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While the vines are bare and the autumn grape harvest is still eight months away, we are already taking action in the vineyard to maximize the caliber of the fruit to come—starting with pruning.
As our Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor says, “The 2014 vintage starts right now with pruning season. The wines of 2014 are already being shaped by things we are doing in the vineyard—long before the grapes have even started growing.”
Our estate Margarita Vineyard is planted to a VSP (for vertical shoot position) trellis system. With this system, the main part of the vine is shaped like a “T,” with the vine branches trained upward with catchwires. The vines in a VSP system consist of four key parts: the trunk, the arms (called cordons), the spurs (the large knobs on the cordons) and the canes (the branches).
We prune for quality over quantity, so we select one cane per spur and cut it back so that just two buds remain. The buds will open up during “bud break” in early spring. From the buds grow new canes and, ultimately, the grape clusters.
Pruning sets the stage for the upcoming growing season. With pruning, you directly control your grape yields, which in turn impacts fruit balance and intensity. Pruning decisions also affect the amount of sunlight and airflow that will penetrate the fruiting zone of the vine. Diffused sunlight aids with grape ripening, while healthy airflow keeps mildew in check.
Smart pruning requires training and commitment. The vineyard crew must move quickly, making split-second decisions on where to best make their cuts.
“When deciding where to cut, you have to think of where you want the clusters to sit on the vine,” says Vineyard Manager Jaime Muniz. “You want to separate the clusters as much as you can to get that airflow and sunlight, and to deliver the best quality to the winery.”
And so begins the vintage to come...
You’ve probably seen a stainless steel wine tank before. In fact, you walk right by them on most winery tours. Stainless steel tanks are popular in winemaking because they are durable, easy to clean and temperature controlled. You can ferment and/or age wines in stainless steel, depending on the style of wine you're trying to achieve.
Stainleess steel tanks are fairly straightforward vessels, but they do have a lot of moving parts. Have you ever wondered what all of the ports and levers are for? If so, here’s the scoop:
The swirling patterns along the side of the tank are glycol channels. Glycol is a viscous liquid that can be chilled well below 32 degrees without freezing. We typically chill our glycol to a temperature of 25 degrees. As it flows through the channels around the jacket, the cold glycol chills the wine to a desired temperature. We can control the wine temperature with a thermostat (the little box on the right) that regulates the glycol. Temperature level plays a major role in shaping fermentations as well as the aging environment.
When new wine is placed in a tank, natural solids settle to the bottom and become what is known as “lees.” The lees can be fairly thick at the bottom of the tank, so when you want to rack (ie: transfer) the wine, you start by hooking up the hose to the higher valve on the left, known as the racking valve, to make sure you’re not sucking out a bunch of lees.
Once you’ve racked wine via the racking valve, you can open the upper racking door. That allows you to peer in and see how much more wine you can manually skim off the top of the lees.
This gives you access to the inside of the tank for cleaning and removing lees. Come on out, we could use a hand!
The bottom valve is used for filling an empty tank.
The tiny little valve protruding on the right of the tank allows you to quickly draw a sample of wine for evaluative purposes.
One of the more iconic annual moments in the winery cellar is the “barreling down” of new wine to begin the aging process.
Today, our team is barreling down Cabernet Sauvignon from Block 50 at our estate Margarita Vineyard, which is one of the last 2013 vintage lots to make the transition from tank to barrel.
The cellar is surprisingly quiet as the wine is barreled down. The Cabernet Sauvignon is being racked (transferred) from a larger tank about 100 yards away from the awaiting barrels. It is flowing through the hoses via gravity, so there are no pumps making noise. As the wine flows into the barrel through a long racking wand, it makes a splashing sound at first, and then goes silent as the level rises.
Gravity racking is preferable because it’s very gentle on the wine. Also, if there are any hiccups, you can just shut the valve on the racking valve without having to make an uphill 100-yard dash to turn off a pump!
The splashing and aeration of the wine as it fills the barrel is also beneficial. After fermentation, the wine has been resting in the tank with very little air exposure. Barreling down allows any suspended CO2 in the wine to blow off (if CO2 remains suspended in the wine, it will taste spritzy). This controlled air exposure also gives the wine a moment room to breathe and develop, setting the tone for the maturation period.
