Vineyards in Dammeron Valley?
by Lynnette Harris
Posted on Spring 2017 Issue
Photo courtesy Mark and Mary Bold
Southern Utah’s unique geography, ancient and pioneer history, geology and climate leave lasting impressions on people from around the world. They remember the spirit of the place, the spectacular rock formations, the colors that seem to stretch the “natural” palate, and temperatures that make the area alternately an oven and a haven.
Mark and Mary Bold have family and emotional ties to the area and are investing their money, labor and energy in the belief that the special qualities of southern Utah can become part of a new grape-growing region. Dammeron Valley Vineyards, 15 miles north and 2,200 feet above St. George, is where they have chosen to start this viticulture endeavor. Great wines are infused with the contributions of the soil, water and climate in which the grapes were grown, a quality known as the terrior (ter-wahr). The right soil is crucial, and the soil at the Bold’s three vineyards (totaling 8.5 acres) is the result of ancient glacial sediments, volcanic particulates and good drainage. Mark likens Dammeron Valley to some of the great wine-producing regions in France, Italy and Argentina that are also at relatively high altitudes. Nevertheless, when they tell people, especially friends in California where he and Mary formerly lived, that they are growing wine grapes in Utah, the response is typically, “Right. Sure you are,” or “Why?”
Mark may have asked himself “Why?” a few times since they started the venture 4 years ago. Like the year that rabbits ate their way through the upper vineyard, or this spring when frost in mid-May blackened the new bright green leaves and buds.
“It’s agriculture,” Mary said. “A vineyard sounds a lot more romantic than it actually is.”
Roots in Agriculture
Mark did not grow up in a farming family, but his interest in hands-on agriculture began as he helped Mary’s father, DeVere McAllister, tend grapevines and the sizable garden McAllister planted when he moved to St. George following his career as a professor of agronomy at Utah State University. McAllister was also a USU alumnus, having earned a plant science degree in 1939. His wife, Ila, had inherited the land on Hope Hill in St. George, and the McAllisters grew abundant vegetables and some grapes for eating and juicing, not for wine making.
Although Mark and Mary lived in San Francisco, where both built successful careers in finance, they traveled to St. George a few times each year to visit Mary’s parents. In the later years of McAllister’s life, he was unable to get out to work in his garden and Mark took over care of the vines, pruning and tying in the spring and harvesting in the fall. He had seen vineyards in many of the world’s wine-making regions. The Bolds lived not far from California wine country and traveled extensively in Europe where they were drawn to good hiking trails and rural areas. Mark eventually planted four rows of wine grapes: Nebiollo, from Italy, and Malbec, that is grown in California and Argentina’s Mendoza region. The Bolds refer to these and McAllister’s table grapes as the “legacy grapes” and their success was enough to convince Mark to look for a place to expand.
As with many premium crops, you don’t plant wine grapes on just any open piece of ground. The soil, altitude, water and microclimate are all important elements. Mark found a 5-acre plot in Dammeron Valley that looked promising and bought it in 2013. Later he bought two smaller pieces of land in the valley.
“The St. George area is at the confluence of the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and the Mojave Desert, so we’re close enough to the desert to off-set the influence the altitude has on temperature,” Mark said. “We wouldn’t want to go much higher than Dammeron Valley.”
But the altitude creates a critical microclimate.
“We do make wine from our legacy vines, but in the summer St. George only cools down to 72 degrees, and for about 10 minutes,” Mark said. “What the grapes need is a daily shift from high temperatures to low temperatures. Dammeron Valley gives us some 60-degree temperatures for a few hours each night. It lets the grapes calm down from all that sun and sugar-making, lets them sort of quiet down before they start the next day. That helps with the sugar/acid balance.”
Mark’s original plan was to plant three or four rows of wine grapes on that first piece of land and see how they did, sort of ease into being a vineyard owner. He had done a lot of homework, but knew enough to seek out good advice. Recommendations led him to Darin Evans who has extensive experience with vineyards, and makes wines at Dionysian Cellars in Layton, Utah. The Bolds credit Evans with giving them the support and confidence they needed.
“I call Darin a ‘vine whisperer’ and I can’t overstate how important his expertise has been,” Mark said. “He convinced me that we had to go big or go home because it was a good piece of ground and it would be 3 or 4 years before we would have the first harvest,” Mark said.
Working for that many years, discovering the grapes that meet your expectations, and then restarting the clock for 3 more years before you have enough grapes to interest a winemaker didn’t make sense. The Bolds jumped in and planted 5,000 vines on the first 5 acres. The harvest last year, their first, yielded 4.5 tons of red and white grapes, enough to produce several “proof of concept” wines.
