Farming in the Gray Area: A Chat with Kevin Jussila

Kippis!” Kevin Jussila says, as we raise our glasses in the middle of a sunny and clear Paso Robles Day. Jussila is the Finnish owner of Paso’s kukkula winery, and “kippis” is Finnish for “cheers.” We are seated in Jussila’s airy, brightly lit, atrium-like living room, overlooking his estate vineyard planting. Kukkula, Finnish for “the hill,” or “high place,” is an aptly-named brand considering Jusilla’s home sits atop a hill in Paso’s Adelaida district. As we sit to enjoy a light lunch, I ask Jussila why his brand’s name appears in lowercase, on both his wine labels and their website. “It reflects who were are,” he says. “We don’t like to do anything over the top. Also, it’s minimalist, modern and progressive, and I strive to keep things simple.” 

I’ve come to visit Jussila because I’ve heard he’s a straight shooter, and I appreciate that quality in winegrowers. Jussila began his career as a winegrower and winemaker rather idealistically, vowing to farm his vineyard organically. Yet the realities of doing so have, at times, proven challenging, and so we embark on a conversation about the reality of having to toggle from idealism to realism when faced with certain unforeseeable, and potentially financially devastating, challenges in the vineyard. We begin, though, with a little background on how he ended up on this hilltop.
kukkula winery owner Kevin Jussila.

Jussila serves us a chilled glass of his kukkula white, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier. The lovely and lean white goes well with our conversation. “My wife jokes that I don’t know the meaning of a small hobby,” he tells me, laughing. “I started making wine inside our basement in our Topanga Canyon home.” Jussila and his wife have built each one of the homes they’ve lived in, and his architect on the Topanga Canyon home, a lover of Burgundy, helped him with his home-made wine. “I was a total novice and he said to me a few times, ‘this would be a great place to make some wine.’ During our first year, we bought about a ton of Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. In retrospect, that first vintage wasn’t very good, but I thought it was pretty good back then. And then one barrel became two. We started making some Chardonnay, too.” Jussila named his nascent little project “Green Bluff,” the name of the street he lived on at the time. 

A trip to Provence with his wife in 1995 proved to be the catalyst for establishing their own commercially viable brand. They rented a 15th-century farmhouse just outside of Avignon and relished a vacation spent enjoying food and wine, and reading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, which became a great source of inspiration. “We visited Beaucastel, and I knocked on François Perrin’s door. I guess you’re not supposed to do that, but I did and he invited me to return three days later for a barrel tasting with him. So we tasted from barrels together, and François told me about his nursery in Paso Robles that he founded with Bob Haas of Tablas Creek.”

Upon his return stateside, Jussila visited the nursery and purchased 1,500 Syrah vines. Jussila Vineyard was born, with Topanga Estate as a fanciful AVA. They began selling their wines to restaurants in Los Angeles’s West Side. From there they moved to Paso Robles, folded Jussila Vineyard and founded, instead, kukkula. “When I saw this property, my heart just started pounding. I knew the reputation of the area and I knew it would be a good area for Rhône varieties.” 

Good morning Paso Robles

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Jussila intended all along to dry-farm his vineyard and, most importantly, to farm it entirely organically. Over the years I’ve spoken to plenty of winegrowers who claim to be organic, but who take conventional-farming-based shortcuts in the field when needed in order to sustain the health of the vineyard. However, they don’t talk about it and would rather perform these conventional tasks in secrecy, rather than be “found out.” Refreshingly, Jussila is honest and forthcoming about the challenges of farming organically. His desire to dry-farm his vineyard may have, ironically, led to the occurrence of red blotch at his estate, a virus that adversely effects the grapevine and any juice it may yield. Red blotch disease results in delayed ripening, smaller berry size and altered berry color. It adversely affects anthocyanin levels, pH, tannin levels, and other phenolic factors that reduce the quality and market value of the fruit, as well as the wine made from affected grapes. Wine producers (premium- and ultra-premium category) in California estimate that a 100% red blotch infection can reduce the value of a vineyard by as much as $68,000 per acre. 

“We've cut all of the plants out below the graft, so the root structure remains. I could just rip the soil, but in the past, I've found that there are always random suckers that continue to pop up. So I've essentially decided that I need to treat these remaining root structures with an herbicide,” Jussila says. “There are no organic herbicides that will kill the roots. Generally, organic options are developed after conventional herbicides, and in this case I think the need to eradicate the problem supersedes my need to remain 100% organic.”

