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There’s word that at least one winery in Santa Barbara County is harvesting Pinot Noir today (that’s right, in July!), a sure sign that we are all headed for a very early harvest in 2014.
Or are we?
At our estate Margarita Vineyard, our fruit is only just beginning to show signs of “veraison”—the process whereby the berries turn color and transition from the growth phase to the ripening phase. In other words, we still have a ways to go before the harvest begins in earnest at Margarita Vineyard.
According to Winemaker Stewart Cameron, our harvest timing is stacking up to be similar to last year, which was somewhat early by historical standards, but not extraordinarily so.
At the same time, many other wineries are said to be on pace for harvesting up to two or three weeks earlier than normal. This has been a year with mild-to-warm temperatures and very little rain—conditions that are known to accelerate things in the vineyard.
So why is Margarita Vineyard trailing by comparison? The reasons go to the heart of what makes the vineyard unique from a climate perspective.
Margarita Vineyard is sheltered by the coastal mountains and can be very cold in the spring, so the vines take their time emerging from dormancy, resulting in a later start to the growing season.
Then, come summertime, a pronounced marine influence begins to exert itself. As the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles region, Margarita Vineyard is located just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and the afternoons tend to be considerably cooler than other areas of Paso Robles. The same mountains that shelter the vineyard in the spring are powerless to stop the cold marine air rushing over their peaks, and the result is an extended growing season and later ripening.
In the end, we don’t mind being later than most, because we feel that the extra “hang time” allows the grapes to develop intense flavors without losing their structure and balance.
We talk a lot about the rare diversity of soils at our estate Margarita Vineyard, but sometimes it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper to get the complete story.
On that note, we are excited to share the accompanying photos of the pronounced shale soils in our Block 32 Zinfandel.
While plenty of shale flakes percolate up to the surface in this part of the vineyard, much of the soil base is obscured by a thin layer of topsoil. By digging pits, we are able to get a much better look at exactly what the vines are rooted in, and to discover exactly what lies beneath.
In the above photo, you can see the layer of darker topsoil along the top of the ground. Below that is the deep base of compacted stratified shale. You can often pry this shale apart with your bare hands. Some of the pieces crumble apart into thin wafers, as if Mother Nature had neatly stacked a million corn flakes. It’s truly a geologic marvel.
Many people will look at this and ask, “Vines grow in that!?”
The answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. When vines grow in extreme rocky conditions like this, the roots are challenged and soil moisture is scarce. This results in vines with limited vigor and smaller yields that produce intensely flavored grapes—and ultimately exceptional wine.
Shale is one of five soil types that ebb and flow through Margarita Vineyard, the others being volcanic, granitic, rocky alluvium and ancient sea bed. Not all of these soil zones are as visually extreme as the shale pictured here, but each brings its own unique influence to our wines (for example, check out this earlier post on our ancient sea bed soils).
If you hear us talking about soils a lot, this is why. Soil diversity speaks to the uniqueness of our place, and therefore the essence of our wines. You can see it with your eyes, and you can taste it in the glass.
After the bustle of harvest each fall, the winery cellar goes relatively quiet as the new year arrives. By summertime, even the momentary uproar of the spring bottling season has subsided.
But while the cellar may not be action-packed at the moment, there’s plenty happening underneath the surface—specifically the barrel surface.
At this point, our core 2013 red wines such as Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are halfway through their typical 18-month barrel aging period, and they are quietly transforming from the exuberant roughness of youth into the smoother, fuller richness of maturity.
“Inside the barrel, the wine is changing from grapey, primary simple fruit flavors to something with more depth, nuance and complexity, and the tannins are also softening,” says Winemaker Stewart Cameron. “Much of this maturation comes from microxygenation through the pores of the wood. You can’t see any of this happening with the naked eye, but you can definitely taste it as time goes on.”
Because a small amount of wine evaporates through the wood—a phenomenon known as the Angel’s Share—the barrels are “topped off” with additional wine each month to keep the barrels full. Stewart and Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor also periodically pull representative tasting samples from each lot to ensure that everything is on track.
But beyond that, Stewart likes to simply let the wines work their magic with minimal intervention.
“We try not to move the wine around much,” he says. “We temporarily rack our red wines to tanks after secondary fermentation is finished early in the year, but we put them right back in the barrels and they stay there for a year or more until bottling time. If we do our job and start the wines off well, we can back off and let everything develop at a natural pace.”
In other words, while winemaking is largely a hands-on vocation, there are times when a hands-off approach helps make a better wine.
We are no strangers to high honors at wine competitions, but our medal count at the recent 2014 San Francisco International Wine Competition is particularly noteworthy.
Indeed, three of our wines scored gold medals and 90+ points at this prestigious competition, which included more than 4,500 wines from around the world. This competition is now in its 34th year, and is helmed by a judging panel of esteemed wine experts.
Gold medals were awarded to our 2011 Oyster Ridge blend, 2012 Renegade blend and 2012 Merlot. Along the way, these wines earned, respectively, 93 points, 91 points and 90 points. Click here to see all of our latest reviews.
