were created as well as a 200' setbacks from conflicting uses and minimum 10 acre buffer parcels surrounding any agricultural zoned lands. His goal was to promote and protect Agriculture and this he did to the benefit of the whole County. The fact that you can drive through beautiful, bucolic, largely contiguous agricultural zones that are not broken up with commercial development is the direct result of his work.
LEXI: What were those first couple of years on the property like? Describe the people and work that went into getting the winery started.
GREG: The first few years were challenging and demanding, but in retrospect not stressful. We had both left our jobs and were working for ourselves. Well, technically we were working for Sue's father Dr. Babbin, being 10% owners in the B&B ranch making $500/month farming pears and planting vineyards. But all the decisions were ours; Dr. Babbin gave us free rein to develop the business as we saw fit. It wasn't until 1981 that we became 50% owners and subsequently majority owners.
Initially we were essentially pear farmers but clearing and planting 10 acres of vacant land to vineyard. Part of the orchard was 3 acres of peaches that was more demanding than any other aspect of the operation. Elmo had a list of customers that would purchase the peaches but only on the same day they were picked. So up at 5:00am every day to pick and pack fresh peaches for eager, but discriminating customers. After one summer of this abuse, Sue decided that the peach orchard had to go and it became the site of our first vineyard, Merlot, planted in 1973. There was another 5 acres of Empress plums that were picked and sold to Blue Anchor packing in Loomis, but were quite profitable and easier to handle than the peaches, so we continued to farm them until 1990.
One unique experience of the plum operation was that Sue would sometimes drive to Loomis in our old '46 Dodge flatbed with 262 lug boxes of plums strapped on the bed. On her first trip she was pregnant with Justin at the time and took our cousin, Karen Boeger, along for company. The packing house was run by traditional Japanese men who were very deferential to her in her delicate situation, offering to unload and retie the boxes onto the flatbed. Noticing her extended condition the foreman asked Sue "What have you got there--a picker or a packer"? In packing house parlance women were "packers" and men were "pickers". To add to the drama, on the way home going up the steep grade called Buffalo Hill she thought the engine was overheating and saw what she thought was a red-hot burning hood on the truck, abruptly pulled off the side of the road and they both scrambled away some distance from the truck thinking it was going to explode. After a few minutes and passers-by looking wonderingly at them, they cautiously edged back to the truck to see what was happening and they embarrassingly noticed that in fact the hood was not in flame- that it only was the oxidized rusted paint on the hood shimmering in the sun that made it look like it was overheating. They sheepishly got back into the truck and made their way back to the ranch, not telling anyone about the experience until some weeks later.
One of the first responsibilities of planting a vineyard was to first establish a deer fence around the perimeter to protect the young vines from marauding bands off deer who love young tender grape shoots. To help achieve this my old friend, Bill Wagner, whom I've known since kindergarten offered to help. Coincidentally he was working in Sacramento as a planner for SACOG (Sacramento Area Council of Governments) and offered to assist in this project on the weekends. Every weekend he and his wife, Pam, would come up and stay at the ranch, work all day on the fence line and have a sumptuous repast in the evenings. To assist in this endeavor we had the assistance of a long-time employee of Elmo, Ed Fairover, who was a 5th generation Chilean whose forefathers came to Placerville in the Gold Rush. Ed was a big man and incredibly strong- he could drive stakes or dig post holes all day long without tiring. He was not very conversational, but congenial and never shied from a daunting job. My father, being an engineer and welder, had built a movable platform mounted on the back of our Caterpillar that could be raised or lowered for pounding in 10' T posts. From this platform Ed would pound in the posts as Bill held them in place and I moved the Cat forward for the next post. We did this all summer, ultimately encircling over fifty acres of potential vineyard. After installing the posts we then returned to attach the vineyard wire in 4' rolls to the T posts. For this my dad also had built a movable spool attachment to raise or lower the roll of wire to whatever level we needed. With the deer fence installed we now could proceed with planting the grapes.
Initially the planting crew was myself, Bill Wagner, John Babbin, Ed Fairover, and Joe Brubaker. Joe was an art student at the local college and rented the old family home above the tasting room. Never having enough money for rent, he worked it off doing labor on the ranch. And lacking that, he would give us his early paintings and wood sculptures to make up any deficiencies. Now that he is a nationally recognized artist his early works are valuable and make a prominent part of our winery art display.
The most onerous part of planting the vineyard, after clearing and laying out the design, was to dig the holes for each vine. To do this, our neighbor and Christmas tree grower, Mel Irving, loaned us his backpack augers which was essentially a 2-cycle engine strapped on your back with a flexible cable with handlebars and an auger on the end. After your partner starting the engine for you, one proceeds to the planting peg for each vine, revs the engine, and drives the auger beside the stake. Sounds simple, but it didn't account for the rocky ground that we encountered. Every time the auger hit a rock it would bind the cable and force the handle bars into your thigh. After a few hours your leg was a beaten, red pulp and to add insult to injury, your back was drenched and burning with gasoline leaking from the fuel tank. To accommodate this agony we would trade off the augers frequently, but after five acres we decided there must be an easier way.
