Paella Class this Saturday and Introducing Sara!

This Saturday we’re having a Paella 101 class–anyone interested in learning how to make an authentic paella, from the sofrito to the socarrat, should come over for the afternoon! Phillip will be demonstrating cooking techniques for 3 different paellas: a seafood mixture, a chorizo/jamon/salchichon mix, and lastly-but-most-interesting is a paella made with the foods of AmByth (rabbit, onions, garlic, carrots, tomatoes, chilies, fennel, herbs–you’re right–we’re using purchased rice and saffron, maybe we’ll grow these next year!).

We’ll be serving AmByth wines (especially our newly released Rosado and Tempranillo, plus some other great Biodynamic Riojas).

If you’re interested, email here.

Saturday, June 19th, 11-2
Cost: $25 ClubMembers/$35 Regular
Reservations Required

Photo above was taken 2 weeks ago in Spain, we didn’t have a traditional burner, so we used the bar-b-que instead!

We’re thrilled to have an intern for the summer! Sara arrived this week from New Hampshire and she’s living with us for 3 months to learn more about Biodynamic farming and gardening. She’s jumped right in and has already stirred a tea for 20 minutes, sprayed above-said fermented horsetail tea, driven the 6 wheeler (affectionately known as “The Bug” while Phillip sprayed the steep vineyards), pulled weeds, played with Bede, been to Templeton’s Music in the Park. We’re thrilled to welcome her into our lives and excited to have her with us.

Sara graduated from the University of New Hampshire in May with a dual major in Marketing & Ecogastronomy (you’ll have to ask her more about this awesome degree–it sounds really cool). She was also fortunate enough to study at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy for a semester (my dream university–founded by Slow Food International/Carlo Petrini in 2004). We’ve given her a specific task for her 3 months here: to identify all of our weeds that grow in the vineyards and give them their due credit. They may be classified as “weeds”, but they still have their individual properties (calcium-bearing, full nitrogen, etc) and benefits/detriments, and they have a reason for growing. We’d like to understand them better and their significance. She’s also looking forward to getting her hands and feet dirty in the vineyards, especially during this year’s harvest when she’ll footstomp for the first time!

The Bees are Back in Town!

Last Thursday we installed 2 new packages of bees from Noble Apiaries into our estate hives. Just like last year, we ordered 3 pound packages, which basically consisted of 10,000 bees (!!) with 1 queen. For those of you interested, each package costs $95.00, but then you have to add Next Day Air shipping, which adds another$80.00 (bee-keeping is a fairly inexpensive hobby, add another $350 for equipment, which on average lasts 5 years).

Last year, we were beginner apiarists. We followed all of the installation instructions, observed and monitored as suggested, kept them fed through their first HOT summer, etc. But I still lost my bees in late November. And I mean, they were dead…what was left of them. I had no other explanation than “operator error”. It was my fault, as a novice, that I lost my bees. In hindsight, I realize my queen never got to laying like she should have. There were not enough bees to collect pollen, make honey, tend the queen, and finally, there were not enough bees in the hive over the winter to keep them warm when the temperatures reached below 30 degrees. Sadly, following our first major cold spell, I entered the hive and saw what was left, frozen to the frames. I didn’t think about requeening, or combining an inferior hive with a stronger hive so that they would survive. Yes, NOW I know to do this, but I didn’t quite understand how a rapid decline in my bee population could destroy the whole life of the hive itself.

The Apiary Inspectors of America conducted a survey to estimate winter colony losses for 2009/2010. They recorded a 33.8% loss of managed honey bee colonies. Responding beekeepers attributed their losses principally to starvation, NOT Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This is what I believe happened to my bees. Simply, there were not enough of them to survive.

Within the first 24 hours of installing our 2 new hives, we observed a major difference in these bees, compared to last year. They are the same breed, Carniolan honey bees, but from a different breeder in California. Our bees are busy! They were doing all of their duties: guarding the entrance, giving directions, coming and going. It was amazing to see, we DID NOT see this last year. After 7 days we returned to the hive again to make sure the queen was out of her cage and see what was happening. Well, you can see for yourself! The above photo shows the beautiful, white, pristine honey comb that is being drawn out and it is dripping with clear honey…within 7 days ( “busy as a bee”)!! (You can double-click on the photo to get a full screen version.) Both hives had this activity–good comb drawn out on 3 frames, an empty queen cage and bees fanning their wings (indications of a honeyflow). Needless to say, we were pleased! We were happy and full of rejoicing! This is going to be a good year for all of us!

