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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!
Things are looking up as we round the corner into March.
First, some significant rainfall this week is bringing much-needed water to the Central Coast. Yesterday’s storm brought more than two inches to our estate Margarita Vineyard, and the meteorologists say there’s more to come over the next few days.
Also, we are staging two March events—one for the public, the other for our wine club members—that will tantalize your taste buds:
Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival – March 14-16
Get your Zin on as we go all out during the Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival weekend! On both days, we will serve complimentary made-to-order artisan grilled cheese sandwiches from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. We are also offering complimentary tours of our estate Margarita Vineyard, with a focus on the diverse soils and marine moderated climate that enable us to craft one of the Paso Robles region’s most acclaimed Zinfandels. These Paso Robles vineyard tours are available by appointment on Friday at 3 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. To RSVP for a tour, call us at (805) 365-7045. And for more on the festival and related activities across the region, visit PasoWine.com.
Wine Club Artisan Cheese Seminar – March 20 (the first official day of spring!)
Wine club members are invited to join us at our tasting room on Thursday, March 20 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. as we team up with Fromagerie Sophie to explore the art of wine and cheese pairing. Based in San Luis Obispo, Fromagerie Sophie is the Central Coast’s newest artisan “cheesemonger.” Proprietor Sophie Boban-Doering brings a French-inspired flair to her regional cheese offerings, and she will provide a tasty demonstration on how to find the perfect match for a variety of wine styles. The cost is $15 for A-List members and $10 for Six Shooters, inclusive of wine, cheese and good cheer.
Not a wine club member? Please check out our member lounge to see the array of events and benefits that we offer to members.
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.”
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.
We are excited to introduce Chris Thompson as our East Coast Sales Specialist starting in 2014.
In this newly created position, Chris will be charged with taking our East Coast distribution to the next level while growing the visibility of the Ancient Peaks brand. Chris actually joined us earlier this fall as a harvest intern to learn winemaking from the ground up (as pictured above). Prior to that, he served as a wine consultant for The Country Vintner in North Carolina, one of the nation’s premier fine wine distributors. His experience in wine sales and distribution spans more than eight years.
We caught up with Chris to get his take on how he got here, and where he’s going with Ancient Peaks:
Why were you drawn to Ancient Peaks in the first place, to the point of coming out west to work the crush?
Two things really stood out. First, the ownership families…There are such great people involved here in the ownership and management of this winery, and they’re very hands-on. That was a big influencing factor. Also, Margarita Vineyard and Santa Margarita Ranch…This is such a unique place, with its own climate, and it’s very different from any other part of Paso. Not only do you have the vineyard, you have the history and the cattle, and now the zipline tours. There’s so much diversity here and so many things going on. It seemed like a great company to work for, and a good place to gain winemaking experience.
What was your favorite part of working in the winery?
It’s hard to say. There really wasn’t one task that stood out overall. I just enjoyed learning the various aspects of winemaking and the physical labor of it all—and having that instant gratification of helping make something with tangible results. All that hard work makes a beer taste even better at the end of the day, too.
What’s your vision for Ancient Peaks on the East Coast?
I want to establish Ancient Peaks as a household name. The first step is to get wine directors, managers and buyers excited about Ancient Peaks, so that they turn their customers onto our wines. That’s the way to start building a market presence. In time, however, I want Ancient Peaks to become a brand that people recognize and depend on and ask for by name. That’s something you already see here on the Central Coast with Ancient Peaks, and I want to make it happen on the East Coast as well.
I also want to educate people about Santa Margarita Ranch, which is set to become a sub-AVA of Paso Robles. A lot of people don’t know about the unique pockets and microclimates that make up Paso. They may have heard about the Westside or Templeton Gap, but there are a lot of other spots like El Pomar and Santa Margarita that aren’t as well known yet. Being the only grower in Santa Margarita sets us apart, and I want to get the word out about that.
P.S. Here’s Chris starring in our punchdown video: