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.
Oak View is a small town located roughly between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, this is a very beautiful area, lots of hills and trees. This picture shot in the middle of the wine farms tells it all : simple, scattered buildings among the trees, the quietness under the scorching sun, and these sort of big fishing nets to provide some shade on what I call the open workspace and the press protected by a tarpaulin. A magic place.
Adam Tolmach who created the Ojai Vineyardis a relatively long-time player in
the California wine trade, he began to make wine with Associate Jim Clendenen in their common project, Au Bon Climat in 1982, both being trained in Burgundy, and then he came back to his family land and started his own label in 1991. His wines there were praised by the critic Robert Parker and were selling well but in a rare move for such a successful vintner he said that his wines had become way different from the wines he liked, too high in alcohol, too powerful, and that he didn't drink his own wines. Trapped by the critic high scores and the resulting success of his wines, he had let the alcohol of his wines slip to 15° and beyond. So in 2008 he announced a significant shift in that regard and changed dramatically his approach in terms of vineyard management, picking dates and vinification in order to come back to fresher wines with lower alcohol, and this he said, without watering the juice or using reverse osmosis, which are common practices in California.
Adam Tolmach being away when I visited, Fabien Castel, who is a Frenchman and the right-hand man of Adam, walked me around and helped me discover the winery.
Oak View near which the wine farm is located is about 10 miles from Ojai (pic on left), a nice small town with Spanish colonial architecture and lined up with an impressive mountain range and a nice vegetation. The property sits on a remote corner of the Ojai valley and the GPS was again useful to reach our destination.
It's ironic that as were were cruising along the streets of Berkeley looking for Donkey & Goat's facility we fell upon a wood-panelled building with the golden sentence :Good Wine is a Necessity of Life (Thomas Jefferson) - Kermit Lynch, Wine Merchant... Kermit Lynch (which is 0,7 mile away from Donkey & Goat) was the first to import artisan wines in California, many falling unknowingly in the natural wine category, and he paved the way for the dramatic change of direction that many wine lovers and winemakers alike have
embarked upon. I didn't
visit the iconic importer but I leave that for the next time...
To sum up
Jared and Tracey Brandt's winemaking philosophy you better read their manifesto, it's more detailed and straightforward than my prose could be :
We add nothing at the vat after crush save the occasional minuscule dose of SO2 if we have a rainy year where rot is an issue. That means no enzymes to enhance color and extraction, no tannin, no commercial yeast, no nutrients to feed the super yeast and 95% of the time no SO2 (until after MLF completes). We can control temperature via manipulating ambient temperature with a refrigerated container and warm rooms within the winery. That's it.[...] the only time we've ever had a problem was in 2004 when we inoculated a few vats as an experiment to prove our wild yeast preference. The inoculated vats had stuck fermentations and we later dumped the wine rather than fall down the slippery slope of additions to correct additions (we dumped the equivalent of 50 cases).
That is one of the problems we have with inoculations. Winemakers choose cultured yeast for various attributes that include performance and aromatic profile. But the lab yeast need huge amounts of food. So the regimen becomes, kill the microbial life with SO2 & Lysozyme, add super yeast, add vitamins and nitrogen (DAP or diammonium phosphate being very popular) to feed these hungry microbes. Then hope the yeast don't put off any off aromas like H2S because of the imbalance in their diet. If they do, add Copper. Then rack and filter and add more SO2... it never stops. And don't get me started on the great irony of adding vast amounts of DAP to the vat to feed yeast. Guess which yeast also LOVES DAP and for that matter any additive rich in thiamin. Read the ingredients on most wine additives and you'll see thiamin at the front. That would be brettanomyces, the dark angel.
I don't know if it's just an impression or if there's a definitive statistical basis for it, but I felt that there are a lot of women winemakers in America, and I again visited two of them in Napa, California.
Like Kelley and Rebecca in Carlton OR, Helen Keplingerand Marguerite Ryan are working under the roof of a large winery, Cuvaison. Each of them make their own wines independently under their own labels and they have achieved a certain notoriety with their respective cuvées.
Cuvaison is located on the historic Silverado Trail in northern Napa Valley has been a long-time player in Napa, it's around since 1969, it's mostly known for its chardonnay, it was located initially in Calistoga and it moved to this modern location near Napa around 2004. I can't but stress out once more the pragmatism of U.S. law in wine-producing states thanks to which small-size operations can be housed under the roof of large wineries that see an advantage in both the financial contributions and the flow in experience and skills that can result for the benefit of the two parties. It varies from year to year but on average Cuvaison hosts 5 or 6 independant, small-size operations like Helen's and Peggy's.
