I wound up writing about Paso Robles wine country instead of any other wine country partly because when I mentioned it to a friend, he asked, “Is that in Texas?”
Not only that, but I seriously didn’t even know how to pronounce it; I said ‘Paso’ with an ‘ah’ and Robles with an ‘ace’.
Beside, it offered perfect fundamentals for my scope: Promise, past and pioneers with pizzazz, many of whom were still alive and interviewable. I loved the idea that the appellation is hovering between old school and new wave, ingenuity and institutions, and I was curious if in real time, the balance is tilting on the tightrope and about to pull a Karl Wallenda, landing on one side or the other, or if the current crop of vintners are eager to preserve Paso’s delicate twoness.
And I was intrigued to discover that my idealized Roblan, with textbook texture and an eye on the rearview, both outside of and directed by history, was not in the vineyard but in the walnut grove.
Nuts to Diamond
Jutta Thoerner is proud of her nuts, and justifiable so. They are small, thick-skinned beauties, able to withstand the tribulations of dry-farming while scrabbling into the kitchens of a wider audience.
In fact, when it comes to their caretaker, the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Since purchasing two hundred acres in the Adelaida Foothills in 1992, Jutta—and her partner Cynthia—forged a mission statement that has not fluctuated a whit: “We wanted to obtain organic certification; we wanted to be able to sell walnuts retail, not wholesale. We did not intend to, and never have, employed fungicides, pesticides, synthetic fertilizer or hormones on the farm. Ever.”
And they were willing to embrace all the associated headaches: As we tour the orchard, Jutta crooks her thumb at a National Geographic-quality live trap in a small clearing between orchards. “Wild boar,” she indicates. “Not as big a problem as squirrels,” she maintains, “but when one shows up, you better believe he can eat more than a squirrel.”
Ground squirrels, the Biblical plague of Central California produce growers, are rife in this part of western Paso, and Jutta points out a neighbor’s walnut farm on a hillside above Adelaida Road. “For a number of reasons, he failed to set traps this year. The squirrels took over, it was like watching the frogs overrunning Egypt—it was creepy to watch from here; the whole ground looked like it was moving. Last year, he harvest 25,000 pounds of walnuts. This year? Zero.”
A single squirrel, she tells me, can eat $50 in nuts per season. That cannot be in any rational farmer’s business plan, of course, so for abatement, she relies on traps, traps and more traps. And esurient coyote. Like Steve Thompson of Twin Coyote Winery, she shakes her head in muddlement at local farmers who kill them. “Why not just shoot yourself in the foot and save ammunition?”
Yet to Jutta, even more frustrating than these raptorial ranchers and rapacious rodents are consumers who neither understand nor care about the effort required to earn and maintain an ‘organic’ certification in California.
More than once, in the course of the interview, the wry, grey-haired fireplug made sure I understood that that was the message she wanted to get out there.
Under Title 21 of the 1990 Farm Bill, in order to label your product ‘organic’, you have to comply with principles and authority of the Organic Foods Production Act, primarily insuring your use of materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
In abbreviated form—something at which the USDA does not excel —organic farming is based on an agro-philosophy that calls for maintaining healthy, living soils; the primary focus is feeding the planet, not the plant. Do that right, the theory goes, and the plant will take it from there. This includes managing the property without pesticides or synthetic fertilizer, relying on compost, organic manures (animal and ‘green’) and avoiding excess tillage. Whereas there are specific federal standards and guidelines for the production of certified organic crops, the overreaching rationality of organic farming often extends to a social conscience as well and it is fair to say that organic farming owes as much to moral commitment as to physical compliance.
The bureaucracy, of course, doesn’t care who you voted for. The bureaucracy cares—demands—that you keep careful records, including historical documentation of farm practices while undergoing routine checks by government-approved inspectors. They’ll show up at random and sniff around the farm, the farm records and your farming practices. Extra care is taken to ensure that you have not used irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides and genetically modified organisms; nutrient sources are given a microscope by the Organic Materials Review Institute to ensure standards compliance.
As you might imagine, for a two hundred acre farm with a hundred acre of walnut trees primarily managed by two women with day jobs, the paperwork alone required to cling to that precious seal is daunting.
And it’s not like they’re raking in the dough along with the walnuts. On the contrary, their prices often follow a market dominated by mass-produced, heavily irrigated walnuts from the Central Valley which have been bred for numbers, not nuances.
She shares scare-stories about techniques used in the quantity-is-king commercial walnut industry, which are often bleached for appearance and fumigated with fungicide. Major growers often harvest walnuts before they are ripe and in order to ‘cook out’ the rubbery texture and ‘green’ flavors of these nuts (and extend the shelf life), they may be heated to extremely high temperatures, destroying much of the buttery sumptuousness that is telltale in walnuts that have followed nature’s timetable. By contrast, Jutta’s nuts are never dried at temperatures above 85°F—often lower than the ambient air.
Also, in order to maximize output, commercial growers also plant trees in huddled masses ten to fifteen feet apart. Optimum spacing for organically dry-farmed, low-yielding walnut trees is about thirty feet—and harvests are reduced accordingly.
