AmByth Estate is pretty unique in California, it's as far as I know the only winery making wine from estate vineyards that are 100 % dry farmed, that is, non-irrigated. Most vineyards in California have these black hoses underneath and the vines get a regular dose of water, even in some places that are not desperately dry, like this vineyard near Healdsburg (Westside road).
Considering the punishingly-dry climate in the area where AmByth is located, south of Paso Robles, this was quite daring. the Wikipedia page for Templeton designates the region as having dry summers, with the rain falling between november and march and tapering off almost completely by the en of april, temperatures going from 10-15 ° F (minus 9 °C) in winter and up to 115 °F (46 °C) in summer. This was indeed hot when this visit took place a few weeks ago in july, and walking through vineyards that hadn't the ubiquitous drip black hoses was a very interesting experience.
Pioneers are passionate people whose drive is more passion than profit, and Philip Hart took risks on his own funds to build this winery and plant these vineyards from scratch and without the security of dripping, but the resulting wines prove that he made the right bet.
Templeton (pic on left) is a small community located roughly between Santa Barbara and Monterey, 23 miles from the Pacific Ocean by road but much less as the crow flies. To quote the Expedia page again, Templeton will occasionally receive fog due to its proximity with the California Coastal Range, the Pacific Ocean, and the higher valley temperatures of Templeton itself : the differential in density between the warm rising air in the valley causes it to be displaced with the descent of the cooler marine air layer. This means that even though we're here in a hot area, there's a strong influence from cooler air and this has a positive effect on the vineyard.
We reached AmByth driving from Santa Barbara, and thanks to the GPS we found the remote corner of a valley where the property sits. As soon as we parked the car in the shade, we were greeted by Frederic whom I knew when he was still working at Champagne Krug, with whom I had kept in touch along the years, and who has been working here for a year. We refreshed ourselves with a glass of water in the shade, Philip Hart and his wife Mary were on a trip that week and Frederic Ballario was the one who would show us around.
The vines are not trellised, they're on goblets, and even if it doesn't rain the threat here is mildew, because there's this fog in the morning that brings humidity on the plants through the templeton gap, an opening in the Santa Lucia mountain range through which this cold, humid air flows into the valley, and in spite of the distance from the ocean (15 m as a crow flies) there's a strong influence of marine winds that can be felt here in the afternoon and in the night when the temperature drops steeply. In the day it can reach 100 ° F but in the night it goes down always in the 40s ° F, and this does a good job at preserving the acidity.
The people there poured him a big glass of wine, which was odd because that's not the use, and when he tasted the wine he felt something he had never experienced before, the wine was really so nice and as the owner was there he asked about this wine, wanting to know everything about how it had been made and why it was so different, to which the guy answered that he didn't do anything particular, he'd been making those wines for 30 years...and one more thing, the winegrower said : his vineyard was dry farmed.
Philip at the time was preparing the last details for the planting and the infrastructure of the winery including the dripping system, so he called immediately (from the tasting room !) to freeze the purchase of the dripping system. Frederic says that in Paso Robles, some vineyards have been actually dry farmed, the ones that were planted 80 or 100 years ago, otherwise irrigation has become a mainstream tool in the vineyard management. This proves that dry farming is feasible, but the issue for commercial wineries is yields, with irrigation you can get the generous yields you want, even if further down the wine must be corrected as a result. Here at AmBith when they reach one ton per acre they slap hands, and they'd need 2 tons, which they still think they could make some day by pruning differently and waiting also that the vines grow in age.
Philip also planted lots of olive trees as a separation line between blocks (pic below), and they now make olive oil from the 550 olive trees spread over the property.
We toured the vineyard on a small all-terrain vehicule with the dog in the back who seemed pretty used to these drives and seemed to love it, although I found some steep runs scary. At one point I spotted an old camper parked along the dirt road, and I was almost ready to step in and take the road, it must have been a very early model, maybe late 50s'... If France wasn't hopelessly marred by norms and regulations there are a few vehicules I'd have been tempted to bring back.
and the biodynamic certification also guarantees that no addition is made during the vinification. Read this Demeter USA document (page 38 to 42) to see the winemaking rules, it's pretty impressive because you realize through reading what is forbidden, what mainstream wineries use routinely...
