With a background in high technology, it’s no surprise that Randy Phillips protects his vineyard through soundwaves.
Rodents are a problem in California vineyards, as are starlings, which peck at ripe fruit, causing grapes to leak juices all over fruit clusters, causing them to spoil. “A lot of places use nets,” explains Phillips. “But they’re expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous for the birds.”
Prior to growing some of California’s most sought-after grapes, Randy had a thriving career in high technology and communications, with Master’s degrees from both MIT and Notre Dame.
While at a conference in New Jersey, Phillips came across a company selling electronic noisemakers to keep birds away from airport runways and high-rise buildings in New York City.
“I told them about the starling problem in my vineyard and asked if they could make something for me,” tells Phillips.
This approach is not only humane but has also helped to attract more red-tailed hawks to the oak trees that surround Randy’s vineyard. “They’ve been breeding for years now, and as well as keeping the starlings at bay, they also keep on top of the rodent population too.”
Randy Phillips adjusts the blinds in his office, dampening the glare from the fierce California sun. “This year will be our 35th vintage,” explains Phillips. “You see, we’re really farmers first. We didn’t open our winery until 2004.”
Randy and his wife Cheryl have been producing some of the most enviable fruit in Paso Robles for more than three decades and while consistently farming sustainably are only just going through the process of getting Sustainable In Practice (SIPS) certified.
“We don’t till our vineyard,” says Phillips. “Instead we plant native grasses that help prevent soil erosion, allow a place for water to get into the ground, and also helps with rodent control to a certain degree.”
In a previous life, Randy and his family spent eight years living in Andalucia, falling in love with a host of Spanish wines. Through his exploration into vineyards, Randy noticed how many old vines were head trained, rather than being trained along a wire, a process he would later adopt on his Paso Robles estate.
“On a grape variety like Zinfandel, the fruit clusters tend to be very big and soft skinned and as they grow they have a tendency to squeeze the fruit on the inside, which causes the cluster to rot.”
Head training is a process where the vine develops into what resembles a small shrub or tree. This can have advantages such as increased aeration around the fruit, and reduced risk of disease. In fact, head training is often used in areas where dry farming is a necessity, such as certain appellations in Europe.
Even in U.S. wine-growing regions, head-trained vines are often cultivated, as in the right conditions they will need little to no irrigation – a sensible move in a state constantly under threat from drought.
“I head train my Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Garnacha, Mataro, my Chardonnay and Petite Sirah,” says Phillips. “But my Viogner, Shiraz and Cabernet are all wire trained.”
After 35 years growing impeccable Central Coast fruit, and almost 20 in the winemaking saddle, Randy and Cheryl Phillips have an exacting approach to their craft that translates all the way to the glass. Look out for their first wines set to release on Naked in the coming months.
Nick Baines is a food and travel writer based in London.