Courtney Kingston
May 6, 2013 | Winemaking | Courtney Kingston

Rain and Dr. Dirt

The high hills of our family vineyards

When we planted our first rows of pinot noir and syrah in the far hills of our family’s ranch in the mid-1990’s, we were building upon Chile’s long history of winemaking beginning with the Spaniards’ arrival in 15th century.  But much of what we decided to do in Casablanca Valley’s western hills was entirely new.   At the time, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc were king in coastal Casablanca, and most vineyards were planted on the valley floor for ease of farming.  Our Chilean/American family watched closely as exceptional vineyards were developed on parts of California’s Pacific coast, and wondered if Casablanca might mirror that potential south of the equator.

The signature of my great-grandfather, Carl John Kingston

We studied years of weather information from our farm.  I’ll never forget immersing myself one afternoon in fifty+ years of daily rainfall statistics that my great-grandfather and grandfather diligently recorded with their dramatic, sweeping penmanship in an old weathered, leather book.  The book is still gingerly kept in an old mueble in front hall of the casa patronal, not far from the old dusty binders of cow milking records from the 1950’s.  As my grandfather neared the end of his life in the late 80’s, my Aunt Sally’s hand recorded the milimetros of rainfall.

The famous wooden mueble in the Casa Patronal

We searched in the hills of our farm for attractive soil to plant pinot noir and syrah despite our Casablanca neighbor’s skepticism.  Doubtful family members humored us, after recalling my great-grandfather Carl John Kingston’s search for gold in the same hills generations before.  To study the soil, we dug small ditches high up in the hills where our cattle weren’t interested in the uphill trek.  And thanks to a referral by our California vineyard friend Ann Kraemer, a respected PhD nicknamed “Dr. Dirt” spent a few days with us studying soil samples from our farm.

Dr. Dirt was a tall man with a long grey beard that’s probably grown in my memory.  He reveled in being lowered down with little brown paper bags into small calicatas we dug 6-feet deep.  There he would study the soil, and evaluate its potential as a future home for a grapevine.  My uncle Enrique and I (Courtney Kingston) would wait above ground with the back-hoe driver for the early verdict.  The occasional “wow” would erupt from the soil (Dr. Dirt’s pithy version of a compliment), and our hopes for the future of our farm would rise.

Ultimately, you can dig lots of ditches and analyze lots of raindrops, but the decision to plant a vineyard on the Chilean coast is part art, part folly, and part luck.  This is where my great-grandfather’s search for gold comes in.  Generations of Kingstons trying to figure out “what’s next for the farm” led us to lean forward.  Thankfully the bet on cool climate reds in the western Casablanca hills appears to have been a good one with Wine Spectator Magazine recently referring to Kingston Family as “a perennial top producer in pinot noir” that also “excels in syrah.”  With ten vintages under our belt, we believe we’re just getting started.  Come visit us in Casablanca, and we will walk with you through our hillside blocks and proudly point out “ésto es un ‘wow’ lugar.”


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