Bud Break Amongst the Poppies

Sangiovese has awoken from it’s dormancy and leafed out this week. We were concerned this past weekend as the rain amounted to 3 inches that the baby buds would be broken, but this afternoon they were nearly translucent in the sun, and so beautiful against a poppy-strewn cover crop. Sangiovese is always our first varietal to bud, closely followed by Tempranillo. The vineyards are particularly beautiful right now, they are teeming with wildflowers and the hum of bees is a constant companion whilst meandering up and down the hills. We are counting our blessings.

The Most (UN)Wonderful Time of the Year…Thanks to Monsanto

Paso Robles is on the teetering point of falling so blessedly into Spring: the almonds trees are definitely in bloom, daffodils have emerged, our native pollinators have taken flight, chicks are hatching! Spring is renewal, revival, rebirth and DEATH.

This is the time of year we have to drive around with blinders on our eyes, as every country-road corner in progressive/green/eco-friendly California boasts a freshly sprayed patch of land that is a highlighter-yellow-fluorescent-orange evidence of herbicide use. In past blogs I have refrained from naming Round Up as the most commonly used herbicide spray, but as Wikipedia points it out, I may as well too. Heck, it is proudly crowding the doorways of our neighborhood agricultural feed/supply stores (as well as the baby chicks under heat lamps).

While on the subject of Wikipedia, read the link on Round Up here…it will make your skin crawl! Phrases like “…another important ingredient is [the wetting agent] polyethoxylated tallow amine…which increases herbicide penetration in plant and animal cells. PENETRATION IN ANIMAL CELLS! Now, an oath to my free-range chickens, cows, sheep, my 2 precious doggies and 3 cats–you have no chance of having this nightmarish toxicity penetrating your dear selves! (Not to mention my millions of bees.)

Now a fair word for Monsanto, and this found on their website: “Round Up agricultural herbicides and other products are used to sustainably an[d] effectively control weeds on the farm.” SUSTAINABLY?? (This is a perfect example of why this is the most asinine word tossed around these days.) Spraying a product that has the capability to morph plant and animal cells is NOT sustainable. (By the way Monsanto, if this were true, then why these superweeds that are now resistant to Round Up because of the repeated exposure?)

We hear people say herbicides are just soap-like/salt-like products. But then why the need to wear a mask when applying? Oh yeah, and if spraying copious amounts, a permit is required and it often comes with suggestions to wear a protective outer layer over one’s clothing. Harmless it is not.

And to the general public: the “brown and green corduroy” you see this time of year in the vineyards and orchards IS NOT NORMAL Spring growth. Every field, every fence line, every driveway, every row under the vine, EVERYTHING should be green! If you care about this widespread use at all, and the effects of herbicides on our plants/animals/soils and water, please support those farmers and markets who refuse to spray. Having a hoe in hand is a much better option (not to mention, it may be another route to tackle obesity in today’s age, a little physical labor can go a long way…just a thought).

Farm Rule #1–Do Not Panic! And What’s Happening in the Kitchen?

It’s lovely in the mornings when we awake to fog, but after 2 weeks of morning fog lasting well into the 10 and 11 o’clock hours…it causes concern. And famously, the 100+ degree Paso Robles heat suddenly arrives and leaves us all lethargic and slow and shocked! that’s it’s SO DANG HOT! But never mind us, what about our 7,000 grapevines that are dry-farmed (no irrigation)??!!

We experienced some panic yesterday…to the point where Phillip put in two calls to people who’s opinions we rely on and considered calling a “vineyard management company” for some additional advice. We were seeing what appeared to be botrytis or some other form of grape rot in the Syrah. (Which both occur with fog…but what we researched in books didn’t confirm our thoughts.) Phillip observed that over 1 day, this “malady” was affecting previously healthy and thriving vines–and it was rapidly spreading and we were seriously thinking we could lose our entire Syrah crop for the year. We were going to have an “emergency pick” just to get the grapes out of the vineyard and then figure what to do with them (make a late-harvest wine? Lay them on straw? etc…), but after taking the numbers, these grapes weren’t showing high sugar levels to even consider picking. Emergency plan cancelled, but we were prepared to pick them Sunday and Monday, on fruit days.

