Meet the Grower: Dr. Tucker Bierbaum's Vineyard Supplies Grapes to California Vintner
By Cathy Chatfield-Taylor
ACEP News Contributing Writer
Tucked away in the cool-climate Russian River region about an hour north of San Francisco, a 10-acre ranch with rolling hills, scrubby oaks, and gravelly soils frames the prototypical wine country vista--rows of vertical trellises supporting lush grape vines. The vineyard is the avocation of Dr. Tucker Bierbaum, base station medical director for the level II trauma center at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Memorial Hospital.
"It balances out the intensity of the emergency department, where we're always in crisis management mode," Dr. Bierbaum said. "In growing, it's the opposite. You're investing long term and looking forward to something that will produce years hence."
Dr. Bierbaum, an ACEP member since 1985, decided to start a vineyard on the property he owned in Sonoma County when he was working nights and weekends as an attending physician and had "nervous energy" to burn. Having worked as a nurseryman to put himself through undergraduate school at Stanford University, he knew just enough about the science of growing to make some costly mistakes.
His first was to prepare the land piecemeal. "Given the cost of equipment and labor, I should have done it all at once," he said. His second mistake was laying out the vineyard for a kind of grape that wasn't available at the time. Forced to rethink his options, he researched what winemakers wanted to buy and settled on five French clones of the syrah grape. Putting in the root stock was more expensive and time consuming than he expected.
That was the first year. The second year, Dr. Bierbaum nearly lost his crop. "As the field bud syrah emerges, you cut off the root stock head, and that forces the scion wood to grow," he said. "I had the guys do that on a nice warm day in April 2000. The next three nights, we had the hardest freeze in years, and I hadn't protected the plants. I lost 40 percent of them."
Despite this setback, Dr. Bierbaum had enough fruit to sell by his third year. That was his first lucky break.
"It was the perfect time to get into the market in Sonoma County," he said. "There was a dearth of premium grapes. Wineries were looking for long-term relationships with growers; and I, like a pig finding a truffle, found Rosenblum Cellars."
Renowned for its award-winning zinfandels, Rosenblum Cellars itself started as a hobby by veterinarian Dr. Kent Rosenblum in 1978. In 2001, Dr. Rosenblum contracted with Dr. Bierbaum to supply grapes now used in making Rosenblum Cellars Atoosa's Vineyard Russian River Syrah - a wine with "complexity and finesse," much like its grower. Dr. Bierbaum named the vineyard after his wife.
Asked how he finesses working as an emergency physician and grower--not to mention being a husband and father of five children, three younger than 5 years - Dr. Bierbaum admits there are not enough hours in a week. "Emergency physicians have to be able to multitask. That's what I do," he said.
Indeed, in addition to his role in the trauma center, Dr. Bierbaum is medical director for the Sonoma County Sheriff's Helicopter Program, and medical director for the VeriHealth Ambulance Service in Petaluma, Calif. He is also a lecturer and clinical instructor for the Santa Rosa Junior College Paramedic Training Program and a race physician for Infineon Raceway in Sears Point, Calif.
Dr. Bierbaum sees a common thread among his many responsibilities. "Whether you're working out at a race track, on a helicopter in a remote location or in the ER, it's the same thing. You're not really sure of what you're going to find when the patient presents, and you're asked to do the best you can with the resources available and the knowledge you've gained. It's an element of predictable unpredictability."
Unpredictability also characterizes his other hobbies, which include mountaineering, wilderness search and rescue, and flying - Dr. Bierbaum is a licensed, instrument-rated pilot. "Adventure is nothing more than inconvenience properly regarded, a lot like the emergency department," he said. "You can have a clinical situation that is unexpected and inconvenient. Likewise, if you're flying on instruments in tough meteorological conditions, it's inconvenient. But with proper preparation, forethought, and attitude, you can not only survive it but enjoy it."
It's that attitude that makes Dr. Bierbaum a successful grower who makes money from his enterprise despite past mistakes. To avoid future mistakes, in 2002 he completed the Viticulture Program at Santa Rosa Junior College, attending school at night and on his days off. He now manages all the planting, grafting, pruning, and spraying himself, leaving his vineyard manager to schedule labor and equipment for harvest in late October.
What does he enjoy most? "Driving the tractor," he said. "In counterpoint to the pace of the emergency department, life is never finer than when you're on the tractor."