Another common trait between these two women winemakers is that they embraced the winemaking trail after starting carrers in completely different fields : medicine for Helen and Law for Peggy (Marguerite). America lost a doctor and a lawyer but their wines helped smooth this loss I guess.
Valor winery is a very unusual winery in the sense that what brought these men together in a chai and the vineyard was a shared experience in the Army or in other Corps on foreign theaters of operation, namely Afghanistan and Iraq. They built this project to help other veterans readjust to the civilian life, learn a job and feel support from their fellow service members.
I had visited a
few years ago the vineyard managed by the French Foreign Legion in Puyloubier, Provence, a surprising institution
where Legion veterans are housed and can work together with active-duty légionnaires, helping tend the vines from which the Foreign Legion wines are made. When I heard of a small, private winery in California with a similar focus on helping veterans to adapt and cope with the civil life I thought this was worth reporting on, and recent news reminded us of the urgent need to relieve the silent burden of those who want to readjust to normal life after fighting tough wars to remove bloody regimes and bring democracy in regions where people seem to prefer ethnic/sectarian infighting to the challenges of democratic tolerance and building prosperity.
Livermore is a quiet small town in the valley east of the Bay Area, it's definitely hotter here than in San Francisco and Berkeley where the breeze from the sea keeps you cool. The main street (pic on left) is an enjoyable walk with a few restaurants and terraces, and before visting Valor Winery we had lunch in an excellent Mexican Taqueria, Las Caporales, very good value and authentic, and right on main street.
San Francisco, California
Terroir is known as THE wine bar not to miss in San Francisco, it was the first to take the risk to offer a natural-wine-only list in California, a region which was late to embrace the uncorrected wines compared to New York or Montreal, and this article in
the San Francisco Chronicle praised the opening of the venue in 2007, when Terroir slipped quietly through the back door of the city's wine scene. This was friday and Terroir was open from noon to 2am but I had called Luc and said I'd be there at around 5pm so as not to disturb in the peak hours.
We avoided the high costs of staying downtown San Francisco by staying a couple of nights just outside of the city, namely in the very nice Lake Chabot campground near Oakland, a suprising haven of peace just at the door of the Bay Area's tumult (see picture at bottom). The heart of the city was just a few minutes away through the majestic Oakland Bay bridge.
Terroir is centrally located and we found a convenient and affordable parking nearby for the day, the Silver Parking on 7th street (12 $), with all of this vibrant city of San Francisco at walking distance. As this was the morning we had a breakfast in a relaxed coffee shop near Terroir, the SoMa Inn Café, for me it was a short stack (3 pancakes) at 5,5 $ (didn't I suspect this city to be expensive ?). Their lunch and dinner menu is also very diverse and good value, it seemed to me from reading the menu (but for the wines I suggest you go to Terroir...).
Somerset, California (Sierra Foothills)
If you think you know what uninterventionist, organic farming is, you need to update your understanding of what this term really means in a vineyard and go see Hank Beckmeyer's parcels : here are vines that aren't trained on wires and grow on a soil that is never plowed, along a farming philosophy which is close to
Fukuoka's, with basically plants that grow almost as free as wild bushes. Another thing that puts Hank on another playing field compared to many winegrowers is that he wants to
vinify a vineyard per se, even if this vineyard is planted with apparently unpaired varieties. For example he makes a wine from his estate vines planted around his house and you get all these varieties together that express through the blend the character of the terroir.
There must be few visitors at La Clarine, because like Clos Saron it's quite remote from the beaten path, it's samely deep there in the Sierra foothills, just that it is on the other side of Sacramento in what was known as the Goldrush country, and if the roads of the region are far to be overloaded it's still sometimes arduous to find a given location. But thanks to Gideon who had lent me a spare GPS navigation device, I could now drivre wherever I wanted, even taking side roads randomly just to see what you find en route, and be sure to backtrack safely to my destination route. Next time I visit, I go straight to Walmart (yes, Dove !) and buy one of these devices (car rental companies rip you off for a GPS)...
Anyway, here we are on Snowbird lane (pic on left), the beautiful dirt road leading up to the wine farm, it's a hot California summer and this garrigue smells so good...