Oh, what a good night’s sleep and cool temperatures do! Early, early this morning as Phillip was on bird patrol (keep those winged wonders out!) he noticed that the Syrah grapes were plump and healthy, nothing like what he saw yesterday (in the 108 degree afternoon blazing heat). And again, the old rule of thumb struck him: don’t panic, have faith. Yesterday, our vines were showing the results of this major heat and the liquids were draining down. But after a cool evening, the energy was back and the grapes were plump and full. Yes, we have 2 more days of this extreme heat (some people ask if we have the option to turn on the water…no, when we say we’re “dry-farmed”, we really mean it), but this weekend we have respite with temperatures dropping 30 degrees in our daytime highs.

Our moral of the story: don’t panic. About once a year, our vineyard teaches us this–have faith in our vines and our natural way of farming and wait to see the final outcome. It may be an interesting reflection in our wine!

And in the kitchen? The canning pot is boiling! We have graciously been given peaches and apples, so we have chutneys, marmalades, and butters stocked full in the pantry. I have an old, tattered book that I refer to for all of my food preserving (talk about panic…the other day I couldn’t find it and I was sent in a whirlwind looking everywhere for it!) and I follow an excellent blog for more recipes and canning expertise. At right you see Refrigerator Sun Pickles–wow! How fun! I’ve been eyeing the tomatoes, those too shall soon be in the shelves of the pantry. Summer is a fantastic time of year!

What’s Blooming in the Winter Garden?

Isn’t it wonderful the garden gives us magical, colorful treasures in the grey cloud, cold of Winter? Phillip and I have enjoyed looking out our bedroom window every morning to see California wildflowers and irises blooming around our patio. And walking through the garden opens daily discoveries of plants showing their most incredible beauties.

In the previous post, I mentioned the baby plants of Borage that have started themselves by seed in the garden. Borage is a lovely plant to have in any garden: the leaves are edible and offer a taste of cucumber, adding a spike of freshness to salads and soups, and the lovely purple/blue flowers are edible as well–I use them to adorn desserts, soups and salads. Just imagine a rustic orange colored butternut squash soup garnished with a single, lovely borage flower (I think this is on the menu for tonight…). Borage is also a fantastic plant for bees and other pollinators (as you will see in the photo–double click on the photo and it enlarges beautifully, there is a bee in midflight approaching a flower).

This is our first year to have an asparagus crop! Isn’t this photo so cool? This past summer I planted 2 rows of tomato plants with a row of asparagus in between (my planters are 4′ x 20′, so I can fit quite a bit of vegetables/fruits per planter). Asparagus and tomatoes are “companion plants”, they help to repel one another’s pests, as well as promote each other’s growth. Tomatoes grow in the summer, and asparagus in the winter/spring; hence no space or water competition. The asparagus spears just shoot right out of the soil and continue to spread throughout the bed, with years and years worth of growth. Yesterday, I snipped off a small bit of spear and there is NOTHING like the taste of fresh asparagus! A couple of years ago, Phillip & I were vacationing in Tuscany just as the wild asparagus was growing near his sister’s (Penelope) house. She took us on a walk to help us be able to find them growing amongst the thickets and stone walls, we picked handfuls to eat with pasta that night–I thought nothing would ever compare again. But here we go, we, too can have this underground gift arrive just in time for the spring–anyone up for some pasta tossed with just picked asparagus and local olive oil?!

Irises, and any other bulb flower for that matter, are my favorite flowers to have in the garden. Courtesy of my friend Tony, I dug out of his garden (while he wasn’t looking, I might add) 2 large boxes of overcrowded iris plants (Phillip kept him busy while I madly pulled and hid them). I transplanted them all around the house, under our olive trees and lining our walking paths. Irises have the most amazing depth of color, and color pairings. I’ve often thought every room in our house should mirror these combinations: deep rust-red with bright orange or soft purple with an even softer yellow, etc. Bulbs are a no-effort plant, they just keep themselves going in our gardens (we are blessed to not have to dig them up in this area) and produce magnificent displays even on the coldest days of January!

I discovered this little delicate flower yesterday. As I was pruning the dead stalks from last year’s asparagus, I could hear a very definite hum of bees, I searched to see what they were being attracted to and I was so pleased to see this California native flowering! (Our landscaping is dedicated to natives–when I planted them a year ago, none of them were bigger then 8″ from the ground. Phillip and I have been amazed to see the tremendous amount of growth in these plants without ANY water from our last rains in March of ’09 until October of the same year. Why more gardens aren’t dedicated to California natives, when we have drought years, I don’t know…). I’m not sure what this particular native is (anyone?), but growing from the base up, it has these precious little flowers dangling from it’s branches. And there are all sorts of pollinators enjoying the flowers–native bees, honeybees, even some butterflies were visiting yesterday.

