The wine that cries Wolff

Yes, that’s “Wolff”–not “wolf.”

This week I visited Wolff Vineyards in Edna Valley, only about a 20-minute drive from my apartment on campus. I sat with Jean-Pierre Wolff, the owner and vintner of Wolff Vineyards, outside the tasting room overlooking the beautiful green, rolling hills and sweeping rows of grapevines as he told me all about his personal, educational and business-related history and how he came to be a part of the San Luis Obispo wine industry (it’s a pretty crazy story–we’ll get there).

One of the many views from outside the tasting room at Wolff Vineyards. The vineyard completely surrounds the winery; a picture can't even begin to reflect its beauty.

Jean-Pierre has only been in the wine business for about 12 years. He was born in Brussels, Belgium; his mother is Belgian and his father is French (from Strasbourg, Alsace, France). He studied electrical power and nuclear engineering at a university in Belgium, then electrical power engineering in the U.S. He earned his MBA from Pepperdine and his doctorate in science and technology from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. So, where does the wine fit in?

“[Becoming a vintner] was always in the back of my mind. . . I decided 15 years ago to make the switch back to agronomy and viticulture. So I always had that vision of having a vineyard and a winery; it was laying dormant and then it came back with a roar.”

To prepare for his new wine career, Jean-Pierre took a few viticulture classes at UC Davis, “. . . before we had a wine and viticulture program at Cal Poly. . . I took a lot of courses, not for credit. I just wanted to ramp up my learning curve,” he said. “I didn’t want to have another degree,” he told Wayne Kelterer, a fellow (and much better) wine blogger in a February interview.

Jean-Pierre and his wife, Elke, spent a couple of years touring California’s wine regions before they settled on San Luis Obispo. They wanted to be close to the ocean and to grow cool-climate grapes, so those two factors drew them to the area. Jean-Pierre was a professor at San Francisco State University for a period of his life, so he wanted to be close to a university town so he could continue teaching. Also, he said, “I always thought that when you’re close to a university town you have a lot more culture in arts.”

Another point that attracted the Wolffs to San Luis Obispo was the price of land. “I could have chosen Napa and paid quadruple the price of land compared to here, but I thought I could get more acreage and a little more value,” he said. Plus, certain grape varietals from San Luis Obispo sell for more than those of the same varietal from other regions like Napa. “Things being very close to each other in terms of income stream. . . I did that little economic evaluation. . . to look at what was a better value. It was not a flip of a coin; some of it was emotional in terms of falling in love with the area and some of it was based on some pretty clear goals that I had in mind.”

“Like a cat, I had several lives,” said Jean-Pierre. Before he came to San Luis Obispo 12 years ago to enter the wine business, Jean-Pierre had a markedly different life (this is that crazy story I mentioned).

  • He did research for Westinghouse in their nuclear sector.
  • He did research at Stanford University at the Electrical Power Research Institute (EPRI).
  • He was a professor at San Francisco State.
  • He started a business with a couple of partners, grew it into a successful coast-to-coast energy testing company, went public, and eventually sold the company to Emerson Electric.

Wait–so how on Earth does that apply to growing grapes and making wine?

“It serves me well because in this business it isn’t just running around, driving a tractor and stomping grapes. There is a whole broader aspect of a business. Some of it is scientific, increasingly. Some of it is a bit of an art and some, certainly, you have to have a good business sense. . . It’s one thing to make wine and it’s another thing to sell it.”

Jean-Pierre has two favorites of the wines his vineyard produces: chardonnay and pinot noir. But he doesn’t favor these the way that wine drinkers favor wines; he favors them the way that parents favor their children.

“. . . [C]hardonnay is almost a commodity wine. . . you find hundreds and hundreds of labels of chardonnay and this one I think stands out a little more because of its uniqueness of how it’s grown,” he says of the Wolff vineyards’ chardonnay. “The [pinot] is more because of the challenge associated with making that wine. . . If you ask a chef his favorite recipe, he is not going to pick the easy ten-minute recipe. . . same thing with pinot. If you make a decent pinot, you’ve basically graduated.”

Wolff Vineyards’ 35-year-old chardonnay vines are the oldest in the area (most have already been removed and replanted). They are also dry-farmed, meaning they are not irrigated and haven’t been watered in 10 years. “It’s a lower yield but it gives some very intense flavors,” said Jean-Pierre.

A few of 35-year-old chardonnay vines.

If you live in San Luis Obispo or nearby, you know that there was a relatively hefty rainstorm last week (and if you didn’t know, well, now you do). While rain is a good thing in many agricultural industries, did you know it can actually be pretty damaging for winegrowers? It was news to me.

“At the beginning of the year we had seasonal frost here and it caused quite a bit of damage in the central coast. . . even for those with frost protection in their vineyards the frost was so severe that it still damaged a lot of the fruit. Then we had late spring rains, so that delay[ed] the bloom and the growing season. And. . . it hasn’t been all that warm this summer, so we ended up with a late season. . . Here, with my pinot, I’m now four to five weeks behind.”

Rain also increases the potential for bunch rot and botrytis fungal infections on the grapes due to added moisture.

“. . . what was fortunate right here at the vineyard is that we had good winds after the rain so it helped dry up the ground pretty quickly. . . I was a little concerned but I decided not to pick the rest prior to the storm. . . and look for good weather. . . It was a gamble, but it’s going to work.” Jean-Pierre told me.

Unfortunately, many wineries do choose to pick their grapes before a storm comes in order to avoid a possible loss in tonnage. While this keeps the quantity of their production up, it reduces the quality of the product. “When you’re a smaller winery it is the quality that is important,” said Jean-Pierre.

Wolff Vineyards were some of the first on the Central Coast to become SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certified. This, Jean-Pierre says, is essentially about following the “Three E’s” of sustainability:

  1. Ecology. This refers to the way the farmer treats the incidental parts of his or her land. Getting rid of ground cover, destroying habitats for birds and fish and other natural organisms, and heavily using harmful pesticides are all eco-unfriendly practices that you will not find in Wolff Vineyards. Another thing you will not find is a carbon footprint. “I’m not even carbon neutral, I am carbon negative from the standpoint that I sequest or store more carbon than what I release,” Jean-Pierre told Kelterer.
  2. Equity. Social equity, that is; in other words, how to treat your workers and your neighbors. If your employees receive benefits, paid holidays, etc. and you don’t annoy your neighbors, you’re doing well in this category. “This part applies to my workers, but not to my sons,” Jean-Pierre joked. He provides his workers with a 1/4 acre plot on site in which to grow fruits and vegetables. “They have enough to sustain a family,” he stated.
  3. Economics. This is the business side of the wine industry (or just about any industry, for that matter) and, unfortunately, the biting reality side as well. Being sustainable is all well and good, but it does matter whether or not you can make a living doing it and whether the vineyard will remain sustainable in the future.

If you would like to learn more about the sustainable and environmentally helpful practices in place at Wolff Vineyards, check out Wayne Kelterer’s story and interview with Jean-Pierre, which delves much deeper than I was able to into this fascinating aspect of the vineyards.

If you would like to learn more about the wine produced at Wolff Vineyards, drink some! The tasting room is open 11 a.m. to five p.m. daily and the views all around it will have your jaw on the floor–just be sure to close your mouth and wipe that drool off your chin before you start tasting.

One Response to “The wine that cries Wolff”
  1. Wayne says:

    Nice article (and thank you for the kind words). Jean-Pierre is someone every California wine lover should meet. His Edna Valley vineyard is by far one of the most beautiful places I have been to in my travels.

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