In conversation: Sonoma Coast pioneers Ted Lemon and David Hirsch

A lot of shrewd winemakers are brand-building and keeping consumers engaged by hosting Zoom talks during the pandemic. Here’s a recap of a recent one I attended.

David Hirsch’s vineyard on the Sonoma Coast provides the grapes for my favorite pinots in CA. The wines are velvety, spicy and on the masculine side, though they do soften nicely after a decade or so. They remind me of Vosne wines a bit in terms of texture, color, aroma and weight. I have bottles from Littorai, Williams Selyem, Failla, Whitcraft and Hirsch’s own winery.

Last month, Littorai’s Ted Lemon hosted a conversation with David, one of the pioneering farmers on the rugged Sonoma Coast. In his opening comments, Ted noted the two native New Yorkers were both living the American dream and had taken the advice of Horace Greeley to heart: “Go West, young man.” Ted mused about the strange twists of life, the two of them now sitting on the edge of a continent, “a Jew from the Bronx and a WASP from Westchester arguing about grape prices on the San Andreas fault.”

Before the talk turned to wine and farming, they took pains to recognize the tumultuous times we are living in. Covid is ravaging the economy, while the the fight for social justice forces the nation to ask very tough questions of itself.

David, now 76, spoke eloquently about learning lessons about life in the field. He said it’s all about the pursuit of balance. You farm each row, each plant, one by one. Balance in the field will lead to balance in the glass. He mused that if we can find better equilibrium in society, we can find the answers to the challenges vexing us now. We aren’t living in balance, so we are suffering.
David discussed how a kid from New York City wound up driving a tractor in Sonoma – “the stork must of dropped me in the wrong place.” He was much happier exploring the Bronx River than learning in his family’s clothing business as a youngster.

An avid reader, Hirsch wound up attending Columbia University, where he studied with the fabled English professor Lionel Trilling. He bartended in a Manhattan bar, where he met Jack Kerouac. He said reading Faulkner’s short story “The Bear,” a hunting story about finding one’s self in real wilderness, stimulated his own journey out West. He found his destiny.

David briefly recounted the relatively primitive conditions he faced when purchasing the land that would become Hirsch Vineyards in 1978. No running water, no electricity in what had been a sheep ranch. They would drive miles to a nearby farmer’s house to watch “Monday Night Football” on a TV powered by a generator. He eventually planted vines in 1980 and began slowly selling his grapes to some of the best winemakers in the state. He started his own label in 2002 to better inform farming decisions on the roughly 70 acres he tends.

He offered that the site teaches you lessons each day, each year. “You don’t master it,” he said.

Ted than asked about how relationships evolve between farmers and vintners. David recalled how contracts started to move to by-the-acre instead of by-the-ton. “It was hard at first but it became liberating,” he said.
David recounted Joe Rochioli telling him that in the old days wineries would just take the grapes and then tell the growers what they would pay. “Famers were essentially vassals in a feudal system,” David said, noting that vintners had to move to a more symbiotic relationship with farmers. (There’s that idea of balance again!) Winemakers also had to get more involved in farming decisions if both parties were to grow. He began to focus on quality, not just paying the rent.

Ted shifted the conversation to biodynamics. He recounted his first professional work during the 1980 harvest. At age 24, he was sitting side by side with Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. Jacques told him that most people in Burgundy thought that herbicides were a necessary component of winemaking. If you didn’t spray, you were a dumb Luddite.

Of course, that thinking has changed. Dujac stopped using herbicides in the early 90s and went biodynamic in 2009. Hirsch began the process of converting the vineyards to biodynamic viticulture in 2011. Littorai, an early pioneer in sustainable vineyard management and winemaking, adopted biodynamic practices in 2001.

David then addressed a question he hears often: Do vines need to struggle to produce great wines? Are we essentially babying them by creating these biodynamic vegetable gardens?

He argued that many people in wine “read too many books, and think too much.” He urged a focus on the end game – how to best produce a high-quality nutritious agricultural product.

“Nature left alone is perfect. It’s in balance. When man intrudes, it puts pressure on the soil, plants, everything,” David said. “The simple answer is to let Nature return to its undisturbed state.”

With that, our 60 minutes were up and we had to end the call. I left thankful that there are such intelligent, thoughtful and committed gentlemen farmer-winemakers plying their craft in my home state. Bravo Ted and David!

Side note: I opened up a bottle of 1999 Hirsch from Whitcraft to enjoy during the talk. I had a bit of trepidation given Whitcraft’s reputation for bottle variation and occasional cleanliness issues. But this bottle was singing – amazingly fresh and lifted for a 20-year-old CA pinot. Plummy, sandalwood nose with lots of that pine-needle zest I associate with Hirsch. Balanced indeed!

Thanks for posting, Matthew,

Interesting conversation. Back in the day I tried some Hirsch: the 2010 San Andreas Fault, if I recall. I wasn’t wowed by it and at the price point at that time was hoping to be. Solid wine, but a little foursquare and heavy on the palate. But maybe I opened to soon? (Drank em around 2016.)
The Littorai that I have only recently tried have been more impressive, but even there for the coin I’ll probably purchase elsewhere.

Joshua, I agree with you that the Hirsch wines that they make are a bit out of my wheelhouse. They are a bit more rounded and ripe for my taste. But I can tell you their wines are major crowd pleasers for non-geeks when I serve them.

And the prices are creeping up for both Littorai and Hirsch. I am not a major buyer anymore. I still have cache of older wines I tap into occasionally. The way I look at it: Bless them if they can sell through at those prices. They are probably getting paid off for all that risk and groundbreaking in the earlier, leaner years!

Matthew, great post, thanks. I’ve got the 2012, 2013, and 2014 Littorai Hirsch in storage. I’ve actually never tried the vineyard, but picked these up several years back when I was still on the Littorai mailing list. I’ll look to open the 2012 in the next year or two to check in.