The maximum allowed SO2 in the certification is 100 ppm and at the time they used some, it was usually 5, 10 or 20 ppm, and now they even stopped adding any. This said, they remain free to pedal back if some reason in the future they need to add sulfites.
At Ambyth they don't use sulfur or copper in the vineyard, they use herb tea and other preparations, and if there's a strong mildew pressure they use certain organic-certified products.
They've been using nets for the first time and they put these ones in place the previous day. It's a dry year and as the veraison was beginning in mid-july all the birds were beginning to get interested in the grapes, especially that there is no other vineyard 3 miles around. They put the nets in strategic places because some parcels are more attacks than others. In other areas they use sound systems to deter the birds from coming, watch the short video on the left, it looks like real even if certain sounds seem to have been added for the fun...
Walking in the vineyard, we pass a plot named Playground, where the 10 varietals are complanted together, eveything being mixed, they harvest it together and make a red wine of it because they want the expression of the terroir. they look for the aromatic complexity and there is a real difference between the top of the slope and the bottom, but they like picking different maturities. This parcel is 10 years old and they're learning because like in the rest of California, knowledge about which varietal fits in which terroir and slope is a day-to-day apprenticeship.
We kneel near an ungrafted syrah which was planted in 2004. This is a north-facing slope and the soil is limestone with brittle clay. He took some risks by planting ungrafted, this isn't sand only here, but on the other hand there is no threat of phylloxera in the area of Paso Robles.
In a corner there are a few glass containers with liquid of different colors inside, it's both wine to top up the barrels and trials like cider or even jujube/mourvèdre Ale, a beer he prepared from fruit juice and mourvèdre skins. There is some orange wine too and a few other interesting rarities. Makes you salivate right away.
The bladder press stands on the side, as well as the bottling line, something which is very useful because they're free to bottle when they want (and follow the moon cycles I guess) without being obliged to comply with the timetable of the mobile bottling company.
Even though the facility is a bit remote, they're open to visitors and buyers on appointment, and as they're always here, people can come here to taste and buy wine. Direct selling is the primary way of connecting with the customer. They capitalize on the fact that they're the first and only winery in Paso Robles to be certified biodynamic (Demeter USA), and there are few either in California. If I believe this list, there are 20 wineries in all of California certified biodynamic, and if it's by Demeter USA it means that these 20 wineries don't use any wine additives in the cellar as well. There are a bit more certified growers (37) but some of them like AmByth are counted there too because they both farm their estate vineyards and make wine. Washington State is very far behind with 2 biodynamic-certified wineries and 4 growers.
And on top of that, AmByth is the only one to be not only biodynamic and without using any wine additives, but also dry farmed and on top of that, now at this stage, totally without SO2. Really ahead of the pack, I agree...
__ AmByth Priscus 2010, blend of whites (bottle) : grenache blanc 60 %, viognier 20 %, marsanne 10 % and Roussanne 10 %. Fermented in old barrels then. In 2010 they still added SO2, they put 10 ppm which was very little. Nice mouth feel with fruit notes, and some mineral feel. 13,8 ° alc. This is one of their wines with the highest alcohol, all their wines are (naturally of course) between 12% and 14%.
__ AmByth Priscus 2011, grenache blanc 1/3, roussanne 1/3 and the rest marsanne viognier. Opened 3 hours before. No SO2 adding in this wine. This is not yet on the market if already bottled. They made 150 cases of this wine. 13,2 ° alc. Nice wine.
__ AmByth Roussanne 2012, bottled a week before (no label). From a 7-year-old vineyard. Turbid, nice lemon type color. The nose has English-candy notes and honey. Nice energy in the mouth and swallowing. I don't spit.
Asked about the malolactic, if they help it or not, or if they filter if it's not completed, Frédéric says that once they had a Tempranillo/Sangiovese which didn't move at all for the malolactic, so after a while Philip bought a filter, put it nrear the vat and at the end changed his mind and bottled it like is, unfiltered. Until now the wine is fine.
__ AmByth Priscus 2012, from the amphora, the blend of whites, Grenache (63 %), Marsanne (16 %), Viognier (14 %) and Roussanne (7 %). Nice sunflower yellow. Very vivid nose, there's some gas. Tickling on the mouth, lots of acidity. It's not finished but they're not worried, this wine takes its time and they'll wait. No SO2 at all as said. They ordered 10 more such amphoras for next year, some will be interred for skin contact.
