August: State of the Vineyard Address from Phillip

Wow, so much has been going on at AmByth, it is hard to know where to start. Let’s begin with the vineyard, as that is the heartbeat of our operation.

  • 2013 is running 20% higher than average in degree sun hours, it is the 2nd hottest season in 17 years (1997 was the hottest by only a few hours)
  • We have had two years of drought conditions with 7 inches of recorded rain in the last 12 months
  • Paramount Farms (the new owners of Justin Winery) has planted a 600+ acre vineyard at the base of our hill which is being farmed conventionally and for the first time this field is irrigated, this most certainly will affect our water table

We don’t know yet what all of the above means in the short and/or long term.  The vines seem not to notice, although we have earlier-than-usual veraison (grapes changing color and plumping up). This would suggest an early harvest, but of course nature will take its course and we’ll find out later. From a pure farming point of view, the vines are behaving more responsibly this year. We do not have the typical crazy foliage going nuts in every direction. They seem to be saying “hmm, let me think about this…not a lot of water, having to work hard to find it, super high heat all of the time, I think I’ll take it easy.” (We tend to view our vines as individual humans, each one of them, so it makes total sense to us that they would talk…).


In the winery, the Amphora (clay aging vessels) seem to be doing exactly what we thought/wanted. There are no addition to flavors (our dry-farmed, Biodynamic, head-trained, non-poisoned grapes don’t need that), perhaps a hint of minerality (or is that Astrality?) and a pureness of flavor that is very exciting. We’ve bottled the Amphora Grenache Blanc Orange Wine, which will be released in 2 weeks. The 2012 Amphora Rose is next. The other seventeen 2012 wines are being racked and bottled as the calendar allows.

Europe 2013 017

Mary, Bede and I visited the manufacturer of the Amphora, just south of Florence, Italy last month. It was the highlight of our Italian visit (bearing in mind the amount of wines we enjoyed made in Amphora, that were natural with no added sulfites, that’s saying something). The word Artisanal is the only word that can be used to describe these handmade clay vessels. Every single step is made by human hands. These vessels can only be a pleasure for our wines to be hanging around in. The bad news…more are on the way for next year (mucho dinero).

Spring is definitely here at AmByth.  We had a beautiful Saturday, April the 21st, and took the opportunity to move the amphoras and barrels outside for a little boost to primary and secondary fermentations.  It was necessary to taste everything (sigh), the report is good.  2012 will not be a disappointing vintage.  Not a huge crop load, so only 18 or 19 different wines made, a few more than ’11 but less than ’10.  The rose in particular is still working away by itself, we of course, refuse to add anything to speed it up or filter it so it can go on the market.  With any luck it might be ready for mid to late summer but if it isn’t then it will be wonderful in Spring 2014.  We leave a little longer skin contact on our Rose, so that allows for good aging as well as good early drinking, a great combination in any wine.

Cheers, and enjoy the Spring, Phillip & Mary

spring amphora

Spring is Rebirth, and Here We Go!

After many comments of “Where has your blog gone? I’ve noticed you haven’t posted in over a year.” And a lovely dispute with the other half of this adventure, we are back to posting with (hopefully) consistency. The tides change at AmByth, and they seem to change weekly. The undercurrent is a huge driving force internally (as in the day-to-day functions) for the 5 of us working here and implementing our man-forces, but sometimes I think  they are trivial and have nothing to do with the interests of those not in the heart of the action. But alas, so many of you have voiced otherwise, and Thank You for this.  And jsut for you:  a little snippet of something to smile about; this letter was tucked into our “inbox” over Easter weekend–farming is a spiritual practice for us, as is making wine and sharing wine and hopefully this testifies to that. Connections that could be considered “lost”, are indeed not.

Good morning. My name is _______. I am not sure if I am contacting the correct person or not. About 5 years ago my wife and I were in Costa Rica celebrating our anniversary at Los Suenos. We were looking at property and were invited in to look at a couple’s new home they had just built. They shared a glass of wine from their winery with us. By any chance, was this you and your wife? I feel terrible for forgetting their name and the name of their wine. I recalled the wine being organic. I researched organic wineries on line and came across your website for, Ambyth Estate. The picture of you and your wife looks just like the nice couple I mentioned before. If you do not own a home in Costa Rica, and have no idea about what I am talking about, I sincerely apologize for wasting your time.

My wife and I are celebrating our 10 year anniversary and I thought it would be neat to find that wine that we had when we celebrated our 5 year anniversary. Like I said, if I have the wrong person, please forgive me, and thank you for your time.