Oregon House, Sierra foothills (California)
It doesn't take long to Gideon Beinstock to reach his vineyard : his house sits in the middle of it along the gentle slope of his property in the heavenly peace and remoteness of the Sierra foothills. The whole region is also very different than the more inhabited coastal region, you drive along winding roads through woods, dry-grass prairies patched with trees, and isolated farms, with no malls in sight and the only shopping spot in Oregon House
being the local general store/gas station (pictured on right)
where we had our breakfast. Oregon House Grocery & Deli is the American general store as you dream it, groceries, drinks, local newspapers, coffee shop, even ATM, and gas station. Who needs malls ?
This region of California is also very remote compared to other mainstream wine regions like Napa and Sonoma, and it is also very new to winegrowing; there are only a handful of wineries around here, including the New-Age community Renaissance which was the pioneer in experimenting in a large scale with planting different varieties in different type of expositions here. Gideon worked a few years for Renaissance (he quit since) and his time there helped him advance his understanding on the arduous issue of "what variety fares best on this soil and under this climate", something very important in a wine region with many micro-climates. No wine investor in his own mind would have put money in this virgin region at the time and proceeded therough these lengthy trials and plantings but Renaissance didn't work on business-minded schemes, it is some sort of New Age spiritual group which setlled here in 1971 and its founders wanted I guess to dig roots and make something, so they planted a very large surface of vineyard and built a winery, making wine on a minimalist approach, without intervention or additives.
Arnot-Roberts is a young winery managed by two childhood friends, Duncan Arnot-Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts, who in some way are typical of the new turn being made in California, where people set up wineries not based on mainstream assumptions regarding wine styles and what
sells well and easily, but set up their business with their sight on the wines they like, not wines
that could please easily to the general public.
They started making wine together in 2002, they're mostly into a négociant structure, they don't own vineyards but contract and lease parcels from different growers instead. they started with little money, not big financial support, using their own savings, slowly growing and adding more parcels to their portfolio as years passed by. The first couple of years they made their wines under the roof of a larger winery which spared the expenses on financing a facility and kept them focused on the wines. Then they moved their operations in a small town nearby, Forestville, sharing a facility from 2008 to 2010 before ended up moving here in Healdsburg in 2011 where both of them live with their family. They both have young children and with this warehouse on main street in Healdsburg they could work closer from home.
For once, finding the winery was not arduous, it is located in a small business development along Healdsburg Avenue, in other words main street, just a few hundred meters from downtown. We had time to look around and I was surprised at how Healdsburg had changed in only 7 years, the city grew a lot it seems to me, lots more fancy shops and also land-devouring suburban sprawl compared with the time B. and I dropped there in 2006. Lots of people from elsewhere want to live in this part of California and it fuels a construction boom that worries the city planners who notice that Healdsburg is becoming too visitor-oriented and want to keep growth in control (but isn't it too late?).
Imagine you're in the middle of nowhere in Southern Oregon and you're told that the nondescript low building with its gravel parking lot along the highway is one of the most acclaimed restaurant with also possibly one of the best wine
list in the United States. You would be skeptic at best, or
think your party is teasing you, especially after you see the name of the venue, the New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro, not really the type of name favored by wine geeks and fine cuisine connoisseurs. I suspect that the owner chose the name as a snub to the conventions and I like that, this way he gets the people for whom essence is more important than appearance.
Hidden behind this misleading name and this unexpected location, here is indeed one of top tables of the United States, listed alternatively in Food & Wine as being among America's 50 Most Amazing Wine Experiences and in Bon Appetit as being one of the 10 Best New Romantic Getaways. And Getaway is an appropriate word because people who want to experience the venue must prove their word, you don't need courage to go out for fine dining in Berverly Hills or Berkeley, but Talent is quite out of the beaten path for fine-food addicts, you have to drive through back roads and bland villages, not hype at all...
Speaking of Berkeley, Vernon and Charlene met at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse at the occasion of the 7th-anniversary celebration for the restaurant in 1978. Charlene was a trainee cook then in this restaurant which is said to have transformed America's dining and started a gastronomic awakening in the whole country. Vernon for his part was at the time importing wine from France, which could explain his expertise today and the pertinence of his wine list. Meeting at Chez Panisse was a good omen anyway you could say, for this couple who was to manage later one of the most atypical and demanding restaurants and wine venues in this country.