Small vineyard, sweet dreams

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Cara and Marcus Meadows-Smith and Grandma Joy gather the grapes during harvest at Great Bear Vineyard in Yolo County. Photo courtesy of Deborah Ford

by Courtney Llewellyn

Marcus and Jenny Meadows-Smith have been on a journey that may be worthy of a novel. Distilled down to its essence, they originally moved from England to the East Coast of the U.S., living in Connecticut for a time. Eventually, they traveled even farther west, and found California to be much more like Europe. Once upon a time, Marcus ran multi-billion dollar worldwide companies.

“One day my daughter was changing lightbulbs in our house to energy efficient light bulbs and she asked me ‘Dad, what are you doing for the environment?’” So he switched gears. He said he started off as a passionate environmentalist, and sold ag chemicals, eventually working his way up to running the company. They came to California so he could run a biopesticide startup. Successful again, he turned the company around and sold it to Bayer – and in the process, earned the capital to plant his vineyard.

Great Bear Vineyards is in Davis, CA, part of Yolo County’s growing winery scene. It was almost prophesied that Marcus would enter this field. On the day he was born, his father picked the grapes that were in the wine served at his 21st birthday party. Jenny’s family were also involved in farming. “My career was in agricultural inputs – and that eventually expanded to vineyards in South Africa and Australia,” he said. “I attended lots of wine tastings but had never grown my own.”

He said Jenny was the smart one. By training as a chemist, after moving to the West Coast, Jenny earned a winemaking certificate from the renowned UC Davis Viticulture and Enology program. Through her connections, they had their vineyard, trellising and management system designed by Prof. Mike Anderson, the former head of the UC Davis Oakville Research Station. Today, Jenny is the winemaker; Marcus is the assistant winemaker.

“We started off planting Cabernet sauvignon, and we planned to sell the grapes,” Meadows-Smith explained. They designed their vineyards to be sustainable, utilizing a permanent cover crop of grasses and wildflowers. “I wanted to grow in harmony with nature. I wanted to have a vineyard that produced premium grapes. I wanted to practice what I preached, with a sustainable vineyard producing the highest quality grapes, and just make three or four barrels of my own wine for friends and family. Then Jenny got her education, and we found it was a very friendly industry.” Today, they grow four white and seven red grape varieties.

Great Bear’s grapes are grown with minimal inputs on Rincon clay loam and silty loam soils, which Marcus said results in the perfect terroir. They haven’t used any insecticides in the past seven years (although they do apply some organic fungicides). They use no fertilizer, partly because they want their vines stressed, and partly because with the nitrates in the ground in California, when they irrigate, the water moves those nitrates through. They also deficit irrigate, using as little water as possible, to encourage their vines to be deep-rooted, for grape quality and for sustainability.

Additionally, a field of lavender surrounds the winery, and they sell fresh and dried lavender bunches, lavender oil and lavender soaps and sachets. There are also 600 olive trees, which Marcus said provides fresh, green and peppery olive oil. The olives are picked when they’re 75% green, so he recommends it for drizzling because it has a fresh green taste.

“We have 10 acres in vines, and I have no plans to grow any larger. We’re doing this more because it’s our passion,” Meadows-Smith said. “It’s hard work, but I tried retirement but found it boring as hell. When you have 10 acres of vines, and lavender, and two acres of fruit trees (all the fruit of which goes to local food banks) … every day we have a list of tasks, and every night we go to bed wishing we had done more. In harvest season, we may not be as charming. But I love driving the tractor, and I get to really experience all the wildlife on our land. It’s like living in paradise.”

They sell about half the fruit their vineyards produce and make wine with other half, which results in 15,000 bottles a year. He said, “we do it because we love doing it and we’re passionate about making really great wine, and we like sharing that with people, but we have a strange business model. We were only open two days a week during [the height of the] pandemic, but other times we’re only open one day a week. But we love talking to people, welcoming them here.” But that model seems to be working for them so far. They tend to sell out of most of their wines by the end of their business cycle.

The pandemic wasn’t the only thing they had to worry about in 2020, though. Located about 45 minutes from Napa, the closest wildfires to Great Bear were only about 10 miles away. Marcus noted they were very lucky in comparison to a lot of their friends in Napa. Still, about 40% of their fruit was unusable, even though by the time of the first fire they had picked almost 80% – 90% of their grapes. “Bad air quality doesn’t affect grapes, but ash does,” he said.

“Business-wise, it was very strange. We lost a lot of our established business – we normally open our whole winery to UC Davis and private companies, and large gatherings disappeared,” he said of the first year of COVID-19. “But local people wanted a place to gather, and we could accommodate those people very easily. We found our wine club members appreciated local deliveries, and our business actually went up during pandemic because they were drinking more at home.”

Just like the grapes find ways to bounce back every year, so does Great Bear. Before it became the Meadows-Smith family’s vineyard, the land was a homestead with a barn and gardens dating back to 1860. Although the winery has only been open for two years, they were excited to have been named Winery of the Year in Yolo County. Their wines have also won Silver, Gold and Double Gold medals at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and their Chardonnay and Roussanne varietal wines were awarded 91 points by Wine Enthusiast.

Paradise would not be possible with a little help from the kids – Holly, Cara, Ruth and Michael all pitch in at harvest, as does Grandma Joy.

Learn more about the dream come true at Great Bear at GreatBearVineyards.com.

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