Farming at Caldwell

Six hundred feet above the Napa Valley floor in Napa’s southern-most appellation, our estate boasts steep hillsides, rolling oak meadows, and rows of grapevines framed by mountain ranges on either side. This is our home. It is a spectacular place to view the world and an exceptional place to grow Bordeaux wine varieties.

Our proximity to San Pablo Bay, inside the bowl of an ancient volcanic caldera, gives us the coolest ambient temperatures and longest growing season in Napa Valley. The volcanic soils, where our roots grow deep, impart distinctive minerality and undeniable purity of character in our wines.


Jesus Espinoza

You couldn’t find a better, more hard-working guy anywhere. He’s worked with us since 1990, and he cares for this place and our vines, like they’re his own. Not only is he one helluva farmer, he can fix almost anything, is always good for a story, and has an eye for the aesthetic pleasures of our beautiful spot. He’s strong, affable and completely unflappable, and is one of the hardest working dudes I’ve ever met. When Jesus is on the job, we don’t have to worry about anything – he always seems to have it covered. – John Caldwell

Jesus first arrived at Caldwell in 1990. He was all of 18 years old and came over straight from Mexico. We put him on the tractor from day one. He worked hard and worked his way up. By 2000 I made him Vineyard Manager and to this day, he’s our man. He knows every single vine on property. We have 100,000 vines and he literally touches each one multiple times per year – every year.

In the Vineyard

As they say, great wine starts in the vineyard. In our case it couldn’t be more true. We feel lucky as hell to conspire with nature in this beautiful place and to grow world-class wine grapes.

It also takes a world-class team, and we’ve got that in spades. One of the big things that separates this independent, family owned vineyard from the others is that we employ Jesus Espinoza, as our full-time estate vineyard manager. That in and of itself is a game changer when you think about how many times we touch each vine throughout the year, and the minute-by-minute picking decisions we make at harvest. Lots of other smaller wineries are dependent on scheduling with other vineyard crews, and often have to wait days to pick grapes. Whereas we get to pick the minute every individual block and row has reached absolute perfect phenological ripeness.


While we only farm 60-acres of grapes, Caldwell Vineyard isn’t your run of the mill, valley floor Oakville Cabernet project. We’ve got 28 different clone-specific varieties planted amid undulating volcanic hillsides, ravines and hilltops, all with different sun exposure, wind exposure, soil type and depth, and drainage. That means that every single block, row and vine ripens at a different time, which makes picking decisions some of the most important decisions we make as a business. Mother Nature waits for no man, so harvest in particular is a nail-biting, stress-inducing experience.

We employ age-old techniques for vine management and soil health including the standards like composting, fertilizing, pest management, pruning and thinning just like everyone else, but we add another layer of bona fide science to the art of farming and making wine.

During bud break we watch the new leaves burst out of the woody vines, all chartreuse and full of life, and every year it makes me stop and think about how profound nature really is.

Phenology is a fancy word that means studying the seasonal events in the vineyard and their relation to the weather. Each stage of growth (bud break, flower, fruit set, veraison and harvest) dictates what we’re doing on any given day around here; and all of it depends on the weather.

After harvest is over, we fertilize the vines so they can hunker down for a long winter’s nap with plenty of nutrition - nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus - all the good stuff. They go dormant over the next few months, and that’s when we get the pruning done.

As things start to warm up, there’s a natural progression of bud break based on variety. The Chardonnay will bud out right around the 1st of March so we get that pruned first, then we get the Merlot, Petite Verdot, Syrah and other reds done. The Cabernet pushes last. This year we started at the end of January and had everything finished up around March 14th, about a week before the equinox, which is when the reds will start pushing buds.

It’s interesting to think about the fact that bud fruitfulness is actually determined the year before. So, for example, in 2014, with two fantastic vintages behind us, the vines have lots of good energy stored from the previous years and bud fruitfulness is optimal. We’re starting in a really good place. If this beautiful weather keeps up, we’ll have another stellar vintage.

So far we think we’re doing a pretty good job. But we know the hard work is paying off when we see friends enjoy a bottle of wine, or when another of the big-boys from our Napa hood buy our fruit. Over the last 33 years we’ve sold fruit to some of the best Cabernet producers in Napa Valley, including Joseph Phelps Insignia, Pahlmeyer, Merus, Viader, Randy Dunn, Stéphane Derenoncourt, Philippe Melka and lots of others. It’s the good stuff.


Unlike our neighbors, we’re blessed with an artesian well on the property which means even though Coombsville is considered a water conservation district, we’re sitting pretty with all the water we need to keep our vines balanced and healthy all year round. That’s a game changer when it comes to climate changes.

While originally planted in 1984, our vineyard is in a constant state of transition, as we plant more, replant, and make adjustments as we go, slowly, at the speed of nature, year by year.

When we plant new varieties we get things in the ground in the Spring. As the vines start to push new stalks (canes) and leaves, we cut all the new growth back to the ground, sparing only two primary buds which become the primary canes for the mature vines. We select one cane to become the trunk, so next year, when the cane reaches the wire on the trellis, we’ll start training two primary canes that will start producing fruit for the following year. A lot of folks are surprised to find out that red Bordeaux varieties (most red varieties, in fact, other than Zin and Syrah,) will give you great tasting fruit in their first few harvests. Sometimes your third year is better than your fifth – which bucks the information you’ll get from everyone else – and really sets the tone for the fruit you’ll get long into the future.

