by Dan Clarke
Steve Moulds didn't arrive in the Napa Valley until 1998, but the move was long-planned. He and his wife-to-be Betsy met at San Jose State after returning form duty in the Peace Corps—he in Honduras, she in Brazil. After college Betsy became a school teacher, Steve a Spanish-speaking social worker helping people in the farm labor camps around Gilroy. After several years in the south Bay Area, the couple “moved back up the Peninsula” where Steve went into commercial real estate. He stayed 25 years, eventually becoming a partner in the firm.
“It was always our dream to get up to the Napa Valley,” Steve explains. Actually, Steve and Betsy spent a good deal of time in the Napa Valley before moving there, as they often visited Bob and Sue Brakesman, friends from college, who had started Summit Lake Vineyards & Winery on Howell Mountain in 1971. Steve refers to the eventual move from the Bay Area to Napa and what was to become Moulds Family Vineyard as “re-potting.”
When Steve and Betsy purchased their 57 acres northwest of the city of Napa in the Oak Knoll District there was no vineyard. Though the property was being used as horse pasture, the surrounding area had a good reputation for grapes. Cooler than sub-appellations further north in the Napa Valley, the neighborhood was mostly planted to Chardonnay, but some Pinot Noir, that other Burgundian varietal, was there also. “Early on we decided to plant Cabernet,” Moulds says. He believed the slightly cooler climate would allow a bit more “hang time” (somewhat slower ripening and longer time on the vine before picking) for greater flavor development. “We've been very pleased,” he adds.
Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for most of the 10 planted acres at Moulds Family Vineyard, but Steve has also put in some Cabernet Franc “to give another tool to one of our winemakers.” Lisa Drinkward of Behrens Family Winery on Spring Mountain confirms that Behrens is the Cab Franc client. “We love his grapes,” she says. The Cabernet Franc is really a tiny portion. We get just over a ton.” Todd Newman, whose small production Dakota Shy wines are all on allocation, is another big fan. He comments that Moulds has “a meticulous attention to detail. His very fine and very, very detailed approach allows us to come back year after year and better understand the growing scene. Steve has that passion in the vineyard like we have in the winery. It's our favorite vineyard to work with. We actually do a single-vineyard bottling from the Moulds vineyard.” Other wineries using Moulds Family Vineyard grapes include Mirror, Piper and Johnson.
Pursuit of quality doesn't come cheaply for growers in the Napa Valley. Steve Moulds walks a visitor through his hillside Cabernet Sauvignon vines, pausing to show the seemingly perfectly-placed canes. All rise between horizontally from cordons on each side of the vine. There is a plastic “Kiwi clip” around every one, which loosely tethers it to the wire so that windy days will not cause the canes to tangle. Steve does some quick calculations in his head and estimates the seemingly astronomical number of clips that go on each year. Rafael Montanez of A & J Vineyard Supply in St. Helena quotes a unit cost of three cents for each of these—not expensive, he says, until you're ordering thousands of them. Still, it's not the cost of the clips, but the cost of labor to attach them that makes this aspect of high-end farming so dear, Moulds explains
In May Steve Moulds began his two-year term as President of the 690-member Napa Valley Grapegrowers (NVG). Sustainable farming issues are a big part of the work of the NVG, but Moulds acknowledges other concerns loom. “People are concerned about the growth of tourism and the impact on the Napa Valley that our success has brought about,” he says. “Napa is a world class destination now and that brings challenges and responsibilities.
“One of the things that makes this valley so amazing is that it's been protected from overdevelopment by some forward-thinking leaders,” Moulds stresses. “In 1968 these leaders formed the agricultural preserve, one of the first in the nation, and this ag preserve has farming as the 'highest and best use' of the land. We try to guard against any incursions that are not agriculturally oriented.”
Asked about the future, Steve Moulds replies, “I'm obviously enthusiastic or I wouldn't be planting a vineyard again. It helps keep me young.” (Moulds will celebrate his 70th birthday in December, but the avid cyclist looks fitter than most men a decade or two younger.) In 1996 he took a solo bike ride from Canada to Mexico. Ten years later he cycled from Virginia to Napa and just two years ago he reversed the cross-country direction in traveling from San Diego to St. Augustine. These days Steve gets his exercise with his fellow Clydesdales. Members of this club must be over 60-years old and over 200 pounds. “We take a 30-mile ride every Friday,” he says, “and then repair to a very nice restaurant for a very long lunch to replace all the calories we've just burned off.”
Steve and Betsy planted their vineyard in 2000. “In 2003 my wife and I went back to school at Napa Valley College and in 2005 we both graduated with degrees in viticulture,” Steve says. “That was the foundation we gave ourselves by attending the (Napa Valley College) classes, but the continuing education via classes from Napa Valley Grapegrowers is so intense, so up-to-date, for me it's like going to graduate school. The NVG looks for ways to help people farm more efficiently and more sustainably. Personally, on this ranch I try to apply something new every year in an attempt to improve our quality.”
