Grower Spotlight: Luchsinger Vineyards
Luchsingers Cite Culture and Love of the Land as Keys to Success
Cultural experiences often have lifetime influences on people. For Bernie Luchsinger, owner of Luchsinger Vineyards, the social aspects of friends and family gathering to share a glass of wine, coupled with the widespread acceptance of wine as a social activity in Chile, where he was born, were factors that inspired his love and appreciation for wine and the wine industry.
He confesses that his early wine experiences didn’t involve fine wine. Rather, it was the kind bought in gallons that served his circle of friends and satisfied their early tastes. Eager to learn more about this product that was such an important part of social gatherings, Bernie emigrated from Chile to the US in 1965 as part of a Farm Bureau exchange program in Kelseyville. The program was supposed to last one year, but Bernie stayed a bit longer, visiting universities and vineyards all over California, learning about winegrape growing, and deepening his knowledge and love of the industry.
Back then, Lake County’s major crop was pears. Growers hadn’t yet recognized the unique attributes of the region for winegrape production. “California wines did not have a good reputation then,” Bernie recalls. “There were few varieties. Only Central Valley and Napa were starting to produce grapes, but they did not have the prestige yet.” He returned home to Chile, but he couldn’t stay away. In 1972 he came back to Lake County to begin a career in agribusiness, with an emphasis in winegrapes. Bernie estimates he has planted approximately 800 acres of winegrapes in many areas around Lake County over the last 45 years.
Eventually, in 1998, Bernie and his daughter Pilar Luchsinger White made the decision to become vineyard owners themselves and purchased ten acres in Lake County.
It was a down year for grape production in California, and there was a shortage of high-quality fruit. This situation worked in their favor, allowing Bernie and Pilar to land a ten-year contract with Beringer for their Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
Today, they own and cultivate a total of 90 acres with 12 varietals, employing a “hands on” management style. They love being outdoors and working the land. In addition to being a skilled and experienced vineyard manager, “Bernie is a great businessman,” says Pilar, but she admits the marketing end of the business is always a work in progress. It has taken many years to find their niche in the market which today includes high-quality Sauvignon Blanc and various lesser known varietals that winemakers like as specialty wines in their tasting rooms. These include Tempranillo, Touriga, Trousseau, Muscat, and Semillon.
“Lake Country is a great place to raise winegrapes,” Pilar continues, citing the many benefits of the area, including its soil, climate, and abundant water. “Not many regions have available property for vineyards. Lake County has lots of land and the number of wineries in the area is growing.”
And Luchsinger Vineyards is growing as well. Now in his late 70s, Bernie continues to develop vineyards. In June of 2017, Luchsinger Vineyards will plant seven acres of Sauvignon Blanc in the Big Valley appellation on former pear ground. “We see Sauvignon Blanc as a flagship varietal for Lake County,” he says. “Winemakers come from all over California looking for it.”
The Luchsingers’ clients include Kendall Jackson in Lake County and eleven wineries in Napa and Sonoma, including Arnot Roberts, Beringer, Frances Coppola, and Pacific Star.
One of Bernie’s favorite stories is of Robert Mondavi, who came to Luchsinger Vineyards years ago on a 100-degree day. Concerned that the vineyard was dry and looking sad, Bernie explained to Mondavi that he was planning to irrigate that night. “Mr. Mondavi said to me, ‘Bernie, the grapes look fine. The only thing thirsty is you. Go get a beer!’”
Explaining some of the reasons for their success, Pilar says, “We are an artisan producer of winegrapes, we’re certified sustainable, and all of our blocks are hand-crafted.” The Luchsingers tout their experience with tailoring farming practices to suit particular styles. “At the very foundation, we planted grapes based on needs of certain winemakers,” says Pilar. In some cases they may pull fewer leaves for wineries that want a grassier Sauvignon Blanc flavor or spray according to specific protocols for others. “You have to please your customer,” says Bernie.
Looking to the future, Bernie is committed to keeping the vineyard going to the next generation. Pilar hopes that her sons, now five and 13, will develop the vision to make that happen. She says her eldest son has already shown an interest. She also talks about her family’s love of the outdoors, the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, and the lifestyle of the winegrape grower, which is connected to the seasons and the earth. These are among the qualities that have sustained her and Bernie’s love and interest in the industry. “My father has given me a great opportunity,” she says. “We intend to continue to grow and produce quality grapes that can be shared all over the world.”
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