“Organic farming is not about doing business as usual,” Jutta explains. “We see higher production and labor cost, which makes operating the farm challenging. But we are hopeful that raised awareness will lead to increased demand and, over time, support organic products at prices that are recognized as appropriate for the value received.”
John steers his tractor to a likely target—a walnut tree that is heavy with fruit and ready to drop. This is neighborly synergism at its finest; John owns the tractor, Jutta owns the tree shaker.
Re-bar thin, with a Mr. Green Jeans affability that’s revealed when he removes his dust mask for the photo op, John extends the shaker’s boom arms around the tree trunk in a horticulture hug and locks it in; the apparatus is equipped with eccentric weights, and it’s brief moment of glory, makes the tree look like a wet dog drying off. The entire enterprise, shuddering, convulsive and remarkable, takes about four seconds; roughly the same duration as the 2003 San Simeon earthquake.
And the nuts—nearly all of them—drop to the ground.
Now comes the human touch, pain in the ass though it may be. Since the nuts must be gathered within a few hours of harvest—twenty-four at the most, otherwise they can fall prey to pest infestation, discoloration or mold—a hired crew is required to do what Jutta admits is ‘horrible, back-breaking work’. The only thing harder, she says, is picking strawberries.
Mechanized sweepers are used by the big boys in Central Valley, but Jutta has had bad experiences them; along with the nuts, they suck up a lot of sticks and stones, which can indeed break your bones—or at least, the bones of your husker. And husking is next critical step in preparing walnuts for market. The one used at Manzanita is a set-piece from a Historical Society exhibit. Seventy years old, jury-rigged with baling wire, louder than a shuttle launch, the gas-powered monstrosity winds up being very efficient at remove the bitter green husk from the nut in a very simple tumbling operation through something that looks like a big, cylindrical cheese grater. From there, the nuts are slowly dried, and thus, are made ready for the masses.
At one time, Jutta was one step beyond these masses; before she’d streamlined her process and did the math, she sold her walnuts wholesale, where commercial processors would do some of the dirty work, including hulling and drying. Problem is, industrial-level producers couldn’t care less whether the nuts are dry-farmed or raised without synthetic crap, and an organic crop winds up in the warehouse along with everybody else’s. And they pay the same rate regardless, sometimes as little as a dollar a pound, at which price the whole dry-farm experiment becomes not only illogical but impossible.
Jutta may be nuts, but she’s not crazy. To her, this was a case where Diamond was not a girl’s best friend.
But if Diamond is the enemy, that’s ‘enemy’ with an asterisk, and the century old company deserves kudos, certainly. Founded in 1912 by a cooperative of Californian walnut growers, Diamond became the first nut company to advertise nationally, the first nut company to recognize the potential of television commercials and, in fact, their Super Bowl XLI spot featuring Robert Goulet was ranked as that event’s number one ad by Advertising Age and resulted in a 68% sales increase for the brand.
Clearly, Diamond of California has worked just as hard for their portion of patrons as Jutta has for hers.
Like her nuts, Jutta’s audience may be smaller, but it is far more rapt. Why? And why walnuts?
In part because walnuts have been heralded as a near-perfect food since Alley Oop was king of the forest; they predate the last ice age as a nutrition-dense staple of the human diet, and by 5000 BCE, evidence shows that they were being cultivated by Neolithic people in the Mediterranean. With the rise of Rome, they became an indispensible trade commodity, and amphorae filled with walnut residue have been salvaged from sunken Roman ships. Beside being delicious, the kernels were used extensively as medicine, said to cure everything from baldness to upset stomachs.
And speaking of the Romans and their painful abdomens, the next time you refer to your testicles (providing you have them) as your nuts, thank Jupiter, king of the Roman pantheon. The scientific classification is Juglans regia, Latin for ‘The King’s Gonads’. The Greeks apparently though that a walnut looked more like a head, but I simply refuse to go there.
As a food source, walnuts are high in protein and fiber and possess a unique fatty acid profile, and compared to other commercially produced nuts like hazelnuts and almonds, have a higher concentration of free antioxidants and antioxidants bound to fiber. Ironically, black walnuts—to which Manzanita Farms was originally planted—offer more of all the above, and in better ratios. But they are notoriously hard to process: According to Jutta, “You have to take a sledge hammer to them to get them open.”
So she replanted with heirloom English walnut trees like Franquette and Hartley, known to bear nuts with exceptional and distinctive flavors, nuances like butterscotch and a sort of creamy sweetness that lingers in the aftertaste. In this, and in the stress-factor of cultivating in rough soil without irrigation, there are plenty of parallels to winemaking and wine tasting.
English Walnuts are fairly easy to grow provided you have time—a tree requires seven years or so from seed to set, and after that may produce two tons of nuts per acre each year for upwards of half a century. With dry-farming’s requisite tree spacing, Jutta may only see a half ton per acre, but all the taste and health plusses are mustered within the meat, and so far do they surpass what is available at the grocery store that you’ll need to swallow some to swallow their superiority.
She’s not out-fashioned by technology, she’s elevated by purity of mission—and by the majesty of the endgame. If California is regarded as growing the world’s top-quality walnut (99% of the commercial US supply; three-quarters of global trade) and if Manzanita Manor produces the finest walnuts in California, a first-year student of transitive relations can write the equation.