The Grape Whisperer

How Prudy Foxx helps clients make great wines.

Prudy Foxx
Prudy Foxx

Courtesy of Prudy Foxx.

In the 2004 documentary Mondovino, the famed French enologist Michel Rolland was shown being chauffeured in a Mercedes-Benz, barking out the same formulaic advice to his clients via cellphone (“micro-oxygenate, micro-oxygenate”). Although Rolland later claimed that he was unfairly portrayed in a sinister light—a task made easier, it must be said, by his devilish beard—the cameo in Mondovino hurt his image and the reputation of wine consultants generally. These days, they are widely regarded as witch doctors hired by rich guys to make wines that will become trophies for other rich guys.

However, there are plenty of wine consultants who don’t travel around in fancy cars creating pricy cabernets for plutocrats. Take, for instance, Prudy Foxx, whose farming talent has earned her the nickname “The Grape Whisperer.” In contrast to transcontinental winemakers like Rolland, Foxx works in just one region, the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, and focuses on what happens in the vineyard rather than the cellar. Foxx is a viticultural consultant, advising vineyard owners on the grapes they should grow, how best to grow them, and how to keep their vines free of disease. In the process, she is helping raise the profile of an area that has long been overshadowed by Napa and Sonoma but that is arguably the sweetest spot for California winemaking.

Foxx, 52, grew up far from wine country, in Indianapolis. She acquired a taste for wine when she was in high school; her best friend’s father was a wine collector who—enlightened parent—would let the girls take a sip of the Burgundies he served with dinner. Foxx graduated from Western Washington University and then took a job working for a Washington winery. She noticed that the grapes arriving in the cellar during harvest were often blighted by disease, and she also observed that while winemakers paid lip service to the notion that great wines began in the vineyard, most of them spent very little time tending to their vines. “I saw these grapes coming in a wreck,” she says, “and I realized that if wine really begins in the vineyard, someone has to go out and pay attention to the vineyard.” She decided to make that her job and headed south to California to pursue a career in viticulture.

Foxx moved to the Santa Cruz area because she wanted to train under the wise and wonderfully eccentric Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard. She spent a year and a half helping manage Grahm’s vineyards, then worked as an assistant to a local viticulturalist, and eventually went into business for herself. Foxx typically has 25 to 30 clients at any given time. Some hire her to run their vineyards; others bring her in for periodic consultations. She manages around 100 acres of vineyard in total, mostly in the Corralitos area, and her clients include both wineries and vineyard owners. (Some vineyard owners choose not to make wine; instead, they sell their grapes to wineries, and one of Foxx’s many functions is to play matchmaker, connecting grape sellers and buyers). She also consults on another 200 or so acres. In addition to looking after existing vineyards, she helps clients identify and develop new ones. She doesn’t make it easy: However promising a piece of land might seem, unless it meets her specifications—preferably a southeast-facing slope, with good drainage and the right mix of soils—she will advise clients against buying it. “My intention is always to talk them out of it,” she says with a laugh. “I only want to work with premium sites, sites that have the right interplay of soil and air. If you are not going to go for grand cru quality, there is no point in doing it, and if I don’t like a site, I will tell the client.”

Foxx, who lives on a 170-acre ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her geologist husband and their two sons, works with a number of different grape varieties but focuses mainly on pinot noir and chardonnay. She oversees all aspects of grape farming—from clonal selection to trellising to pruning to vine nutrition to harvesting and pretty much everything in between. Not surprisingly, harvest is her busiest time of year. She employees multiple teams of pickers, and she and they are constantly on the go, moving from vineyard to vineyard to evaluate grapes and pluck them at their moment of ideal maturity. Foxx makes her harvesting decisions based partly on how the fruit tastes—starting in late July, she gorges on wine grapes—and partly through the use of a refractometer, which measures the sugar content of the grapes (sugar is converted to alcohol via the fermentation process).

Foxx says that the constant shuttling around during harvest was a source of irritated amusement to her pickers until she started teaching them to use the refractometer themselves. “I used to hear them calling me la mujer loca,” she says. “Then I started showing them how to use the refractometer so that they could understand what we were doing. One young man made the connection between the refractometer and how the grapes tasted. Now they can report to me what is going on in the vineyard. Empowering people is not a scary thing.”

Foxx’s work doesn’t end once the fruit is off the vine and loaded onto the pickup truck. Although she plays no part in vinifying the grapes (she does, however, make a small amount of wine for herself), she keeps close watch on the wines from her vineyards, tasting them throughout their lifespans to see how they are evolving—“following the wine,” she calls it. According to Foxx, this is not necessarily standard practice among viticulturalists; many of them are content just to hand over ripe fruit and leave it at that. But she says that only by tasting the finished product is she able to truly understand the vineyards that are in her care.

While Napa, Sonoma, and the Central Coast get most of the attention, the Santa Cruz range has proven itself to be arguably the source of California’s greatest wines. Its viticultural history dates back to the mid-1800s and includes such legendary names as Paul Masson and Martin Ray [PDF]. Ridge Vineyards, which was established in 1962, is home to America’s most accomplished winemaker, Paul Draper, and its finest cabernet sauvignon, the Ridge Monte Bello. A newer winery called Rhys Vineyards, also located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, turns out the best New World pinot noirs and chardonnays I’ve ever tasted.

What’s so impressive about the Santa Cruz region is not just the quality of the wines but the variety. This fairly compact area yields brilliant cabernets, chardonnays, and pinot noirs; the mere fact that it has had so much success with cabernet and pinot noir, grapes that typically flourish under very different circumstances and that produce sharply contrasting wines, speaks to the versatility of the San Francisco peninsula. It is not an easy place to grow grapes; it is rugged, and crops tend to be relatively meager. However, based on past and present performance, a strong case can be made that the Santa Cruz region yields California’s most compelling bottles, and given the intrinsic quality of its vineyards, the future promises more of the same.

In fact, some acclaimed Sonoma-based winemakers have been drawn to the Santa Cruz Mountains and are benefiting from Foxx’s work. Pax Mahle of Wind Gap Wines is turning out pinot noir and chardonnay from Woodruff Vineyard, in Corralitos, a site that Foxx rehabilitated around a decade ago (after years of neglect, it was plagued by disease). Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts of Arnot-Roberts are also producing wines from the Santa Cruz area. Foxx helped steer them to the Trout Gulch Vineyard, an old-vine site from which they are now making chardonnay, and also to the Legan Vineyard, a plot that she revived last year and from which they plan to make both chardonnay and pinot noir. When I asked Meyers about Foxx, he was effusive. “She’s fantastic,” he said. “She’s just one of those people with great intuition, and in grape growing, that’s so important. It’s so refreshing to walk the vineyards with her. She has all the botanical and scientific knowledge, but it is the intuitive side that is so important to growing anything. It is in her veins.”

Interestingly, though, it is only the last few years that Foxx feels that she has achieved a degree of mastery in her work. From the start, her hope was that one day she would reach a point when she could walk into an ailing vineyard and diagnose its problem just by looking around (“some people have loftier goals, but that was always mine”). That day came two years ago, while she was scouting some small vineyards with a new client. “I knew as soon as I saw them what was going on with these vineyards.” In one vineyard, the small leaves on the vines indicated to Foxx a micronutrient deficiency; in another, the spindly canes suggested a soil compaction issue. “I realized in that moment that I had reached my goal,” she says. “It was a shock.”