Q&A With Kevin Harvey: Owner of Rhys Vineyards
The Bay Area, and Silicon Valley in particular, is long on technology-liquidity-event founders and former, or current, venture capitalists who have turned their fortunes and attention to wine. But building a great wine takes far more than money and a willingness to spend it, and very few are willing to get their hands dirty in the area that counts the most: farming the land and growing the grapes.
Kevin Harvey is one of those few.
It’s not that Harvey’s journey to wine is that different than many others—Harvey founded two software companies, which he sold to Apple and Lotus in 1988 and 1993. In 1995 he became a founding partner of Benchmark Capital. In between his time as entrepreneur and investor, having had a gentleman’s interest in wine until that point, he spent a few months traveling the world on a quest to determine what factors made the best wines. In the end he settled on Burgundy, its top producers and their absolute dedication to making wine in the vineyard, to farming and the soil.
Harvey’s journey led him to start Rhys Vineyards, his well awarded and respected wine, with the same commitments to farming and soil he had found in Burgundy and a constant quest to produce a better grape and thereby a better wine.
We sat down with Kevin recently in his office at Benchmark Capital, where he remains a partner, to talk about the importance of farming in wine.
Ben Narasin: Tell us what you learned from your journey about why farming is so important to wine.
Kevin Harvey: When you look at a class of wine, red burgundy being my favorite, and look at the best wines in that class, it leads you to the organic or biodynamically (farmed) wines each time. Within that there’s nuance. An organic or biodynamic label does not ensure great farming.
BN: Do you farm organically or biodynamically?
KH: Both. We’re strictly organic and bio certifiable. Technically we are biodynamic. Our practices fall under that umbrella, but we follow our own regime. Most biodynamic regimes have a lot of specific farming techniques we haven’t found useful.
BN: Like what?
KH: Certain types of sprays administered during certain moon phases.
BN: What’s the most important element of the organic farming practices?
KH: What matters the most, as far as strict organic, is not using herbicides or chemical fertilizers. What we try and do is closer to a minimally invasive organic farming regime. We try to raise everything on site that the vineyard needs. We try to achieve balance in the grapevine through what we do and how we do it.
BN: How many properties do you have now, and what are you growing?
KH: Eight. We own all but one. We’re growing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. We also just grafted some Riesling and some Chenin Blanc.
BN: When you look at land in this region, how does it influence your farming practices?
KH: The Santa Cruz mountains have some challenges. Vines are planted on slopes, so they are more expensive to farm. On the plus side it’s the perfect environment to encourage biodiversity in farming regimes because the vineyards are set in a biodiverse environment. They have forests surrounding them. They have a great deal of life all around the vineyard. We find in those situations that you don’t have to worry about any systemic treatment (meaning pesticides, fungicides, etc.) if you manage the vineyard correctly.
We never have used pesticides or fungicides or herbicides. It’s been 15 years without a problem. This approach takes a level of trust. When you see a few bugs you might be worried about, instead of immediately bringing in pesticides you trust the eco-system to balance itself and it usually does.
We also believe in adapting the vine as much as possible to the natural environment. We use minimal irrigation. Seven or eight years into the vines’ life we try to go dry. After six years or so we are typically down to a few gallons a year. If we irrigate once or twice the vines still have to forage for water. That and organic fertilizer are the most important farming techniques.
Our farming costs are extraordinarily high, as high as any I have heard of.
BN: Have you ever lost a harvest with your reliance on nature?
KH: No. The biggest issue is flowering success, but we don’t know of any chemical that helps that happen anyway. It’s a challenge inherent to this area because of the cool weather. It may be very challenging everywhere, but here it’s a particular challenge for young vines.
BN: What do you use as organic fertilizer?
KH: We make our own. We grow cover crops with right nutrition for the vines.
BN: How do these farming techniques impact the wine in the bottle?
KH: We believe that farming vines more adapted to diverse natural environments leads to more complexity and an overall better wine. Winemaking can’t make quality wine. All quality comes from the grapes.
BN: Are there changes you’ve made in farming techniques based on what you saw in the grapes and the wine?
KH: When we first started we were using too much compost. This is an example of a time when even within the organic umbrella there are things that you can do better. We were using the compost too frequently, and weren’t getting the balance we wanted in the grapevine. So we moved to more cover crops and to adjusting to get a natural balance.
BN: So you don’t use compost at all?
KH: For the most part. I can’t recall last time we added compost to a vineyard that was more than seven or eight years old. Actually, I can remember one; we did it to get the cover crops to grow.
BN: What do you use instead of fungicides?
KH: Because of our dry climate we don’t have the same pressure as European winemakers, from a fungal perspective, so we can manage with minimal organic sulfur in the vineyard and when we make the wine.
BN: Going back to biodynamic versus organic, what have you learned has impact over the years?
KH: What I like about the biodynamic regime is the organic part: encouraging a diverse ecosystem, attempting to minimize outside input, like by making compost onsite, and strict organics. We do not use the astrology or unnecessary applications.
BN: Do you use compost tea, a typical component of biodynamic farming?
KH: We have. We make our own compost in general. In many regimes (as talked about before) we’ve found it unnecessary. We’re focusing on doing fewer steps. Less is more—the same is true in winemaking.
BN: When you look to Europe, to the places that influence you, who are the best producers using the biodynamic and organic methods?
KH: The best example is Domaine Leroy for biodynamic and DRC (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti) for organic. They have made vast improvement from the mid-’80s to now through the use of biodynamic and organic methods.
BN: What other practices do you focus on to create exceptional wines? KH: Site selection. Vineyard layout. Plant material. Those are the key determinants of quality. Farming is the other twenty 20%. Maybe it’s 30%. It’s hard to screw it up if you have the other things right. At least it is harder to screw it up.
BN: What about leaf pulling, green harvest, stuff like that?
KH: We do all those things but would like to see a natural balance that makes it unnecessary. We try to manage, not to require. It’s best just to adapt your vine to the environment. Most wineries in California set themselves up to receive grapes in any condition and ameliorate the conditions while making them into reasonable wine. With an estate approach we want a wine that needs no amelioration and arrives with perfect balance at the winery.
BN: So you don’t believe in certain winemakers being able to deliver a “cult wine” regardless of where they are and who they are producing for?
KH: The problem is the expectation that a winemaker can produce an exceptional wine regardless of the grapes. It’s about terroir and site expression, particularly for Pinot. There are sites that can make great Pinot but very few in the New World. It’s not something you can hire in a consultant. The idea that you can hire a specific winemaker and produce a 100-point California Cabernet, I find that grotesque.