BYOBB: Bring Your Own Biodynamic Bottle–Blind Wine Tasting

Saturday our winery hosted our very first BYOBB. Everyone (wineclub members and friends) was asked to bring a Biodynamic bottle from any wine region, white or red. Our guests were incredible, they did their homework and brought mind-blowing wines. We had 4 flights of wine paired with food, all wines were served blind. And let me just put lay it on the line, this was the best wine tasting Phillip and I have ever attended. The wines were beautiful, full of intriguing and complex aromas, but the flavors on the palate were rich, full, unoffensive, unique. It was amazing that all 11 wines were delicious! Not one of the wines was “hot”, or “off”, or unpleasant. And the wines ranged from Gruner Veltliner–to Frappat0–to Pinot Noir. The highest alcohol present was a 14.7%, but mostly they held right at 12%.

The First Flight: Hefeabzug Gruner Veltliner 2008, Nikolaihof Wachau from Austria; AmByth Estate “Priscus” 2009 (Grenache Blanc/Roussanne/Marsanne; Domaine Andre et Mireille Tissot “Arbois” Chardonnay/Savagnin 2005 from Jura, France. Flight served with a Rustic Beef/Pork Terrine on a bed of red leaf lettuce and herbs from the garden with a slice of hearth bread.

Second Flight: Azienda Agricola COS “Frappato Victoria” 2007, Sicily (Phillip’s rating: 20 out of 20, his wine of the night); Porter-Bass Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, California; Cooper Mountain Vineyards “Doctor’s Reserve” Pinot Noir 2006, Williamette Valley, Oregon.

Flight served with Golden Fennel from the garden simmered in lemon juice and white wine, tossed with Fettucine.


Third Flight: Nusserhof Lagrein Riserva 2005, Bozen, Italy; Catherine & Pierre Breton ” St Louans 2006, Loire, France; and Les Jeunes Vignes des Gelinettes “Cabernet Franc 2006, Loire, France

Flight served with Braised estate Short Ribs on mashed potatoes.

The Fourth, and Final Flight was incredible. Phillip opened a Coulee de Serrant 2004 on Wednesday to allow this Chenin Blanc from the Loire to breathe and develop its full flavor. Incidentally, one of our guests also brought a 2004 Nicolas Joly wine, the Clos de la Bergerie. I can’t think of a better ending to this tasting, than to drink TWO incredible wines, made by one of the most profound Biodynamic wine producers in the world. The wines were sensational. They were paired with a Date, Cranberry, Walnut and Chocolate Torte with whipped cream.

We continue to discuss the reasons these 11 wines chosen were so delicious, lively and drinkable…because they are made by small producers who have a more “hands-on” approach…because closer attention is paid in the vineyards by the winemakers…because they are Biodynamic? I think the answer is certainly all 3, but the purpose of Biodynamic farming is to bring the vine into full balance, thus producing fruit which displays this harmony. Yes, the wine makes itself–the quality of the wine is reflective of the vineyard’s state of being. And yes, I believe Biodynamic farming promotes this.

And yes, yes, yes–this will become an annual event, and surely not one to be missed!

Biodynamic Sprays, Mowing, Rhythms of the Farm and a Homeopathic Solution to Powdery Mildew??

Spring is most certainly here with all of the attendant work: we have beautiful buds pushing out everywhere, bud break first started in the Sangiovese and Tempranillo and quickly made it’s way through the Rhone varietals. We had ferocious winds and rain a couple of nights ago–Phillip was kept awake by his worry for those vulnerable baby shoots, he imagined waking up to destruction in the vineyard…but all is okay! (We are still slightly worried about frost damage, but at AmByth we seem to not suffer much from this malady to young buds.)

Back to the Spring work…Phillip commented to me that he is getting much more used to everything–the “year’s work ahead” seems much less daunting, perhaps we’re just getting better at what we do (farming-wise, and read on so this doesn’t sound so egotistical). Phillip is on day 8 on his tractor mowing, followed by 8 more days of disking, we are planting the Spring gardens, and oh yes-the weeding continues. We are eagerly waiting for Dutchess, our dairy cow, to give birth (is today the day?) The 09’s are blended and we’ve been busy bottling the 08’s, we will soon start preparing the May wineclub shipments and we have some fun events on the calendar. There are many, many other tasks to move forward with, BUT! this year it all seems manageable. Perhaps we are starting to achieve the ultimate goal of Biodynamic farming: to realize the rhythm of the farm. This sacred piece of land we’re tending has it’s own rhythm, as Phillip and I do, and we open our hearts, minds and souls to become more intimate with it daily.

