Meet Mark Lingenfelder, Executive Vice President of Vineyard Operations at Chalk Hill Estate.
Witty and engaging, Mark Lingenfelder is Chalk Hill’s viticulturist, land steward, and resident rock hound who admits that, after almost three decades on the estate, he is still inspired every day by its tremendous natural beauty.
As a child he was a student of natural science. He was captivated by the desert where his father was born, the ocean three blocks from his home in Manhattan Beach, California, and the farm where his grandfather and uncle raised oranges.
As a budding scientist, Mark studied botany at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In 1974, following a visit to Sonoma County, he moved here to work for the State of California as an agricultural in- spector. Enrolling in agricultural sciences at Santa Rosa Junior College, he completed the viticulture degree program in 1979, and then worked in the vineyard and winery at Preston Vineyards before joining Chalk Hill in 1980.
When Mark came to Chalk Hill, the “first generation” of vineyard had already been planted, including the 42 acres of Founder’s Block. He immediately initiated a program of low input, sustainable viticulture including a no-till policy to control erosion on the steep hillside vine- yards. “Farming a hillside vineyard is a great challenge with little room for error,” says Mark. “Preserving the soil and the environment is one of my primary responsibilities in the vineyard. Our sustainable system will allow us to cultivate these estate vineyards indefinitely without a reduction in soil fertility or the quality of the surrounding environment.”
He uses cover crops to hold the topsoil and maintain the soil’s depth and natural structure. “There are no other options,” says Mark, “because loss of topsoil is unacceptable. It takes millions of years to produce soil that can be washed away in decades.”
In the 1980s Mark began planting the “second generation” of Chalk Hill vineyards. Now with 370 planted acres, he is working to optimize the quality potential of each site. Mark observes that, “We used to plant what we wanted to plant; now we plant what we have to plant, what is right for the site.” More than three decades on the Chalk Hill Estate has given Mark the experience needed to select with certainty the right vineyard sites, varieties, clones, rootstocks, trellising, and spacing. “I love to build, and I’m fascinated with details,” comments Mark. His goal is to have perfectly balanced vines with each site tuned to maximize the quality of the grapes.
To achieve his goal, Mark focuses on site-specific viticulture. He has identified 13 soil types and more than 100 specific vineyard sites. Equating site with terroir, Mark observes:
“Site is the gestalt of the vineyard, a combination of all of its elements.” With great respect for Burgundian wine-making, Mark notes that the vineyards in Burgundy are unique, intricate, and closely associated with the wines they produce. He recognizes these same qualities on the Chalk Hill Estate and emphasizes that “Chalk Hill is even more diverse in terms of exposure, soil, and grape varieties.”
As part of Mark’s pursuit of perfection at Chalk Hill, he has conducted an extensive Chardonnay clonal trial. With 17 clones in the experiment, Mark is discover- ing those that will provide Chalk Hill with premier grapes and insure wine style and quality. This clonal experiment, intended to benefit the wine industry as a whole, is demonstrating the value of clonal diversity. He has also selected and propagated the “Chalk Hill Clone” of Chardonnay from the original Founder’s Block Vines.
“My job doesn’t stop at harvest,” Mark points out. In a role unique for a viticulturist, he is an important member of the winery tasting panel. He admits he is inspired by great food and wine. He and the winemaker integrate their efforts, tasting in both the vineyard and cellar (and at the dinner table), in order to improve quality—the estate’s driving force.
At Chalk Hill, Mark’s colleagues consider him a scientist (and he agrees), yet he points out that there is “something beyond science” in his viticultural work. “Great vineyard sites almost defy analysis. Grand Cru sites, such as Founder’s Block, are inherently great and ultimately indefinable.”
So what does this scientist-philosopher do when he isn’t perfecting the vineyards at Chalk Hill? He works a six-acre Pinot Noir vineyard at his home in neighboring Russian River Valley, maintains an organic garden, and raises sheep that keep down the winter grasses in his vine- yard. He has a passion for surfing and enjoys this sport in the ocean near Sonoma County’s Bodega Bay.