By Laura Ness
Anybody growing grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains has heard the name Prudy Foxx. If they have a true love of the vine and all it stands for, they’ve hired her to help them grow the best grapes possible. Foxx is a well-known, well-traveled, and well-schooled viticultural consultant, helping vineyard owners decide the best varieties to grow and how best to grow them in their particular microclimate. And here in the mountains, everything is microclimate.
“The Santa Cruz Mountains is filled with thousands of little hills, valleys, and mountaintops, each with its own exposure, soils and challenges,” she says. Over the years, she has worked with most of the best known and most highly regarded vineyards in the region, including Bates, Lester, Beauregard, Big Basin, Saveria, Legan, Christie, Regan, Trout Gulch, Woodruff and Zayante. It’s the proverbial Who’s Who of premier Santa Cruz Mountains vineyards. Foxx, who is known to many of her clients as the “Vine Whisperer,” has almost single-handedly converted trellis design from sprawl canopy to vertical shoot positioning, especially important for regulating air and sun exposure in a place perpetually visited by fog.
Through her consultancy, Foxx Viticulture, Prudy has around 80 clients, actively manages over 100 acres, and consults on another 200, constantly trying to talk people out of planting where it’s just not feasible, or even ideal. Her goal is to install only grand cru level vineyards, capable of producing ultra premium grapes. Otherwise, she says, it’s not worth her time, or the growers, for that matter. She also does a good deal of matchmaking for grapes with winemakers, many outside the region, including Arnot-Roberts, Steve Matthiasson and Jill Klein of Matthiasson Wines, Kenny Likitprakong of Ghostwriter, Dianna Seysess of Ashes & Diamonds, Ian Brand, Drew Huffein and Emily Virgil of Trail Marker, Matt Licklider of Lioco Wines, Ridge Vineyards and Winery, and Bonny Doon Winery.
Foxx, originally from Indianapolis, was an Environmental Science major at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. “It was the 70’s, and I was eager to do my part to save the planet. I narrowed my focus taking a class called ‘Agricultural Economics,’ that put a magnifying glass on modern agriculture and how research and development for our food production system had moved away from flavor and quality to an emphasis on packaging, shipping, and shelf life. The discussion was about how post World War II, U.S. agriculture moved away from local sustainable food production systems to mega farms and centralized industrial agricultural systems dependent on mono-culture, chemicals (some derived from poison gasses used in war), and mega equipment.”
This resonated with her profoundly and led her to dig deeper into ag history and plant and soil physiology, which eventually forged the path to her becoming the prominent viticulture expert she is today.
It all began, though, with bad grapes. When she went to work in the cellar at Mount Baker, a Western Washington winery near the Canadian border, she saw firsthand how the condition of grapes arriving from the vineyard (deplorable) impacted the outcome of the wine (equally deplorable).
Says Foxx, “I decided if wine really is made in the vineyards, then that was where I needed to be. I wanted to get to the point where I could walk into any vineyard and identify what was going on with it and how to work with it to produce the best wine possible from each place. I wanted to be one with terroir in a very deep sense. I want to know it from the inside out. I wanted to be able to walk into the vineyard and know its story and identify any problems and see its potential. That was 1983. I devoted the next 35 years to this singular vision.”
A desire to work with the quirky and irascible Randall Grahm led her to her first viticulture job at Bonny Doon, and eventually to her own consultancy. Since then, her life is literally spent among the vines, as they are the source of what brings her a livelihood as well as joy, inspiration and satisfaction.
“For me, the most important thing is to somehow communicate with people the life of the vines and the vineyards – to truly understand what it means that ‘wine starts in the vineyard,’” she says.
And the most important thing to know about Foxx is that she never stops learning. She’s on a vision quest to understand precisely what makes vines tick, and how to read the tea leaves of terroir to arrive at that quintessential marriage of the right grape in the right place that can make a bottle of wine an experience of nirvana.
Foxx recently took a three-year series of short courses offered by the University of Bordeaux and the University of Dijon in Burgundy that focused on the role of terroir in wine production. Explains Foxx, “For the French, this is a process that starts in the vineyard and goes all the way through the bottle without pause. The academics go back and forth from vineyard to wine without segmenting the two. These courses filled in missing cracks in my understanding of viticulture. I came to the point where I had finally achieved my life goal: to be able to walk into a vineyard and in general, understand what is going on with it. I can read its story in the wood, in the soil. I can evaluate the site and know its potential for ultra-premium fine wines or just great wines or even good wines.”
Reaching this point was such a thrill for Foxx. She already knew instinctively that it is all about site: “Really, any less optimal site can be improved for wine quality by adjusting management styles, but a great ultra-premium site distinguishes itself by producing long term consistent vintages of high quality fruit with minimal inputs.”
While many grapegrowers and winemakers like to refer to themselves as farmers. Foxx is usually careful to avoid the term. “I associate farming with a very industrial mindset where the goal is as much food production as possible and the landscape is nothing more than a medium to get there. Wine grape production or viticulture is almost the opposite in that the goal is great flavor, balanced chemistry, soft skins with integrity to protect the anthocyanins, all with minimal inputs. Clean fruit, well-formed fruit is also crucial. Quantity is celebrated, but not the goal.”
