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Infamous Carignane vineyard has battle-tested, rewarding history

Wines from Robert Young's Alexander Valley/Sonoma County Chardonnay vineyard or Heitz Cellar's Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley are the Holy Grail for California wine aficionados.

Heitz's Martha's Vineyard bottlings have been ranked among the greatest California wines in the 20th century. Chateau St. Jean's Robert Young Chardonnay was the first vineyard-designated wine in the modern day California varietal wine era and continues to be the benchmark for premium U.S. Chardonnay.

There is also the well-known Joe Lilles Madera County, Calif., 16-acre Carignane vineyard. Never heard of it? Not surprising since there never has been a bottle of “Lilles Vineyard-Designate Madera Carignane,” even though 25,000 gallons of it is lovingly fermented each season and bottled for consumption only by winemakers' friends and family.

Lilles affectionately calls the 32-year-old Carignane vineyard “My Carignanes.” Nothing catchy. Nothing quixotic. Others, though, have another name for it: “the vineyard from hell.”

Lilles really does not mind the infamous moniker given to his vineyard by researchers and chemical companies alike. The reason is that for decades it served a major role in the never-ending battle against powdery mildew in every vineyard in California.

The vineyard on the outskirts of the San Joaquin Valley town of Madera could also be called a survivor vineyard. Virtually all products successfully used today to control powdery mildew, the No. 1 disease of California grapevines, have been through the fires of hell and made the grade of acceptable powdery mildew control in the vineyard Joe and his father planted in 1974.

For at least 20 years, Lilles has set aside about 2 acres of the vineyard for University of California Cooperative Extension Madera County farm advisor George Leavitt and others from UC to test powdery mildew control material.

If a fungicide controls powdery mildew there, it can control it anywhere.

Carignane grapes are the most powdery mildew-susceptible variety grown in California. Lilles' vineyard's infamous reputation is exacerbated by an adjacent creek and canal supplying constant air moisture to encourage powdery mildew spore growth. Towering Eucalyptus trees along one side block drying winds.

“And George is always bringing in more powdery mildew spores,” laughs Lilles, the irrepressible 68-year-old third generation grape grower.

Leavitt does not exactly bring in spores, but he certainly leaves plenty behind each year from trials where new or old fungicides fail or fall short of acceptable control. About 15 years ago, Leavitt decided to leave one vine untreated every year to show Pest Control Advisers, chemical reps and farmers what uncontrolled powdery mildew can do to vines and grapes.

In bad mildew years, that single vine looks almost dead by harvest time and the grapes are rotten. That untreated vine has probably unleashed enough powdery mildew spores to infect the state's entire 900,000 acres of vineyards.

With that kind of scenario, who would not blame Lilles for a little powdery mildew at harvest? Yet, there are no cleaner Carignane wine grapes harvested each year in California than those from his vineyard.

They must be perfect because for almost 30 years the 11 tons to 13 tons per acre are handpicked — no mechanical harvesters here — from the vineyard and made into some of the finest wines — in Canada. The grapes in the powdery mildew trial are destroyed each season, leaving Lilles 14 acres of Carignane to gather.

Since 1978, Albert Boos, a Reedley, Calif., tree fruit grower and fruit broker, has been buying Lilles' grapes on the vine, hand packing them in the vineyard with hourly paid workers into 36-pound wooden boxes and shipping them to the Toronto and Montreal areas where they are eagerly sought by home winemakers.

Boos buys the grapes from Lilles on the vine and pays for picking, cooling and trucking to eastern Canada where home winemakers either buy the grapes from produce brokers there to crush at home or have the grapes custom crushed, taking the juice home in buckets to ferment and make into no doubt some of the heartiest red wine found in Canada.

Boos buys a full array of San Joaquin Valley wine grapes from the older Muscat, Grenache, Carignane and Zinfandel varieties to the more publicly popular Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, from about 40 different growers from Kingsburg, Calif., to Livingston, Calif.

Ninety percent of the grapes go to Canada. The other 10 percent go to the New York area.

“Carignanes are a hot item. Joe does a great job of producing a quality grape. We get calls every year from people wanting to know when the harvest will start,” said the 80-year-old Boos, whose nephew travels to Canada each year to call upon the family's customers.

There are about a half dozen brokers like Boos who buy wine grapes for juice. It is a long-standing but not widely publicized tradition in the Valley. Most of the valley juice grapes for home winemaking go to Canada or the East Coast.

The Carignane grape variety is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world, yet there are very few wines labeled Carignane. Its popularity stems from the high crop yield as well as the characteristics that it can bring to a wine.

