Ever since Journalist Matt Kettman crowned vineyard manager Ruben Solórzano The Grape Whisperer, both the Stolpman Vineyards family and the Solórzano family have teased Ruben quite a bit.
We all know there is truth to this title. Ruben intuitively farms the ranch and hears, sees, and senses the vines’ health. He pushes the vines to the brink annually through the twists and turns of the Ballard Canyon growing season. Ruben creates a naturally concentrated, balanced crop; but ensures the delicate vinifera will live on for decades to come.
Humble Beginnings on the Solórzano Ranchito
Last night we celebrated Ruben’s birthday with the entire family at Ruben’s house on Stolpman Vineyards.
A long conversation with Ruben’s older brother, Enrique, vineyard manager at Lafond Vineyard shed new light on how the Grape Whisperer came to be:
Ruben’s father, Anselmo, farmed his corn fields with plows pulled by cows. With the addition of Ruben’s oldest brothers (Jose, the oldest, was born in 1951), Anselmo could now farm more of the ranch. With more crop, Anselmo bartered for horses, which he taught Jose to harness and plow the fields.
Jose, the proud eldest son, jumped into his new responsibility with gusto, trying to tame as much wild land as possible for the benefit of the family. The younger brothers watched him doggedly work the new horses to exhaustion, pushing them to till row after row past sunset.
Jose’s younger brothers hand weeded the fields behind the plow and eventually rose to the ranks of working the horses. By the time Ruben (the 11th and youngest child of the family) was old enough to weed the fields, the brothers had perfected a cycle of work, breaks, and caring for the horses. When Ruben was old enough to guide the horses, he learned to feel the fatigue of the animals and take action to ensure their health.
The Solórzano children cultivated the crops and grew attentive to their growing conditions while they learned to nurture their animals. Through heated debate among the brothers, rotations of crops were decided upon. Without tractors or vehicles, everything on the Ranchito was alive and needed to be balanced.
The X Factor
This story plays out all over the world in regions where small farmers can’t afford modern equipment. The differentiating factor for the Solórzano family traces back a decade before Jose was born: the day Anselmo’s father, Ruben’s grandfather, was shot dead in a gunfight against cattle rustlers. Through this tragedy, Anselmo experienced an Epiphany: the hard working lifecycle would not change, and his family would remain subsistent farmers at the mercy of banditos, unless his children could transcend through education.
Last night Enrique told me about milking cows before dawn so he could walk to school and then return to work in the fields. In the end, all eleven Solórzano children finished high school. Through school, Ruben armed himself with the tools of English and Math to add to his quiver of work ethic, plant cultivation, and animal health.
Ruben’s Past Molds Our Future
Enrique’s stories of learning to farm with horses revealed how Ruben’s upbringing influences his management of Stolpman Vineyards today. Ruben’s brotherly sense of team-work (the Solórzano kids could field a full futbol side) and sibling rivalry mirror the camaraderie and shared goals of our vineyard crew, La Cuadrilla.
Ruben learned to farm organically and by hand, while also feeling the land through the reigns of his horse. While it sounds like a romantic notion, I have new respect for modern operations like Cayuse Vineyards that have re-introduced horse-drawn equipment into viticulture. As we think about planting more ultra-high density plantings like Ruben’s Block and the extreme Provignage block with rows too narrow for a tractor; horse drawn plows might once again become an option.
Celebrating in the Present
Ruben’s birthday party wasn’t all serious, and many great bottles of wine were shared. On Saturday, we have yet another celebration in store when Ruben’s niece, Diana Solórzano, will marry Fermin Gutierrez. Of course, marrying a girl with ten uncles can be intimidating, but Fermin seems to have won everybody over with the help of his guitar and singing voice. Many of the traditional songs tell of struggle and heart-break, but there’s a whole lot of happiness floating around Ballard Canyon this week!