Organic farming is hard work.
I had the pleasure of working in Napa for a week to assist with harvest preparation at Olivia Brion winery, located on the breezy hillside of Wild Horse Valley. In addition their breathtaking beauty, the rolling slopes on this expansive Appalachian provide the perfect climate for world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wine here is organic on all levels, handmade every step of the way for a truly artisan product. What better place for a food critic to seek summer escape?
The work, however, really put in perspective how difficult it is to organically produce such an upscale product. Harvest, when the grapes get picked, was still a month away, but the labor required even at this point was, plain and simply, dirty.
Covered, head to toe, in dust, leaves, and weed clippings. At least I was.
“This is how I make the best wine I can,” says Winemaker David Mahaffey, whose voice carries with that endearing tone oddly reminiscent of actor Jeff Goldblum. “I want to improve the long-term health of the soil, of this vineyard. After all my years here, I want to leave this place as healthy as it was when I got here.”
Age 63, Mahaffey has controlled every step of Olivia Brion’s production since its first vintage back in 1980. He began the shift to organic viniculture in 2010 to take the wine back to its ‘natural roots’ and emphasize ‘the personal touch this landscape delivers to the wine drinker.’
“It’s not a marketing ploy like you can find with other foods,” he said. “It’s really all about the wine and this is how you make the best-quality product.”
He goes the extra mile by signing his bottles regularly, giving his wine a warm attitude of ‘from me to you.’
To be certified organic, no chemical-based fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides can be used. The certification process takes three years, adequate time for the site to ‘clean out its system,’ as Mahaffey says. 2013 was Olivia Brion’s first certified organic vintage.
Now having worked at the source, I can absolutely attest to the temptation most mass-market farmers give into. We mowed the weeds out of 11 acres of land in order to set up miles of netting, thrown over the vines to keep birds from eating the grapes as they ripen. These tasks take around 120 hours to complete and don’t even touch the effort required during harvest. All this in 90-degree weather, even with the bay breeze blowing in. Adding chemicals would make the pain go away with a magic ‘poof.’
It’s like looking in your fridge and seeing a cup of Greek yogurt next to a slice of chocolate cake. You know the right choice, but that cake just seems so enticing.
Mahaffey maintains a strong character. Before winemaking, he served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and went on to earn his M.Ed. at Harvard. He stumbled upon the wine industry not long after school, where a biking trip to Napa Valley led him to work with famous winemakers Joseph Phelps and David Groines.
Olivia Brion poetically embodies Mahaffey’s journey and the worldly personality that goes with it. Brion stems from the pre-immigration surname of his wife, Linda. As for identifying the famous Olivia Brion, Mahaffey cracks a smile. “She’s both the dog and the girl on the bottle,” he says. You’ll have to check that one out for yourself.
Mahaffey also produces a Cabernet line from Palladian Vineyard in the St. Helena region. Roughly 70 percent of the wine made gets shipped directly to a mailing list of local customers, almost all of which Mahaffey met on private tours that can be arranged on request. The other 30 percent goes to high-end restaurants in Northern California and nationwide, including Tru [Chicago] and establishments in the Beverly Hills Hotel.
More information is available on Olivia Brion’s Website at www.oliviabrion.com. For private tours or further inquiries, David Mahaffey can be reached at (707) 287-2870 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.