For Jean-Pierre Wolff, owner of Wolff Vineyards in Edna Valley, conservation and sustainability require more than just being in harmony with nature.
Wolff sees himself as a steward of his land, and he has thus spent considerable time and dollars on everything from protecting historic vines to improving water flow for steelhead trout to creating a turtle refuge and bird sanctuary.
His 125-acre property on Orcutt Road is half wildlife sanctuary, half vineyard. And he believes what benefits Mother Nature benefits his vines, and thus the wines.
“I believe in the principle that wine is made in the vineyard and the job of a winemaker is not to screw it up,” Wolff explained.
And if critical acclaim is a benchmark, the vines from his vineyard have proved his point. His Wolff Vineyards designated chardonnay made by Mount Eden, Wolff said, “was the only vineyard that three times in 10 years was named one of the Top 100 Wines by Wine Spectator.”
And his own wines reflect excellence, with his syrah receiving gold medals in both 2008 and 2009 at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Wolff, 61, and his wife, Elke, bought the vineyard in 1999 from Edna wine-growing pioneer Andy MacGregor. The original vineyard consisted of 55 acres of chardonnay grapes, many of which were already more than 25 years old. Wolff was advised at the time to rip out all the vines and start from scratch.
“But this is an historic vineyard,” he told his advisers. “I’m glad I kept them.”
He added over time an additional 37 acres of pinot noir, along with a smattering of syrah, riesling and teroldego. He also was the first in Edna Valley to plant petite sirah—a variety more apt to be found in warmer climates.
“My neighbors were asking me what I was smoking,” Wolff said with a big grin. “Now they’re the same ones who are wanting to buy the fruit from me now.”
But beyond his passion for wine is his passion for his land and the birds and animals that live on it. He talks proudly about the 27 turtles in the pond he dedicated as a refuge site; the dozens of quail, red-tail hawks and barn owls he depends on to control rodents; and the generations of steelhead trout that can now swim up- and downstream in the creeks he has restored surrounding his property.
The Belgium-born winemaker cringes at being asked if he is organic.
“I don’t want to be certified organic,” he said, “because I’m too rambunctious.”
In fact, that kind of restriction would limit his ability to participate in the many trials he’s involved in with organizations such as the Natural Resources and Conservation Services, the U.S. Department of Fish and Game and the Army Corp of Engineers.
Wolff was also part of the first year trial for the Sustainability in Practice program developed by the Central Coast Vineyard Team. He has been certified now for three years.
Making only 5,000 cases of his own wine each year (he sells most of his fruit to other premium wineries), Wolff is small enough to sell only to the California market, thereby avoiding the costs and time of selling on the road. And he definitely prefers it that way.
“We’re small,” he admitted, “and right now I think smaller is better.”
Name: Wolff Vineyards
Address: 6238 Orcutt Road, San Luis Obispo
Owners: Jean-Pierre and Elke Wolff
Winemaker: Jean-Pierre Wolff
Cases produced: 5,000 a year
Tasting room hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Janis Switzer can be reached at 434-5394 or via e-mail at email@example.com.