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Smaller, better in Sebastopol

BY PEG MELNIK- October 25, 2014

Small Vines Wines owner Paul Sloan works on special imported tractors from Europe designed to work in his narrowly planted vines. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

Small Vines Wines owner Paul Sloan works on special imported tractors from Europe designed to work in his narrowly planted vines. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

A mysterious apple tree taught Paul Sloan his first lesson in winemaking when he was 10 years old.

“For whatever reason, that tree with the smallest apples had the flavors that were the most intense,” he said.

Today Sloan and his wife, Kathryn, are the vintners of Small Vines, a Sebastopol brand that is based on the Burgundian model of winemaking and vineyard management. The philosophy embraces the practice of getting smaller yields from higher-density, European-styled spacing of vines.

The Sloans say they reap fewer pounds per vine in order to produce higher quality fruit. It’s a nod to the tasty apple tree Sloan grew up with on his family’s 250-acre ranch in Santa Rosa.

The couple sit beneath a grove of redwoods on their property in Sebastopol. It’s a 12.5-acre spread, and they’re in the midst of building a winery not far from their house, the historic Barlow homestead that dates back to 1897.

The Barlows were prominent apple and berry farmers. Today the family name is well known for its apple processing plant in Sebastopol, which has been transformed into a food and wine haven with wineries, retail shops, artisan studios and restaurants in the mix.

Kathryn, 45, said living in a historic house suits the family, most especially their two children: Dakota, 11, and Savannah, 8.

“Instead of a Queen Anne Victorian, it’s a farmhouse. . . . We’re humble farmers. I live in an old house. I wear my grandmother’s ring and we value traditional winemaking methods.”

Small Vines Wines owners Paul and Kathryn Sloan (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

Small Vines Wines owners Paul and Kathryn Sloan (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

It all began with a fascination of pinot noir.

Sloan, 42, was a 19-year old busboy at the Kenwood Restaurant, and then owner Susan Schacher had a daily ritual of reveling in a glass of pinot noir at closing time.

“I said to myself, ‘This pinot noir varietal has to be very special,’ ” he said.

In 1993, Sloan began working for John Ash restaurant in Santa Rosa, and within six months he became assistant wine steward there. “There was a wine library at John Ash, and I was really engaged,” Sloan said. “I devoured the books.”

While working at John Ash, Sloan was offered a taste of a $3,000-plus bottle of Burgundy — the Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

“A man poured me a generous glass and he said, ‘Enjoy this throughout the evening. It may just change your life.’ ”

The pricey Burgundy did just that. “Things just started churning inside me and I wanted to make wines of the highest level of purity and authenticity.”

After working for the late Warren Dutton of Sebastopol’s Dutton Ranch and studying viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College, Sloan was at a crossroads. He was accepted to study at California Polytechnic State University, but he was eager to begin his brand.

Dutton, who mentored the couple, encouraged them to travel to France, since they wanted to follow the lead of the French. After several research trips, the Sloans founded Small Vines in 1998.

The husband and wife team seems to be the perfect yin-yang for the operation. Sloan covers farming and winemaking, while Kathryn tackles the business side of the operation. Meanwhile, both continue to be adventuresome, which isn’t surprising considering they began their courtship as rock climbers.

“Paul is one big adventurer,” said Kathryn. “Rock climbing, surfing, scuba diving. It’s hard to keep up with this farmer who has a lot of energy.”

Small Vines Wines owners Paul and Kathryn Sloan imported special tractors from Europe designed to work in the narrowly planted vines.

Small Vines Wines owners Paul and Kathryn Sloan imported special tractors from Europe designed to work in the narrowly planted vines.

The Press Democrat online article can be found here:

http://www.pressdemocrat.com/lifestyle/2988469-181/smaller-better-in-sebastopol

This 2014 vintage is my first harvest with Small Vines Wines, and as an assistant to two very knowledgeable and friendly owners, Paul and Kathryn Sloan, I have had the opportunity to experience and be exposed to every aspect of the harvest process; sampling, planning, picking, harvesting, sorting and repeat. Many people have heard horror stories of zombie-like winemakers and grape growers going through the crush process, but few people are able to see some of the behind-the-scenes of what goes into each and every bottle of wine.

Paul sampling

It all begins here, when the grapes transform colors from green to purple, this is the beginning signs of veraison, the onset of ripening, and an indicator that the crush is approaching. At this time, we begin to count clusters, sample grapes, drop fruit and analyze. I am lucky enough to have two very knowledgeable and helpful sidekicks, Dakota and Savannah Sloan, who have more experience than me at the ages of 11 and 8 respectfully. This sampling process happens more frequently as we approach our estimated picking dates.

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On any typical day during harvest, you can find me up and on the road before the first sign of the sun peaking over the Mayacama Hills to the east of Santa Rosa. When collecting samples, it’s ideal to sample in the early morning when the grapes are cool, which will give an accurate representation to when we pick, as we hand harvest our grapes in the middle of the night. While out sampling, It is essential to always have with me a pack of gallon size zip-lock bags, a pair of pruning sheers, a black sharpie, some water, an ice chest to keep the samples cool and of course my cell phone with GPS accurate directions and vineyard maps to identify our vineyards and differentiate the clones.

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These days begin to blur and become a routine of traveling from vineyard to vineyard and walking row by row. In order to get a varied sample with an accurate reading of degrees brix (sugar levels) and taste profile, you must collect grapes from all areas of a vineyard. No skipping out or shortcuts here whatsoever.  This is an extremely crucial task during harvest as these are the numbers we schedule our picking around. After we read the degrees brix from the samples, we taste and analyze. Wine is a mix between art and science, and with Small Vines Wines we incorporate both to create some of the best wines in the area.

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Being in the wine industry, you look forward to the long hours of fall as the leaves change colors and the grapes turn to wine, but every year is different. This year being a rarity of record early picks in such a condensed and short amount of time it has been a lot of work, but it all pays off when you taste that fresh Pinot Noir or Chardonnay juice turning into wine- this is what we live for.

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