Today I’m planting broad beans from seed and then I’m starting the 2 month task of hand-weeding…Help!!!

Screw Cap vs. Cork: And the Verdict is…?

Phillip and I attended a great seminar at Tablas Creek Vineyard this past Saturday where we tasted side-by-side wines that were enclosed with either a cork or a screw cap. We have seen the screw cap (or stelvin) enclosure become more prevalent over the years, some countries and wineries moving exclusively to use screw cap (New Zealand & Bonny Doon Winery where Randall Grahm went to the extent of performing a “death to the cork” procession). It is a common debate as to which is best, some enjoy the romance of popping a cork, and others appreciate the simplicity of merely twisting off the top. (Phillip and I were in a beautiful B & B in Hunter Valley, Australia during an incredible lightening storm when we enjoyed our first screw cap wine. We had been running back and forth between the car and our room–dodging lightening bolts whilst running through the pouring rain, gathering suitcases and other miscellaneous paraphernalia–and we relished in the fact that all we had to do between running was give that cap a twist! No fumbling through our bags, dripping with rain, to find a corkscrew.) AmByth uses corks only, but it is an interesting dilemma: cork is considered to be the most common factor that creates a wine that is tainted (referred to as “corked”). A tainted wine usually is characterized by having a nose of moldy newspaper, wet dog, dampness, etc. A corked wine strips the wine of its fruit, both on the nose and in the overall flavor. It isn’t bad for human consumption–it just isn’t good for the wine. And it can throw a potential repeat consumer straight off the trail. You get a corked bottle of wine, it can change your opinion and satisfaction with that wine/winery-perhaps discouraging you from ever buying again. Industry averages for corked wine is 3 – 10% of yearly bottlings…this is scary! And this number isn’t going down (despite all of the arguments from cork producers).

Tablas Creek is the Paso Robles partnership of Chateau de Beaucastel and Robert Haas. They are a very serious winery and conduct many in-house discussions and experiments before jumping into something “with both feet”. Enclosing wine with a screw cap instead of a cork is one of those issues they have been experimenting with since 2002, tasting the same wines over the years and implementing changes as necessary. The seminar consisted of 6 wines: 2 whites, 1 rose, and 3 reds. We were given 2 glasses per wine, one glass held the wine under cork, and the other held the same wine that was enclosed with a screw cap. The wines served per tasting were the same: harvested at the same time, aged equally, bottled at the same time, same vintage, etc.

The general consensus per wine was very interesting, but here are a few observations:

  • Regarding red wine, the room clearly and overwhelmingly preferred the wine under cork versus the same wine under screw cap. As mentioned above, we were served 3 different red wines (2002 Glenrose, 2005 Cotes de Tablas, & 2006 Cotes de Tablas) and the results were always in favor of cork.
  • Regarding white wine, the room was split down the middle. We preferred the 2003 Vermintino under cork, yet the 2004 Bergeron under screw cap was lovely. However, the 2003 Rose had a 50/50 vote regarding cork or screw cap.
  • Wines finished with a cork seem to have a sweetness on the palate that is not present in wine under screw cap. You also have a bit more oxidation on the nose-perhaps “flattening” the nose a bit–the wines under screw cap all had lovely, fresh noses compared to its counterpart under cork. Also, wines enclosed with cork do have the slightest oak flavor, imparted of course from the cork (from a certain varietal of oak tree, the Quercus suber!).
  • Wines under screw cap tend to exhibit brighter, fresher fruit qualities. However, the question remains how well a wine will age under screw cap…this is virtually unknown at this time as the mechanics for testing age quality are not yet in place. Also with screw cap, you have the problem of reduction (opposite of oxidation) in wine–so you want to seriously consider what grape varietals to put under screw cap.
  • And there is a bottom-line stigma with wines under screw cap: they are perceived to be “cheap”, whereas, the wine under cork is believed to be “expensive”–and this is a hard one to get away from.
  • As a winery, you have to consider and factor in your guess as the when your consumer is going to drink a wine: is this a young-drink-now type of wine (white wines, roses, etc) or is this wine age-worthy? A wine that you expect to evolve and change over time is best under cork, and a wine that is exhibiting great fresh characteristics now performs well under screw cap.

