Thursday, July 29, 2010


Cerro Prieto vineyard

Larry Stanton, owner and winemaker of Cerro Prieto Vineyard and Cellars, doesn’t go to Mexico any more. Who could blame him? After not one, but two, run-ins with what he refers to as "ninja-suited narco-terrorists," his beloved hunting and fishing excursions to the Cerro Prieto geothermal field became less about "Field And Stream" and more about "Guns And Ammo." He decided for his own well-being to stay in the good ol’ USA and tend to his vines.

Stanton would hunt for ducks, pheasants and quail, fish for freshwater bass and dig freshwater clams. It was such a big part of his life that he filled 
two books with his tales from the Baja campfire. Over 500 game trips to Mexico induces a lot of storytelling. He hasn’t been back, though, since the latest encounter with the business end of a machine gun. "There was a time that knowing a little Spanish might have spared you in a traffic stop by the police. It’s really gotten bad there now since the drug guys have taken over."

The love for his favorite spot lives on in the very name of his vineyard, and the passion he once held for those trips is now poured into his grapes.

Stanton loves to talk about his vineyard. Local photographers tell him it is the most photographed vineyard in San Luis Obispo County. "That may be true," he says, "because I picked up the phone book a while back and saw my vineyard on it! I give tours by appointment, and people seem to like it. The mountain portion is almost straight up and down. It’s chiseled out of solid limestone rock. We started by hand and had to go to jackhammers. We’ve got boulders the size of my truck out there."

The vineyard seems to lend credence to the notion that the more grapevines struggle, the better the fruit. "We dug holes in the rock and planted with just a gallon of dirt," he says. "The vines just took off."

"We’ve got oak trees on the property that just soak up the nutrients, so we’ve had to plant the vines as far away from them as possible. Even so, the two rows nearest the trees ripen before the rest." Stanton says, "I got tired of watching good fruit burn up, so we started taking those grapes earlier. The wines we made from them are gold award winners."

Stanton has been trying to move Cerro Prieto’s vineyard closer to sustainable agriculture, with hopes of having an organic vineyard. His feeling though, is that he just won’t be able to move much closer than he is now.

Presently, 90% of weed control is done with hoes, not chemicals, and grapevine prunings are not burned, they are mulched. "That way, it doesn't foul the air, and it helps prevent erosion. I also use cover crops to help prevent erosion. We've decreased the use of fertilizers by 1/3 by growing clover around the vines. This helps put nitrogen back in the soil."

For varmint control Cerro Prieto uses traps, not poison, when possible. Owls and hawks also help keep the gopher population under control.

He says that although their use has been dramatically reduced, he still has to use some pesticide and herbicide, plus commercial fertilizer for the steep hillside vineyards. The valley vineyard uses organic fertilizers. "There are just some problems where pesticides are needed," he says. "We use the lowest concentration we can get by with, though, and try to stay as organic as possible."

Stanton sells 95% of his grapes, making wine from the remaining five percent. This means very low production, which in turn means he often sells out of his more popular wines.

His 2006 Merlot sold out quickly after garnering some international gold medals. "The ‘07 Merlot has Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in it," he explains. "It’s still 80% Merlot, but after tasting the blend, I had to go with it. It’s just great."

The 2006 Cerro Prieto Paso Bordo - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah - got high scores from critics and kudos from customers. The ‘07 Paso Bordo will be released on September 30th, 2010 - just in time for Stanton to pour it at Sunset Magazine’s Savor the Central Coast event at the end of September. His Pinot Noir won't be available until 2012. The story behind that particular grape is a bit of a sore spot for Stanton.

The magnitude 6.5 San Simeon earthquake in 2003 ran right through three acres of Pinot Noir grapes. What remained, he made into wine, then laid it down for five years. "It was hard to do, but it was worth it," he says. "It sold out very quickly." Last year, he had more bad luck with Mother Nature. "We were having pretty good weather when a really early hot spell brought a 117-degree day to the valley vineyard. All the Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc was ruined, so we'll have to wait a while for some Pinot. We should be able to make about 50 cases or so."

Stanton writes about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of growing grapes and making wine in the "
Larry’s Blog" portion of his website. There he is part folksy yarn-spinner and part wine scientist, a role which pretty much describes his real-life persona. It's an entertaining read, even if he hasn’t had a lot of time to devote to it lately. "Five problem acres have taken up a lot of my time," he says. Anyone who tries to write in their spare time can understand his problem.

Nevertheless, he has two more books in the works. One is a collection of stories from campfires around the world. The other is a medical malpractice novel he patterned after a case on which he helped deliver judgment some time ago.

Stanton was a doctor for 40 years - he actually still practices pro bono medicine - and began farming and ranching in 1977 with barley, safflower, walnuts, almonds and cattle. Grapes were planted in 1999 and commercial winemaking began in 2006. Last year was his first official bottling.

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