For the rest of the vineyard, we start pruning in January and keep that going all the way through til March with various pruning techniques that ensure the vines are healthy and balanced, and sending maximum energy to the best bunches of grapes. Now, if you’ve done your homework, you know that John Caldwell got his commercial start in the business, first as a grapevine smuggler and then as the licensed nursery for cultivating the Entav-Inra Bordeaux clones in North America. So of couse, when we prune, we collect some of the best canes to be used as budwood - for ourselves and to sell to others. With all the worry about viruses in the vineyards lately, there’s been a lot of demand for our budwood; which is the original certified Entav-Inra stock from France. Its been nearly four decades and our vineyard is still testing disease free. (Read “The Rest of the Story” for the details.)

Quality vs Quantity. Longevity vs the Quick Fix.

I’m not getting any younger, and when I think about the legacy of Caldwell Vineyard, I think about how this place and our wines are gonna have to long outlast the likes of me. That thinking has me committed to focusing on longevity rather than production when it comes to our vines, which is why employ different consultants and companies with serious experience in the realm of vineyard management for legacy vines. We’re in a constant quest to ensure our vines get healthier and our wines taste better every damn year.

With the help of some new technology, we’re dialing in these decisions down to the tiniest detail. This past harvest, we started working with a high-tech, analytical oenology lab called WineXRay to see if we could make some of our harvest and picking decisions more precise. Based here in Napa, the owner of this company invented a machine that can analyze grape samples and graph your results, on the spot. 

So during harvest, we collect 200 berry samples from every nook of the vineyard and put them into this machine and a few short minutes later - boom – we’ve got graphs and in-depth analysis on the computer about the levels of tannin, phenolics, anthocyanins, Brix, pH … every detail you could possibly imagine about the ripeness of the grapes from that spot. It’s just awesome. 

The machines cost about $12K, which isn’t chump change, but is pretty small in comparison to the multi-million dollar decisions we’re making throughout the few most intense weeks of harvest. But there’s no arguing with the quality difference we can achieve by ensuring every cluster of grapes gets crushed at their optimal ripeness and flavor.


Having info like this allows us to experiment with things like picking at lower brix, or looking more for phenolic development, and marry that information with the nuances of every Caldwell Cooperage barrel we make until we strike magic.

Basically these guys are coming in and telling us how to prune our vines, which is a bit of a funny notion given that it’s something we’ve been doing for 38 years straight. But we’re not going for good anymore, we’re starting to look at achieving perfection. My vineyard manager of over 30 years, Jesus, is up front and center on all the decisions and he’s bullish on all the new ideas these guys are bringing to the table. 

Some of the oldest vines in America are in Napa. But most vineyards get ripped out after 30 years because everyone’s farming for quantity not quality. 

We just want to keep our vines going forever. I don’t want to have to pull them out, ever. It takes 15-20 years for the vines to start making their best fruit. Now we’re thinking about pruning for longevity and the health of the vines, and we’re already starting to see the effect.

In His Own Words…

Well you know, I’m from Michoacan, Mexico. My family owns a produce farm there – where
we grow almost every kind of vegetable. I loved farming so much I quit school when I was 12 to work the farm with my dad. When I turned 18, my first cousin, Eleodoro Hernandez, was the Vineyard Manager at Caldwell. He called me and asked me if I wanted to come to Napa to work the vineyard with him. I thought it would be great experience so I decided to make my way north.

Lots of my family members had come to the states over the years – all of them legally. But I guess maybe I was meant to work at Caldwell because I had sort of my own rebel streak, and decided I’d cross the border with a coyote. I was just a kid and it seemed like a fine idea at the time. But it was really scary and probably real dangerous, and looking back, I would have done it differently. Of course, I got fully legal a few years after coming, and am happy as ever with my wife Victoria Patricia and our two girls.

When I first arrived at Caldwell, in January of 1990, I remember it was a really cold year with lots of frost. Being from Mexico, I wasn’t used to the cold so it was, in some ways, my worst experience ever. I remember shivering in the mornings and I couldn’t get my hands warm no matter what I did. It’s funny to think back to that now.


The first day I got here they put me to work in the little block behind the garage and down from the main house (Block 2). My cousin went through and pruned everything back, and my job was to haul the brush by hand and pile it up at the end of the rows. I guess it was all meant to be because that’s the block that John ended up giving me, four years later, to use for making my own wine.

It was 2004 and we were having a really hard year. We were working like crazy. John saw all the work we had been doing and, as kind of a bonus, he offered us the chance to make our own wine. Margarito was working in the cellar at the time so he and I thought we’d go in on the project together. I’d farm the grapes and he’d make the wine. Our first year we made 25 cases. I think we drank it all ourselves. The next year we made more and named it JEHM (for Jesus Espinoza and Margarito Hernandez).

It’s gotten good enough over the years that John actually sells it in the cave alongside his wines, which makes us really proud.

Besides that little block we use for JEHM, my other favorite is Block 15. It’s kind of my baby. That was the first area that I worked on from start to finish; everything from picking the rocks to putting in the stakes and trellis, and irrigation, and planting the vines. It was the first time I was able to bring it all my experience together, and to plant a vineyard in Napa Valley. That was a really big deal for me.

John gave me the title of Vineyard Manager in 2001. I didn’t want to take the position because it was a huge responsibility and I wasn’t sure I had enough experience. I didn’t want to make any mistakes or let anyone down. But John said he believed in me, and that was it.

That whole year, I swear I didn’t sleep. I was so worried about doing everything perfect all the time. John was good to me though and let me ask questions and really worked with me to build my confidence. A little while later, during the time that he was also running the nursery, I came in to ask him about a decision and he was so stressed out. He said, “Jesus you are the vineyard manager, and you’re responsible for it, so get out of my face and go do your job.” And that was it.

Ever since then, John and Joy rely on me to make most of the decisions in the vineyard and to manage the vineyard crew. Lots of folks think farming is a part time thing, but when you’re on a team making great wine, there’s barely a day off. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

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