A new sight at AmByth is our “stirring machine” (looks interesting, huh?). Phillip saw this in a book about a Tuscan Biodynamic farm and has been waiting until the time came to erect such an apparatus for our farm. Yesterday afternoon Biodynamic Preperation 500 was applied to the soil in the afternoon after stirring it for one hour in the barrel (shown in the photo). And as the sun rose this morning we were out stirring Biodynamic spray 501 (applied only to the Sangiovese). Both of these sprays are applied mainly in the Spring and Fall, and in a succession of 3. 500 is sprayed on the soil, and 501 on the foliage. It feels good to be back out in the vineyards, to see the growth, to apply the BD sprays and teas, to hear the sounds of life. 

Yet, the threat of powdery mildew infecting our vines looms…we are trying to new tool to combat it: itself!! And where did this come from? Mainly from reading our homeopathic books–“treat like with like”, and conversations with Gilles De Domingo, the winemaker from Cooper Mountain Vineyards in Oregon (a Biodynamic vineyard and winery). We took effected powdery mildew cuttings from about a dozen plants and burned them by themselves. We then took the best ashes (about 5 to 6 tablespoons) and ground them for an hour in a mortar and pestle. We then took 1 teaspoon of the ground ashes and mixed it with 8 quarts of water in a container and shook this container forcefully 10 times. We kept 10% of this quantity and discarded the remaining 90%–we then added 8 quarts again to the 10%, shook forcefully, kept 10%…etc, etc. We repeated this process 30 times (photo at left is our volunteer diluter, John). We sprayed just a whisper of this homeopathic spray on potentially infected vines, hoping to discourage further powdery mildew spread. We will continue to spray this as necessary. And we’ll definitely keep records and share the success or failure!

First Day of Spring Hike Around the Farm

God smiled on us and Paso Robles on Zinfandel Festival Weekend and the AmByth Spring Hike and lunch.

A perfect day greet our dozen walkers for what should be our first annual WineClub Member’s Hike and Luncheon celebrating the first day of Spring. We started off touring through PlayGround to the west fence line to view our latest attempt (and thus far, successful) of altering our portable chicken coop to keep the chickens free-range, whilst keeping them from being a “fox luncheon”. It was perfect timing, Deborah Sowerby (of Olive Ewe Ranch and grower of the best lamb in the country, contact here for whole or half lambs) was delivering 8 hens to join our remaining hen and rooster. Next to the coop and along the fence line we looked at the 50 new apple and pear trees recently planted and already pushing buds for this year’s new growth. As I type this, blossom is appearing on some of these new trees, it is going to be quite a sight in future years.

The hike led over to the top of Terrace, our steep Mourvedre vineyard. From here there is a grand view of Mark’s Vineyard and StoneCross, a viewpoint that most visitors to AmByth don’t get a chance to see, it gives a great perspective to the steepness of our vineyards (and the labor involved when operating such a hands-on farm). Phillip led the group through StoneCross, down into Mark’s Vineyard and down to the compost pile and corral.

Phillip was happy to talk about all aspects of the farm: the pushing buds, our philosophy and plans for weed allowance/control, our method of pruning, etc.–and most importantly, the Manure Pile! Probably not the height of what someone would think about when seeing Paso in all its glory with vineyards bursting forth, but our manure pile is the vital force behind the health of our farm. Mary gave a brief description of the hive, the components of the hive and the hows-and-whys of bee-keeping. A taste of the current releases in the winery and lunch followed–it was a great time of nourishment and friendship, and a great way to begin our Spring in the vineyard.



