Petaluma Profile: Banjo-playing viticulturist tunes up for the next crush

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Daniel Charles is a busy man.

By day, the Petaluma native frets over the welfare of wine grapes. He was recently named the viticulturist for Notre Vue Estate and Balverne Wines, based in Windsor. At night, however, the fretting is all done on the neck of his banjo as he lays down the chords for the King Street Giants, a traditional, New Orleans-style jazz band.

As the “grape doctor” for 250 acres of vines in the Chalk Hill and Russian River appellations, Charles loves his work.

“It’s not too often that a viticulturist gets the chance to work with two distinct growing regions in one ranch,” he said. “The opportunity to work a site with such diversity and character excites me.”

Founded in 1992 by Bob and Renée Stein, Notre Vue Estate consists of 710 acres, 250 of which are planted with 18 varietals, including Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc. The other 350 acres are preserved as “Forever Wild.” The estate sells grapes to many wineries in the North Coast under its grape sales division, Windsor Oaks.

“I get to learn the quirks of all these varietals,” Charles said, adding that he always planned to go into the wine business. “My family on my mother’s side have been dairy farmers here for several generations, but we always grew grapes and made our own wine. My mother is from the Lavio family, a longtime Petaluma dairy family.”

A graduate of Petaluma High School, Charles attended junior college before graduating from California Polytechnic State University with a degree in agricultural business.

“I figured I’d learn about the business in school and about the wine on the job,” he said.

Since graduating, Charles has worked in the vineyards for Bayview Vineyards in Napa, Balletto Vineyards in Santa Rosa, and Gallo Vineyards in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, as well as in the Marlborough region of New Zealand.

“When I left college, I thought I’d end up working on the cellar side of the wine business,” he admitted. But during an internship he was advised go abroad for more crush experience, so he went to New Zealand, where our spring is their fall, to work the crush. He found he would rather be working outside than in a dark, damp cellar where the temperature never varies.

Charles inspects his vines and grapes year-round for “issues.” His tasks include analyzing vineyard data, meeting with winemakers, and directing vineyard labor crews. A recent issue was the abundance of rain just as the vines were about to bloom.

“We got lucky. The grapevines had not yet flowered,” he explained. “Everything looks good now. And the plants have had plenty of water.”

The next stage will be the set period, when growers keep an eye out for fungus such as powdery mildew.

Charles’s musical life was less premeditated than his wine career was.

In high school, he played saxophone and French horn in the jazz band. Then, in his senior year, a class trip to New Orleans exposed him to traditional New Orleans jazz music. He was especially excited to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a jazz band founded by tuba player Allan Jaffe in the early 1960s.

The following year, when many of his friends headed off to four-year colleges, he opted for junior college. He found himself looking for some way to play music and make new friends. One of his uncles had found a banjo from the 1920s in a garage and offered it to Charles. It still had the original calfskin head.

So, Charles taught himself to play, with no formal training.

The banjo, he points out, was originally a percussion instrument. As such, the sound is strong but dies out quickly, so the player has to strike rapidly and repeatedly to create a sustained sound or tremolo. “There’s lots of movement up and down the neck, at a quick pace,” he said.

In a band like the King Street Giants the banjo provides the chord structure for the four horn players, while the drummer takes care of the beat. Charles strums the chords using a plectrum, or pick. He often amplifies the instrument so that it can be heard amidst the horns, but he especially likes acoustic performances, “when we all have to be very aware of each other,” he said. “It also allows us to get up and march among the crowd, which we really like to do.”

Originally known as the Dixie Giants, the band got its current name from an early rehearsal space on King Street in Santa Rosa. The band members also like the allusion to the Giants, whose ballpark is on King Street in San Francisco.

Being the banjo player for the band is especially exciting now as the band develops a new album of original material. For the first time, the album will include vocals, so band members are busy writing lyrics and limbering up their vocal chords.

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