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VHR and the Art of Orchestrating the Seven Block Toolbox

T. Edward Wines, New York Wine importer/distributor, Vine Hill Ranch

Bruce Philipps on building the character of the vineyard:

“Each generation in my family has had the opportunity to rule one block,” said Bruce of Block 3, “and this one is mine.”  Planted in 2000, Block 3 is nearing maturity and just now coming into its own.  “Over periods of time, blocks will come into time and decline [before the need for rejuvenation]…It takes time for a block to fall into character.”  And while a block that is still in its adolescence has the potential to “wow you”, it can also be unpredictable, he added.

Releasing their second vintage – VHR 2009 – just this year, the Phillips family of Napa Valley has a history of vines that extends far beyond this time.  With 70 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, the family is a long time supplier of fruit to some of the most prominent winemakers in Napa.  In our last post about VHR, we discussed the inaugural vintage at VHR, crafted at the hands of Francoise Peschon.   When we most recently spoke with Bruce, the third generation behind the farm, he was happy to discuss the differences between the estate’s seven blocks, and their varying stages of development.

With the average life of a vineyard spanning 25-30 years, there comes a time when the vines must be uprooted and replanted.  And because Napa Valley was forced to deal with the phylloxera infestation of the late 1980’s and 1990’s, two-thirds of its vineyards are now 20-27 years old.  “Those plantings have been a driving force for putting Napa on the map,” said Bruce.  “It’s really exciting, we’re moving into the next big phase in Napa.  We’ll see a lot of replanting in the next 5-10 years, bringing forward new root stocks, clones, plantings and refacing of vineyards.”  And, just as every bottle is a snapshot of selections from the “toolbox” or parcels at VHR, the estate itself is a picture of the best that Napa has to offer.

T. Edward Wines, VHR, New York Wine importer/distributor, Karen Ulrich for T. Edward Wines

With seven blocks hosting a variety of Cabernet Sauvignon clones and rootstock, each limited release at VHR is an assemblage of fruit from the estate’s best vineyards.  Aged nine- years-old at the time of harvest, the fruit from Block 3 was not included in the most recent vintage, which was in fact comprised of fruit from Blocks 4, 6 and 7.

Located near the Valley Floor, Blocks 2-4 are the estate’s “benchland” blocks that yield fruit that is red in character, and bright with soft and supple tannins.  At 300-400 feet above sea level, these vines receive the moisture that comes downslope, which in turn informs the density of the plantings and the choice of selected clones.  With 1,000-1,400 vines per acre, the “benchland” blocks can be twice as dense as those on the hillside.  And while Blocks 1 and 6, which are located on the hills of the Maycamas Mountain Range, average 700-750 vines per acre, they produce grapes that bring structure to the wine with big tannins and notes of dark fruit, with nuances in between.

On the northern boundary, Block 7 is the smallest of the lots, at 5.72 acres.  Located on the watershed of the Maycamas, this Block contains the highest mineral content.  With roots that reach 10-15 feet deep, the soil here is rich with cobblestones, yielding fruit that is high in minerality.

T. Edward Wines, New York Wine Importer/Distributor, Vine Hill Ranch

As the estate’s oldest and most historic plot, Block 1 was originally planted to vines in 1873, and most recently replanted in 1990, post-phylloxera when, Bruce said, “my father brought the vineyard back.”    Terraced just as the plot was back in 1873, Block 1 could have yielded another 40 years of fabulous wines, but it is currently out of commission.  Now planted to a single clone and a single root stock, Block 1 is undergoing a transformation.  Employing eight clones and rootstocks, VHR is redirecting the terracing from the contour of the hill that it now follows, to rows that travel up and down the hill.  During the 1990’s the farming equipment was big and heavy, but now that technology has changed the rows can be more tightly spaced and in-line, which will yield better and more consistent fruit quality with optimal exposure.  And while the Block is now lying fallow, the stakes and rootstocks will be in place next summer, and the grafts will be added the following spring in 2014.

“In designing a vineyard,” said Bruce, “you design for a moment in time, July to early August”, when the fruit starts to ripen. In a densely planted “benchland” block, VHR employs a variety of rootstocks and clones, with different canopy management.  “If you do it right,” he added, “you arrive at veraison at the same time.”

Like the rest of Napa Valley, VHR will be looking to stagger their replantings over the next five to eight years, in a carefully orchestrated effort to maintain their song.  “It will take a lot out of production, Napa Valley wide,” said Bruce.  Yet one can be assured that just as the Phillips family ensures that each block of vines reaches veraison at the same time, they are also carefully conducting their seven blocks like members of a Big Band that never misses a vintage, note or beat.

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