Cradled by surrounding foothills and Mt. St. Helena, Jericho Canyon is a peaceful habitat for coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, black bears, rabbits, wild turkeys and other assorted wildlife. Always was and always will be.
No small reason that it will remain so is the sensitivity and knowledge Dale and Marla Bleecher invested in the Jericho Canyon Vineyard, which they began creating 22 years ago. Their 40 acres of vines, planted in blocks on the hillsides, have had no impact on their 140 acres other than to make the land even more bucolic.
They purchased the property in 1989 while looking for a suitable locale to raise their three small children. They spied a small for-sale ad in a local sheet and, as Marla remembers it, “as soon as we drove in the driveway we knew we were in the right spot.”
The site is just a mile off Highway 29 on Old Lawley Toll Road. It was a cattle ranch for the previous 50 years. “The place was overgrown, infested with rattlesnakes,” Dale remembers.
The prior owners, George and Thelma Radelfinger, were Calistogans who once owned the hardware store in Calistoga. But when the Bleechers — she a former teacher; he was in the financial industry — started preparing the soil, they found evidence of a Prohibition-era vineyard. The grapestakes they found on the lower part of a hill dated back to the early 1900s.
“We did have a gentleman come by after we’d been here a few years who said in the 1920s, when he was just a kid, there were grapevines here,” Dale said.
For all of its pastoral beauty, the history of the region is intriguing. Originally it was a land grant to a Civil War soldier. The Old Lawley Toll Road was a well-traveled route to the Silverado Mine, which was made famous by Robert Louis Stevenson in his “Silverado Squatters.”
“Stagecoaches would bring supplies up to the miners,” Marla said. “It was a pretty fascinating area because some of the mining camps had 5,000 people. Up a little farther from here they had the Jericho Inn stagecoach stop.”
It must have been an exceedingly difficult trail, given that modern-day freight haulers who attempt it soon learn to their dismay it is impassable. Many a trucker has been forced to back up or be hauled back to Highway 29 by a tow truck, Marla said.
The variance in the tastes of grapes from the vines flourishing on Jericho’s hills from block to block — and even from year to year — is yet another fascinating aspect of the place.
“We see a big difference from the east side to the west side (of the hills),” Dale said.
“All of these spots have their own terroir,” Marla added. “You get a different taste sensation, even though it’s the exact same clone.”
“If you look at the geological survey map it will say the soils are the same,” Dale said. “But when preparing the soil it changes every 50 feet because it was created by volcanic activity. It’s sort of ever-changing. On the valley floor you get all the erosion and sediment and it’s more even. That’s the challenge of growing on the hillside.”
In an average year, Jericho Canyon Vineyard will produce their own 2,000 cases of Bordeaux varietals, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot or petite verdot. Additionally, they sell some of their grapes to others.
The Bleechers’ wines came of age this year when their 2006 cabernet sauvignon scored a double gold and their 2009 sauvignon blanc scored a single gold in the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Not long ago, their cabernet sauvignon was named among the 20 Napa Valley cabs to watch.
The Bleechers’ cabernet sauvignon is crafted from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc grapes. “It is a classic California wine,” Dale said. “Full-bodied, dark fruit, lot of structure and big tannin. Definitely not a valley floor wine.”
In August 2006, the Bleechers finished their winery, a simple, beautiful, state-of-the-art redwood structure. After barreling, the wines are stored in their 6,000-square-foot cave, drilled into the hillside, under their Block 3.
Jericho Canyon’s wines are sold at the winery; direct to customers through their website and wine club; in eight states across the United States; and in Washington, D.C.
Even though Robbie Meyer is their consulting winemaker and Jade Barrett is their day-to-day winemaker, the Bleechers are the kind of people who roll up their sleeves and get involved.
Dale, a Pennsylvanian, studied viticulture at Napa and Sonoma community colleges when the two bought the property. Marla takes another class on growing issues every year. Both take extension courses.
“Each year is new,” she said. “Every year Mother Nature gives you a different season out there, so you are always adjusting and trying to make the best decision you can based on your prior knowledge. But every year we learn something else.”
As is obvious, much of the Bleechers’ study has been in the stewardship of the land.
“We don’t use pesticides or spray to control the insects, so we get a habitat for beneficial insects,” Dale said. “And we mow instead of disk to keep the soil on the hill and control erosion.”
Bluebirds housed in the vineyards also aid in controlling insects.
As to the wildlife on the property, “Black bears are not big, but you wouldn’t want to wrestle with one,” Dale said. “Sometimes they do damage to the fence. Coyotes are not a problem; they don’t eat grapes, but wild turkeys do.”
Wine has seemingly always been a part of Marla’s life. An old wine press and other antiquated winery equipment that once belonged to her grandfather is on the site. (He made wine in the basement of his flat in San Francisco.) Even though he grew up back East, before buying the Calistoga property, Dale was not a total novice in winemaking. He said his family made Concord grape and dandelion wine.
The reporter said he had never tasted dandelion wine.
“You’re not missing anything,” Dale said.