Family connection and organic growing at Retzlaff Vineyards
By Nikki Goddard
I’m a wine professional. I spend my days tasting, evaluating, discussing, and writing about wine in an office in San Francisco. When I go out on winery visits, I expect to learn about various technical aspects of viticulture and winemaking, as well as how the people involved bring their passions and talents into their work.
Accordingly, I arrived at Retzlaff Vineyards prepared to inquire about the challenges of organic grape growing unique to Livermore Valley and the importance of organic certification to consumers. I was prepared to write a straightforward winery profile, but was caught off guard during the experience. The first surprise was meeting a family whose abundance of love and admiration for one another stayed with me long after the visit. Even more unexpected was the lingering fascination I experienced with one family member I did not have the pleasure of meeting.
Gloria Retzlaff Taylor passed away 10 years ago, but her presence can still be felt in every corner of the winery that bears her maiden name. In the Retzlaff tasting room, visitors can sample a Saint-Émilion–inspired blend called Annette’s Crush, named for one of Gloria’s granddaughters. The wine’s label bears Gloria’s charming illustration of her son Aaron pressing his wedding wine in 1989.
Pick up the cork that’s popped from the bottle and you’ll find the winery’s web address printed on it. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it was one of Gloria’s many forward-thinking innovations.
A walk through the family’s beautifully restored 1870s Italianate Victorian farmhouse demonstrates that Gloria was a talented and prolific artist; her colorful paintings adorn nearly every wall, conveying her boundless energy and zest for life with their joyful subject matter.
Yet, apart from her achievements as a businesswoman and an artist, what is most readily apparent about Gloria from a visit here is the enormous impact she had on her family and her community. Her sons Noah and Aaron Taylor and daughter-in-law Salome Garau-Taylor speak fondly of her, and from their many stories it is easy to see why, a decade on, she is sorely missed by so many who crossed her path. A sense of warmth permeates the entire Retzlaff operation, and one gets the distinct impression that Gloria ignited the first spark.
An Unexpected Vocation
Gloria blazed a trail within Livermore’s burgeoning modern wine industry alongside her husband, Bob Taylor. The pair met at UC Berkeley and moved with their young sons Noah and Aaron to downtown Livermore in 1963 when Bob found work in the earth science department at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Gloria eventually found bustling Livermore Avenue in the center of town too noisy at night, and, yearning for a quieter life, she moved her family to a neglected 14-acre sheep ranch in 1975. No crops had ever been grown on the land, so no chemical inputs had ever been applied. It was essentially virgin land, making it easy to farm organically.
The Taylors developed a heightened interest in wine in 1980 when Bob was offered a one-year sabbatical to work at the world’s largest solar research facility in Odeillo, France. The pair was charmed by the way the French appreciate wine as part of daily life, and the tradition stayed with them when they returned. Accordingly, they decided to plant grapevines, and as Bob and Gloria were passionate environmentalists, organic viticulture was just common sense.
Bob’s background as a research chemist would later provide him with a good foundation as a winemaker, although he believes nature plays the most important role. “It takes great grapes to make great wine,” he says. Along with the Taylors’ concern for the environment, Bob’s knowledge and understanding of chemical inputs have always governed Retzlaff’s farming practices. Even before organic farming became more widely appreciated, Bob rejected the common practice of applying harmful herbicides to crops.
The Taylors did not set out to become winemakers, however. Initially, they found a very profitable business in growing grapes on contract for neighboring Wente Vineyards. In the late 1970s, the Grey Riesling variety was in demand for making sugary, crowd-pleasing wine coolers and White Zinfandel, so that was what the Taylors grew. But a dramatic shift occurred in the 1980s when the crowds discovered Chardonnay, and plantings of the newly beloved grape doubled again and again throughout winegrowing regions of the world. Meanwhile, per-capita wine consumption was rising throughout America. As Wente became widely known for its Chardonnay, the winery, like others, no longer found Grey Riesling useful. Suddenly, thousands of acres of Californian Grey Riesling became worthless and many grape growers, Retzlaff included, scrambled to graft their vines over to the classic varieties of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
A Shrewd Marketer
Soon, Retzlaff was producing, bottling, and selling its own wine, although the Taylors continued to sell a small amount of fruit to Wente each year to cover their costs. “Gloria was always very clever with money,” explains Noah, “so she created little buffer zones. That way she could still do the things she dreamed about without panicking about how to pay for them.”
Remember those corks? Her sons recall her musing over the URL, “Well, it’s like a phone number or something, right? Why wouldn’t you print it on the cork so you can put it in your pocket?”
Gloria also started what may have been the first wine futures club in California. Her involvement in a ladies’ stock-buying group gave her the idea to sell her red wines as futures in order to pay for the expensive harvest and bottling processes. The futures club, now in its 30th year, is sold out with a waiting list to join. Those who covet spots in the exclusive group must first become members of Retzlaff’s standard wine club, which is open to all.
