Sonoma County is not the sleepy farming community of days past: Its number of wineries has swelled to 450, with more than 1,800 winegrowers at work. On the historic Sonoma Plaza, no less than 25 tasting rooms beckon throngs of visitors. Clearly, the area is booming. But how do stalwart wineries adapt and remain competitive within the increasingly vibrant local wine scene?
At Cline Cellars, maintaining a sense of tradition may be the most progressive strategy of all. Everything old eventually becomes new again, and that can be good for business. By sustainably farming fruit to make moderately priced, quality wine, Cline has remained one of the most popular wineries in Sonoma.
Cline Cellars began in Contra Costa County in the 1980s with a plot of ancient-vine Zinfandel. In 1993, owners Fred and Nancy Cline turned to Sonoma County, where they planted 350 acres of family land with Mourvèdre, Carignane, Marsanne, Roussane, and Viognier grapes.
For decades, Bob Cannard has served as sustainability director for Cline, also operating Green String Farm, the winery’s sister business that provides produce to top restaurants like Chez Panisse. Meanwhile, Charlie Tsegeletos, a graduate of U.C. Davis and an industry veteran, was hired as Cline’s winemaker in 2002. Together, these two key players have kept Cline Cellars not just relevant, but thriving in an increasingly competitive industry. Here, they give a few insights into their success.
“Obviously, you have to produce delicious wine,” says Tsegeletos, “but first, you have to get the right grapes from the right growing location. I can feel good about our vineyard when I watch my dog jump into the pond and know it’s pesticide-free.”
The Cline family property, sprawled over the fog-shrouded hills of Carneros, is about as “right” as it gets. The ideal vineyard conditions are only enhanced by Cannard’s earth-friendly growing techniques.
“Sustainability” has long since become a buzzword. So it’s worth noting that Cannard’s commitment to authentic, sustainable agriculture has been unwavering for 30 years. He is careful to clarify what that means—that true sustainable farming requires giving to the land as much as is harvested: “50 percent of total biomass to feed soil, and 50 percent to feed humanity.” In the face of frequent greenwashing, notes Cannard, this overarching concept of balance is too often ignored.
At Cline Cellars, Cannard’s key techniques include:
- Use of cover crops to introduce nitrogen into the soil;
- Application of soil supplements with a compost tea;
- Using competition control to allow weeds to help create biodiversity.
Sustainability is not only good for the land; it’s economical. “We’re a lower-price-point operation, so we have to grow the fruit within that price point,” says Cannard. “We don’t spend that 30-35 percent on [pesticide and vineyard management] inputs the way most farms do.” As sustainable farming practices are more affordable than commercial methods, Cannard’s farming has helped to keep the business profitable over the years.
“The economy of natural agriculture speaks for itself,” he adds.
Furthermore, says Tsegeletos, “People want to feel they are buying a healthy product.” So, the sustainability practices assure Cline’s customers that they are receiving a certain quality. And once the fruit reaches the cellar, that quality control continues. “We use no fining and no enzyme additions.”
When asked about his influences, Tsegeletos’s regard for his mentors is emphatic. “The winemakers that I admire most,” he says, “have been the ones with years of experience, like Neil Overboe of Lodi Vintners, who have pretty much seen everything and who don’t mind sharing their experiences with you.”
Yet for a traditionalist, Tsegeletos is forward-looking and experimental. Last fall, he made his first batch of wine in an amphora. “Always be fine-tuning the winemaking style,” he says. “Always be thinking about what the consumer wants. Cline is distributed in America and in 20 foreign countries. We do have to think about what we are making and the audiences it will reach.” Tsegeletos regularly takes his blends-in-progress to the Cline tasting room for customer feedback.
Clearly, something is working. Cline not only operates one of Sonoma’s busiest tasting rooms, but also consistently wins awards, including (most recently) a Double Gold Award at the San Francisco Chronicle Competition for their North Coast Viognier.
For anyone hoping to survive in the wine business, Tsegeletos offers this advice: “The folks I’ve known who have done the best have asked the most provocative questions.”
As for Cannard, his devotion itself is perhaps most provocative of all. Sonoma County Winegrowers and Sonoma Vintners and Growers recently announced that the county would be fully sustainable by 2019. Can other farmers meet the unusually high standards Cannard has championed for most of his life? That remains to be seen. For now, those standards are a crucial part of what makes Cline distinctive.