__ AmByth Grenache Blanc 2012, from a metal vat (pic above) where it's been racked a week before to separate the lees and it'll be bottled 3 weeks later.
Frédéric says that Paso Robles is known for powerful reds, you find around here Zinfandels with 16 % in alcohol and making a strong red is viewed as an obligation here, but actually they're wondering from what they're experiencing at AmByth if this terroir could be rather an ideal terroir for whites. His own intuition says that Paso Robles is more a terroir for whites than for reds.
__ AmByth viognier 2012 orange wine. Skin contact for 2 weeks, then pressed. The color of this wine has great vibes, 2 weeks were enough to yield this color. Some astringency in the mouth but it's very nice, these tannins of whites are always surprising. 2nd vintage for a skin contact here.
__ AmByth rosé, racked a week before from an amphora because it had still residual sugar and they put the small Lainox vat outside to raise the temperature. Grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, picked specially for the rosé (early selective pick). 800 liters. While most wineries have already delivered their rosé 2012 long ago, theirs is still in its gas and taking its time, still fermenting. It will be ready for Christmas...;-)
__ Ambyth Counoise 2012, one of the 13 varietals of Chateauneuf du Pape. Label : 324 bottles in total - 5 ppm SO2 added - 11,97 % alc. Some tannins, Aromas of cherries, black cherries, red cherries. The vinification is the same for all the reds : the grapes come in, they keep whole clusters and foot-stomp them in 3/4-ton vats. then they punchdown by hand, they don't extract.
__ AmByth ReVera [in truth] 2010,
46 % mourvèdre, 23 % grenache, 23 % syrah, 8 counoise. They do this wine every year, with a majority mourvèdre. 108 cases, 10 ppm, 13,7 % alc. Not on the market when this visit took place.Aromas of coffee and caramel. Very refined tannins. Nice wine.
__ AmByth Adamo 2010 Paso Robles, 62 % grenache, 21 % syrah, 10 % mourvèdre and 7 % counoise. Every year they make Adamo, a majority grenache red. 123 cases, alc. 13,69 %, 10 ppm SO2. Very enjoyable nose with smoke and meat-juice notes. Mouth : tannin feel, but such a nice swallow, I was speaking of waiting because with mourvèdre a wine needs time but I don't spit.
__ AmByth 100 % Mourvèdre 2010, SO2 15 ppm, 13,76 % alc, 650 bottles (2 barrels). Color a bit darker. Animal notes. Mouth : velvety feel. Empty glass : great smell, that's a good wine for sure.
__ Ambyth 100 % Grenache 2010. Color : relatively clear and a bit turbid. 13,77 % alc, 1100 bottles. Exciting nose. Frédéric says that his best Grenache he ever had, among the top 5 of all the wines he tasted, was a Chateau Rayas 2001 100 % Grenache, he tasted it in 2006, still quite young. Time stopped, everything, he says.
I like this wine, nice fruit, nice energy. More chewy.
Asking about how much do the bottles cost here he says most cost 45 $ if you buy a single bottle, and it goes down to 35 $ if you subscribe for a case per year, and to 32,5 if you take 2 cases per year.
__ AmByth Syrah 2010 (100% Syrah), 13,13 % alc, 600 bottles. Vinified in casks and it will be vinified in Amphora in the future. Once he had such a syrah over 8 or 10 days and you could taste different things along the days.
__ AmByth Maiestas 2010, majority Syrah : Syrah 54 %, Grenache 27 %, Mourvèdre 12, Counoise 7 %. 13,5 % alc. He decants the bottles in front of us. Nice nose. A bit tannic and more of a feel of concentration or extraction here. It's still young, Frédéric says.
__ Ambyth, blind taste from a bottle, a red. Nice acidity, I like that, I prefer the mouth of this unidentified wine than the Maiestas. I don't know what this wine could be. He says it is a 2011 blend of 8 varietals from the 10 : Grenache 20 %, Mourvèdre 20 %, Sangiovese 20 %, Tempranillo 20 %, Grenache Blanc 10 %, Counoise 7 %, Syrah 5 % and Marsanne 2 % In 2011 during the night of april 8/9 2011 there was a record frost in Paso Robles and they lost 45 % of the production, of the bud breaks, so they hadn't enough for separate cuvées and they blended the whole thing. They named the cuvée "Red Table wine" even though there's no table-wine status in the US. That's a nice wine, way above the humoriscly-derogatory status of a table wine.