You have to be alert when barreling down. Right now, our cellar master Octavio is operating two racking wands. He starts one barrel, and then about halfway through he starts another. It takes three minutes for a 60-gallon barrel to fill up. So once the barrel is nearly full, Octavio has less than 90 seconds to gently top it off (see below photo), secure the bung and move the wand to begin filling the next barrel before rushing over to the other barrel that is rapidly filling.
Any hitch in the rhythm can result in what is known around the winery as a “volcano”—red wine erupting from an overflowing barrel. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Rumor has it that Winemaker Stewart Cameron recently had a nice sweater ruined by a volcano!
So there you have it—a look at the quiet yet momentous occasion of barreling down at Ancient Peaks Winery.
One of our mantras at Ancient Peaks is that we aim to “over deliver.”
This means that we always strive to provide value at any given price point, whether it be one of our $17 varietal reds or our $35 reserve White Label wines or our $50 Oyster Ridge cuvée. It’s part of our winery culture, and it has helped us earn a loyal following.
We have a few things working in our favor. For starters, we have an estate vineyard—Margarita Vineyard, the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles region—that delivers high-character fruit. Better yet, we only use a fraction of the fruit from this vineyard (the rest is sold to other wineries), allowing us to pick and choose blocks that fit our winemaking vision, and to farm them exactly how we want. On top of that, our Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor and Winemaker Stewart Cameron are really talented and in tune with the estate fruit.
On that note, and at the risk of sounding like we’re tooting our own horn, we are very pleased that two of our wines have earned a spot on Wine & Spirits magazine’s annual Top 100 Best Buys of The Year list—our 2010 Merlot ($17) and 2010 Renegade ($23).
This list was compiled from 12,500 wines tasted from around the world! So to place two wines on the list is quite gratifying, and it affirms that our pursuit of over-delivering is going well.
When it comes to Paso Robles, you’ve probably heard about the eastside and the westside, but here at Ancient Peaks, we’re on the southside—and still in the thick of the 2013 harvest at our estate Margarita Vineyard. View and read our report below:
On the whole, we are just past the halfway mark in our picking. As of October 13, only about 20 percent of our Cabernet Sauvignon is in the house. About 60 percent of our Syrah has been picked, and all of our Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc fruit is off the vine. Zinfandel is mostly done. But we just began harvesting our Malbec, and haven’t even started on the Petit Verdot.
At this rate, we should be fully done with the grape harvest by the end of October or first week of November. This is rather typical—and even a bit early—for Margarita Vineyard, which is the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles AVA. It’s cooler here, and so the growing season is long.
Yields are a bit larger than normal, which is somewhat surprising in the wake of such a dry year. We’re not alone, as larger yields are one of the stories of the 2013 vintage in California.
The sailing has been smooth this harvest, especially compared to recent years. In 2008, we experienced eight inches of rain in one harvest day. In 2010, an unusually cool summer forced us to drop an inordinate amount of crop just to make sure we got things ripe. The 2011 growing season was fairly cool, too. Last year was nice, but a bit more erratic with regard to hot weather events.
But this year has been rock steady—warm but rarely hot, with consistent temperatures heading into fall, and just a few drops of rain one day in early October.
Even with the healthy yields, we’re getting a nice intensity of color and flavor out of the fruit. Yesterday morning, during our first Malbec pick, the picking bins were stained a dark purple—an unscientific yet clear indication of what we’re getting in terms of concentration. By mid morning, the air was still chilly and thick with fog, demonstrating why we still have a few weeks to go.
With later-ripening varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, we sometimes find ourselves on what we call “the edge of ripeness”—that long wait for the grapes to fully mature. And we’re fine with that, because it’s a great way for the fruit to maintain its balance and varietal character.
This year, however, full maturity is coming more easily. We’re not looking over our shoulder at a coming storm or at our watches waiting for the fruit to get in gear. Mother Nature has smiled upon us, and it should result in a banner vintage.
Making wine isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be tough and physical—especially during harvest, when the to-do list is long and the hours even longer.
When it comes to making small-lot red wines, one inescapable duty during harvest is the punchdown.
When new red wine is fermenting, the skins float to the top of the fermentation bin, forming a cap that can easily dry out. With a punchdown, you perch yourself on the edge of the bin and use a specially designed paddle to mix the skins back into the juice. This keeps the cap from drying out, and it ensures steady, optimal extraction of color, flavor and tannin from the grape skins. At Ancient Peaks Winery, we perform punchdowns on each small lot three times per day.
