Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards offers on-site croquet complex

Photo courtesy of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

At any acclaimed winery, the grapes are the most revered part of the landscape. That’s true at Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, but here there’s also a close second. The winemaker, based in Windsor, Calif., boasts its own croquet complex, complete with natural stonewalls surrounding two courts.

“The winery was founded as a vineyard company, and then developed a winery in 1981. Part of the initial brand plan was to place the wine in upper-end restaurants, rather than retail outlets. The founder of the company felt that croquet, being an upscale sport, was inline with that image, so he developed the courts,” says General Manager David Perata.

The courts were built by the winery’s own landscaping staff, using a “homemade” laser level. It was the first project of its kind for those involved, but the quality of their work has been proven over the years, as it has never been necessary to rebuild the courts. “We’re just now getting to the point where we may have to do a little bit of leveling work, but it’s very minor on just a couple of low spots,” says Perata. “It’s critical that the courts be level, just like a pool table, but a green and growing pool table.”

Firm and fast conditions are preferred by croquet players, and the Sonoma-Cutrer courts are considered some of the best in the world. Regular aerating, topdressing and rolling are just part of the maintenance program.

Gravel and drainage were installed first, and then approximately 12 inches of sand was added and graded level. “Given the drainage system and our sand base, we really have no drainage problems,” says Perata. “We can get heavy, heavy rains, and the courts will be playable the next day.”

The main users of the courts are members of the Sonoma Croquet Club, representing the greater San Francisco Bay area. “The members that play here tell us that these are some of the best courts in the country, if not the world,” says Perata. With its wine country surroundings, it must also rank as one of the prettiest croquet complexes anywhere. “Even those who don’t have a real interest in croquet can’t help but say ‘wow’ when they see it, it just looks awesome,” he says.

In addition to regular play from members of that club, the courts also are used for tournament purposes. The most important event on the schedule is the weeklong North American Open Croquet Tournament, held each May, which attracts some of the world’s top players. The final component of the tournament is a benefit, held on the courts, for the Greater Bay Area Make a Wish Foundation. This past year, the fundraiser included lunch, as well as an auction and croquet demonstration that raised $868,000.

Sonoma-Cutrer employees use the courts a little bit, as well. “Often times a department will have an ‘R and R’ day that includes a semi-competitive game of croquet,” says Perata.

The courts are maintained by the three-member grounds crew at the winery. “They handle all of the landscaped grounds here, which includes about 2 to 3 acres of lawns and quite a few planted areas around the entry and roadways,” says Perata. “The maintenance of the courts probably takes more than 50 percent of their time.”

The Sonoma-Cutrer landscaping staff uses walk-behind greensmowers to maintain the winemaker’s two croquet courts. The local climate features frequent morning fog, leading to an increased threat of turfgrass disease.

As with golf greens, the creeping bentgrass croquet courts require intensive maintenance. They are mowed three times per week using walk-behind greensmowers.

Many of the maintenance challenges encountered on the courts would be familiar to golf course superintendents. “We’re located in what’s called the Russian River Valley, which flows out to the Pacific Ocean. We get a lot of fog influence here. Many times during the summer the fog stays until around 11 a.m.,” explains Perata. “The grass stays wet much of the day, and can cause turfgrass fungus issues. We follow a regular fungal control program to try to minimize any outbreaks. We also created a homemade ‘sponge’ that we pull across the courts to try to get the grass, or at least the top parts of the grass, dried off as much as possible. We pull that through on foggy mornings.”

The courts are aerated three times per year, followed by topdressings with sand. “We verticut at least three times each year, as well,” he adds. The courts are rolled every other week throughout the year, as well as after all topdressing applications and verticuttings.

Sonoma-Cutrer uses United Agri Products for the control products needed in the vineyard, and a turfgrass consultant from that company also helps the winery with any problems that arise on the croquet courts. “They send someone out if we have a problem pop up,” says Perata. There are a few other croquet courts in the San Francisco area, but he says that there isn’t a lot of consultation among the different facilities in terms of maintenance. “Mainly because each climate is so unique that the courts need different care,” he says.

The main source of input in terms of court maintenance comes from the members of the Sonoma Croquet Club. “The players like the courts to play fast and hard, they don’t like spongy conditions at all,” says Perata. “If something needs to be changed, they can usually tell right away and we listen to their input. We often get suggestions from them regarding the timing of maintenance, such as aerating.”

About half of the landscaping crew’s time is spent maintaining the croquet courts; the rest is devoted to caring for the rest of the picturesque property.

There is some grub pressure on and near the courts, from time to time, as well. “There’s quite a bit of wildlife around here, and they tend to do a lot of digging. Fortunately, they haven’t gotten onto the courts yet, that would be a real mess,” says Perata. The vineyard is surrounded by mature trees and, at certain times of the year, the landscaping staff has to blow leaves off the courts on a daily basis.

Fertilizer is applied every two to three weeks, as needed. “We are in a cool area, but we also have heat waves, as well,” Perata explains. “During those times, we have to apply more water, and that leaches out the fertilizer quicker, so the grass needs more nutrition.”

There is an irrigation system in­stalled beneath the courts. “We run it on a daily basis during the warm periods, and then switch to irrigating every two to three days during cooler weather,” he says. The courts are open for play year-round, weather permitting.

Currently, the public does not have access to the Sonoma-Cutrer winery, but the company has applied for a permit to allow limited public visitors beginning next year. As they learn about Sonoma-Cutrer’s wines, they’ll be able to gaze out the windows of the winery and take in the commanding views of the vineyards where the grapes are grown, but it might be the croquet courts that garner the most attention.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.