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Last week, we were visited by a couple of producers from The Weather Channel, who came to the Paso Robles wine country as part of a larger story on drought conditions across the West.
Viticulturist and Ancient Peaks Co-Owner Doug Filipponi (pictured above) and Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor enjoyed showing them around our estate Margarita Vineyard, and sharing their thoughts and strategies for conserving water in the vineyard.
There’s no denying that the drought is troubling. Water management is now on the front-burner of the civic discourse in many California communities, including our own. It could get worse before it gets better. An El Niño year can’t come fast enough.
However, it’s still possible to maintain an optimistic outlook as we head out to work in the vineyard each morning. We have survived past droughts. Mother Nature is resilient, and has been known to follow drought years with abundant rainfall. In fact, some are predicting that El Niño conditions may begin later this year.
This doesn’t mean we can turn a blind eye to the drought, or that we needn’t consider the possibility that climate change is intensifying our drought cycles in California. It just means that we’re keeping our finger off the panic button and focusing on what we can do in the vineyard to ride this drought out.
As a SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certified winery, we are proactive when it comes to resource conservation. For example, we have installed “pulse emitters” throughout the vineyard for frost protection. These emitters cut water usage by more than 30 percent compared to traditional overhead frost-protection sprinklers. We are also vigilant when it comes to monitoring soil moisture with the latest technologies, so that we only irrigate when absolutely necessary, and only with the necessary amount of water.
These are things that we can control, so that is where our focus lies—on making the most of what we have without borrowing trouble. Of course, we’ll keep praying for rain as well.
We were honored last week to host a group of top sommeliers as part of the CABs of Distinction festivities across Paso Robles. They came out for a tour of our estate Margarita Vineyard, and for a look at the vineyard’s rare diversity of soil types. They tasted our wines along the way, and were the first people outside of the winery to experience our Cabernet Sauvignon soil trials in progress.
To say that these folks have discriminating palates would be an understatement, so we were pleased when they seemed to like what they tasted. The wine that really seemed to ring some bells was our new 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon “Jackpot,” a limited-edition reserve wine made from four selected barrels.
The soil trial tasting consisted of 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon barrel samples from three distinct soil types. During the last harvest, our winemakers, Mike Sinor and Stewart Cameron, chose fruit from three separate Cabernet Sauvignon blocks rooted in ancient sea bed, diablo series clay and Monterey shale, all picked at the same ripeness. Each of these small Cabernet Sauvignon lots is now being made with the same winemaking and aging practices. This will give us a more controlled opportunity to compare the effects of the soils and to share our discoveries.
“The somms were very knowledgeable, and I think they appreciated the fact that we offered something different,” Mike says. “Few vineyards have five distinct soil types like ours, so it’s natural for us to focus on that and share how it shapes our wines.”
On that note, here are our current observations on the soil trials at the moment:
• Block 15 – Ancient Sea Bed
Rich, dense, black fruit core. Shy nose will open up in time.
• Block 50 Bottom – Diablo Series Clay (Rocky Alluvium)
More red fruit on the nose, cherry, zingy, bright and high toned.
• Block 50 Top – Monterey Shale
Earthy, mineral aromas. Supple, round black and red fruit on the palate.
Of course, it’s still early and the wines will evolve, but the distinctions are already apparent. Stay tuned for more details as the trials progress.
The following post is copied from Ancient Peaks co-owner and viticulturist Doug Filipponi's contribution to the Paso Robles Grower Blog. Click here to check out this regional blog and to keep up with the growing season across Paso Robles.
The 2014 vintage is officially underway in our estate Margarita Vineyard and across the Paso Robles region with the recent advent of “bud break,” the process whereby the buds on the vines open up and burst forth with fresh green growth.
Vines that looked dormant and skeletal just a few weeks ago now look very much alive, and the growing season is upon us. As we head into April, the new growth is taking shape as spindly shoots, small leaves and tiny flowers. Later this spring, the flowers will self-pollinate and set the crop for the 2014 vintage.
This year, bud break has arrived about a week earlier than average, due to a dry and relatively warm winter, as well as picture-perfect spring weather in mid-March with temperatures reaching the mid-80s for a few days. In other words, there was nothing holding the vines back from getting the show on the road.
As always, the priority right now is to protect the delicate new growth from frost damage. As you may know, Paso Robles is blessed with beneficial “diurnal” temperature swings. Temperature differences of 40 and even 50 degrees are not uncommon within a 24-hour period during the heart of the growing season. The warm days enable the fruit to develop rich, ripe flavors, while the cool nights help maintain balance and structure – all hallmarks of the wines of Paso Robles.
