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).

AmByth is Going to Italy, VinoVinoVino 2011-Wine by Nature!

A most exciting opportunity has opened up for AmByth Estate! Phillip was communicating with Giampiero Bea (Paolo Bea winery in Umbria, Italy) about his wines. We tasted a white and a red at our favorite wine bar in San Francisco, called Terroir. The wines were fantastic in the mouth, low-to-zero added sulfites, no additions, different, delicious, they were like nature in a bottle, very obviously something that interested us. We have a great many friends and neighbors, winemakers, and growers in Paso Robles and the wine world in general, but no one that shares our similar passion for the way that we approach what we have chosen to do (farm naturally, make wine naturally-pushing the limits and breaking with conventional wisdom). Sometimes it is a little frustrating for us, wines in the general public are judged along the same thin thread, but our focus is so opposite of this thread! We want to make a wine that is different, that challenges your tastebuds and makes you say, “Wow! What is this? Why is this so different?!”. On the same token, we want to be successful in a monetary way with our farm, but somehow that isn’t the end point of our thinking. We keep being, excuse the pun, “led down the garden path”. It is a most intriguing path and we’re sure that sometime we’ll hit a dead end, but that doesn’t change our emotions, it just means we need to try again and again.

Back to Giampiero Bea…He belongs to a group of winemakers in Italy called ViniVeri, who have the same vision we do. Consider this, taken from their webpage: these winemakers “found themselves tired of participating in wine fairs where the quality of a wine was judged more on the beauty of the stands surrounding it, than on the wine itself.” (To see the whole Manifest of ViniVeri, continue reading here.) This group does not define itself by organic or biodynamic labels, but rather they prefer to unite by the same philosophy and sensible approach to the land: to give back to the earth what we have received from it. After we communicated with Giampiero, he invited us to attend VinoVinoVino-Wine By Nature 2011 in Verona, Italy this April 7-9th. AmByth was specifically invited to pour our wines…WOW! In order to present wines at this event, a winery must be invited to two members of ViniVeri. We are unsure, but we could possibly be the only California winery there (will let you know differently when we return home). (VinoVinoVino is a natural wine and food fair that attracts over 2,000 winelovers and buyers from around the world.)

So what is the big deal about this? For us (Phillip and Mary) it is an exceptional opportunity to expand our thought horizons, push the boundaries even further, discover even more different ways to think of our farm and our product (wines and oils), and to visit some outstanding wineries/winemakers while in Italy. Sometimes one’s own thinking without external output can become stultified or petrified. Phillip says ‘petrified’ deliberately, both as a little ‘stuck-in-place’ and ‘scared!’. To travel a road not travelled by many in our immediate neighborhood is sometimes scary business. (Just to qualify, we’re talking about continuing to make wine with zero-added sulfites, using amphorae stored under ground to age wines, making wines that are so completely different that it causes definite pause, etc.) To be able to dialogue with people who not only have similar thoughts, but who have been doing what they’re doing for quite a bit longer–sometimes generations–is tremendous. Just to put ourselves in the company of the world’s greatest natural winemakers is a treat in itself!

Consider meeting us in Verona this Spring, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate life and new growth! Ciao!

December Olive Harvest, Our First Extra Virgin Olive Oil from the Estate

It has been a long time since the grape harvest (so it seems). So much happened at the end that we were sent into a frenzy like none other and tested and tried as fairly new vineyard owners, but we survived! And today Phillip is enjoying a day in the winery tasting the 2009 and 2010 wines in every barrel…a staggering amount of wine (no pun intended–but someone has to do it).

One more surprise for the estate annals of 2010: an incredible olive harvest! If you’ll remember the minimal crop we had in 2009, (read here to refresh your memory) we weren’t expecting much from our 540 trees this year. It is an interesting activity, estimating a crop load on trees. Based on the two previous years of 120 pounds a year, Phillip estimated about 1/2 ton of olives for 2010. We bought a “hobby” home press with every intention of pressing slowly, day-by-day, varietal-by-varietal until we actually got down to it and realized this would take all year! (This press is now FOR SALE!, it processes 30 lbs/hour and is perfect if you have 2 or 3 trees…not 540!)

We tremendously enjoyed the slow pace while it lasted and tasting each tree’s oil (we have 8 Spanish varietals planted, they all yield different crop loads, size of olives and flavors–just like wine grapes). We relented, but happily called in professional pickers. Over 2 days and 30 workers, our trees gave us 2 1/2 tons of olives! (NOT 1/2 ton as estimated.) Thankfully, we have good friends in the olive business who also have 10 acres of trees farmed organically, and we were able to piggy-back onto their pressing (thank you Jerry and Carolyn Shaeffer @ Rancho Rendezvous Farms in Paso Robles).

