How a Marine Biologist helped Remake Titus’s Approach

Eric Titus’s paragraph isn’t something one usually reads when skimming over the biography of a Napa Valley winery owner.

Dr. Lee Titus — Eric’s father — purchased the land containing the family’s vineyards in 1969 and for more than two decades, the St. Helena land produced grapes for other notable wineries, including Charles Krug. While he grew up working on his family’s land, the younger Titus pursued a different career path, heading to the University of California—Berkeley where he studied biology with an eye on a career in marine science. He earned his doctorate degree and, through most of the 1990s, he worked around the world as a researcher and environmental consultant.

“I considered pursuing a fermentation science degree, but I was most fascinated by ocean biology science,” recalled Titus. “I was studying marine biology at Cal Berkeley and at that point, I would have had to switch to UC Davis for fermentation science. I figured I’d maybe pursue it as a graduate, but I stayed in marine science and worked in the private sector.”

That changed in 1997, seven years after Titus Vineyards started making wine and had produced its first vintage. Despite his career in marine biology, Titus had remained involved with the winery, getting involved on the sales side. But the winery needed a full time general manager to continue its growth trajectory and Titus was the man for the job.

“I welcomed the change,” Titus said. “I went to Napa College and took classes in microbiology, viticulture and other courses, and I had always enjoyed being in a classroom, anyway. And that’s how I made that career shift at almost 40 years old.”

Today, the winery’s second generation holds the reins. Since 2002, Eric Titus has served as the general manager and vineyard operations manager, and his brother Phillip is the director of winemaking.

Fifty-two years after Lee Titus’s first harvest, Titus is still going strong, having made the transformation from prominent grower to serious winemaker, producing a full portfolio that includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc.

A Scientist Takes the Helm

Nearly all work in the vineyards at Titus is now done by hand: pruning, suckering, training young vines, leafing, weed removal, green thinning, harvesting. The multiple passes through the vineyard ensure low intensity farming and a high level of oversight to optimize fruit quality with minimal impact in the vineyard. A close eye is kept on the balance of soil health and plant vigor, sunlight and shade, canopy and clusters, air circulation and wind… with the aim of perfectly ripening approximately seven pounds per vine. 

It’s all part of Eric Titus’s goal to leave as light a footprint in the vineyard as possible. Since taking the helm, he’s applied his background in aquatic and environmental

biology, and commercial science to redevelop the vineyard and upgrade the farming techniques. The concept and practice of ecological stewardship has evolved with winegrowing at Titus Vineyards: biocides aren’t used for weeds or pests, cover crops are employed to maintain soil health, composts are applied annually in a block-by-block, row-by-row manner, and riparian set-asides preserve a minimum 30-foot buffer between the vines and the riverbank for stability and natural succession.

Much of what you see today started soon after Eric rejoined the ranks at Titus Vineyards.

“When I came on, most of the vineyards were in need of replanting,” he said. “We didn’t have that much wine in those days. We were probably to the point of making a couple thousand cases between Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc, but the market was pretty strong in those days for small Napa producers. 

“I was focused more on vineyard redevelopment…we had a lot of AxR root stock and St. George root stock that we had dry farmed. We put down a couple wells and started working with more moderate rootstock. We focused on lighthanded farming, low use of herbicide, focused irrigation, and just continued to do most of the work by hand in terms of weed control.”

The decision to do low-impact farming was easy for the Titus family.

“We don’t have a lot of pest pressure and we’re on the Napa River, which goes back to my background of marine ecology and doing what we needed to do to keep the waterways sustainable both for us and for the river environment,” Eric said. “We really had to turn around any practices that weren’t optimal.”

Getting Started with Low Impact

Low-impact farming is a fully involved, detailed process, contrary to what the name might imply to those unfamiliar with it. Low impact does not mean low involvement.

“So much of farming is logistics,” Eric said. “Obviously it helps to know a little bit about what goes on in the soil, what goes on in plants, and how plants react to the environment.

If you’re doing everything by hand, you need to know where labor is coming from. If you’re mechanized, it’s making sure your vineyard is optimal for mechanization. 

“Not long ago, you could assume the labor was going to be there when you needed it, but now it’s expensive and in high demand, so it’s all about managing your resources. As much as the name “low impact” might sound like you’re not doing much, there’s a lot of effort that starts at first bud break and continues into its first harvest. It’s a big challenge.”

Maintaining the Workforce

Titus’s labor force in the vineyards consists of a crew that works the land year round and temporary workers when the workload gets heavy.