P.S. You can always check in with us on Facebook or Twitter, we’re over there quite a bit…

White Wine Heaven

We had a Super Moon dinner party this past Saturday, Mary was excited to open a bottle she spied at the local wine shop, a 1998 Vouvray from Clos du Bourg ($52). But a greater surprise came in the selections our guests brought: a 2010 Chateau d’Epire,  Savennieres, a 2007 Movia Sauvignon Blanc (with skin contact), an Albarino from Verdad in Santa Barbara (BD), and we threw in a 1993 Chave white Hermitage! We lament when we hear, “I’m not really a white wine drinker”, there are so many INCREDIBLE white wines from every country! We’ve become avid white drinkers, often concluding our evenings with a fantastic white wine. They have acidity and brightness, they are clean on the palate and the aromas are intense. The star of the night was the ’98 Vouvray (plus the ’93 Hermitage), but they were all fantastic wines! (If you have a chance to purchase wines made by Movia, do so! They are out of Slovenia and are making interesting and delicious wines…but they are hard to find.) A little underrated in this star-studded cast was the Verdad Albarino, but we enjoyed the remainder of it Sunday and it is a lovely wine. We’re excited about taking a trip soon to Santa Barbara to check out more of the wines of Verdad!

An Interesting Observation

“An interesting thing happened at a dinner party the other day…”

Some four years ago we bought 2 bottles of Chateauneuf-du-pape Domaine Pierre Andre 2000, biodynmaic wine at $70 a bottle.  We drank a bottle fairly soon after arrival, it was wonderful, everything you want out of a Rhone wine: great depth, complexity, fruit, delicious, the works.  This week we had a dinner party and decided it was time to drink the second bottle.  Too late.  It wasn’t horrible, it wasn’t even bad, it just didn’t drink to the best of its potential. It was plain, simple, and lacking fruit. It didn’t exhibit those lovely fresh characteristics found with a fantastic Grenache.  We’re coming to the conclusion that Grenache based wines are 2 to 8 year wines, this is their optimal drinking window.  For us, who have had a 250 case cellar and would insist on only drinking wines that were 15 years or older, this is quite a revelation.  Ageing wines a long time has a trade off: fruit.  Some obvious exceptions, quality (this word is important in the equation) Cab, Rioja (Tempranillo) and Syrah.  All wines with loads of tannins.  But a wine that crosses all the boundaries? – Mourvedre – life is good.

The Vineyard in January

This January, Paso Robles, and much of California has suffered from one of the dryest winters on record.  Normally, at this time of year, the grasses and wild flowers (otherwise known as weeds) would be enough feed for our 5 free-ranging cows.  We were on target for winter rainfall at the end of November, but the surprisingly dry months subsequent dried up what should have been growing.  While the days have been particulary beautiful, with incredible clarity and warm temperatures, we were hoping for more rain!

Although, as I write this, the weekend storm brought about 2 inches of rain.  Still, this is not enough to make up for the lost rainfall.  The vines and olives will be okay, primarily due to 2 past wet winters.  Still, it is discouraging to look out at the hills, and see brown where there should be green.  Along with our 5 cows eating what little they can find, and fertiziling our soils, we have 2 young lambs on the property grazing with the cows.
A good factor of a dry January: we’ve been able to get in to the vineyards to begin the pruning.  Vines go dormant in the winter, all the leaves fall to the ground (making the rolling hills of vines around us so beautiful, full of fall colors).  The vines reach into the soil to get the nutrients and strength for the summer to come.  We believe winter is the most active time for a vine, and that the health of a vine will be seen in the summer when the natural growth occurs.  We prune on descending moon days, and on fruit and flower days according to the lunar calendar by Maria Thun.  It typically takes 30 solid work days to prune over 7,000 vines.

And boy!  Can you see the growth in the olive trees!  I love this photo, of Bede running down the road with El Cid hot on his heels!  In December, we harvested 1,500 pounds of olives, yielding a little over 100 litres of extra-virgin estate olive oil.  Not alot of oil!  But this was typical for olive trees this year, many of our friends with trees didn’t have a single olive, so we are thankful the little amount of oil we did harvest!  Next in the vineyard?  Building cold frames for the garden, ordering more bees and to continue pruning (as well as spraying the BD sprays and trapping the pesky gophers).

Mid Harvest Report From the Winemaker

We feel as though we’re in a suspended state of calm before the storm, waiting for the grapes to ripen and the madness to begin. This growing season of 2011 has definitely been one of those examples of good-gone-bad. A fantastic rainy winter season left us with a severe late frost in April that caused our county to declare a disaster for growers. Our early “budders”, those vines that break out of the winter doldrums first, were damaged ruining our crop. At first we didn’t think we had significant damage, but now that we have harvested those early varietals, the proof is in the pudding: 500 pounds of Viognier harvested from 1 acre, 1200 lbs of Syrah from 2 acres, 800 lbs of Tempranillo from an acre, and on it goes. Even for AmByth these are tiny crop loads. Our goal is 2 tons of fruit per acre. (An average irrigated vineyard yields 4 to 10 tons/acre.)