New to the Paso area is Mill on Wheels, a mobile mill equipped to process fruit from start to finish: olives to oil, right there at your estate! It is run by Yves and Clotilde of Olea Farm, veteran olive oil producers in Templeton. Yves was a saint, pressing our olives well into the dark hours of the night and keeping our varietals different so we could have 4 different blends, all showcasing incredible flavors and attributes. His niece is chef at Thomas Hill Organics and she had raved to him about our natural wines, and by good fortune we had some with us at the press and all were sustained, keeping us happy (and well lubricated) while working.

The olive harvest yielded 100 gallons of beautiful dry-farmed, Biodynamic extra virgin Olive Oil. It was an exceptional morning after the press: for breakfast we shared homemade bread, drizzled with our estate olive oil and a perfectly poached egg from our chickens. We relished in our bounty, in that moment: all seemed to be complete, harmonious and isn’t-this-really-what-it’s-all-about filled our souls and our bellies and our minds.

We hoped to get some oil in bottles and labeled for our good customers to buy and give as gifts over Christmas. It didn’t happen, we went on vacation instead. However, everyone that has visited in the last month has tasted, raved and purchased oil that we’ve filled for them. We should get our labels this week and move forward. It is available for sale! Right now the oil is green, slightly cloudy, sharp, full of health and incredibly tasty (go here for interesting olive harvesting/timing information).

For Sale at the Winery:
250 ml, $16.95
375 ml, $22.50
750 ml, $35.00

**Bring your own containers and we’ll fill them up for $40 a liter!

Liquid gold, that is the best descriptor of such a wonder.

Fall in the Vineyard

A lovely picture of StoneCross Vineyard looking northeast, down into Mark’s Vineyard. You can see the beautiful rolling hills east of Templeton and then further east is Creston, in the distant background.

Photo sent by a club member, double-click on photo to enlarge it.

A Tiny Mention in Saveur Magazine, But in Good Company

When it rains it pours! Well, sort of. We just heard word that our 2008 “Maiestas” (Syrah blend) is listed in Saveur Magazine as one of the “44 California Reds to Drink Now”. This is pretty exciting news to us, as Saveur is an excellent food/drink/ & the-culture-of-both magazine (and incidentally, the only such magazine we subscribe to). And we feel honored to be in the company of many of the other wines listed. Phillip will also be featured in “Touring & Tasting” as a Paso Robles Renegade. Slowly, slowly our name is getting out there! We are thankful of course, but Phillip says, “All this and a couple of dollars will get you a cup of coffee…but it’s always nice to be mentioned.”

**Picture by Jeffrey Weissler @ (check this website out!)

2010 Harvest Recap and Farmer’s Ponderings

I must have read so many of these harvest notes over the years from so many wineries that I could probably just make it all up and it would pass muster.
For the 2010 Harvest, there is no need to make anything up. To get a sense of perspective, our vines are mostly 5th and 7th leaf. Before the significant rains of this last year, these dry-farmed beauties had been dealt a pretty rough hand. We experienced three years in a row of drought-like conditions: 12 inches, 5″ & 9″ total rainfall. It’s tempting to think our vines were saying, “We’ll stay alive, but don’t expect more more!”, hence the 2009 harvest of 9 tons off of 15+ acres. (This is why the overwhelming majority of growers irrigate.)

This year was a game changer! We had 24 inches (!!) spread out nicely over the Winter months even extending into Spring…perfect! Bud break came along at a normal time for all of the varieties, very little shatter occurred (or loss of crop due to a possible myriad of factors), and all looked exceptional. Of course, this is farming, nothing quite works that way!

Crazy weather entered the mix at the summertime mark, and we were faced with a cool summer …All of a sudden we thought we were in Oregon which would have been perfect if we grew Pinot Noir! Now really strange things started to happen in our vineyard. With the exception of the Grenache Noir everything ignored the weather and continued to grow normally, perhaps a tad later than usual, but not dramatically so. Most strange was the Mourvedre: the grape that likes heat most of all , sprinted toward the finish line ignoring all. Or course, this was once again all too good to be true.
A massive heat spike in August–109 degree temps, amongst pleasant 70-80 degree days, caused our Syrah to think the sky had fallen in! We went in to the vineyard to take samples and instead of the robust, beautifully shaped bunches, we found shriveled raisins…disaster! (Refer to previous entry.) At 6 o’clock the next morning, we anxiously went back to the Syrah vineyard, and perfect again! With the exception of about a 5% loss, the grapes had rehydrated themselves overnight. I asked a knowledgeable Syrah grower if he’d ever seen this. “No” he said, “It can’t happen, once the grapes shrivel up it’s basically all over.” Our Syrah had obviously not been told this. When we picked the main Syrah crop on September 3rd, it came it at mid-to-high 23 Brix level…perfect! Dry farmed? Biodynamic? Terroir? I don’t know, but Thank You.

