Commitment to Quality.
A long eared jack rabbit merrily munches on the cover crop in the vineyard and hops ahead of my car along the graveled road at Ferrington Vineyards. The pruned vines stand dormant between a profusion of brilliant golden mustard and bright greens planted annually to feed the soil and attract beneficial insects. A herd of sheep currently corralled with their wobbly legged baby lambs will soon mosey between the vines as natural “lamb mowers”.
“There is something in my blood that attracted me to grape growing,” says the affable Kurt Schoeneman, who with his wife Heather owns Ferrington Vineyards. The vineyard located just north of Boonville in Anderson Valley has a reputation for premium quality grapes. It was first planted in 1969 by Balvern Vineyards who purchased it when it was part of the much larger Rankin sheep ranch. (The purchaser, who was from the real estate investment arm of the Bonanza television program, later subdivided the ranch.) Dr. Richard Ferrington bought the property in the 1980s and the Schoenemans acquired it in 1996.
Schoeneman, a native of Oakland, spent the last 30 years building apartment houses in the Bay Area. Kurt was born and raised in the East Bay, “a real city slicker,” he quips. As a kid he and his family made frequent visits to their cabin outside of Healdsburg. Heather, tall and attractive with short graying hair, is from Sidney, Australia, and speaks with that cheery inflection associated with her native country. Their three children are grown. Fred works in software in Berkeley. Doug just got back from Iraq and lives with his wife and the Shoenemans’ first grandchild. Daughter Sarah is a realtor in Berkeley. She is engaged to the owner of Mendocino’s Brewery Gulch Inn and they will marry at the vineyard this summer.
Kurt, remembering all the good things about rural life associated with the family’s Healdsburg cabin, wanted to own something in the country, But “it couldn’t just be a piece of land,” says Kurt, “as someone who built things to create an income, that is what I wanted to do with a country place as well.” His daughter Sarah found this vineyard and Kurt dimly saw its potential. “I didn’t know a thing about grape growing,” he smiles. During the eight months it took to close the deal, he took courses in viticulture. “I acquired some knowledge of the science and techniques but I still didn’t know anything,” he says.
He knew enough to hook up with people who are professionals. First he connected with Norman Kobler, son of the late Hans Kobler, legendary Anderson Valley winemaker who with his wife Theresia founded Lazy Creek Vineyards. “He brought hands on experience,” says Kurt. Kobler, his wife, and their two sons live on the property.
Recognizing it was time to replant the vineyard, Kurt brought in Mark Welch, one of Mendocino County’s renowned vineyard managers, who helped develop the replanting of the entire 75 acres. “It was dumb luck to find Norman and Mark,” says Kurt. Welch subsequently decided to focus on Ukiah Valley and Lake County area Vineyards from his Potter Valley headquarters and Kurt hired Anderson Valley’s Paul Ardzooni. “Mark was smart and got us going. Now Paul is doing a wonderful job,” says Kurt, who is clearly proud of his team. Rounding out that team are seven key vineyard workers, who with their families, also live on the property. Kurt and Heather put up manufactured homes to house their employees.
A relatively communal spirit surrounds Ferrington Vineyards. “It is my intention that everyone feels part of the place,” says Kurt. The philosophy embraces that everyone pitches in if something needs to be done. In addition to the sheep, they raise a couple of steers that are butchered to stock everyone’s freezer. And there are a few goats who get the run of the sloping hillside. A big community garden takes up the island around which the driveway circles. In the garden, artichoke plants are getting ready for a spring crop amidst the winter greens and legumes. Peach, pear, apple and quince trees add their seasonal bounty. Even the Koblers’ dog helps out. Norman’s boys gleefully announce that the dog has just figured out how to unlatch the chicken coop and the chickens are happily pecking their way into the field.
“I go out every day to see if the asparagus are up,” says Heather as we walk along the path to her front porch. A wild garden filled with nearly waist high clumps of Narcissus and Daffodils border the front porch of the previously unoccupied country house they had to completely remodel.
The Schoenemans have sold their home in the Bay Area and now live here full time. They still manage their apartment buildings. “How do you think I can afford to be a grape grower?” Kurt laughs, adding, “Farming is tough and not a business you can get rich quick in.” At Ferrington Vineyards forty four acres are planted with to six different clones of Pinot Noir grapes, eighteen acres are in Chardonnay, a dozen in Gewurztraminer and an acre in Sauvignon Blanc. The reputation for quality and the number of wine labels that tout Ferrington Vineyards as the grape source is growing. What makes the grapes here so great? “Terroir combined with vineyard practices,” says Kurt. He explains that the rocky soil in his vineyard is not conducive to high yields. “Since I can’t go for quantity I go for quality,” he explains. He gives each vine just enough water and nutrients to sustain the grapes. What he is looking for is balance. “If you give the vines too much water and overload the nutrients you get table grapes,” he says.
“Our customers have specific sugar levels they are looking for,” he adds. In many vineyards you find a range of what is called “Brix” say from 20-28 degrees. Kurt explains, “if the winemaker is looking for 24 degrees then we want that measurement to be as consistent as possible among all of the grapes, not just an average.”
Wine made from grapes grown at Ferrington Vineyards consistently gets high scores by the wine rankers such as Robert Parker, the Wine Spectator and the Wine Enthusiast. Wineries that buy grapes from Ferrington have included Anderson Valley’s Breggo, Foursight, Handley, Husch, Londer, Navarro and Philo Ridge, Sonoma’s Arista, Flowers, McPhail and Williams-Selyem and Napa’s Twomy. McPhail’s 2005 Ferrington Vineyards Pinot Noir was listed in the San Francisco Chronicle’s top 100 wines. Wines such as Breggo’s Pinot Noir, Gewurtraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc, and Williams Selyem and Londer Pinot Noir consistently rate more than 90 points out of a possible 100.
Kurt is proud not only of the success of his vineyards, but of Anderson Valley as well. “Of the top 20 Pinot Noirs in the Chronicle competition, five are from Oregon, 15 are from California and of those 6 are from Anderson Valley. “That’s pretty remarkable considering Anderson Valley grows about one percent of the Pinot Noir in the state,” he says.
The Schoenemans make a couple of hundred cases of wine under their own label. It is primarily used as a donation for the Oakland Boys and Girls Clubs, an organization in which Kurt served on the Board of Directors and is currently a trustee. They also drink it with friends who come to visit. Kurt is the family cook and Heather cooks for their dog Sam, a black and white mutt with a great disposition.
A great disposition with an emphasis on quality describes Ferrington Vineyard’s owners, their new lifestyle and the fruits of their labor.