“With our permanent crew, we try to provide them with a diversity of tasks and make things interesting for them so they can learn as they go,” Eric said. “We’re always redeveloping so there are always stages of older vines, younger vines and tasks they can take on that will matter to the future of our vineyard. Right now, they’re building a trellis system for what’s going to be a new vineyard in a few weeks. We want workers who want a learning situation.”

The temporary labor force brought in during crunch time is a different matter, as most of them are not going to be spending a lot of time on the property and are hired on through contractors.

“We just want to make sure they’re getting a wage that makes it worth their time to come here and give us a good solid effort,” Eric said.

Using Technology

“We’re actually still pretty old school as far as technology goes,” Eric said. “If you were touring Napa in the late 1990s you would see a lot of the same equipment we use now.”

An old French plow is used between the vines to remove the weeds, and the rows receive a standard mowing and disking approach commonly seen in agriculture

“The tech we do use is associated with our irrigation needs,” Eric said. “We look at how much water we use on the vines, both from a resource conservation and quality standpoint.”

Finding out how much water is needed at a given time is important. Titus is using an evapotranspiration system to achieve this as well as spore traps to get an idea of whether the mold count necessitates mildew control.

“Mildew control is probably the one farming effort that puts the most in the environment in terms of things you don’t want to put into the environment,” Eric said. “The last couple of years we’ve been using spore traps to analyze the spore density and see if we truly need to spray for mildew.

“With these dry years we’ve been having, it’s not necessary to spray because the mold is not high enough. Without this approach, there can potentially be a lot of unnecessary spraying going on.”

Choosing Cover Crops

Titus grows clover grasses and sweet peas with a goal of maintaining the soil health.

“There isn’t anything really unique about our site — it’s not a soil type that’s high in certain things but low others,” Eric said. “On the Napa River, we needed to build the soil up a bit and invigorate the plants a little, so we used a mixed organic focused on building the nitrogen up.”

The peas and beans are naturally high in nitrogen, so they’re just mowed back into the soil.

It’s more critical on the family’s 10-acre portion that’s situated away from the rest of the estate and has naturally rocky soil.

“The mix of the different cover crop species is very critical for that because it’s a lean soil without those nutrients,” Eric said. “With the other land, we did it occasionally when the plants were younger but we’ve backed off on that some. We don’t want to over invigorate the plants because if they’re too happy and produce too much fruit, you won’t get good concentration.”

Then and Now

As the vineyard was redeveloped, one major change made was the installation of a vertical trellis system, which encouraged a different expression and concentration of the fruit than the traditional sprawling trellis that can create more of a canopy over the fruit.

“What’s unique about it is you’re keeping the canopy above the fruit itself and dividing the plant more into zones,” Eric said. “The other way had the canopy shading the fruit, creating mottled sun exposure. With vertical, you get more sun exposure and you can orient the vineyard for equal morning sun and afternoon sun.”

Some of what this does is improve efficiency. It makes it easier to access the fruit during pruning, thinning and leafing operations early in the summer and it makes it easier to check for ripeness. It also prevents mildew by promoting good airflow.

Some of it is necessary simply because of the climate and the varietals a vineyard is trying to grow, Eric explained. Sun-hungry full-bodied varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot benefit from vertical farming, whereas growing Chardonnay or Zinfandel in a warmer climate can benefit from a sprawling vine and mottled sunlight.

“When the plants were shaded under a big canopy, the brix wasn’t as high at harvest and the vines have a really high brix potential,” Eric said. “Not that you want high brix, but you just pick it when you can.

“During the mid 1990s, during all of the replanting that was going on, people including us were using the vertical shoot position system because the sun results in a more fruit forward type of fruit with lower tannins, contributing to the styles of approachable wines that Napa Valley has trended toward.”

Eric said the biggest evolution for Titus was when it built its own winery and production facility in 2015.

“Before that, we were custom crushing,” he said. “We can pick smaller lots, use smaller tanks, pay more attention, and (embrace) nimble winemaking practices in terms of pumpovers, drain downs and skin contact time. We can make those changes quickly and adapt. If we’re having a hard time getting extractions we can back off of. In a custom crush situation (it’s) hard to be that nimble.” 

Having their own facility allows them to make decisions along the way that can have a positive effect on the final product.

“It’s being able to say, ‘It looks like it’s going to rain, so let’s just hang on and pick afterward,” he said. “We can pick at an optimal time rather than picking before ready just to make sure we don’t lose our tank.

“(Having the facility) really does translate to winemaking in a lot of little ways that wind up being consequential to the final product.”

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