The planting happened to coincide with pear harvest in 1973 for which was traditionally handled by the extended Garcia family: Humberto Garcia, foreman, brother Javier, and uncles, nephews, brothers and neighbors from their home ranch in Jalisco- about ten men in total. We noticed how well-managed they had the pear harvest. It was an enlightening work experience to head out to the orchards in a cool morning mist and hear Mexican folk songs being sung as the sun came up. This was a diligent and skilled crew, who were not only hard-working but happy and cohesive as a team- why not see if they might like to help plant the grapes? They gladly obliged, but after trying the backpack augers, they decided a hand auger and shovel was a better way to go. It was simply amazing to watch this crew, what had taken us three weeks to do, they did in a week and they seemed no worse the wear for it. They would wrap up each day with a barbecue, beer, music and singing! From then on we had a reliable planting crew and this is how it has continued to this day- with the same family.
1) What inspired you to be a winemaker?
There were multiple factors that played a role in my becoming a winemaker. Probably the most significant was spending a lot of time at the winery and vineyard founded by my grandfather Anton Nichelini in Napa Co. in 1890. When I was growing up my cousin, Jim Nichelini, ran the winery and I spent time helping during harvest as well as winter pruning. This experience laid the groundwork for my initial love of growing grapes and making wine.
Secondly, I attended UC Davis and became friends with a graduate enology student, Joe Rossi, whose father also owned a winery in Oakdale and who encouraged me to take introductory classes in winemaking with the renowned professors Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton and later, viticulture classes with Jim Cook and Harold Olmo now famous for their work in grapevine breeding leading to new varieties adapted to the warm California climate. In these classes I learned both the art and the science of winemaking and viticultural practices. Also in these classes I had the opportunity to know Justin Meyer, founder of Silver Oak winery in Oakville and from whom I gave the name to my son, Justin Boeger. UC Davis at the time was laying the foundation for a revival and expansion of the wine industry of California experienced in the late 60's and early '70's with a vibrant set of young winemakers, many of them women such as Mayann Graff and Zelma Long who set out to transform the California winemaking scene and bring it to a new and higher level of quality, reputation and distinction.
Concurrently, having the Nichelini property as a resource, I cleared overgrown ground on the site of our abandoned old family vineyard established in 1884 and planted new vines to learn the reality and ground up experience of actually developing a vineyard.
And lastly, on the Boeger side of the family, I had the the fortune of working summers during High School with my cousin, George Boeger, on his apricot ranch in San Jose. Driving tractor, forklift and trucks during harvest, learning from the ground up what was truly involved in the basics of farming. I learned that it was hard work, needed to be done in a timely manner, that equipment needed to be maintained and repaired, and the crop needed to picked when it was ready, not when you were ready. I also had the privilege of working four years with Mexican-American workers, speaking and improving my Spanish daily, and trying to keep up with their tireless work ethic. This experience served me well when we bought our Placerville pear ranch which employed a similar group of skilled workers, some of whom are still working here to this day. We would have been lost without them.
2) What drew you to El Dorado County and this property in particular?
After graduating from UCD in 1968 I took a job with the California Crop and Livestock Service doing statistical analysis on California fruit and nut crops, but in particular doing the annual Grape Crush report and grape acreage survey. This was an exciting time of expansion of the winegrape industry and I was not immune to its lure. Realizing I didn't want to make a career of government work, I began to explore the possibilities of starting my own vineyard and winery. My father-in-law, Dr. George Babbin, expressed interest in investing in vineyard land, and with his encouragement I began a search for land. The first opportunity was an offer from my cousins, Joe and Jim Nichelini, to be a partner their vineyard in Napa County originally planted by their parents in 1929. But after analyzing the proposal, I decided not to accept mainly because I wanted to do something on my own and not be involved in a partnership arrangement. So I began to look elsewhere, first in Sonoma and Napa Counties, but land prices were even then relatively high and no one seemed interested in encouraging a new vineyard enterprise. I then recalled a newspaper article in the Sacramento Bee extolling the potential of winegrape growing in El Dorado Co. It was authored by the Agricultural Commissioner Ed Delfino and the Farm Advisor, Dick Bethell and detailed how they had planted six experimental vineyards throughout the County and had wine made from them at UC Davis and the results were both encouraging and positive. So with this bit of information I made a trip to El Dorado to meet with both of them.
It was a propitious meeting and a portent of the future. They took me around the county showing me potential properties and meeting with local farmers who might want to sell some land. They were enthusiastic and encouraging and vowed to continue to help in my search. In a short time, with Ed Delfino's help, we found a pear farmer, Elmo Fossati, who might be willing to sell his orchard. The beauty of his ranch was that it had been in the same family for five generations and was the site of a gold-rush era vineyard and winery from the 1860's -1920's and the original winery and distillery buildings still remained, although the vineyards had been converted to pear orchards. The other main drawing point was that it was on Carson Road, the major thoroughfare for the newly formed Apple Hill Growers Association with thousands of tourists and potential customers driving by in the Fall. Elmo was asking $132,000 but after much negotiation we settled on a price of $110,000, but only if I would get on the caterpillar and spray the orchard. It was late February and the orchard needed its dormant spray and Elmo didn't want to do it--he was tired of running the orchard and wanted to retire. So Sue and I took the skis off the rack (we were going skiing, but stopped to see Elmo for some final negotiation) and I jumped on the tractor. Such was the auspicious beginning of Boeger Winery.