Travelers along a portion of Silverado Trail have lately been met with a sight uncommon in Napa Valley. As one nears the intersection of the Trail and Oakville Cross Road, seas of vineyard give way briefly to a flash of Kansas.
Thousands of sunflowers, the state’s signature flora, have been growing in recent months on the site of Rudd Oakville Estate in a tribute to the estate’s late founder and Kansas native Leslie Rudd, who died earlier this year. The few acres, normally planted to vineyard, have taken a turn for the Midwest as the winery property undergoes a years-long replanting.
Leslie’s daughter, Samantha Rudd, who now leads the estate, said plans to replant the vineyard acres with a more drought-tolerant rootstock were made before her father’s death in May.
“The timing worked out that we were going to put sunflowers there,” she said last week. “We kind of toyed with the idea of putting sunflowers and then when my dad passed away it was definitely the perfect thing to do because it’s the Kansas state flower and he’s a Kansas boy.”
Rudd, like her father, was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas.
While a tribute first and foremost, the crop also carries on Leslie’s farming philosophy and works into the Rudd farming plan as the company moves toward a future of less water use in the vineyard.
While it’s common practice in Napa to pull a vineyard out in the fall and replant it the next spring, Rudd was a believer in leaving the land fallow between plantings, said vineyard manager Macy Stubstad. Instead of an immediate replanting, the property will leave the vineyard blocks be for two years, planting only cover crops like the sunflowers in the interim.
At Rudd, which farms using both organic and biodynamic practices, the end goal is to use less water and fertilizer, relying more on the health of the soil in growing their grapes. Along with cover crops like sorghum and buckwheat, the sunflowers are intended to build up organic matter in the soil, boosting beneficial microbes and repairing the soil’s fertility.
“So to have a little break, even if it is for a couple years, it’s something that we found to be a valuable tool for us,” Stubstad said. “If we’re going to planting a vineyard for 50-60 years, two years fallow is really a small price in the long run.”
To aid in cutting back the site’s irrigation needs in the years ahead, vineyard rows will also be reoriented to take in less of the harsh afternoon sunlight and more of the temperate morning sun.
Set in the heart of Cabernet Sauvginon territory, the plot will naturally host Napa’s stalwart varietal when it is eventually replanted. The new rootstock is slated to go in around March 2020 and, given the growth time for vines, ultimately the first round of fruit to come from the plot will be harvested in 2024.
After the sunflowers are harvested, a winter cover crop like radishes or legumes will be sowed, followed by another round of sunflowers next summer. Those will be planted using the seeds harvested from this year’s flowers.
Beyond the tribute to Leslie and the winery’s farming future, the sunflower field has also been a bid to break up the monotony of vineyard after Oakville vineyard, Rudd and Stubstad said. In other wine regions, like Rioja in Spain and Provence in France, Stubstad said, “You just see fields of sunflowers next to fields of vineyards. I think in Napa you just see vineyard after vineyard after vineyard.”
The property is a private, by-appointment-only estate, Rudd added, “But so many people were pulled over on the crossroads, jumping over the fence, taking pictures … We talk a lot about our energy and our attitude out in the vineyard and I think the sunflowers truly just brought a lot of joy to the people who then interact with the vines.”