We at Bohème devote our lives to winegrowing on California’s Sonoma Coast.
Our namesake Bohemian Highway meanders Sonoma’s Coast Range of redwoods, valleys and farms. Crafting wine from this place is a formidable, yet deeply fulfilling, endeavor.
The frontiers are numerous: vine nutrition, pruning technique, trellising, soil biology, cover crops, grape chemistry, fermentation, cooperage, èlevage and others. A complete grasp of but one can take a lifetime.
We take great efforts to expand our knowledge and bottle a most captivating wine, yet Mother Nature is the true maker of wine—and stands within each of a vintner’s moves. Indeed it’s nature’s unknown that gives magic to great wine.
Q&A with Vintner-Owner, Kurt Beitler
What does Bohème mean to you?
Bohème was originally chosen for its geographical reference to the Bohemian Highway that runs through our town, Occidental, on the Sonoma Coast. The road's name arose in the late 1800s when San Francisco's Bohemian Club followed this summertime route to a grove in the redwoods. It seems natural that a group celebrating bohemian life were drawn to this place of beauty, and that was 130 years ago. Still today, the Sonoma Coast provokes artistic expression and free living.
These days Bohème carries a greater meaning to me, including artistry, hand-craft and individual thinking.
Why did you start making Pinot Noir?
In 2000 my uncle, Chuck Wagner, hired me to manage his Pinot noir vineyard near Occidental. I was drawn to farming initially for its variability and newness [in my life]. Admittedly, I wasn’t as taken by wine at that time as I am now. I’m also fascinated machines and working outside, and was curious about growing grapes. It certainly meant a great deal that I was continuing a family tradition. Soon I had an epiphany about the transformative wines that surrounded me. Right then the Sonoma Coast became my place of inspiration.
How is Pinot demanding?
Pinot Noir is delicate and takes great care to farm. For example, a technique in growing is to pluck leaves from near the compact clusters to help ventilation 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 immediately come alive and might even turn a darker shade. They’re amazingly responsive. Working closely with the vines helps us learn how best to care for them.
What about Chardonnay – what do you love about it?
Chardonnay’s refreshing acidity, texture and symphony of fruit are so great. I love how Chardonnay pairs with lighter foods, especially seafood. It can be rich and viscous or bright and refreshing with mineral elements. 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. Still, there seems no substitute for grapes with a long ripening period. The best Chardonnays I’ve had come from cool-weather sites.
What’s unique about your approach?
We’re lucky to have excellent vineyard sites, mostly dry farmed, with petite-berried Wente clones, and yields typically 1.5 - 2 tons per acre. Grapes ripen two or three weeks later on the coast, which I believe lends depth of flavor and texture with still modest ripeness.
Where do you get your grapes?
We grow our own – over 20 acres from a number of locations. We have a small and dedicated team. I’m constantly going around to the vineyards and deciding how best to coordinate jobs and utilize resources. It is truly great fun.
What do you like about that?
Involvement, simply—top quality grapes are indispensable. My interest in farming has changed over time. I love the challenge of keeping beautiful, well-tended vineyards that produce perfect grapes but then also look like a garden. It’s convenient that healthy vines and soil produce the best wine. Growing and seasons will forever be a moving target. One might have an idea of how vines and fruit should look, but Mother Nature will have storms or heat spikes in the forecast, so we’ve got to be quick on our feet with the appropriate response and action.
It sounds challenging.
Yes, it often is and tests you both intellectually and physically. It’s arcane 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 reduce 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 was raised, at Caymus in Rutherford. I'd do all sorts of jobs around the winery and ride a Honda 50 in the vineyard. Later I was encouraged by my uncle and grandfather to join in my family wine tradition. 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 helped immensely by them, but like most winemakers, had to figure much out on my own. There’s no perfect formula and we all learn in different ways.
Does growing the grapes make you better at making wine?
There’s no question it does. Wine starts with the grapes, of course. In any profession, the more attuned one is with outcomes from earlier inputs, the better one becomes. 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 place great importance on the quality of the fruit because I feel it vastly improves wine quality. Growers are often motivated to grow more fruit; winemakers always emphasize quality. These two goals are often at odds with one another. We’ll drop fruit or trim off parts of clusters which takes lots of time, but enables the highest quality fruit. We consider our fruit “sorted” before it’s picked—when it arrives at the winery—it needs no further sorting. As winegrowers we also know when a diminishing return for quality is reached.
Do you think of yourself as a winemaker these days?
Absolutely, but not all of the time because I do a lot of other things. A winemaker is also a plumber, carpenter and an electrician. I also sell wine and run a small business. Making wine is just one thing I do, and I love it.
Does making wine keep you humble?
Yes; I appreciate what control we have of the winemaking process, but vines 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 needn't complicate the process. It's miraculous that the juice of grapes, rather simple and one-dimensional on its own, can transform, after fermentation and aging, into something so much greater.
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, or any agriculture, for that matter, because simply we can’t control every detail. In the end we need to make delicious wine and have a healthy business to support the livelihoods of our team.