“The wine from last year is actually quite exceptional,” Mark said. “It was our first test. I’m not a sommelier and don’t have the most sophisticated palate, but people who are sommeliers have tasted it and are thrilled with it.”
Winemaking is not new to southern Utah. Historically, people were likely less concerned about terrior than just making a living, but they grew grapes, made and sold wine in the area. Toquerville and Santa Clara, which were settled largely by Swiss immigrants who were members of the LDS church and had traditional winemaking experience, were both wine-producing towns. They sold much of their wine to the miners in nearby Silver Reef, but when the mines closed the market for local wine largely dried up.
Mary’s ancestors on her mother’s side of the family had an old stone house in Harrisburg, near Silver Reef, where they maintained a vineyard in the 19th century.
Today the area is booming, with people settling in Washington County from all over the country and a steady stream of tourists who come for the area’s natural beauty and a taste of the West. Mark thinks the time is ripe for reviving a local wine industry, but the rapid spread of housing and other infrastructure means that some of the best potential agricultural land is disappearing, leaving little time to waste.
Mary said, “People are developing land everywhere. I sometimes wonder what my grandmother would think about this place now. Even my folks wouldn’t recognize it now.”
Mark says he’s not certain he’d say his current operation is much bigger than a large hobby farm, but he sees an opportunity to build a viticulture industry in Utah that will preserve agricultural land and create some specialized jobs. Currently, there are too few vineyards in the area to support a team of people to prune, tend and harvest grapes, but he sees opportunities and hopes to team with USU on research and student internships.
“Right now some of my best workers are retirees who enjoy the opportunity to get out and work in the vineyard,” he said. “But we need to develop a younger labor pool that can get excited about the long-term prospects of viticulture in Washington County. The subtleties and nuances of vineyard management are remarkable. Understanding why you prune a vine a certain way, what you take away and what you leave is an ongoing experience. It takes a couple of years before you get a clear understanding and can start to see the consequences of cutting a branch or tying vines up in certain places.”
Both Mark and Mary are familiar with a mindset of weighing risks and potential benefits. Mark worked, retired, built another company, retired and is now semi-retired from the securities industry. Mary, the only woman to receive a degree in economics in her USU class of 1969, started her own business developing and managing employee retirement plans for professionals and small companies. But the vineyard, like any kind of crop production, presents its own special risks. Mark, who tends to be something of an existentialist, gets continual new insights from observing the cycles of the vineyards, which tend to keep one honest, alert and engaged.
“You have to have honest perceptions before you can act or speak with honesty and confidence,” he said. “The vineyard makes you honest. If you prune wrong, or at the wrong time, it’s going to haunt you for years…There is no wishing something away, no rhetorical flourish that will fix things. You can’t turn a phrase and make a vine do something it’s not set to do. That’s what I really enjoy about it.”
He relishes the changes, the rhythm of the vineyard where dormant vines showcase old growth from the previous year and you have to develop the skill and muster the will to cut them back to just two buds. Then you wait. And when the temperatures are just right, the buds burst and you can almost see the vines grow as they put on 2 or 3 inches of new growth each day.
This year the excitement over bud burst and anticipation of the first big harvest from Dammeron Valley Vineyards was short lived though as frost took a heavy toll. Some vines have made a comeback, but the hope this year is for half of the crop they were expecting. One consolation is that they share the frosting of 2017 in common with the great wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Tuscany.
The realities of the vineyard are inescapable. Growing food, and allowing time for wine to develop, alternately require urgent action and great patience, feet in the present with an eye to the future. The Bolds have a corps of vineyard workers, including Evans and others with ties to the Utah wine community, but Mark knows that his expansion plans will require more trained people and research. If the vineyard were just one among many in California, or even in Oregon or Washington, contractors would be bidding to do the pruning, control pests and harvest the grapes.
“I think this could potentially be a good industry for southern Utah,” Mark said. “The climate will support it and with viticulture you also enhance interest in food and tourism. Envision Utah’s study said Utahns want to be locovores, to have relationships with their food producers. But we’ve got to find the good soil and preserve it.”
Agricultural land is attractive to developers because it is largely flat and easy to dig. Food won’t grow just anywhere though, as Mark observed, and once infrastructure is in, the land is lost to agriculture. Again, the balance of urgency and patience is important, as they search for the right soil, microclimate and people coming together at the right time.