2013 Sauvignon Blanc
Suggested Retail: $16
“Mason is something of a rarity in the Cabernet-centric Napa Valley—a Sauvignon Blanc specialist. Though the label on the 2013 vintage indicates a Napa Valley provenance, it could just as well have said 'Yountville,' as the grapes came from a single, certified organic vineyard in that growing region a few miles north of the city of Napa. Though Sauvignon Blanc is sometimes blended with Semillon—notably in Bordeaux, but occasionally in California—the Mason 2013 vintage is 100% Sauvignon Blanc.
“We found floral and melon aromas, with a bit of grapefruit in the background. In the mouth there's more of that melon and citrus aspect and some of the grassiness characteristic of the modern New Zealand style with this variety. However, there is a richness that few of the Kiwi versions can attain. This is likely due to the batonnage, a process in which Mason puts a portion of the wine into stainless steel barrels on top of the lees (spent yeast cells from the fermentation). The lees are then stirred three times a week and eventually this Sauvignon Blanc is reunited with the rest of the blend. The result is a richer, more complex finished product. In this wine we found a subtle creaminess that complemented the citrus quality. There's a lovely balance and a long finish.”
Food Affinity: “The Mason Sauvignon Blanc is definitely food-friendly. Our first thought was simply grilled white fish—perhaps halibut or sea bass. Of course, many chicken dishes would also be appropriate. A whole roast chicken with some lemon zest and sliced ginger slipped between skin and the bird's flesh would be excellent.”
San Francisco, CA
Serving style: 12-oz bottles and cans
Availability: Year round in many US Markets
Appearance: “Kind of like a Boddington's color. Not really amber, I'd say it's medium-gold.”
Aroma: “Not much.”
Taste: “It has a lively flavor. A little hoppy, but not too much.”
Food Affinity: “Enjoyed with calamari as served during happy hour at Clark's Corner in Sacramento.”
Reviewer Ray Thompson is a retired attorney
TASTE News Service October 15, 2014 - Slicing open a ripe green jalapeño he had just snapped off a plant in the field, Aziz Baameur pointed the blade of his pocket knife at the yellow line. "This is where capsaicin is located. It's what gives the pepper its pungency and it's what we're trying to increase," said the UC Cooperative Extension advisor.
"Some people think the seeds make it hot, but capsaicin is what makes chile peppers hot," said Baameur, who works with vegetable growers in Santa Clara and San Benito Counties.
Baameur is trying to grow a hotter jalapeño by studying the variables that raise the Scoville units, which measure a pepper's heat. For the past four years, he has been documenting the effects of different rates of water, potassium, sea salt and nitrogen applied to the jalapeño crop at George Chiala Farms in Morgan Hill.
"We're trying to find a way to raise the capsaicin level of the jalapeno and raise the Scoville units, which will then allow us to have spicier peppers," said Jeff Sanders, raw product coordinator for George Chiala Farms.
Research studies in Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand and Spain have shown that water stress results in hotter peppers so Sanders and Baameur tried irrigating with less water. "For us, it did not show that," Baameur said. "We sampled fruit and we analyzed it for capsaicin content, which makes a pepper hot. It was fairly low, actually it was almost half of what the normal treatment, or control, would be."
The relatively cooler climate of the Santa Clara County area may be the reason the pepper plants produce different results. "I think it's more a relation to heat, ambient temperature, much more than just water," Baameur said. "Cool years and hot years will result in different heat units for the same jalapeno variety."
The amount of potassium hasn't made a difference, but adjusting nitrogen fertilizer seems promising.
"High nitrogen is promising because it produces a hotter pepper and also allows for high crop yields," Baameur said. "Low nitrogen also resulted in higher pungency, it brings a lot of heat in the peppers," he said. "However it is correlated with lower yields."
Next season, Baameur will try to determine the optimal amount of nitrogen to apply to raise the capsaicin levels of the jalapeño without hurting crop yields.
"The trend lately is toward hotter items," said Sanders, noting a growing popularity of foods containing habanero and even the Bhut jolokia, or ghost pepper. "Both of those are significantly hotter than jalapeños, but the jalapeño is still sort of the standard bearer for a hot pepper," Sanders said. "Those are the items people consistently want. A jalapeño chip still has more name recognition than a habanero chip. And the hotter you get the pepper, the easier it is to adjust your end product."
Although there are hotter peppers, such as habaneros, cayenne and ghost peppers, adding other peppers to the end product would alter the flavor. Bhut jolokias, for example, can be up to 1,000 times hotter than a jalapeño, but have a citrus flavor.
"When you're talking about a small amount of that pepper in your product, just a slight citrus flavor can overpower the heat very easily," said Sanders. "So it's more important that we reach high heat levels with the flavors that our customers are requiring."
Consistency of pungency in the peppers is also one of the pepper grower's goals.
"We're trying to get a consistent heat level so that our jalapenos going to the processing plant always reach the same Scoville unit score," Sanders said. "This makes our end product more consistent, which makes our customers happy because then the product they receive to go into their items is more consistent."