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A desire for diversity

Tim Fish
Posted: June 24, 2003

Lou Preston is cutting wine production and focusing more on his olive trees.
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Sloshing and slurping, swirling and smacking, Lou Preston's mouth is busy analyzing. "Hmm," he mumbles, spitting out the liquid. "I like the freshness of the 2002," he tells winemaker Matt Norelli.

It's not wine that Preston and Norelli are tasting, it's olive oil. The same techniques used to analyze wine -- judging color, aroma, texture and flavors -- are employed when tasting oil. At Preston Vineyards in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, they take olive oil as seriously as wine.

At 61, Preston is simplifying his life, returning to his family's farming roots while increasing the diversity of crops on his ranch. Since 2001, Preston has been downsizing its wine production, dropping from a peak of 30,000 cases a year to just 8,000.

Olives were his first addition, and he scattered 1,000 trees around the property, mostly Italian varieties such as Leccino, Casaliva and Frantoio, but other types, such as Mission and Manzanillo, are included in the mix.

Preston seems to be on to something: His iPrestoni Extra Virgin Olive Oil was among the top oils in Wine Spectator's tasting of winery-produced olive oils. It's delicate yet richly flavored, with distinctive aromas of fresh olives, roasted nuts and butter.

Preston says there's no model for his oil because he grows such a potpourri of olive varieties. He prefers a grassy, fruit-forward style, more in the Tuscan tradition than the French or Spanish.

"When I acquired this property 30 years ago, there were olive trees on it. This was an Italian neighborhood," says Preston, recalling the aging Italian farmers who populated Dry Creek Valley. Preston and others, such as Dave Stare at Dry Creek Vineyards, were the new wave moving in back then. With his old brown hat, scruffy beard, shorts and Birkenstock clogs, Preston looks every bit the aging hippie.

Preston planted his first olive trees in 1989, ripping out an old hillside vineyard of Carignane. Of the ranch's 125 total acres, just five are planted to olives, while 110 are still under vine. He is winnowing down the list of wines produced, pulling out rows of vines and interplanting apple trees to provide habitats for beneficial insects. Preston is also dropping varietalsÐincluding Sangiovese, which 10 years ago he was determined to make a star.

Walking through the orchard, Preston wonders aloud if he should have planted more olive trees and fewer vines, but then caution comes into his voice. "Going into olive oil in a big way is a good way to lose your shirt," he says.

The oil is sold only through the winery. At $25 for a 500ml bottle, it is one of the least expensive winery oils we tasted. That's typical for Preston.

"There are really only two types of oil: the good oil that you drizzle on and make salads with, and your everyday cooking oil. I don't think we ought to put olive oil on a pedestal," explains Preston, who believes that vintners already do too much of that with wine.

One of his ideas for the future is to buy his own olive mill so that he can press at optimum ripeness. For now, that's just a dream, but when Preston gets something into his head, there's no changing his mind. An avid bread-baker, he recently built his third bread oven at the winery.

"What we need to do next is cheese," Preston says with a laugh that's followed by a silence. "Not in this lifetime."

Preston Vineyards
9282 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448
Telephone (707) 433-3372; (800) 305-9707
Fax (707) 433-5307
Web site www.prestonvine yards.com

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