In the accompanying video, harvest intern Chris Thompson demonstrates the art of punching down on a lot of Pinot Noir recently harvested from our estate Margarita Vineyard.
Plunging and pulling the paddle through the heavy skins requires exertion, and doing it on multiple bins three times per day requires endurance. Hence the third and final rule of the punchdown: Don’t wimp out!
It seems like just yesterday we were launching our winery, with Stewart as part of our cellar crew. That was in 2006…Now, here we are seven years later, and we are proud to have him as our winemaker.
“Stewart has been an instrumental part of our winemaking team since day one,” Mike says. “He has a great feel for the style and vision of Ancient Peaks wines, and the time has come to recognize his talents and responsibilities with the title of winemaker.”
Stewart will continue to oversee the daily winery operations and remain involved in all facets of winemaking in tandem with Mike.
“Stewart has a knack for making wines that really capture Margarita Vineyard’s sense of place,” says co-owner Doug Filipponi. “He has helped our wines earn widespread industry praise, and we are excited to have him as our winemaker.”
Over the past year, Stewart has traveled to France and Italy to broaden his winemaking inspirations, and has developed a particular affinity for the small-block winegrowing practices in the northern Rhône Valley and Barolo.
“They’re both relatively small regions, and they have a real fix on the nuance and complexity at the micro level of each little block, or even a few rows,” Stewart says. “It doesn’t always translate out here, but we try to do our own version of it, micromanaging specific spots—such as the top of Block 7 or the hillside on Block 49 at Margarita Vineyard—to get the most out of our White Label reserve wines.”
He adds, “It’s a great honor and privilege for me to work here with such a wonderful vineyard and group of people. I will continue in the effort to bring joy and blessings through our wines here at Ancient Peaks.”
In the winemaking notes for our new release 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, you will find this little tidbit: “Ten percent of the wine underwent 24-hour skin contact prior to pressing and fermentation, further adding an exotic touch to the wine.”
This is just one of many examples of how our winemaking team employs judicious experiments and extremes for the betterment of our wines.
In traditional winemaking, white wines are made by immediately pressing the juice off of the skins prior to fermentation. But in this case, Winemaker Mike Sinor and Assistant Winemaker Stewart Cameron took a walk on the wild side and let a small portion of the juice soak on the skins for a full day.
Taken on its own, this is somewhat of an extreme measure. When you allow that kind of skin contact, you get Sauvignon Blanc wine with intensified varietal attributes.
“You get much more of that herbal character that’s inherent to Sauvignon Blanc,” Stewart says.
Therefore, if we handled all of our Sauvignon Blanc lots in this manner, we would end up with a wine that most folks would consider too edgy and atypical.
Yet by thinking outside the box and going the extra mile with select skin contact, Mike and Stewart developed a crucial 10-percent component that elevates the final blend.
“It helps us produce a more interesting an intriguing wine,” Stewart says. “We’re just intensifying the natural qualities of the grape to accent and enhance our Sauvignon Blanc blend. Little things like this can go a long way toward making a more complete wine.”
The 2011 vintage marks the third release of our Renegade red blend, and once again it offers an unconventional union of Syrah, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
“With the Renegade, we set out showcase the Syrah from our estate Margarita Vineyard, but to do it with some added backbone,” says Winemaker Mike Sinor. “You still get the yumminess of the Syrah, but there’s this complexity and structure that takes it to another level.”
In just two years, the Renegade has emerged as one of our most acclaimed wines, and we believe that the 2011 vintage may be the finest yet. This wine is now available at our tasting room, and will start hitting the retail market at the end of this month.
In the accompanying video, Mike elaborates on the vision behind the 2011 Renegade.
Our estate Margarita Vineyard resides on the historic Santa Margarita Ranch, so we are no strangers to branding…and we’re not talking about the marketing sense of the word!
It should come as no surprise, then, that we like to hot-brand our barrels with a signature “AP” brand mark.
The accompanying pictorial shows how we do it. Once the electric hot brand is applied with a steady hand, it only takes a few seconds for it to make its permanent mark.
We think that it adds a distinctive touch to our winery, one that ties directly into our ranch heritage.