Should you be fortunate enough to reach your 65th grape harvest — as a grower, not simply an imbiber — you know when it's time to put those Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio grapes to work. And when to step back and let them enjoy a few more weeks on the vine. Squid Ink was able to catch up with grape-grower and vintner Charlie Barra, the 84-year-old owner of Barra of Mendocino and Girasole Vineyards wines (also in Mendocino County), who has a few more weeks until harvest (“We're a couple of weeks late this year, we had a lot of cool weather in May and June, so the grapes didn't come along for a while, but they look good.”).
Barra is a chatty guy who is happy to offer advice to bored high school seniors (grow grapes and you could make more money than your principal) as well as advise the rest of us on avoiding a lifetime of jug/bargain basement wines (grow specific varietals). Today, Barra, his wife and adult children organically grow a dozen varietals, including Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sangiovese and Muscat on their 175-acre properties in Northern California. Turn the page for a little conversation.
Squid Ink: How did you get started in the grape biz?
Charlie Barra: Well, my father was a grape grower in Italy, and my family migrated here in the early 1900s and planted vineyards in Mendocino. The climate is very similar to Piedmont where they were from. So I grew up growing grapes. Then I leased a neighbor's ranch in high school when the war was still going on, made some good money.
SI: World War II.
CB: Yes, I started in 1945, this is my 65th harvest. I made three times as much selling grapes as the principal made that year. He wanted me to go to college and make more money, but I didn't want to. I knew what I wanted to do.
SI: And you've always grown organically?
CB: I tell people I've been growing organic grapes for fifty years, I just didn't know it the first thirty. In Italy, they grew grapes without chemicals, so that's what I did. The chemical companies sell chemicals, pesticides — those aren't things you need to grow grapes, so why would you buy them for that? In some climates, you do kind of bite your fingernails to see if [organic] works, but if you do it as long as I have, it gets easier. But we're still learning by trying things all the time… like the beans we planted in the center of the rows for nutrients.
SI: What kind of beans?
CB: Fava beans. Because we don't add any fertilizers, we grow the beans and put them back into the soil for the nitrogen. After they bloom, [the plants] start to make beans and they start using up their nitrogen. It's all timing. You have to take the favas down and put them back in the soil at the right time to get that nitrogen out of them that you want.
SI: You grow a lot of different varietals these days.
CB: Well, when I started out in the 1950s, Mendocino was growing jug wine grapes. We made bulk wine grapes and sold them to Gallo or whomever. Varietals were being grown in Napa, that's where they started growing Cabernet and Pinot. Bob Mondavi, he would tell me what varietals to plant, the Wente family, Louis Martini — I sold to all of them. They helped me with clones, the root stock and all of that. If it wasn't for their help to get me to varietals, I don't know that I could have made it. In the beginning, I was selling grapes for $35 a ton, then they came in and I doubled that amount. We delivered to them for thirty years.
SI: Why the shift from selling grapes to making wine?
CB: We had very good grapes, so we rarely had a surplus. But even so, the market some years wasn't too good for grapes. You see, if you just grow grapes, you have no bargaining position as a grower because the grapes have to be picked and sold at a certain time, the wineries know that. They know you have to sell right away because you have a perishable crop. If you take your good grapes and crush them put them into the tank and make wine, they're not perishable anymore. You're in a different position. Today we crush all of our grapes and make wine out of it.
SI: How much wine do you make today?
CB: We bottle about 25,000 cases for our brands [Barra and Girasole], the rest, about another 25,000 cases, we sell in bulk. The thing is, if you pick good grapes and make good wine at a good price, it sells. And now that organic has more of a market, wineries buy up our wine and put their label on it.
SI: What about growing practices, have those changed?
CB: It used to be a lot more work when we picked the grapes in boxes in the 1950s. I'm the one who changed to picking grapes and putting them right in the gondola on a truck — it got us away from handling thousands of boxes. That was 1955. Twenty years later, my neighbors were still picking in boxes. But we still pick by hand. Today we have 80 to 90 pickers, and we sort as we pick. That's my thing. We're strict about no leaves [in the grape bins]. Some guys won't pick for us because we're too strict [laughs]. But I like clean grapes, no leaves.