__ Ambyth 100 % Sangiovese 2009. 13,3 % alc. Probably 1 cask or 2 of this wine. At the same time acidic an tannic.
__ AmByth Tempranillo 2009, 84 %, Tempranillo plus 16 % of Sangiovese. 13,3 % alc. The color is more evolved here, less vivid. Menthol, dry herbs like eucalyptus, some resin, dry guarrigue. In the mouth : Vey very nice wine, beautiful tannins, a truly great wine. Not to miss if you come accross one. There was 12 cases left when we visited, so hurry up...They have 1 acre of Tempranillo.
__ AmByth Revera 2009, blend 57 % Mourvèdre, 22 Grenache, 11 % syrah and 10 % Counoise. 12,6 % alc. We should have tasted it before the Tempranillo but it's very elegant and refined. Still some tannins in here. Quite a good level of acidity also, lots of acidity I shoud say.
__ Adamo 2009, a blend with majority grenache (59 %), with 17 % mourvèdre, 13 % syrah and 11 % counoise. 13,09 % alc. Lightly evolved color, nose of ripe, generous flowers with fruit notes. Spices with smoke notes, and very fresh. Nice wine to eat with. Frédéric recounts the occasional visits by people who drive here having heard natural wines were being made here and expectind who know what weird wines, and after tasting a few wines they say almost innocently, but it's good, like meaning almost but...it's wine !. Excellent wine indeed.
A last wine, blind. Even more eucalyptus,incense, pepper, dry herbs. The mouth follows the nose, same expression, the tannins are well melted into the whole. This is not from their vineyards, that's a zinfandel and they don't have any. People expect zinfandel in Paso Robles, so Philip, said that if he found an organic or biodynnamic grower who dry farmed ans was ready to sell some grapes, he's make a zinfandel. the prerequisites were quite limitative but he found the grapes... In 2010 and 2011 he made a zinfandel from Bailey Vineyard in Paso Robles. THey're not certified biodynamic but Philip and Frédéric know how they farm and they're the ones who help them make the preps. Alas they don't sell their grapes in 2012. This wine was bottled last april and no SO2 at all. 14,2 % alc. 144 cases. Costs a bit less than the other cuvées : 38 $.
To tell a few more words about Frédéric and what brought him here, first, before working at Champagne Krug he had worked a while in San Diego as a sommelier. He quit Krug following a personnal tragedy, after his wife passed over and went into a search for purpose and important life questions. He worked at François Crochet in Sancerre, doing the harvest, then came back in California to pursue this winemaking quest, working with Rhys in Santa Cruz, then he left for Mexico where he taught wine tasting and sommellerie, after which he worked at Ojai in 2010 & 2011. Then he made a 6-month retreat in the mountains in Ecuador with Walter Moora who farms in biodynamy, reading much of Steiner's work, including the spiritual part, this was part of his own spiritual quest. There, he met a film maker and he had a project with him which is now on its way, a movie where wine and spirituality are closely intertwined (trailer of Soul of Wine). Folllowing this experience he was thrilled to have the opportunity to work for Philip and Mary here at AmByth.
On the morning before this visit, I bought very nice shears in a family hardware store on Templeton's main street, this shop had a great range of tools and home improvement items and as always I was looking at shears for the Loire and I found some at very good value (10 to 15 $ $ if I remember) made by the American company Ace, Hewitt Hardware was this typical friendly and professional family hardware shop and just the experience of walking along its narrow aisles was a pleasure. These small pleasures make a big trip.
These Ace shears open very deep (already a plus) and they have some sort of dual/progressive power demultiplication that makes it easy to cut relatively thick branches. With the soft-touch alloy, this makes a beautiful tool (I secretly hope they'll ship me another...). Kudos to Ace, I'll try to order online if I need one more.
That very evening, we had dinner outside with Gustavo, his wife Lety and their daughter Johanna, they're the Mexican family wo live and work here. Lety and Gustavo prepared the food, a gorgeous Mexican dinner with pollo and superb vegetables, the whole thing washed down by the wines of AmByth and Gustavo's Tequila... I love this job...
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