A friend said the other day, “Why go to Vegas when you can farm?”. Perhaps this is why some little inner workings in me decided to make 17 different wines with the 2010 vintage (which was incredibly bountiful). We have single varietals of Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Counoise, Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Zinfindel, along with our standard blends: Priscus, Adamo, ReVera & Maiestas. The 2011 will be limited, but variety will still abound as a combination.

Because of the cold growing season, our harvest has started later than usual again. But as things progress, it looks like we will wrap us as usual, right at the end of September. The Sangiovese, Grenache and Mourvedre crops are looking strong, and despite the cold spells, they keep advancing toward maturity. Thankfully, the 2011 Counoise crop is looking quite handsome–our new darling in the winery is the 100% Counoise 2010, hopefully the ’11 will only be as delicious. We thought we would have to aide grape ripening a bit by applying a series of egg shell teas, but the vines are taking care of themselves.

A small change for 2011 in the winery: we are fermenting in the garage of the house (true “garagistes”, we are!). As the winery is now climate controlled for aging wine and storing case goods, it’s a little cool for the smaller fermentations to take place. Our garage stays at a constant of 75 degrees, so voila!, perfect temp for fermenting. Fortunately, we did have this alternate location in our minds ‘back in the day’, so it is perfectly legal and bonded.

Cheers, Phillip

Pictures: Bede punching down fermenting Syrah (top); Phillip taking brix measurements on just-picked Zinfandel

This Summer’s Intern: Jac

It’s funny how small the world is after all. Jac hails from Wales (a.k.a. Cymru) and is spending 4 weeks with us this month of August. He found out about us from a fellow Welsh friend in Southern California. His family has planted a vineyard in West Wales, Aberaeron. The land was purchased in 2005 and 10 acres of vineyards were planted in 2008. An additional 25 acres has been purchased with plans to develop. At the moment, they have Rondo, Solaris, Orion and Regent–these are all hybrid varietals resistant to diseases that are common in the U.K., such as botrytis. Jac will be completing his final year at college this Fall–he is attending Brighton

Refrigerating…Labwork at Home

Phillip pulled a sample amount of our 2010 Viognier and 2010 Marsanne from the barrels to test for “cold stabilization”. And the best way to do this? Fill empty wine bottles and pop them in the refrigerator to observe the wine over a four day period. We are looking to see if the wine remains clear. If the bottle clouds up, then the wine is not stabilized. It needs more time in the barrel, or it needs to be put outside in freezing temperatures to continue stabilizing. If the wine is not cold stabilized, then the proteins can coagulate and appear as a haze in the bottle.

What does all of this mean? A wine that appears to be hazy or cloudy is more offensive in visibility than in taste. It really isn’t that much fun to drink a cloudy wine. But let’s not get this confused with sediment, tartrate crystals, or with white wine “browning”–these are characteristics that are interesting. We check all of our white and rose wines to check for lovely, clear wine.

There is always an advantage to seeing these bottles in the fridge…we get to drink them! And something you may see on the tasting bar later this year: 100% Marsanne with zero added sulfites. It tastes delicious, this hilltop property produces some pretty darn good whites (yes, we’re both drinking a glass now, waiting for the rain to come but thoroughly enjoying it).

A Little Bit of an Italy Recap

Over the next few months I’ll be detailing our visit to Italy, where we were invited to pour at Vino!Vino!Vino!, Wine by Second Nature, a wine expo of naturally grown/made wines held in Cerea simultaneously as VinItaly in Verona. This was an amazing event, it was held over 3 days, from 10 to 6. It completely wiped us out! This was a serious wine-drinking crowd that was nonstop: importers, distributors, restaurateurs, wine bar owners, journalists, etc. As the days and hours waned on, the crowd did not thin or become obnoxious, hardly was a drunk patron seen! It was invigorating to see and experience. There were 130 producers present, the majority of them owners/winemakers; Phillip made his way around the exhibition hall every day, yet he still wasn’t able to taste all of the wines present. We made excellent contacts and discovered beautiful wines, ever heard of Schioppettino…well, neither had we!

Our wines were well received, we poured our white, Priscus (Grenache Blanc/Viognier/Roussanne/Marsanne), Venustas (cheeky bugger Phillip is, taking a Sangiovese blend to Italy), 100% Grenache and ReVera (Mourvedre blend). Everything (36 bottles) was carried over in our suitcases, and surprisingly, the Grenache showed the best–which was our No Added Sulfite wine. We guess it liked the travel! (Although, we were concerned how it would hold up after being subjected to extreme temperature changes, being man-handled, etc.) Everyone there was skeptical about our wine, in a sense that they expected the big, fruit forward, high alcohol California wine. But once they tasted, they knew we were more European in our style. Many winemakers visited our tasting table, and they even enjoyed the Sangiovese!