We have 10 different varietals, and PlayGround (a blended planting of Rhone varietals all mixed up with each other), so I could relate 11 stories. Too much for here, I won’t bore you. The net result of this most interesting year was a slightly later start and an early finish, so our work was compressed. Our crop of 20 tons was more than double last year and on target for our eventual goal of 2 tons to the acre. The flavors and numbers are perfect and with any luck the wine of AmByth Estate will continue to stimulate conversation in the uniqueness of character due to our wonderful Earth system called “Nature”. Deo Gratias.


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!

Teas, teas and more teas! Veraison! 501 to aid Ripening

Mid-July brought us 4 days of over 100 degree days accompanied with warmish nights (what we consider warm, 60+). Also, we had been fighting powdery mildew pretty hard with organic sprays on a daily basis. It seemed to Phillip the plants needed some relief, on the 3rd day of the heat-spike we made a tea from our plants, trees and herbs growing on the property: ground oak bark (a healer), horsetail (a fungus controller) and stinging nettle (an iron balancer). Pre-stirring we added some drops of valerian (always a soother). After stirring with the sunrise for an hour, we hand sprayed all vineyards with backpacks on foot.

The next day, we applied what we consider the second half of the tea: purchased dried dandelion, our estate chamomile and yarrow flowers, again with some drops of valerian just pre-stirring. To this we added preps of all the same flowers, literally a few grams of each. All of the flowers are considered to have healing qualities, soothing applications–we, humans, take them for the same reasons.

It was time for everything in the vineyards to take a deep breath and relax a little so that once the heat abated, the vines could continue growing and ripening the grapes.

(Picture at left: our copper stirring machine emptying the tea into the water tank from which we fill our backpacks)

July 20th we spotted veraison (the onset of ripening) on Tempranillo–remember Tempranillo resembles “early” in Spanish, and it is so true with this varietal, it is always the first to show it’s red berries. Three days later, nearly a third of the vineyard had turned–it happens that quickly!

To aid this sun-driven-grape-ripening process we stirred 501 (horn silica, a light attractor) pre-dawn for an hour: 1 gram of silica with 3 gallons of water per acre. We also applied this to the leaves of the vine with backpacks as the sun rose.

And in the winery? We racked off the 2009 reds on a descending moon–fruit day. Everything is tasting quite fantastic and vibrant, even though there is still a tiny bit of malolactic fermentation still going on. Using the natural time frame of how quickly the grapes want to work is always going to give us different schedules each year. Last year, Phillip had racked and blended the wines by May. This year it looks like a couple of weeks ago–maybe before harvest…after harvest? What will be, will be.

Stay tuned…there is a honey harvest on the horizon!

Vineyard News: Grape & Olive Set, Preparations and Paella Class Results

It’s a lovely time in the vineyard, so much is happening (hence, irregular blog entries…sorry!). Mostly we’re in a holding pattern with 99% fruit set (the turning of flowers-to-fruit) completed. This is a delicate time for us, as June has been one heck of a windy month, we had a small rain shower last week, and we have to be careful not to manhandle the vines too much as the flowers hang in this delicate balance before the fruit emerges. All of the above can create “shatter”, or in layman’s terms, a loss of fruit. Instead of hanging around doing nothing, we’re observing the vines daily and providing aid in the form of gentle homeopathic Biodynamic floral sprays. It’s pretty miraculous to see actual beneficial changes from 3 applications of a horn manure (BD 500)/barrel compost (BC) spray in the proportions of 2 ozs/acre.

As much concern is given to watching for the dreaded Powdery Mildew, a simple way to handle this disastrous potential problem is to spray sulfur (or similar sprays) on a regular 7 to 10 day schedule. We prefer NOT to do this, instead we will treat individual plants as necessary. Part of our strategy is walking through the vineyards, vine-by-vine, every other day inspecting plants-constantly checking and constantly following up. We’re hoping to to come up with patterns, reasons – dare I say – solutions. This year we weeded StoneCross vineyard, a week to 10 days later we found a super mild outbreak of Powdery Mildew in the Grenache Blanc (which is in StoneCross). Because of this, we decided not to weed Mark’s Vineyard. Also, some of the wild flowers we planted in Mark’s Vineyard have taken beautifully – and we hate to pull them out (our hypothesis: weeds and wild flowers will actually attract the powdery mildew to themselves, instead of our vines). Fingers crossed…
The 2009’s in the winery are mostly taking longer than usual to finish malolactic fermentation, which is delaying the blending of the reds. Talking to other winemakers who lean more on the natural side of wine making, this appears to be an overall 2009 phenomena, certainly not problematical, but it weighs on the mind–just another thing in our heads that we’ve got to take care of. However, next week we’ll be bottling the remaining 2008 Rhone blends (yes! more of them besides the 3 already released).

The Paella 101 class was a great success! We made 3 different paellas: a traditional Espanola paella with chorizos and salchichons, a seafood paella, and an estate paella (foods & meat from AmByth). We set up 3 cooking stations and everyone got to lend a hand and mix whilst enjoying wine and good conversations. For more great pictures, check them out here