The off-grid Terragena estate vineyard is located on a hilltop overlooking both the North and South Forks of the Eel River in Humboldt County, California. The approximately two acres of vines were planted in the summer of 2013 with help from friends and family. We planted primarily pinot noir and some chardonnay, choosing to plant vines on their own roots (pinot noir clones: Jackson, 113, 114, 115, 667, 777, VCR18, Swan, 22, Pommard, Precoce, and Wadenswil 02A) as well as on rootstock (pinot noir clones: 37, 96, 102, Vosne Romanee, “fake” 828, and Trefethen) to allow for later side-by-side comparison of each method. To learn more about these specific vines, visit our clones post in which Chris geeks-out about each variety.
The Terragena team tends our grapevines by hand both because the ruggedness and steepness of the land require it and also because we believe this method best promotes the health of the vines. We use constant cover cropping and composting to enrich the soils, and we add marine and yard-waste compost and organic fertilizer (e.g.: feather meal, wild-caught fish bone meal, cold water kelp meal, alfalfa meal, seaweed extract, and probiotics) for extra nutrients.
The climate in Humboldt county is such that we get a dramatic amount of rainfall in the fall through the spring, and the summer months are very dry. We irrigate our vines during the summer using rainwater caught and stored in our large 1,000,000 gallon pond over the winter months. We use a drip irrigation method to support our vines in establishing deep roots through the rocky soils. Read more about our irrigation system here.
Climate and Soil
Our estate vineyard is planted on East-facing and West-facing hillsides that vary from gentle slopes to dramatically steep. The soils include a sandstone base with a clay and sand mixture and increasing amounts of forest loam further down the hillside. We believe this soil will produce hearty grapevines that yield grapes with complex and interesting flavors.
The climate of our area is consistently wet in the winter and dry in the summer. High temperatures in the summer can reach about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, though it is more common for high temperatures to be around 80 degrees. At night, temperatures cool down greatly with summertime lows typically in the 50s. In the winter, low temperatures can reach below freezing, though more commonly we have temperatures in the 40s. We do get occasional snow at our approximately 2000 foot elevation, but it usually melts within a few days and is rarely over a foot deep. This climate is ideal for growing cool-season vines that slow ripen to develop complex flavors. This climate makes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ideal varieties for the area.
Grapes and Wine
Though we might have pushed some of our vines to produce grapes in 2016, we decided to encourage them to continue putting their energy into growing deep roots and developing healthy and balanced systems instead. We harvested our first grapes on September 28, 2017. This was a small harvest, and we are likely to reserve the wine for the family and as a library wine. We had a larger harvest in 2018 because our vines were more established and were able to produce about 50 cases of wine which is still in barrel.
In 2008, Chris moved from New Orleans directly to the middle of what would become Terragena Vineyard. At the time, the land was completely undeveloped with steep forested hillsides and a few clearings. We set up a tent in the middle of one of these clearings and set about learning about the land by hiking throughout it, creating new trails and uncovering old logging roads. With the help of family and friends, we built a yurt to live in and started developing off-grid water and power systems.
It was very different from previous life in the city, and the first winter was a time of adjustment as we learned to keep the yurt warm with a wood-burning stove. We also enjoyed the snowfall, which they had not experienced when living the South.
After surviving their first winter in the woods, we continued the adventure over the next few years by finishing the off-grid solar power system and water system and working with a local construction team to build the vineyard house. The solar power system was Chris’s brainchild, and it provides power for the yurt, the vineyard house, and all vineyard and winery operations. For cloudy days, a backup propane generator automatically activates if necessary.
The fresh water system began with a natural spring that was discovered on the property soon after building the yurt. The system was built slowly because of the steep terrain and the location of the spring about 800 feet in elevation below the yurt clearing. After many, many hikes up and down that steep hillside, the water system was finally finished some two years later. We put in water lines that actually bring the water down the hill from the spring. Why? Because about 100 feet below the spring we installed a “high lifter” water pump that uses no electricity or fuel other than the pressure of the water flowing downhill in order to pump water all the way up to the vineyard level. This fresh spring water is used at both the vineyard house and the yurt.
The vineyard house construction began in 2009 and was completed in 2010. This large house includes a full basement that is surrounded by bedrock, keeping it insulated year round and rendering it a perfect wine cellar. This is now the winery and cellar space for Terragena Vineyard Winery.
Construction lasted for about a year and included some fantastic moments, such as one of the builders walking on the main roof beam some 30 feet in the air. While the house was under construction, Chris was busily making plans for the vineyard about which he had been dreaming for years.
His first task would be to design a water system that could support irrigation of the vines because the spring freshwater system did not produce enough for this project. Chris selected a large rain-catchment system in the form of a pond for this purpose. This pond was created by digging essentially a large pit and lining it with special pond-liner and gravel. The pond is now completely filled by rainwater during the rainy season, and it provides more than enough water to irrigate the grapevines during the dry season from approximately May through September.
Our grapevines were finally planted in the summer of 2013 with help from many friends from near and far. The trellising posts and dripper system were installed, and each grapevine was planted by hand. Young grapevines were protected from deer and other ravenous herbivores by a large fence that was built to encircle the part of the property in which the vineyards, house, and yurt were situated.
Since that time, the grapevines have become established and have flourished considerably. We continue to nurture them using natural methods. Additionally, Chris has been making wine using grapes from our diverse partner vineyards. Michael and Maria joined the Terragena team in 2016 as vineyard caretakers.