Gathering a community among the vines | July 11, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - July 11, 2012

Gathering a community among the vines

Portola Valley family wants neighbors to connect with the land that produces its award-winning wine

by Renee Batti

It's 10 o'clock, and the summer sun is gently warming the vines on a recent morning in Portola Valley. Fog hangs lightly just above the ridge like a shy visitor spying on the locals at a distance, holding the temperature at a refreshing 61 degrees as Debbie Lehmann clips grape leaves in the vineyard.

Those leaves will make their way into the family kitchen, where they will be stuffed and shaped into dolmas, and served up Sunday afternoon during a vine-trellising event and picnic — one of four annual member events hosted by the family-owned Portola Vineyards.

Ms. Lehmann is an important part of the vineyard's operations. Vineyard manager and marketing director, she's also the daughter of winemaker Len Lehmann, who with his wife, Vivian, own the vineyard off Los Trancos Road.

The operation is largely a father-daughter enterprise, but their goal, in addition to making great wine, is to create a vineyard where the community gathers, enjoys good food and drink, and becomes better acquainted with the process that produces that food and drink.

"We want to be the local winery of Portola Valley and Woodside, where people can bring their children and participate in local agriculture, and be involved with it and each other as a community," Len Lehmann says. "People have lost their sense of where their food comes from."

"We're trying to create the French model" of community wineries, Debbie Lehmann says in a recent interview, referring to a tradition of wines being provided solely to the surrounding community.

"We think there's something special about drinking a wine produced this close to home — all of our members have to come to the winery to pick up, so they get to see the vineyard, see the winery, help with the harvest, and really feel connected to the bottles of wine they're taking home."

Most of the wines are sold directly through Portola Vineyards, but a small amount "is sold pretty much in a 10- or 15-mile radius of the winery," she says. It can be found on the shelves of Bianchini's and Roberts markets in Portola Valley, and Vino Locale in Palo Alto, she said. It's also on the wine list at Madera restaurant in Menlo Park.

The community that's been established around the nine-year-old Portola Vineyards is made up primarily of 170 winery members. But the Lehmanns are working to expand the range somewhat. Last year, they started a summer concert series on the grounds, inviting the community at large.

On July 15, the local bluegrass band Windy Hill will kick off this year's three-concert series, performing under the summer sky, with participants picnicking on blankets or just enjoying the music.

Charged Particles, a jazz group led by Portola Valley resident and drummer Jon Krosnick, will perform Aug. 5, and Agua Salada is set to play on Sept. 9.

Taste of Portola Valley

The Lehmanns planted their two acres of pinot noir vines in 2003. Their first vintage, 2005, took home a double-gold prize from the Indy International Wine Competition.

Since then, their wines have won numerous awards, including a gold at the San Francisco Wine Competition for their current release, a 2009.

Mr. Lehmann, who retired several years ago from a career in the technology world, said he and Vivian looked for a place to grow vines for about three years before finding the property at 850 Los Trancos Road. The family moved from Palo Alto and built a house on the land, moving there in 2004, Debbie Lehmann says.

Debbie went off to Brown University, studying economics and public policy, but "had been interested in food and sustainable agriculture for a long time," she writes in an email. She was trying to pursue those interests from an academic standpoint, she says — perhaps in areas of food policy or agricultural economics.

She worked on small-scale, sustainable vegetable farms and did a season-long internship on a small "community supported agriculture" farm, known as a CSA, which typically delivers produce to members' doorsteps. With this experience, there was no turning back: "I fell in love with getting my hands dirty."

From the start, the Lehmanns wanted to practice sustainable, organic farming, and their grapes are certified organic. Although they had little to no experience working vines or making wine, they found great support in the surrounding wine community. In particular, Brian Caselden of Woodside Vineyards and Rex Geitner of Clos de la Tech were willing to share their expertise and advice, the Lehmanns say.

While they want to encourage their neighbors to have hands-on experiences at their vineyard to connect in a physical way with the earth that provides their nourishment, both father and daughter say they have a "hands off" philosophy to making wine.

"We want to express the grapes' varietal character, and the uniqueness of the flavors as they develop right here in Portola Valley," Mr. Lehmann says. "That means minimal intervention in the winemaking process itself."

So far, the Lehmanns have produced about 350 cases of pinot noir a year: 300 cases of estate wine, and about 50 from grapes purchased from Regan Vineyards, also in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Debbie Lehmann says they plan to raise that figure to about 700 this year, buying additional grapes from three other growers in the region.

Last year, the Lehmanns produced their first pinot noir rose, and this year, they will make their first chardonnay from grapes purchased from Santa Cruz Mountains growers, she says.

Having fun

The Lehmanns are clearly serious about sustainable farming and creating wine that reflects the terroir of Portola Valley. But their desire to "engage with the community and have fun," in Debbie's words, is equally important. That's why they schedule member events that include not only eating and wine-tasting, but also toiling in the vineyards, such as helping out with the clipping, trellising and, of course, the autumn harvest.

This year, the family is planning the winery's first "grape stomp," where the more adventuresome in the community can take off their shoes and crush grapes with their feet. The grapes will be purchased, and will include cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, Mr. Lehmann says.

Has he ever stomped grapes, barefoot, before? "No, but we've seen Lucille Ball do it," he says. But there's a first time for everything. "We're small enough that we can indulge ourselves."

Go to for more information about Portola Vineyards.

Summer concert series

Portola Vineyards' summer concerts are free, but reservations are required, as attendance is capped at 200. Participants are invited to bring a blanket and a picnic; there will be free wine-tasting, Mr. Lehmann says. The concerts are from 5 to 7 p.m.; the winery is open from 4:30 to 8 p.m.

> Go to to reserve a spot.

July 15: Windy Hill bluegrass band

Aug. 5: Charged Particles

Sept. 9: Agua Salada


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