Preston Farm & Winery
On Becoming a Farm that Makes Wine
A serendipitous sequence of luck, magic, mystery, chaos and belief brought Lou Preston to the place he is today. Which is, essentially, where he started—and, at the same time, far from it.
He and his wife, Susan, have lived and farmed the same plot of land in the Dry Creek Valley for the past 45 years, but they’ve hardly been standing still. The land has gone from orchard to vineyard to, now, something else entirely.
The Preston journey begins more than four decades ago in familiar fashion for Wine Country origin stories, then the winery did what for many would be unthinkable. Lou, fresh out of UC Davis with visions of vineyards in his head, came to Healdsburg, where he had some grounding thanks to his family.
“I knew the town,” he says. His rhythms are easy and comfortable, as if he is as much a product of this land as everything growing up around him. “It was very simple back in those days. I knew some people to talk to about finding a piece of ground where I could grow grapes.”
Someone told him to talk to Americo Rafanelli, who later went on to found Rafanelli Winery, but at that time was a realtor. In many ways, Rafanelli was the perfect guide to the back roads of Dry Creek Valley, which, back then, was remote even to Healdsburg. “He made home wine,” says Lou, “and he knew the Dry Creek Valley and he knew its lore and history.”
While grapes were grown here and there in the area, it was far from the dominant crop (the wine industry didn’t really pick up until the late ‘70s). Prunes, though, were everywhere. Healdsburg was a Sun-sweet company town.
Rafanelli brought Lou to a property with Dry Creek flowing on one side and Peña Creek defining the other. In the middle were orchards, but the land had a grape-growing lineage. “When we came here, this property was mostly prunes but with some old plots of grapes, mostly Zinfandel, dating back to the turn of the century, which was one of the great things that we acquired here.”
Lou began to experiment with the vines. “There’s one small block that became our favorite. We call them distinct clones. There’s no track record of the clones. We don’t know who planted them. We can guess, but we don’t know for sure,” he says. But those favorite “Preston Clones” were propagated into expansion blocks and their fruit is bottled as the Zinfandel the winery produces today.
The work of converting 125 acres of mostly prune trees to vineyard rows could not have been easy, but it gradually came together into a vineyard and winery, even if things might have been a bit unorthodox in the beginning. “We converted an old prune dehydrator into almost like a home winery,” Lou adds, “—but I did have a permit,” then stops to think a moment and laughs, “I think I had a permit. Actually I got a permit from the ATF, but maybe I never got one from the county … Today they would put you in jail.”
Things were trial and error. History and guidance on what to grow in the area was almost folkloric. The old Italian farmers who had settled the area and spent their free time drying grapes to make homemade passito were pretty much the only source of real information. As he tore up prune trees they would tell him what to plant, “Oh, Zinfandel, petis seres”—as they called Petite Sirah. “So we planted a lot of the old-time standards,” Lou remembers.
“And then through serendipity I discovered, almost stumbled across, Syrah and the Rhone family of grapes. We experimented with Syrah side-by-side with Petite Sirah, thinking, ‘Well, they sound alike.’” The varieties, despite their homophonic similarity, are in fact unrelated. The conclusion though: “The Syrah turned out to be just a beautiful match for this area.”
If Lou wasn’t alone in growing that particular grape in Dry Creek Valley at the time, he had to have been in rare company. “I’m told, though I never really confirmed it, that we were among the first to plant Syrah in this area,” he says. “I’ll accept that,” he laughs. Clearly it’s of little concern to him, though the breakthrough discovery itself was of great concern.
“Since Syrah did so well we researched the whole category of Rhone grapes and began to introduce other varietals. Viognier and Mourvedre. Cinsault had been on the property; we reintroduced it. And later on we added Grenache.” Much of the property’s 125 acres was eventually given over to the wide family of varietals typically grown in the Rhone Valley.
The winery and its facilities rose up in the ‘80s. If that era is known for anything, it is excess. “We ended up making too much wine,” says Lou. And it had to be sold. The ardor he had for the land and growing grapes was stymied by “life on United Airlines,” Lou remembers. “I spent most of my time traveling. It was interesting and fun in parts, but it was kind of a treadmill and it wasn’t really what I had intended to do.”
Perhaps there was a crisis of identity and philosophical questioning in some anonymous hotel room in some anonymous city somewhere in America.
“I was really interested in farming and the creative side here,” says Lou, gesturing at the life bursting from the property all around us. So he did something about it, and in the early 2000s, the winery downsized. “The thinking was, and it’s worked out pretty well, by being more selective in our vineyards, instead of crushing everything, we crush the best. Duh, that’s kind of an obvious thing to do. And by selling locally, the revenue stream would be better. When you sell out of state everybody else has their hands in the pot—brokers and wholesalers and distributors. There isn’t a whole lot left. But back in those days there was no internet, so that’s how you had to sell.”
The 25,000 case production went to just 8,000. But that was just the beginning.
Back on the land, Lou began to tinker with the model again. He had worked to make his business more sustainable financially by selling direct and his life more sustainable by no longer racking up frequent flyer miles, but what about making the 125 acres on which his family’s livelihood was based actually and significantly more sustainable and environmentally responsible?
“We explored organic certification and realized that we didn’t really know how to do it,” he says. Consultants were brought in, he and the team attended Ecofarm conferences and, he says, “We began to become part of a network of farmers who are very concerned about the wholesomeness of food, protecting the environment and the ecology … and for this property we began to explore, ‘Well, what would it be like to diversify?’”