Winter Rains = Chemical Herbicides

This time of year Phillip and I drive around with blinders on our eyes. Even to the point where we’ve declared to each other we need to leave our area during this time. Just the 5 mile drive to our favorite farm stand, Nature’s Touch, in Templeton creates anxiety, bewilderment and frustration. Yes–we, as a collective group of ranchers/farmers/landowners/residents, welcome with outstretched and up stretched arms rain, yet we hasten to then don our sprayers to apply chemical herbicides to our fence lines, to the grasses growing under the rows of vines, to the 3 feet around our fruit trees, under our olive trees, around road signs, barns, sidewalks (public and private), trees in our parks, and the list goes on and on. With the advent of rain, California transforms overnight from our dried and burned landscape to lush, green, ripe fields–burgeoning with native grasses, wheat, weeds, wildflowers. But how dare such wonders grow in unwanted places! So herbicides are applied, to kill. And indeed, the vibrant green changes to yellow and red as the growth is dying. Whatever pollinators (honey bees, bumble bees, native bees, butterflies, moths, birds) have happened to land also reap the herbicides. I often wonder if the earthworms, too, die as quickly as the grasses and weeds. And take a look at the people applying herbicides–they are wearing gloves, masks, some even wear full body suits. How ironic–unsafe to breathe, but okay to eat the fruit from that sprayed tree?

This is a time for you, too, to look around and perhaps apply the blinders–are your favorite vineyards, orchards, gardens and farms also spraying? The telltale sign is yellow and red and death amidst vibrant, natural green. And if you care, then apply the “blinders” where necessary.

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!!!

Cold Stabilization, Miniature Highland Dairy Cows, Merry Christmas!

Have you ever pulled a bottle of rose or white wine from the fridge only to behold a beautiful cloudy appearance inside the bottle? Or, on a much less harmful (in fact, completely harmless) state, found titrates (colorless crystals) clinging to the cork? If so, it probably was a result of the wine not being stabilized.

Someone mentioned to me the other day that our ’08 Viognier blend was cloudy–it isn’t, and it won’t be. It does, however, throw a sediment–like a quality red wine. I know our white is not cloudy because we cold stabilize. We have jacketed tanks that would allow us to run glycol around them, thus reducing the temperature inside the tanks to below freezing–28 degrees seems to be the magic number. At AmByth, we take a simpler approach: when the weather is going to drop below freezing over night, we move the whites and rose out into the breezeway between the winery and the little house. And we have a trend this week–every night the forecast calls for lows between 23-30. So we just move the tanks, barrels and carboys outside for the night! Typically, the wind is funneled down this breezeway, bringing the temperatures down even more. And viola! cold stabilization occurs naturally. You’ll see the photo above of the wine outside–you see here about 200 cases of wine total. Before bottling, we further check by taking samples and putting them in the fridge for a week (I know, geniuses at work here!). If there is a problem, they will cloud with the cold. Red wines also need to stabilize, but they do this with extended oak barrel aging (which we do here at AmByth).

Other methods of stabilizing wines are fining and/or very fine filtering. At AmByth, we do neither. We belong to the camp that believes this is stripping the wine of some of those finer, more delicate elements. Then of course, with fining and filtering, there are large sulfite additions that are necessary–well, by now you should our stance on that!

So enjoy our stabilized yet still sedimented white and red wines. The 07’s are just now starting to throw a more solid sediment. As with all fine wines, decanting is a good idea (and fun)!

We are so very happy to have Dutchess and Fiona on the farm. They are our miniature Highland cows, delivered last week. Dutchess is 3 years old, she is the mother of Fiona (5 months) with another calf due in March. We plan on keeping them at AmByth as dairy cows. And of course we plan on composting their manure. Phillip and I specifically looked for dairy cows with horns, as we believe they are a “perfect” cow–in their complete fullness, without any body parts removed, thus making their manure more potent and unadulterated. We believe they are “unstressed” and that this will show in their manure.

We would like to wish you all a very merry and blessed Christmas. This is a special time of the year, full of celebrations and traditions, as well as a time of reflection and renewal. May peace be upon you, and may you know ultimate Love this season.

The Fall Vineyard

Perhaps there is nothing more gorgeous than the 60 tons of aged manure we apply to the vineyard every October/November. This compost, which had the Biodynamic preparations inserted last October, has been aging under our oaks, in a shady location, for a year. At the point of application, it has a moist, fluffy crumble that sits lightly in your hand–as if it is made of air. It is not dense, hard or stony. Really, it is the most pure and beautiful form of “dirt”, or soil, I’ve ever seen. And the aroma carries none of the manure qualities that were present a year ago: it is now sweet and earthy. It is an amazing part of “life” that is formed, and nothing you buy from the garden shop labeled as “compost” compares.

