Clos du Val's Ryan Decker on the Art and Science of Growing Good Grapes
Fifteen. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could become great at doing anything they were only able to do fifteen times. Think about the thing you’re best at in life. How many times have you done it? Hundreds? Thousands?
Fifteen. And yet, hearing Ryan talk about irrigation and growing conditions, about new technologies and old traditions, about the delicate art and intricate science of growing good grapes, you can immediately tell he is a master of his craft.
Let’s talk about how that’s possible.
Deep Roots and Early Education
Like the vines he grows, Ryan’s roots run deep. “I’m a fifth-generation Sonoma County resident. My great uncle first planted grapes on our family farm in 1963.”
Though farming skipped a generation when his mother left to marry a banker, Ryan found his way back to the vineyard in college. He got a job doing wine tours and tastings and quickly discovered just how much went into the production side of winemaking. “Most people don’t know that between pruning, suckering, leaf pulling, harvesting, and everything in between, each plant will be touched an average of eight times over the season.”
While he originally set out to study business, his new found passion for wine led him to switch majors to viticulture and start working in the grape and wine research department at Fresno State University. There he learned the scientific side of growing, conducting trials on grapevine physiology related to plant-water relations and hangtime. What happens when you withhold water at certain times. Understanding the precise relationship between the plant, the amount of moisture in the soil, and the best times to deliver more.
Yet, he was never content to stay in the lab and always eager to apply what he was learning firsthand. “I hate being inside.” He developed his green thumb early, gardening in his backyard, and was hired as a field scout fresh out of college.
Experience and the Art of Growing
From there, season after season, he worked his way up to overseeing 1100 acres of vines and managing a vast portfolio of growers. Most recently, he’s sought out different scenery in Napa Valley and new challenges at Clos du Val.
In the early years, he tried to learn as much as possible from more experienced growers. Everyone had different experiences to share working in a variety of vineyard locations, each with their own unique sets of issues and conditions.
Though his background in analytics served him well, he also began to appreciate the art of growing. Gradually he honed his ability to recognize when vines needed water and when they didn't. He gained an intuitive feel for what the plants needed based on the water capacity of the soil, the structure of the trellis, and all the other minutiae, all the little things that are so hard to quantify, yet matter nonetheless.
Getting all those vineyard decisions right is essential because “you can’t make great wine out of bad grapes.” There is only so much you can do during the winemaking process. Everything hinges on delivering a clean, high-quality product. “How we treat the vineyard shapes the wine that gets made.”
Ryan loves the challenge of growing because there’s such a delicate balance of art and science. “I’m not right or left brained. I’m kind of in between. And that’s why it’s a good fit.”
Honoring Tradition and Embracing Technology
He tries to strike a similar balance between tradition and technology.
“It’s important to honor the history of winemaking because the crux of it has been the same for thousands of years. You take grapes, put ‘em in a vat and squish ‘em. You can make great wine by just doing that. Everything we’ve added over the course of time—improved bottle aging ability, improved filtration, better corks—-have just been small improvements on that tradition.”
He still uses a textbook written in the sixties. “Not much has changed since and not much changed before that. Maybe some trellis tweaks here and there.”
What has changed, however, have been attitudes toward technology.
“Technology and mechanization have had a significant impact on farming.” What’s considered adequate water. The tools available for combating pests and diseases. In many ways, the job has gotten easier and he’s now able to cover more ground than he could’ve in the past.
“I really like new technology. But I also approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism. Some of it we don’t need. Lots of it hasn’t done much to improve the quality of the crop, and lots of the things it claims to help you measure or control aren’t really that important. I don’t really think wines taste that much different or better than wines from 40 years ago.”
The biggest benefit has been from irrigation and other water technologies. “That’s probably the one area that’s improved the most.” From better sensors to aerial imagery and soil moisture probes that can give you a clear picture of how much water is in the soil at various depths.
One thing Ryan sees clearly on the horizon is being able to create a system that runs itself, using smart irrigation technology and sensors to collect data in real-time, and automatically watering vines accordingly.
With the newest tech available and the current pace of innovation, he envisions being able to target his irrigation with greater and greater precision, to irrigate at any time of the day or night, and to know for certain just how deep the water has penetrated into the soil.
With the recent drought and heat spikes, it’s becoming increasingly important to be able to irrigate faster, more frequently, and with greater precision to avoid both damage to crops and any unnecessary waste.
Collaborating with Nature, Staying Humble, and Continuing to Learn
“The most challenging part is recognizing that we’re not in control. It’s up to Mother Nature a lot of the time. I think the best viticulturalists know that. We do our work, pick the right spot, pick the right layout, do everything as perfectly as we can up to the day of planting, and then Mother Nature is in the driver’s seat. We just go along for the ride, remain patient, and react as best we can.”
People who are masters at what they do always have a deep appreciation for the limits of their knowledge and expertise, because you first have to know the limits of what’s possible to then go beyond.
“The more I learn, the less I know. My understanding is always evolving. I’m constantly learning, seeing new interactions I’ve never noticed before. Sometimes what you think will be a catastrophe might actually turn out to be something good down the line. I’m humbled by the process.”
In the end, Ryan takes the most pride in making something people want, a physical product that people all over the world can enjoy. “Growing wine isn’t glamorous. You have to be prepared for a lot of hard work. Going to bed tired. Spending time away from family. It’s a commitment. A lifestyle. Not just a job.”
But that’s ultimately what keeps him coming back. “I like the fact that what we do is over twelve months. There’s always something different throughout the year. It's never the same thing day in and day out.”
“Pruning is my favorite time of the year. The weather is great. It’s cool outside. The environment is clean and the hills are green. You’re out there shaping each and every vine. It’s almost symbolic, cutting off the old growth. You could’ve just had the worst year, but the vines will grow again and you’ll get another shot to make something great.”
Seamlessly blending academic knowledge with hands-on experience, timeless traditions with the latest technology, art with science, passion with perseverance, a relentless focus on controlling everything possible with a deep appreciation for just how much is up to a force far greater than any of us—-that’s a master at work. Someone who knows how to grow the grapes you need to make great wine.
Cheers to you, Ryan, and the next fifteen seasons being even better than the last.