That most radical change to the property was yet to come. In Wine Country, grapes are the cash crop. So even as Preston’s own production was cut back, like many wine producers it sold all the grapes it didn’t use itself. But the more Lou thought about it, monoculture just didn’t make sense. The idea of replacing vines with a wide variety of plantings kicked around in his head.
“It was hard to make that commitment, but Mother Nature made it for us,” he says. “One winter there was a serious freeze that killed a lot of vines and we thought, ‘Well, this is the time to take out some vineyards and diversify.’” Of 125 acres, roughly half was turned over to the production of food. There are grazing pastures for sheep, laying hens, hedgerows that serve as insectaries for beneficial insects, orchards, olive groves and plenty of vegetables. The resulting produce, eggs and lamb products can be found everywhere from the winery’s own farm stand to local farmers’ markets to high-end restaurants such as Healdsburg’s new SingleThread.
“Other people who are growing grapes in the area look at us and say, ‘God, why are they doing that?’” Lou says, “And we do it because we think it’s the right thing to do with this piece of land, for the health of the land. For the best food. The health of my family, our customers, the staff.”
A casual walk of the farm shows it’s bursting with life—from the “hired hands” such as herds of sheep grazing in rotation around the property and hens pecking at bugs underneath olive trees, to those who “volunteer” for farm duty including the herons whose natural habitat is the creek and who help out by controlling the gopher population. Owl boxes, eat your heart out.
This natural balance has been hard won. Working with public agencies like the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and local resource conservation districts, Preston has been a significant contributor to the restoration of Dry Creek’s riparian waterway. The damage the area’s farming history brought to its watershed has been significant.
“Much of that in the course of modern farming, I like to say before my time,” Lou says. “It was really compromised by the way people farmed. Clearing brush along the creeks and changing the actual streambeds to make it so they wouldn’t flood. Flooding, as we all are learning, is a very positive dynamic that happens in a watershed and it got so that it wouldn’t flood anymore because of the way people were bulldozing cottonwoods out of the creek.” Those cottonwoods are now springing back up naturally, and can even be found volunteering in the hedgerow. [To read more about the restoration of Dry Creek, see the Fall 2009 issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country.]
In 2015, the farm was certified as Biodynamic by Demeter USA, the only certifier for Biodynamic farms and products in the United States and part of the larger Demeter International formed in 1928 and named for the Greek goddess of agriculture. Much like organic certification, Demeter certification requires adherence to Biodynamic practices for at least the three prior years. Preston has been practicing Biodynamic farming for five or six years, according to Lou.
Biodynamics, with its whiff of mysticism, buried cow horns and adherence to lunar cycles, isn’t easy to explain. A group from the marketing department at Whole Foods Markets came to visit the farm when the giant retailer began considering a major move into biodynamic products in their stores. As Lou tells it, the execs stood mystified, staring at the deeply fertile soil that had been fed by tinctures tucked into cow horns and compost teas, with sheep, chickens, coyotes and foxes scampering across it, and they said, “‘We don’t know how to talk about it.’ And we said, ‘We don’t either.’”
With his characteristic introspection, Lou struggles to pinpoint what Biodynamics is even as he examines it, but he is certain of the positive impact. “There are different ways that you can describe it,” he says. “You can say, ‘It’s farming like our ancestors used to farm—without chemicals.’ And then if you go back even further, you can say it harkens back to a period when people had a better intuitive sense of the seasons and cosmic things—even just lunar cycles are obvious. The sap flows at certain phases of the moon. Fermentation in a tank will be more aggressive at certain phases of the moon. So lunar cycles are obvious. And solar cycles, the same thing. You get heat from the sun. You get more radiation and less radiation. But then there are all these other bodies out there—all these other celestial bodies, and why wouldn’t they have some impact, too?”
In the beginning, converting the farm was a leap of faith. There’s not a direct cause-and-effect relationship, says Lou, but things have changed. He’s seen the soil change. The birds and wildlife and all the beneficial insects that call the farm home have changed. It’s not as simple as do X and then Y happens, but, “We’re nurturing our environment, and we’re encouraging a positive relationship of people to the land, to the soil, and that’s almost enough. We do these things and we get good results.”
Our understanding of how the natural world works is constantly evolving. Lou cites the example of how we are just beginning to understand mycorrhizal networks, and the natural phenomena of how plants might communicate to each other in ways never thought possible through fungi in the soil. “People who know mushrooms say that if you have a mushroom that comes up somewhere, it’s probably part of a community that communicates, and it goes out acres,” he says, and in fact, fungi are believed to be the largest living organisms on earth, “and it talks to itself,” he continues, “within this organism it talks to itself. Well, other natural things can do that, too. We think. You can’t prove it, but you can’t disprove it.”
“You can call that faith or you can say modern man doesn’t have the ability to understand all it. But you don’t have to understand it.”
It’s said that if you stand still long enough the rest of the world comes to you. And that’s certainly the case with Preston. Lou might feel the pull of the cosmos, but the pull goes both ways. A burgeoning bread sideline based on doughs made from heirloom grains grown on the property has brought even more visitors to the farm: those coming to participate in baking classes. Add to them not just the likes of the curious Whole Foods marketers, but other growers in the community who contribute their wisdom and experience, and the visitors who come to learn and to witness what has been created here, and you find a farm that grows much more than food and wine.
For more on the fascinating world of Biodynamic winemaking, see writer Christy McGill’s two-part feature in the Spring and Summer 2010 issues of Edible Marin & Wine Country available through a link on our website, EdibleMarinandWineCountry.com