Harvest Profiles

Harvest Profiles: Vineyard manager Matt Mahoney

Vineyard Manager Matt Mahoney

Matt comes from an old farming family. He’s the fourth generation on his father’s side to work the soils of Santa Maria. But, unlike his father, grandfather and great-grandfather—all Mahoneys—Matt turns his attention to wine grapes, rather than broccoli, lettuce, cauliflowers and blueberries.

It was his Irish-born great-grandfather who settled the area around Guadalupe, a tiny farming town, just a half mile inland from the Pacific beach, that’s been home to row crops and grazing herds since Spanish colonial days. “The land’s been passed down in our family throughout the years,” Matt says, reminiscing about his days as a kid, when he “did it all from the ground up: sprinkler pipe irrigation, harvesting crops, and all that. I got no favoritism whatever” for being the owner’s son.

His dad expected Matt to go into the family business, but changing times on that part of the coast sent Matt into a different direction. The labor force was getting smaller and more expensive to hire. Water was increasingly scarce for thirsty row crops. “Looking at things long-term,” Mark says, “I kind of saw what was happening. I knew things weren’t going to get any better. So for me, the decision was easy.”

What Matt calls “the decision” was to answer an ad for an assistant manager at Cambria. He possessed a degree in agricultural business from California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, where he’d put himself through school working as a forklift operator for a local winery, so the skills were there. “Besides, I was intrigued with wine,” Mark smiles.

That was six years ago. Matt, 36, is now Cambria’s vineyard manager, a big job, as it entails farming, not only Cambria’s 1,600 acres of wine grapes, but an additional 400 acres for nearby Byron Winery.

As part of the job, he oversees a staff of 15 tractor drivers, 5 mechanics, 6 irrigation specialists and, seasonally, as many as 9 crews of fifteen field hands. The challenges are considerable: maintaining an even flow of work year-round avoids the kind of start-and-stop routine that can result in employee layoffs. But perhaps the biggest challenge is also Cambria’s biggest opportunity: the cool climate.

Harvest Profiles: Vineyard manager Matt Mahoney

Vineyard Manager Matt checking on the Cambria vines.

“You have this huge marine influence,” Mark notes. “We’re only 14, 15 miles from the ocean, so there’s heavy fog early each morning. With that being said, it sets up for extreme powdery mildew pressure.” Powdery mildew, as you might imagine, is not a good thing for grapes. But Matt and his crew have developed innovative ways to combat it, in a sustainable way that does not involve the undue use of chemicals. “We remove leaves on the vines, helping the air flow through the bunches,” which helps to dry out any fruit that is affected.

The other big issue is water. California’s ongoing severe drought has only worsened the situation, especially along the state’s Central Coast, where rainfall is scarce even in a wet year. This entails the most scrupulous water-management policies, especially now that Cambria has qualified for certification by SIP (Sustainability in Practice), one of the country’s leading certification agencies. Says Mark, “SIP and other monitoring agencies audit us and tell us where we stand, in a range of areas. It starts with new plantings, and includes real-time data in everything from controlling water and fertilizer to canopy management.” He credits these practices, along with winemaker Denise Shurtleff’s abilities, with the quality of Cambria’s wines. “You’re getting these intense flavors by controlling all these different pieces of sustainability, which ultimately makes for a better wine.”

When Matt isn’t working, he’s usually hanging out with his family. “I have two young kids, and they manipulate every last second of my time!” One of his favorite places to relax is Avila Beach, a local spot off the beaten path, and a favorite place for biking, hiking and swimming.