And some final advice: if you have wine under screw cap in your cellar, make sure they are standing upright. The sediment will move toward the top of the bottle, and collect there under the screw cap and this will give you quite a shock when you open your bottle. There is no reason for the bottles to be stored in their side, to have contact with the enclosure (versus contact with a cork)–so get those bottles standing straight up!

(The wines: **when referred to as “corked” it merely means the wine was enclosed with cork instead of screw cap–it does not refer to a “corked” wine in a sense of a tainted wine.**)

**Photo at Top: one of our bees enjoying our wild flower garden–it is a lovely sight to see them so busy at AmByth! If you double-click on the photo, you can see the pollen collected on the back legs of the bee, amazing! More to come on the bees…)

Biodynamic Preperation #500/Cow Stomach Spray, Fermenting Valerian Root/Horsetail Tea, To Weed or Not to Weed?

>Today is a Fruit Day on the Biodynamic calendar, which is the ideal working period for the vines. At the moment we are stirring for 1 hour a mixture of Horn Manure (BD 500) and cow stomach diluted in water (rate of application: 2.25 oz. Horn Manure/acre + diluted in 3-4 gallons of water/acre + 1/5 liter of cow stomach). We will begin spraying it at 1 p.m., this is believed to be the time the earth is breathing in as the sun begins its descent in the sky. We are applying this mixture to the whole property–which includes the 20 acres of Oak woodlands, as our steers are living in the woods, eating the grasses that grow under the trees. This mixture is to be sprayed in large drops on the earth itself, to stimulate the enzyme growth in the soil.

We also have a Valerian Root/Horsetail Tea fermenting in an oak barrel for 2 weeks. We will add this fermented tea to the 2nd or 3rd BD 500 spray we apply to the property. It is believed this spray will aid in keeping the powdery mildew in the soil, instead of on the vine.

Phillip has made a decision regarding the older vines and weeds…we are not going to pull out every single weed that remains under each vine after the last passes through the vineyard with the spader. We believe the vines are old enough, meaning their roots are deep enough, so that the roots are not having to compete for water with the weeds. The roots are tapping into their own water source deep in the earth. We will continue to hand weed around the younger vines, and olive trees as the roots are more shallow and closer to the surface. And of course, we are removing the larger weeds that are more of a nuisance, however, we are continuing to think outside of the box. This is a NATURAL farm, which includes a relationship between all things that are here naturally, and rightfully. It is a thrill for me to walk through the vineyards and observe all of the bees feeding from Fiddlenecks (a beautiful, bright yellow native winter annual). If we remove absolutely everything, we are disrupting a natural habitat for the beneficial insects we have present. This is an experiment, let’s see how the vines cope as the summer passes by.

Bottling, Bee Boxes and Rain

This past Thursday and Friday were bottling days at AmByth Estate. It was a momentous time for us, as we’ve owned our bottling line for 2 years, but have actually never used it AT AmByth Estate. Now that our winery building is completed, we were able to move the bottling line home and get to work! We racked the wine and bottled it on Fruit days, according to the Biodynamic calendar. We are very proud to own our bottling line, we believe it is another way we can insure the complete integrity of our product, and it enables us not to be reliant on anyone else (the 18 wheeler bottling line that visits most wineries), and the problems that comes with that.

If you look above the bottling line, you can see in the photos a barrel hanging from the forklift, or a tank suspended over the bottling line…this is our method of using gravity instead of pumps. Using gravity is more gentle on the wine, in particular, at this stage of its life.

We bottled our 2007 reds: a Grenache blend, a Mourvedre blend, a Tempranillo/Sangiovese blend, and a non-estate (but made by Phillip) Nebbiolo. These 07’s will be released in March over Zinfandel Festival Weekend, and will be sent out to our wine club members (they will also receive an 07 Viognier, and an 07 Grenache (no sulfites added). Thanks to all of our volunteers: Dennis Ball (AKA #1 Picker), Neil and Nick Sowerby, Terri Hamman, Sherman & Laurie Smoot.

Speaking of the Smoot’s…we ran out of corks while bottling (Phillip decided to do extra bottling)! Thankfully, this wine business promotes good friendships and we were able to give Sherman a call and ask for about 600 corks!! So those of you lucky enough to get a bottle of AmByth Estate wine, corked with Bella Luna Winery corks, give a toast to Sherm and Kevin, a toast to good friends, and a nod to helping someone you know when they’re in a pinch.