Frankly, this is a winemaker dinner that’ll make your tail wag. Indeed, on Friday June 19, and to celebrate Roll Out The Barrels weekend across SLO Wine Country, we are teaming up with “Let’s Be Frank” for an epic pairing of wine and…hot dogs!
These aren’t just any hot dogs, however. They’re gourmet, grass-fed beef franks that have been declared the second best in the nation by Saveur Magazine, and named to LA Weekly’s list of “99 Things to Eat Before You Die.”
Now this famous food cart from San Francisco and Los Angeles is rolling into SLO Wine Country to pair their gourmet hot dogs and artisan potato chips with a selection of Ancient Peaks wines. The night will be complete with live music from local guitarist Matt Cross, an all-time fave.
The cost is $21 per person, and includes a glass of wine, hot dog and chips. Additional wine and dogs will be available for purchase as well. This is one doggone delicious dinner you won’t want to miss! Please call 805-365-7045 to RSVP or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I tried a sawzall then a cutting torch and now blasting caps!”
So wrote wine club member William Wallace the other day, explaining how he was struggling with opening a bottle of our wine. We hope he was exaggerating (and that the above photo he sent was mere theater!), but his note nonetheless inspired us to write the following public service announcement about how to safely open a wax-sealed bottle.
Let’s start at the beginning…When we bottled our limited-edition 2011 Syrah “Jackpot,” we went the extra mile to seal it with wax instead of the traditional foil. We felt it was an exceptional wine, so we wanted to give it a special look.
The unintended consequence is that William and possibly other club members have found the wax seal confounding when it comes time to uncork the wine. The seal feels firm to the touch, and indeed may look like it’s begging to be sawed or chipped off.
However, rule number one around any winery is “don’t hurt yourself.” That rule also applies to opening wine. If you ever find yourself reaching for a serrated kitchen knife, crowbar or other alternative instrument (or explosive), then stop immediately. It’s just not worth it—even if it is our epic 2011 Syrah “Jackpot” that you’re trying to liberate.
So just how do you crack the wax seal? The ancient principle of Occam’s Razor essentially says that the simplest option is usually the right one, and so it is that the best way to uncork a wax-sealed wine is to use what you always use: a corkscrew.
Position the screw right into the center of the seal, push hard and screw it down through the wax and into the cork just as you always do. Then grip the corkscrew lever against the wax along the neck (as you would normally do against the lip of the neck), and gently pull the cork out and through the wax seal.
This simple method should work like a charm on our 2011 Syrah “Jackpot” and other wax-sealed wines.
However, there are instances when wineries use an overly hard wax to seal their wines, which can make the corkscrew method extra challenging if not impossible. In which case, we recommend that you contact William. We hear he has a cutting torch.
A few percentage points may not sound like a lot, but when it comes to blending wine, even the smallest portions can have a big impact.
Case in point: our new release 2011 Oyster Ridge, an estate reserve blend composed of Cabernet Sauvignon (48%), Merlot (44%), Malbec (4%) and Petite Sirah (4%). While Cabernet and Merlot take center stage in this blend, it’s the small degrees of Malbec and Petite Sirah that make the blend whole.
For example, Petite Sirah is a consistent annual contributor to this blend, and it’s what makes Oyster Ridge unconventional compared to more traditional Bordeaux-style blends. We find that Petite Sirah adds crucial depth and structure to the finish of Oyster Ridge. But the trick is identifying just the right amount each year, and that’s where a few percentage points can make all the difference.
“We might try it at six or eight percent, and then ultimately back it down to four percent,” says Winemaker Stewart Cameron. “In other years, we might bump it up from that. But there’s no question that a little goes a long way in shaping the blend.”
Even a trifling one-percent component can have a big impact on a wine. “Our Petite Sirah tends to be pretty intense,” Stewart says. “If you were to add just one-percent of it to an otherwise soft, easy-drinking red blend, you would notice a pretty significant difference in the wine’s tannin profile. Oyster Ridge is always a big wine to start with, however, so the impact of a percentage or two is more subtle. But it’s still there.”
The same goes for the four-percent contribution of Malbec in the 2011 Oyster Ridge, particularly on the aromatic front. “The small percentages of Malbec that we played with didn’t have a pronounced impact on the mouthfeel like the Petite Sirah,” Stewart says. “You really notice this in the nose. It adds these pretty high-toned aromatics to the blend.”
In other words, in matters of blending, a huge role is often played by the supporting actor.
Earlier this week, we wrote about how two producers from The Weather Channel visited us to explore the effects of the current drought.
We are now pleased to share that their segment on the Paso Robles wine country and our estate Margarita Vineyard aired today as part of a larger series called “Cracked: California.”
This segment does an admirable job of reporting on the challenges of the current drought as well as the sustainable water conservation practices that we and other winegrowers are employing to mitigate drought impacts.
You can click here to view the segment on Weather.com.
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.