April 30 2010 issue

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PAGES (40-42) April 30 2010

WINERY SPOTLIGHT Bugay Wines and Vineyards, Sonoma, California Benjamin T. Weinberg

The Bugays are passionate stewards of the land of their dreams.

"Great wines originate in the vineyard," John Bugay tells me from across the burnished, antique oak table that graces the breakfast nook of his spacious, Tuscan-style home. "But it’s not that simple. Our terroir is so extraordinary that our most important role is as custodians of the site. At the same time, we have to preserve the notability of our wines. It’s a delicate balancing act, but it’s also why we get out of bed in the morning."

There’s no overlooking the stunning vistas available from just about anywhere on this rugged, forested, somewhat inaccessible acreage, high in the Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma County. "We carved our vineyards from the steep, south-facing terrain to maximize sun hours," says Bugay. "Those lean, well-drained hillsides are crucial for the structure of our wines. But they’re also so beautiful! They’re why, as long as I have anything to say about it, over 80% of our 200-acre parcel will always be wooded and wild."

The land is incredibly rich, sporting a thin layer of weathered soil over thickly packed volcanic rock, dotted with occasional deposits of ash. Although Red Hill-series soils are typically acidic, Bugay’s have a near-perfect pH for growing grapes. This balance, a key to the generosity of the wines, is maintained with the aid of permanent cover crops and organic fertilizers. "We use very few chemicals and employ a lot of Biodynamic practices," says Bugay’s wife Reta, the winery’s art director, bookkeeper, schedule coordinator, party planner, and sales manager. "This gentle treatment, combined with our magical terroir, consistently produces small clusters of intense berries."

John Bugay agrees: "Because of our unique circumstances, we can grow vines on vigorous rootstock. The roots penetrate deep into the underlying, mineral-rich soils, and our ideal pH means we don’t impart any of the herbaceous, vegetal characteristics that can be found in grapes grown on fertile valley floors."

Vines climb on either vertical-shoot-positioning or vertical-cordon trellising, and drip-irrigation is infrequent once the plants are well established. Multiple vineyard passes are required to meticulously maintain both vines and fruit; because of the steep grade, virtually all work is done by hand. The vineyard elevations of about 1,200 feet are well above both the valley fog and spring frost, and a north-south row alignment gives each side of the vine plenty of exposure. Budbreak usually occurs early, resulting in a long growing season with ample hang time. During the hot summer months, cool marine air follows the pressure gradient inland from the Pacific, passing over the Bugay vineyards on the southern (ocean) side of the Mayacamas and coursing down into the hotter interior valleys of Napa County and beyond. This temperate breeze allows the fruit to mature slowly, evenly, and with full physiological ripeness at lower Brix levels than in most comparable locations.

As for the winemaking itself, although John Bugay is thoroughly involved, he relies on a pair of veterans for management of the day-to-day details. Co-winemaker Tom Garrett, who was born into a family with a 50-year history in the Napa Valley, says the allure of these vineyard sites made the decision to join Bugay Vineyards an easy one. "John and Reta have an ideal combination of great exposure, steep slopes, and volcanic soils," he notes. "I just couldn’t say no." Before coming on board, Garrett was the tasting coordinator for Wine Spectator’s West Coast office. After leaving that post, he began a five-year apprentice tour that reads like a who’s who of California wine: Turley Wine Cellars, Joseph Phelps Winery, Robert Mondavi Winery, and finally Revana Family Vineyard, where he worked under Heidi Peterson Barrett. He credits Barrett with the greatest impact on his development as a winemaker: "She’s an incredible mentor and a wonderful person."

Garrett’s winemaking partner at Bugay, Randall Watkins, grew up on a vineyard in the foothills of Sonoma County’s Taylor Mountain. By age 10, he was harvesting and crushing grapes, and as he grew older, he farmed vineyards in Sonoma, Rutherford, Stags Leap, Red Hills, Mendocino, Monterey, and even Chile. Through his exploration of these various terroirs, Watkins discovered that his favorite reds consistently sprang from the Mayacamas Mountains. "I’ve always loved mountain fruit from Monte Rosso Vineyard, Moon Mountain Estate, and the top of Nuns Canyon," he says. "Then one day, I met with John Bugay on his property, and I was blown away by the site and the quality of the terroir." Soon after, Watkins left a job at Moon Mountain for the opportunity to make wine at Bugay.

Although two winemakers on one relatively small property might seem like more than enough, John Bugay has never worried about cutting corners. "Our vineyard sites and farming practices make us what we are," he says. "All of our wines come from estate vineyards, within which we always insist on the highest level of care and quality. I know this shows up in the bottle. It’s why we do what we do."

This rugged hillside terroir in the middle of the Mayacamas Mountains is indeed a special place, as the wines produced here demonstrate. But for John and Reta Bugay, it’s really just the land of their dreams.

Bugay Wines and Vineyards
P.O. Box 2618
Santa Rosa, CA 95405
(707) 569-7348
www.bugaywines.com