In the spring, however, those temperature swings can take us all the way below freezing by morning time – and once the mercury dips below 32-degrees, it can spell trouble in the vineyard. If left unchecked, frost can throttle the new growth and the vine will lose its new leaves and flowers.
Therefore, vineyard crews must be alert and vigilant whenever there’s a chance of frost – and they must act quickly to turn on the frost control systems when necessary. At Margarita Vineyard, we have five weather stations to warn us of low temperatures throughout the vineyard. We use targeted pulsator sprinklers during frost events. These pulsator sprinklers are trained on the cordons, coating the vine with a fine spray. The water freezes around the new growth and creates a protective barrier from outside temperatures that dip below 32 degrees. When ice is forming, it creates heat. It also creates heat when it’s melting. So yes, ironically, we use ice to protect the vines from frost damage!
Mother Nature has done her job once again, and the vines are fully awakened. It’s now our job to protect what we have been given. Looking forward, we are bullish on the 2014 vintage in Paso Robles. There’s still a ways to go, but we are off to a good start.
At our estate Margarita Vineyard, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword—it’s a true force of resource conservation with positive benefits to both the vineyard environment and the resulting wines.
With the new growing season about to get rolling with spring bud break, one of our most effective sustainable practices is set to play a role in the 2014 vintage.
This would be “compost tea,” a liquefied natural compost fertilizer that is delivered right to the root zone of the vines via our drip irrigation lines. The use of compost tea has drastically cut our use of synthetic fertilizers, creating a more balanced soil composition and providing wholesome nutrients to the vines.
We “brew” our compost tea mainly from “vermicompost,” a fancy name for worm castings. We cultivate worm beds on site specifically for creating compost tea. The brewing cycle is 24 hours. The brew can include brewer’s yeast, kelp and molasses to help grow the mix of beneficial bacteria and fungi. Once brewed, the tea is ready for delivery to the vines.
For the vines, it’s like eating green vegetables (compost tea) compared to simply taking a multivitamin (traditional fertilizers). The uptake of nutrients is more complete, natural and thorough. It also avoids the nitrate soil buildup that can occur with traditional fertilizers.
The result is a more balanced vine that allows us to maximize fruit quality. Additionally, we maintain a healthier soil profile that is better for the vineyard environment and the creatures (and people) who inhabit it.
Even though we finally had some late rains this winter, we are still expecting an early “bud break.”
Indeed, as of today, we are expecting bud break to begin about 10 days earlier than average at our estate Margarita Vineyard, which means it should be coming very soon.
Bud break occurs when the vine buds open and push the first green growth of the vintage. It’s the moment when the vines truly awaken from dormancy and inaugurate the growing season.
The dry, relatively warm winter of 2014 means that the vines have been encouraged to awaken sooner rather than later, hence the expected early bud break.
During bud break, the buds open to reveal thin shoots, small leaves and tiny flowers that, in the months ahead, will become long canes, large leaves and juicy grape clusters.
The young growth is delicate and vulnerable to frost. And with bud breaking coming early this year, it means that this new growth will be exposed to a longer window of potential frost events.
In the short video above, Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor and Vineyard Manager Jaime Muniz talk about the road to bud break. Stay tuned for updates from the vineyard!
Our estate Margarita Vineyard is blessed with a rare array of five soil types, and these soil differences from block to block have always been notable in the wines they deliver.
The geographical map pictured below provides a visual explanation as to why Margarita Vineyard is such a ground zero for soil diversity.
We have cropped the map to show the location of Margarita Vineyard, and all of the black lines you see are fault lines. This abundance of localized faults has churned and turned the terrain over time, which explains why you can see everything from uplifted fossilized sea beds, thick fields of shale, rocky plains of alluvium and more during a short walk through the vineyard.
Why does soil diversity matter to us? Well, it allows us to build natural complexity into a single estate-grown wine. For winemakers Mike Sinor and Stewart Cameron, it’s like giving them more colors to paint with.
Starting with the 2013 vintage, we are taking our interest in soil influence to the next level by conducting a more controlled trial of Cabernet Sauvignon lots grown in calcareous ancient sea bed, diablo series clay and Monterey shale. Each lot was farmed the same in terms of crop load and irrigation; harvested at similar ripeness; went through the same fermentation protocols; and was racked to the same barrels (once-used Taransaud barrels with medium+ toast levels).
In the above video, Stewart provides an update on these lots four months after harvest. And so far, the differences are pretty striking.
The ancient sea bed lot from Block 15 is showing a deep, dense black fruit character. The diablo series clay lot from the bottom of Block 50 is exhibiting a zingy red fruit quality, while the Monterey shale lot from the top of Block 50 is showing plum and boysenberry with assertive tannins.