Wine made from Carignane usually has red-fruit characteristics, deep violet and purple color, strong tannin structure and high levels of alcohol content. It can be peppery. It has long been popular for blending with other grapes to enhance flavor characteristics.

Boos said the passion for making home wine spans many ethnic groups in Canada. Lilles, of French-Basque lineage, recalls vividly his dad making wine each year from Carignane grapes.

“You could run a diesel engine on the stuff my dad, who was French, and his Italian buddies made,” he said. “None of this Merlot stuff. You could walk on it, what they made. We had to make our 200 gallons each year and maybe a bit more because a lot of his friends like to have their Monterey hard jack, French bread and wine.

“It was a tradition. Everyone made wine. We had one barrel that would hold 2 tons and another barrel held 1 ton.”

Lilles is carrying on that tradition with his Carignanes to Canada.

He takes pride in keeping his grapes clean of powdery mildew. The tools he has today are much different what his father and grandfather used to control.

Lilles has seen plenty of products over the years on the experimental vines he allowed the university to use for its trials. While he admits the trial is a bit inconvenient, he also readily admits he has learned plenty about controlling powdery mildew from watching Leavitt and crew.

At one time, he even helped apply the trials with his old sprayer. Now Leavitt's crew, headed by research associate Tome Martin-Duval, uses small sprayers to treat the replicated trial.

“The main thing I have learned from watching this trial over the years is good coverage is absolutely critical. It is 99 percent of controlling powdery mildew,” said Lilles. He uses a Bean dilute sprayer that he bought used “and probably came over with Columbus, but it works.” It covers two rows.

He likes to run it at 300 psi pressure. “We start treating for powdery mildew in the spring at 70 gallons of water per acre, jump it to 125 gallons as the foliage grows and when things get serious, we will go with 200 gallons of water per acre to get the coverage needed.”

The threat of powdery mildew basically stops at veraison.

He works closely with Madera independent PCA Dan Carty. “Dan takes care of pests and watches the mildew closely. He worries more than I do,” laughed Lilles, who said he also relies on foreman Juan Rodriquez, who has been with him 12 years.

Lilles starts his powdery mildew program with copper and wettable sulfur, applying it usually twice. When pressure builds, he switches to the fungicides.

“I don't want to name names, but these new fungicides that we have now are godsends. And having the selection we have and being able to rotate helps tremendously in controlling mildew,” he said. Lilles cited specifically the convenience of the fungicides as well as the 14, 21 and even 28-day intervals between treatments.

“The way we set our nozzles has a lot to do with the coverage we get. The nozzles are staggered and not facing each other over the vine and they are tilted up to get underneath the leaves to allow the spray to swirl inside to get good coverage,” he explained.

Lilles said he wants to avoid “shingling” leaves together and that is why he staggers nozzle on the spray booms. Shingling reduces coverage by pasting leaves together.

“We were one of the early Bayleton users and even with it quit working for others, it still worked for us,” said the veteran grape grower.

Bayleton was the first powdery mildew fungicide introduced into California's grape market, but after several years of repeated use, it began to fail due to resistance.

Lilles believes resistance is partly a fall out of poor coverage, allowing some lightly covered spores to escape and lead to eventual resistance.

Lilles Carignane vineyard is only one block of the 130 acres of vines he farms. He also farms about 170 acres of almonds.

However, the Carignane vines are the ones that gain the most attention. For years, Lilles has hosted company representatives, growers and researchers from all over the world brought to the “vineyard from hell” by Leavitt and others.

“We had one German scientist who came out. He was real proud of his fungicide and he got mad when I told him the stuff turned the vines yellow. There were some Australians on the tour with him and they said the same thing happened to vines there,” Lilles said. “The guy got real defensive and would not admit to defeat, but it was the truth.” Lilles' Carignanes do not lie.

Lilles readily admits he has lost grapes to heavy mildew pressure. “We have had to drop bunches at harvest when the pressure was real high,” but never more than 5 percent of the crop, a remarkable record.

“I guess I can thank George for some of that; bringing in all those spores each year,” he laughs.

Canadian winemakers can also thank Lilles for keeping the vast majority of those spores in check, so they can eagerly anticipate the arrival of Carignanes each year from 2,500 miles away in Madera, Calif.

Asked if he ever bristles at his vineyard's infamous reputation, Lilles laughs and says, “The university folks gave it its infamous reputation. I just call it my ‘Carignane vineyard.’ I am proud of it.”

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