We at Bohème devote our lives to growing one of life’s great pleasures: wine from California’s Sonoma Coast.
Our namesake Bohemian Highway meanders Sonoma’s coast range of redwoods, valleys and farms. Tending vines in these hills is a daily privilege that inspires creativity and resourcefulness.
We hope Bohème intrigues and brings you closer with friends and family.
Q&A with Vintner-Owner, Kurt Beitler
What does Bohème mean to you?
Bohème is meaningful for both its geographical reference and perhaps, ethos. The Bohemian Highway runs through our town, Occidental, on the Sonoma Coast. The road's name stems from the late 1800s when San Francisco's Bohemian Club followed this route to a nearby grove. To me it’s natural that a club celebrating bohemian life was drawn to this place of beauty. 130 years ago and still today the Sonoma Coast provokes artistic expression and free living.
Why did you start making Pinot Noir?
Serendipity, really. In 2000 my uncle, Chuck Wagner, hired me to manage his Pinot vineyard near Occidental. I was drawn to farming first for its variability and newness to me. I also love machines and working outside. I was curious about growing grapes and excited to continue a family tradition. I later had an epiphany about the incredible wines that surrounded me. Right then the Sonoma Coast took on a deeper meaning to me.
What’s a bohemian spirit?
The words that come to mind are individual, artistic, virtue. All of us have something bohemian within. When a person expresses something personal and unique, individual – to me this is bohemian. To be in tune with the heart, to know that in a feeling is wisdom, to live according to what you know is real, is a bohemian spirit.
What’s different about a bohemian wine?
The suggestion is a bit mystical, but one could say it’s earthy, mysterious, vibrant, transformative. A great Pinot, like other great wine, tells stories and is evocative. It can remind you of wildflowers, pomegranate, grandma’s pie, the scent of a Christmas tree, or the smell of a desert rain. When a wine is really good, it can bring about sweet memories.
How is Pinot demanding?
First, it takes great care to farm; it’s delicate and high-maintenance. For example, a strategy in growing is to pluck leaves from around the compact clusters to help air circulate through the canopy, preventing mold. If too many leaves are pulled and the grapes are over-exposed, grapes can get sunburned on intensely sunny days. So in one vineyard we learned to pull leaves from inside of the canopy only. It gives good circulation, yet dappled sunlight. It's the right balance for that vineyard and site.
The upside to Pinot’s fickleness is that grapes respond quickly to inputs. The day following a spring rain or shoot-thinning pass, vines perk up and leaves turn a darker shade. They’re amazingly alive and responsive. Working closely with the vines helps us learn how best to tend them.
What about Chardonnay – what do you love about it?
I love its refreshing acidity and symphony of fruit. While not as finicky as Pinot, Chardonnay is very much an artistic expression. Some believe it’s a "winemaker’s grape," meaning a winemaker can guide its ultimate character. If there are three recipes for Pinot, there are 40 for Chardonnay. Should you want to tune mouthfeel and bouquet for example, there are opportunities.
What’s unique about your approach?
We benefit from excellent quality vineyards, mostly dry farmed, and petite-berried Wente clone, with yields typically 1.5 - 2 tons per acre. Grapes ripen 2-3 weeks later on the coast. From this we hope to achieve greater depth and character.
I also like stirring the barrels every 1-2 weeks, lifting lees for texture, and delaying SO2 addition till some months following Malolactic Fermentation. Our best Chardonnays have been done this way.
Where do you get your grapes?
We grow all our own – about 19 acres of vineyard on three different parcels. We have a small team of dedicated hands. I’m constantly going around to the vineyards and deciding how best to coordinate jobs and utilize resources.
What do you like about that?
My interest in farming has changed over time. I love the challenge of keeping beautiful, well-tended vineyards that look like a garden. It’s convenient that healthy vines are produce the best wine and are the most beautiful to look at, too. Growing is always a moving target. You have your own idea of how you want things to look, but because Mother Nature is ever-changing – storms, hot weather, etc – it’s like the ultimate chess match. How do we move hands and time our cultural practices for the best outcome.
It sounds challenging.
It often is. It tests you both intellectually and physically. I think of it as a sport that is foreign at first, but becomes intuitive with practice. The skills that help in the field can be as simple as how to tune a tractor implement or optimize a vine's shoot count on a rocky hillside, next to healthier soil with a denser canopy.
How did you get started making wine?
I grew up in Oregon and came every summer to stay with my grandparents - where my mother grew up - at Caymus in Rutherford. I'd do all sorts of jobs around the winery and ride the Honda 50 in the vineyard. Later I was encouraged by my uncle and grandfather to get into the wine business. In 2000 I finished college and started working for my uncle, managing his vineyard near Occidental. At that moment I became a 5th generation California vintner. I was taught a lot by them but, like many vintners, had to figure much of it out on my own.
Does growing the grapes make you better at making wine?
I suppose it does. Wine starts with the grapes, of course. French use the word, vigneron – meaning someone who grows grapes for wine making. The best reason would be cause and effect. In any profession, the more attuned one is with outcomes from earlier inputs, the better one gets at the craft. More connections can be drawn and communication improves among the team. We can make better decisions and implement ideas in the vineyard that help the wine, because our operations are integrated.
Can you give an example?
I can optimize the quality of the fruit according to what I personally feel is important. Growers are often motivated to grow more fruit; winemakers always want highest quality. These two things can be at odds. We’ll drop fruit or trim off parts of clusters which can take lots of time but enables the best quality of the crop. Our fruit is normally sorted before it’s picked and arrives at the winery. As grower/ winemakers we also know when a diminishing return for quality is reached.
Do you think of yourself as a winemaker these days?
It's tough to take on titles but yes, I'm a winemaker, but not all of the time because I do other things too. A winemaker is also a plumber, carpenter and an electrician sometimes.
Does making wine keep you humble?
It can. I appreciate what control we have of the winemaking process, but the biology of plants and fermentation have so many details, they can be humbling. We work to make sense of the natural world through science - and control risk - but it's a healthy reminder that people have made wine for thousands of years, and we needn't always complicate it. It's miraculous that the juice of grapes, rather simple and one-dimensional on its own, can transform, after fermentation and aging, into a drink so complex and interesting.
How would you describe your point of view?
A bit laissez-faire. One of humans' great attributes is adaptability. It's fun that we get to test that in ourselves when confronting the randomness that surrounds us. This helps with making wine because we can’t control every detail. In the end we need to make delicious wine and have a healthy business to support livelihoods while doing it.
Vineyard Tour 2010!