Harkening back to that class in college, she observes, “Conventional farming is all about inputs to maximize yield, which is the opposite of the goals of ultra-premium wine production. There is no attention at all paid to soil tilth and soil structure. In fact, the plants growing above ground were considered separate from the soil all together. People only focus on what is above ground and not below.”
In fact, it’s all about the dirt. “I want to put the ‘culture’ back into viticulture by bringing back a sensitivity to the whole environment that is the vineyard. A holistic view, if you will. The soil below the vines is just as important as what is above. There is an amazing living community of precious microorganisms thriving in healthy soils that play a huge role in bringing the unique flavors of place to a wine”
She also has strong opinions on what she calls “Viticulture Folklore:” things like low yields make better wines and deficit irrigation is good. She’s not even sure where the “low yields mean higher quality” myth came from, although she figures it might have something to do with France’s required maximum yields of roughly 2-4 tons/acre, which is more a way to control supply than quality.
“Interestingly, in France, they determine yield by Hectaliters/Hectare. In the US, it’s lbs/acre. So in France, they look at a volume of liquid per area of land. That means that a low yield pressed really hard during processing can make the same amount of wine as an average yield pressed lightly. So many factors affect wine flavor and longevity and quality. There is so much to it! It is so much more than clones and address.”
She says most viticulturists agree that wine quality is all about vine balance: the fruit to vine ratio. Other key components of wine quality include sunlight in the canopy, good airflow throughout the vineyard and excellent soil drainage. Aspect and relation to morning sun is another big factor. “The total tonnage of fruit judged as a whole coming from a designated block is not in itself a determining factor of quality at all.”
On the topic of deficit irrigation, Foxx wonders at the origin of the idea that all supplemental irrigation yields inferior wines. Again, she cites France, pointing out how it is so not California. “The reality is that it rains in France during the summer, and this is a blessing and a curse, depending on timing of rain and canopy and fruit quality. There are certainly some beautiful vineyards in our region that are dry farmed. Almost none of them started that way, but as they have matured, their roots have reached deeply down into the soils and those soils have the water holding capacity or access to subterranean water to make it work. Many of these vines benefitted from the heavy rains we used to have in the winter in California.”
She worries about the serious impact the drought and semi-drought years have had on vine health. “It is a bad idea to load up a vine year after year with fruit and then offer no replenishment of water, if it cannot access water naturally. The vine will most likely suffer extreme stress, leading to trunk and vine diseases often linked to external sources, when in reality, if the vine was healthy, it may have never picked up the pathogen at all. In more delicate varieties, it can also cause the fruit to shrivel post veraison, diminishing wine quality extremely.”
Foxx predicts that supporting immunity in the vines will be the next frontier of viticulture. “Vines, like wine, are constantly maturing and adjusting to their external environment. A poor set one year can adversely affect the following vintage due to imbalances in the canopy and bud shading. Poor or excessive winter rains continue to influence the older vine for years. Vines have a very long memory.”
Then, there’s the topic of organic and biodynamic. “Both biodynamics and organics are terms that are somewhat abused because they have become cool buzz words. I love organics and I really love biodynamics, because it takes the whole concept of natural inputs and holistic growing to the next level of using locally sourced inputs and taking into consideration bigger factors of influence like gravity, solar and lunar influence, even planetary influence. While I know this is way out there for any grounded scientist, I prefer to keep an open mind. Clearly the position of the moon affects the tides. Why wouldn’t it also have an effect on plants and root growth?”
Unsurprisingly, Foxx embraces organic practices to the fullest extent possible. “I use primarily organic techniques, including elimination of herbicide use. Herbicides are terrible for the long-term establishment of extensive microbial communities in the soils. I really don’t like most organic herbicides for the same reason though they are generally not systemic and not as detrimental. I use organic suffocant sprays that eliminate early spore establishment of disease pathogens on spring vine growth and carefully formulated soil and foliar nutrients that do not rely on heavy salts to deliver the product to the vines and soils. I use cover crops, compost sometimes, organic mineral amendments, and beneficial plantings to encourage biodiversity. I water if it’s really, really dry. Water is not the enemy.”
Foxx feels the most successful modern approach to modern viticulture embraces the goals of organic farming by maximizing soil health and taking a holistic view of the environment to support healthy ecosystems that produce healthy vines and great wines.
While a scientific understanding of plant and soil physiology lays the groundwork for a successful viticulture practice, it is intuition that also plays a critical role in the ultimate outcome. And, viticulturists have to clearly recognize their role in all of it.
Summarizes Foxx, “Basically, the best vines do most of the growing and fruit maturation on their own. The grower is there to manage canopies and keep the light and air flowing and the soils happy. The best growers are guardians of the vines.”
A guardian of the vine if there ever was one, Prudy’s intuition—natural and acquired—is her true keystone: the ability to sense the potential of a place, whether vines are planted there or not or never should be. This is a rare gift, perhaps akin to Michelangelo visualizing a David from a lump of marble. Only in her case, the outcome can be far more delicious.