Jussila is profoundly cognizant not only of his investment, but also of his customer base, a loyal base that comes to expect consistency from Jussila’s wines. His winemaking style might best be categorized as personality-driven. Like Sean Thackrey’s endlessly fascinating offerings under his iconic Thackrey label, Jussila’s kukkula wines are rustic, eccentric and loaded with character. Though they demonstrate typicity, they are also quite singular expressions, and make their presence known at the table. His fan base has come to expect truly handmade wines from this hardcore, hands-on farmer, and so he feels beholden to them, to approach each challenge in the vineyard with rigor and honesty. “I believe that initially I might have touched on my reluctance to be organically certified because of the subtle differences in requirements among organic certifiers,” Jussila continues. “I found it odd that there wouldn't be one exact standard among all of the entities, and it made me wonder how much was driven by the money side of the equation. I was also forced to make a decision for the first time last year, when we started developing a resistance to treating a growing leafhopper problem. We used up the litany of organic choices to treat the problem, but the leafhoppers kept coming back. Late in the season, our PCA [Pest-Control Advisor] told us that he had nothing left in the arsenal, so I had to make the hard decision to save the crop by using a conventional herbicide. And of course it eradicated the leafhopper problem immediately.”

Jussila’s willingness to pursue conventional methods to protect his vineyard and farmstead has not negated his hope to one day farm entirely organically. “I'm still not comfortable making these decisions to violate my desire to farm organically, but much like capitulating on killing wild boar on our ranch, ultimately the economic viability of what we do has forced my hand. I'm hopeful that, over time, problems like the two I've been confronted with can be effectively treated organically.”

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He was also anti-hunting for many years running, until a wild boar began decimating his vineyard and garden. Faced with an increasingly untenable economic situation, with one boar causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage, Jussila broke down and bought a rifle and took matters into his own hands. He wrote about the experience in a blog post: 

Our destroyed landscape sat literally right below our master bedroom. So I carved out two- to three-hour slots each night to stand vigil at the windows overlooking the lawn. No pigs showed up. I started scanning blogs on pig hunting; I experimented with outside lights on and off; I had the doors open, then closed; I started feeling like Bill Murray’s character, Carl Spackler in Caddyshack. Of course the nights I decided to sleep, it (they?) showed up. The blogs suggested using red or green lights to illuminate the area. Finally, after three weeks of waiting, I happened to get up and caught the pig in the act. Unfortunately I couldn’t take the shot because the red light I used was too dim and the angle of trajectory might have hit the house if I missed the target. I let it go. At least now I knew it was a lone boar (male). The next day I switched the light color to green, which proved to be much brighter. That, in combination with a motion sensor device mounted next to the lawn and an alarm on my bedside table, proved to be the right formula. A few nights later, the alarm went off, the light shone bright, I got my shot, and the pig was killed.

Though he writes that he wasn’t as bothered by this decision as he thought he might be, his comportment when he retells this story to me suggests he remains somewhat torn on the subject. 

Alas, the kukkula estate is a stunning one to visit, and it’s clear that the owner views himself as a steward of this special site. Adventurous travelers passing through California’s Central Coast would do well to visit Jussila at his estate vineyard. He hosts many of the visits himself, which take place Fridays, Saturday and Sundays. My favorite of Jussila’s wines is his vaalea (Finnish for “fair, bright and blond”), an arresting white wine with bracing acidity, lifted aromatics and a crisp, clean finish that leaves the imbiber longing for another sip…and a fresh oyster to boot. For $30 a bottle, it’s a keeper. Other highlights from our visit include his pas de deux, a terrific, balanced Grenache/Syrah blend that possesses a rustic texture, yet elegant, floral core and long, exuberant finish. For $45, it delivers on deliciousness and memorable aromatics. His aatto (Finish for “eve”) is a show-stopper blend of Counoise, Mourvedre and Grenache. I found this wine utterly fascinating and, like Thakerey’s Orion or Pleiades, unusual in a positively alluring and singular way. For $40 a bottle, it delivers on eccentricity, flavor and a host of sensory memories.

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