Stay tuned, as we will be following these wines to see how they mature from ground to glass, and looking into ways to share the results at special tastings down the line.
The French concept of “terroir” is something that goes to the heart of Ancient Peaks wines.
In simple terms, terroir signifies the influence of “place” on a given wine, namely the soil, topography and weather.
Now, any time you talk about terroir, it comes at the risk of sounding high-minded or pretentious. But that’s not our intent here. Our intent is to simply understand and embrace how a sense of place makes different wines distinguishable and ultimately more enjoyable.
We believe that our estate Margarita Vineyard is the epitome of terroir. It stands alone as the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles region, with its own distinct microclimate and a rare array of five soil types.
These singular interconnected conditions, in turn, have a direct influence on the fruit and the character of the resulting wines.
It’s also worth noting that “place” is not exclusive of “people.” There is a cultural aspect to terroir. Functional vines don’t grow without supervision, and wine can’t be made without guidance from the human hand—a subject that Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor and Winemaker Stewart Cameron discuss in the accompanying video.
Terroir is what separates wine from a mere recipe or formulaic commodity. In that sense, you could say that terroir is what makes wine fun and interesting. And there’s nothing pretentious about that.
P.S. Come out for one of our Paso Robles winery tours to get a hands-on taste of Margarita Vineyard’s terroir.
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...
Our Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor likes to call it “moon dust,” but it actually comes from the ocean, not outer space…
Of course, we are talking about the uplifted ancient sea bed at our estate Margarita Vineyard, along a block that we call Oyster Ridge.
Here, massive white oyster fossils—some as large as footballs—are literally spilling out of the ground, embedded in fine pale calcareous soil that looks like, well, moon dust.
Considering that Margarita Vineyard is tucked into the Santa Lucia Mountains at the top of the towering Cuesta Grade above San Luis Obispo, the sight of old sea creatures here is rather astonishing. So, how did they get here?
Well, the vineyard is tucked between two local seismic faults, and it is located only about 45 miles from the massive San Andreas fault. Over thousands of years, tectonic grinding and localized earthquakes have turned the old inland sea into today’s dry ground.
Still, you rarely see an ancient sea bed exposed along the surface like you do at Margarita Vineyard. We just happen to be located in a very geologically active spot, which explains why the vineyard spans a rare array of five soil types.
But the bottom-line question is: What does all of this mean to the wine?
For starters, Calcium-rich soil is coveted by winemakers worldwide. And considering that Wine & Spirits Magazine called Oyster Ridge “perhaps the most dramatically calcareous chunk of earth in the entire state,” that is saying a lot.
“Oyster Ridge is planted predominantly to Bordeaux varietals,” Mike says. “The fruit from this soil displays pretty aromatics, with high-toned flavors and really fine tannins. The Cabernet from this spot is different from the Cabernet on other parts of the ranch.”
He adds, “At the end of the day, it gives us another color to paint with, and to create an estate Cabernet blend with balance and complexity.”
The rare diversity of soils at our estate Margarita Vineyard is something we talk about frequently. It’s part of the fabric of our wines—a point of differentiation that defines our sense of place. And if you can’t get excited about a wine’s sense of place, then you’re missing perhaps the most vital aspect of wine appreciation!
Margarita Vineyard lies along the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains between two fault zones, where ongoing geologic upheaval has blessed the land with a striking mix of soils. Walking around the vineyard, you will find fields of flaky shale, slopes of fine sediment and expanses of calcareous ancient sea bed riddled with oyster fossils. Granitic and volcanic soils are also present.
While we can’t say that the mineral content of a certain soil type fosters a specific flavor (such as blackberry, blueberry, etc.), we do know that soil type has a bearing on the available nutrients and how those nutrients are taken up, as well as moisture retention and root zone development. These and other soil factors do have a significant impact on the resulting fruit and wine, in terms of texture, fruit intensity, flavor profile and tannin profile; and these factors shift as you transition from sedimentary soils to calcareous soils to shale soils.
The differences in the resulting wines are obvious to our winemakers, Mike Sinor and Stewart Cameron. They like to say that the varied soils give them more “colors” to paint with when it comes to assembling final blends, allowing them to build natural complexity and dimension into a single estate-grown wine.
Starting with the 2013 vintage, we are taking these observations to a more experimental level. Mike and Stewart chose fruit from three separate Cabernet Sauvignon blocks rooted in three distinct soil types, all picked at the same ripeness. As Mike explains in the video above, each of these small Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon lots is now being made with the same winemaking and aging practices. This will give us a more controlled opportunity to compare the effects of the soils and to share our discoveries with you down the line. Stay tuned!
P.S. If you want to see some of these soils firsthand, including the sea bed with oyster fossils, come out for one of our Paso Robles winery tours.