This year we added dandelion seeds to the compost as it was being broadcast throughout the vineyard. We hope to have them growing wildly throughout the vineyard, to once again aide in regulating the relationship between silica and potassium in the vines. Perhaps we’ll be able to have enough dandelion flower heads to pick them, dry them and use them for various teas when needed. We are very happy so far this season, we had an early 4″ of rain in October, but Phillip was able to get in the vineyard to chisel to prepare the soil before the rain. We had no
run-off whatsoever throughout the vineyards, the earth was so ready to receive this rain! Then we were able to get into the vineyards again to broadcast the manure…to apply our natural fertilizer (compost) to the earth. As of this typing, the weather forecast for this week is rain/snow and more rain! Needless to say, bring it on El Nino!
Our family took a two week sabbatical to our favorite place of rest after harvest, only to return to another harvest: olives! As we turned into our vineyard, the olive trees lining the road were full of beautiful black olives. We harvested the Picuals and Lechen de Sevillas: the olives themselves are plump and big, nearly double the size of last year’s crop. We have yet to harvest the newer trees, especially the Arbequinas–we anticipate a major crop from these prolific trees! They are still ripening, making the change from green to black (FYI, all olives begin green). All said, again this year we did not get enough olives to make olive oil due to the June winds knocking off the flowers before fruit was able to set, but we do have enough to brine. We prick each olive, one-by-one, with a toothpick before submerging them in a saltwater bath. The olives remain in a saltwater brine for up to 4 weeks before we jar them and perserve them in olive oil. For the recipe, shoot us an email!

In our home garden we’ve set out seed for our lettuces and hard greens (kale and chard) as well as onions, fennel, leeks, carrots, radishes, cilantro and dill. As a novice gardener, I let quite a few things go to seed last year, and this Fall, after our rainfall, all of those lovely seeds have set themselves and I have wild dill and fennel and lettuces growing everywhere, as well as sweet peas and borage. I love it! I love that as I walk through our landscaping and gardens, I see these little leaf forms growing voluntarily, placed there by the wind and pollinators. I check on them all daily, I feel as though they are my special babies. Yes, this year I’ll be a bit more diligent when I let my plants go to seed, but I also appreciate so much the cycles life goes through: seed to plant to flower, back to seed in the form of another/new plant–amazing!

Right now, we look out at the vineyards and have the beautiful Autumn display of golds and reds throughout the Grenache and Grenache Blanc blocks. All of the other varietals have shed their leaves for the year. You can see from the photo above the stunning leaves of Grenache in Mark’s Vineyard and our lovely, lovely blue Paso Robles sky. This will all change tomorrow, as we have a rainy week ahead, with lows in the 20’s. Our citrus and avocado trees have Christmas lights strung on them to protect the leaves against frost. The dogs will be sleeping inside, begging to be let out to run and carry-on with their daily routines. The fires are lit, I think it’s time for a glass of red wine…

Our 10 Year Celebration

10 years ago today, this passage was read to us, by our best man, at our wedding:

“Think: What if the sky doesn’t fall? What if it’s glorious? What if the house is transformed in three years? There will be by then hand-printed labels for the house’s olive oil, thin linen curtains pulled across the shutters for siesta, jars of plum jam on the shelves, a long table for feasts under the linden trees, baskets piled by the door for picking tomatoes, arugula, wild fennel, roses and rosemary. And who are we in that strange new life?” Taken from ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ by Frances Mayes, pg.20

I must confess, 10 years ago, listening to Paul read this to us I had no clue why he would have chosen this particular passage…
Recently Phillip and I watched our wedding video, and when we watched Paul read this, we both looked at each other in amazement…as this is our life NOW! But who would have thought this 10 years ago? Truly, we had no idea that our lives would be so transformed: permanently moving from Orange County to Templeton, planting our vineyard, producing wine with our own label, making plum jam (which I have made quite a bit this year), having full baskets of produce grown outside our very doors, growing olive trees, rearing animals, having tables full of friends and family feasting and fellowshipping.
And this “strange new life” now consists of having 3 sons, Gelert (24), Morgan (22) and our 3 year old, Bede, who was and is a total surprise and joy!
Amidst our decade, we have suffered the tragic loss of Phillip’s brother, Mark. But he lives on with us, through our farming and Phillip’s memories of growing up on a farm with him in Wales.

We feel blessed, we are happy and we are together doing what we love! May God heap many, many more decades upon us…