Our bee boxes are assembled (thanks to the rainy days, giving us an excuse to stay inside to put hammer in hand!). I ordered the hive boxes from Mann Lake, upon a recommendation from Susan King, my beekeeping mentor. You have the option to order pre-assembled, or unassembled for about a third of the cost less–so we chose to order the unassembled boxes. It was extremely easy to put them together, and quite satisfactory to watch them take shape. This weekend we are hoping to get them painted and ready for the April arrival of the 10,000 bees who are coming!

Last week brought some glorious rain storms, bringing the total rain amount to a little over 6″ for the winter. We are still looking for a minimum of 6″ more of rain, but as Phillip just said, “14 inches would be great!” Rain is important to us–we are completely dry farmed (this means no irrigation) and the winter rains is what will sustain the vines through our extremely hot and dry summers.

AmByth from the Air, Pruning and Planting

Our dear friend, Sherman Smoot, took Phillip up in the air a couple of weeks ago for a joyride. In the picture above, you see 2 of the 4 vineyards on AmByth Estate: Mark’s Vineyard (on the right) and StoneCross (on the left, separated by a row of olive trees). If you look closely at StoneCross (don’t forget, you can click on the picture to enlarge it), you can actually see the rows of olive trees separating mostly the white rhone varietals we have planted. You can also see the 2 valleys of oak trees, our steers are living in the north valley.

The picture below shows AmByth from the distance, look right of the wing of the plane for the road going up the spine of the hill. This is a great photo to show the hills we live in, our highest elevation sits at 1,450 feet.

We are slowly pruning all the vines, only on Fruit and Flower days according to the biodynamic calendar, and mostly when the moon is in its descending cycle. Fruit days are optimal days, as these are the days you work with fruiting and flowering plants (vines flower). Why/What is the descending moon? The moon has a path around the zodiac where it travels higher in the heavens at certain periods, and lower at certain periods. The sun travels the same path, but in 1 year (creating the seasons), whereas the moon travels this path every 27 1/2 days (every month!). The descending/ascending moon is NOT related to the waning/waxing moon. When the moon is ascending (shining from the highest parts of the sky), plant sap is rising more strongly, filling the upper part of the plant with sap. This is a good time for HARVESTING, as the fruit is full of goodness, but not for pruning, as we do not need this sap weeping from the cut canes. The descending moon is when the sap is moving slower and more pressure is being put onto the plant, and this is the ideal time to prune, (as well as felling timber, transplanting, applying compost etc.)
We also planted nearly 30 fruit and nut trees this month (13th), on a fruit day, during descending moon.
Bees and their hive have been ordered! We expect the arrival of the bees in April, just in time for spring flowers. It is said the bees are ready when the dandelions bloom.

Spring Work, Nearly Completed

Wow! Spring brings such activity in the vineyards and winery, you’ll see by the attached photos the small grape clusters on the Viognier are appearing and growing rapidly every day. We’ve seen the clusters on the Grenache, Tempranillo, Sangiovese and of course, the Viognier. And our olive trees are loaded as well. It is such a sweet sight to see the vineyard healthy and producing for this year’s harvest.
We’ve planted the new Syrah vineyard, over 600 vines and mounded them under dirt to protect them from frost. The concern of a late frost is still present, freezes are not desperately welcome this time of year with all the rampant new growth occurring. Last year, all of the vineyards were hurt in the freezes–this year, God willing, those affected vines will make their comeback! It’s very exciting, a finger-crossing time of year for Phillip and me.
On March 31st, Phillip racked the 2007 wines and compiled the Rhone blend. We have made another Chateauneuf de Pape style blend, very similar to the ’06: 60% Grenache, 32% Mourvedre and 8% Syrah. We also have 1 barrel of no-added-sulfite Grenache, 1 barrel of no-sulfite Tempranillo/Sangiovese, and 2 more barrels of this Spanish/Italian duo in a new American oak barrel with minimal sulfites added. There is another single barrel of Mourvedre as well. All in all, and exciting line-up to look forward to and savor in 2009!
We leave this afternoon for Tuscany for nearly 3 weeks. We are visiting quite a few organic/Biodynamic wineries whilst there. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get online and post some interesting stories, pictures, updates, etc.