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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.
Duke the beagle is the boss of Assistant Winemaker Stewart Cameron, and the official winery dog of Ancient Peaks.
Today, we present "A Day in The Life of Duke" to show off his many talents, including vineyard management, staff training, winemaking and hospitality.
We salute Duke and all of the hard-working winery dogs out there!
We present our Oyster Ridge red blend as the crowning achievement of each vintage. While the blend varies from year to year, it is based upon Cabernet Sauvignon, which typically ranges from 55 to 70 percent of the total blend.
And when we tell people that all of Oyster Ridge’s Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in 100-percent new French oak barrels (including those by Taransaud, pictured here), it often elicits the question: doesn’t that “over oak” the wine? In fact, it doesn’t…
Assistant Winemaker Stewart Cameron says that there are two key factors that enable us to age our Oyster Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon lots in 100-percent new French oak: (1) tight wood grain; (2) fruit quality.
Stewart explains that there are a dozen different identifiable flavor and aroma compounds that come from oak. Because the chosen barrels are “tightly grained,” they allow for a slow release of these compounds over an extended period of time—ideal for a wine like Oyster Ridge, which is aged for a full two years prior to bottling.
“The tighter grain of the Taransaud barrels is respectful of the fruit and character of the wine,” Stewart says. “So we get the complexity benefits of new oak without the oak influence getting too aggressive or out of balance.”
Fruit quality is the other factor. The Oyster Ridge blend is assembled around the finest Cabernet Sauvignon blocks at our estate Margarita Vineyard. The fruit from these blocks exhibits exceptional depth and structure, allowing it to gracefully handle the new oak.
“Someone once said that there’s no such thing as an over-oaked wine—just an ‘under-vineyard’ wine,” Stewart says. “That may be an exaggeration, but there’s a grain of truth to it, too.”
Would you like to try a barrel sample of our 2011 Syrah? How about 177 barrel samples? It’s hard work, but someone has to do it…
Indeed, the painstaking approach of our winemaking team was never more evident than when they recently deconstructed our 2011 Syrah.
First, our Cellar Master Octavio and his crew removed all 177 of our Syrah barrels from the barrel stacks, two at a time on racks that were gently forklifted to the ground. Then, Winemaker Mike Sinor and Assistant Winemaker Stewart Cameron tasted every single barrel to assess the quality of each. Because they were spitting, they were still standing!
Two goals were achieved. First, Mike and Stewart determined which barrels will be targeted for our 2011 Renegade blend. Based on what he tasted, Mike reported that “the 2011 Renegade is going to rock.”
Along the way, Mike and Stewart also resolved to create our first-ever Syrah for our White Label reserve tier, which will be made from the best four barrels, and representing just 2.25 percent of our Syrah from the 2011 vintage. That wine should rock, too.
Stay tuned—first for the 2011 Renegade by summer, and then the 2011 Syrah White Label after that.