The Taylors’ commitment to being good stewards of their land is one of many reasons Retzlaff has inspired such a loyal following throughout the years. Gloria saw the property in a unique way, which was reflected in how she ran her winery. “She took great pride in her success as a businesswoman, but she had the soul of an artist, and she always considered the vineyard to be a land sculpture,” said Bob Taylor in 2009 when interviewed for his wife’s obituary in the East Bay Times. Gloria was also perfectly happy to roll up her sleeves, climb onto a tractor, and do her share of the hard work. As Noah recalls, “She took a keen interest in being hands-on.”
The Road to Organic Status
Vineyard manager José Hernandez has been commuting from Tracy to work at Retzlaff Vineyards for nearly two decades. It is he who makes the family’s philosophy of organic farming a reality as he works hard to keep a super-clean vineyard. Prior to joining the Retzlaff team, José spent nearly 20 years at Wente Vineyards developing skills and experience in all aspects of vineyard operations as well as much of the winemaking process. He uses no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers, and he spends considerable time experimenting with pruning techniques and canopy management. He believes that with less fruit, vines last longer (the Sauvignon Blanc vines on the property are over 40 years old). His theory is that a vine is capable of producing a fixed quantity of grapes over its lifetime, so he opts to prune for selective production to allow for a long lifespan. José is also a strong proponent of a pruning practice called “suckering,” in which unnecessary shoots are removed from the vine in order to redirect the vine’s energy toward only the most promising shoots. This results in fewer clusters of grapes with less leaf cover, allowing the grapes to more easily withstand the hot Livermore sun and develop appealingly ripe and concentrated flavors. “If you expose the grapes early,” Noah explains, “they acclimate and get a resistance to sunburn.” The exposure also helps to keep the grapes dry, allowing fresh air to circulate to combat mold and mildew.
In 2006, the vineyard became one of the first in California to be certified as organic through the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and to this day, Retzlaff remains the only certified organic winery vineyard in the East Bay. Both the certification and the process of growing grapes organically are expensive and labor-intensive; for this reason, many wineries choose not to go down this road. Chemicals provide a safety net in the vineyard, and without their use, great care must go into preventing damage by pests or disease, as well as into remedying these problems if they do occur. Furthermore, many growers lack the knowledge or systems to farm organically. Basic economics play a role as well. Because of the increased production costs, organically grown wines are inherently more expensive than those that are farmed conventionally, and many consumers are hesitant to pay a premium for organically certified wines.
Because Retzlaff uses a small amount of sulfites at bottling to stabilize and preserve the wines for aging, only the grapes are considered organic—the wine is not. But while wines labeled as “made with organic grapes” are permitted to include up to 100 parts per million of sulfites, Retzlaff typically adds only 20 to 30 parts. In any other country, this would qualify the wines for full organic status, but United States standards are particularly stringent compared to elsewhere in the world.
Step into the Tasting Room
Retzlaff produces about 2,000 cases of wine per year, using only estate-grown, certified organic fruit. Each bottle clearly expresses the Livermore terroir: There’s plenty of ripe, plush fruit, but the wines display a balance that suggests influence from time various family members have spent making wine in Europe. Aaron and Salome learned winemaking techniques in Switzerland, and Noah has worked in France at Bergerac and Monbazillac, as well as in New Zealand. Oak is used judiciously, never masking the true character of the grapes. Several of the bottlings are made from rich, velvety Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or a combination thereof, including a Merlot rosé and a Cabernet Sauvignon port. A voluptuous, classically Californian Chardonnay and a crisp yet textured Sauvignon Blanc add variety to the lineup. All of the wines are flavorful enough to be enjoyed on their own, but have the elegance and acidity to pair beautifully with a meal shared with loved ones (just as Gloria would have wanted it).
Taylor family members occasionally make appearances on Retzlaff’s wine labels. Each of Aaron and Salome’s daughters, Isabelle and Annette, has a wine named after her. When Gloria passed away in 2009, Bob paid loving tribute by crafting a cuvée called Gloria’s Pride and Joy. The family holds back cases of the blend to be shared in her memory on special occasions and for donations to local causes Gloria would have considered important.
The Family Reserve, a Bordeaux-style blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, is Retzlaff’s most precious of wines. Salome explains, “we only like to sell it to people who will promise to drink it with someone they love.” It is clear that Gloria’s legacy lives on through this ethos. ♦
Nikki Goddard is an Oakland-based wine writer, educator, illustrator, and consultant. A world-traveling wine enthusiast, she particularly enjoys finding exciting new wine discoveries in her own backyard. Twitter: @nicklesg