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Monthly Archives: March 2011
As I drove to my winery along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail this morning, I was struck by the exceptional beauty of the Santa Ynez Valley. Like everyone else, this is not a daily occurrence. My mind is often preoccupied with life’s daily challenges: fooling with a cantankerous bottling line; dealing with archaic regulations around interstate alcohol shipment; and determining who is going to pick-up my daughter for dance rehearsal. But every once in a while, I am in that rare contemplative mood when I can drink in my surroundings and relish the fact that I live in such a remarkable locale.
Through the lifting morning mist, I took in the rolling hills, verdant from the recent diluvial rainfall, and reflected upon our journey among the vineyards. When my wife and I first started Andrew Murray Vineyards twenty years ago, we partnered with my parents and planted our own grapes. We planted 45 acres to Rhône varietals in 30 carefully sited vineyard blocks in a kind of vintner’s ‘spice rack’. Characterized by steep hillside rows above the frost line, we boasted that our vineyard was the ‘highest in the Santa Ynez Valley AVA’.
As with so many partnerships, there came a time when it needed to end. For a variety of reasons, we sold the vineyard in 2005 and set-up shop in a new location. Initially crestfallen and feeling as though my soul had been hijacked, I eventually came to realize how liberating our new situation was to be. Like the proverbial ‘kid in a candy shop’ I found myself almost giddy with the prospect of selecting grapes from any vineyard of my choosing. I have always believed that wines are made in the vineyard, and that we winemakers are simply stewards of the vineyard. It’s all about soil and climate, or as the French would say, ‘terroir’. We loosely translate terroir to mean micro-climate, but it’s an inadequate and almost insulting translation. Having lived and worked in France, I can tell you that there’s an almost visceral, soulful quality to the French meaning of the word. It’s a little like saying ‘house’ means ‘home’ in English – it just doesn’t – yet it’s difficult to articulate the subtle differences in the words.
So with the importance of ‘terroir’ woven into the fabric of my being, I began investigating all of our options with the goal of finding the best cool, mid, and warm micro-climates in which my mistress Syrah could blossom. With sleuth-like skills, I sought vineyards in each of these temperate ranges that would enable me to produce both unique single-vineyard Syrah, as well as Syrah to use in creating provocative blends.
In the cooler climes, I picked the Watch Hill Vineyard that lies in the cool corridor of Los Alamos. These grapes are typically lower in potential alcohol content, higher in acidity, and as a result can take longer to reach their potential and of course last longer in the bottle. Producing flavors of black olive, red cherries, crushed raspberries, violet floral notes, white pepper, and that earthy essence that smacks of the forest floor, this wine is reminiscent of authentic French Syrah. I am proud to craft these wines into efforts that resemble my favorites from Côte-Rôtie.
Moving to the warmer climes, I’ve fallen for the McGinley Vineyard in the Happy Canyon region of the Santa Ynez Valley. Further from the ocean, these grapes baste in warm days and comparatively warmer nights. They are spared the cooling and moderating influence of the pacific breezes and the blankets of heavy fog that shroud the coastal vineyards much of the day. The result is a bold Syrah with bright flavors; the earthiness is ripened right out of the purple gems. Black pepper, plumy, blueberry, or dried fruit are apt descriptors of the distinctive Australian-New World tone infused in these powerful little globes.
And somewhere in-between is our middle-child; not the troubled middle-child, but the middle-child who makes peace with his intemperate siblings. We buy these not-too-cool/not-too-warm grapes from the Thompson Vineyard and the Stolpman Vineyard. They walk the delicate political line between France and Australia and produce perfectly distinctive single-vineyard Syrah bottlings.
Indulging my inner mad-scientist, I’ve selected a few outliers as well. I searched and searched for a compelling vineyard in Paso Robles and finally discovered Terra Bella Vineyard. Nestled on steep, chalky soils on the west side of Paso Robles, these vines yield an Australian Shiraz-style grape with a profound hedonistic flavor. The warm days and cool Paso Robles nights translate to a rich lushness with a perceived sweetness from the ultra-ripe tannins. The cool nights and high calcareous content of the soil deliver wines with high ripeness, balanced by a lower pH, which allows the wine to maintain a sense of “freshness” in spite of its higher alcohol and extract. The Syrah from Terra Bella Vineyard is often best on its own or with full-flavored fare, rather than with more delicate meal choices.
I experiment with at least one new vineyard source per year right now, most of which end up as a single-vineyard wine only once, or never at all. These vines typically produce quality blending grapes, but for our single-vineyard bottlings, we’re looking for truly unique characteristics – something inimitable.
At Andrew Murray Vineyards, we only work with two growers. We think of them as the ‘vine whisperers’ of their craft. We’ve known them for decades and we trust them. We select specific rows and clone/rootstock combinations, and we’re confident that our growers will consistently use the highest quality viticultural techniques which they know we demand. To maximize sunshine and minimize shade, we prefer vertical pruning with just one bunch per shoot. This low yield growing technique asks each vine to pour all of its energies into its restricted yield, ensuring that we get great tasting, healthy, concentrated, and small-berried fruit.
Did every detail of these vineyards pass through my mind on my picturesque fifteen minute commute this morning? No, but it made me realize that parting ways with my vineyard led to a certain Renaissance in my winemaking techniques. I’m on an odyssey to discover grapes and develop techniques that will create wines which classically echo their French and Australian brethren. Uncommon wine blends are springing forth as a result of my viticultural rebirth. And while I bask in the enchantment of this region, I am reminded how deeply the essence of the ‘terroir’ is embedded in my being and how grateful I am to have the opportunity to pay homage to it.
Last weekend I was at a dinner party savoring a bite of flaky halibut when the hostess asked me why we use screw tops for our Andrew Murray Vineyards wines.
“Is it a cost-savings strategy?” she asked.
I nearly choked on my fish as I recalled the painful cost of modifying our bottling line to accommodate the new technology.
“No, as a matter of fact it’s not; perhaps over time, but…”
The truth is there are many misconceptions about using ‘cork alternatives’. It’s best to begin at the beginning –
Dating back to Egyptian times, cork was used to stopper bottles. Bear in mind that this practice began in the days of hand-blown bottles, not in the contemporary era of precision glass manufacturing. Thus, the opening of each bottle was slightly different than the others. Cork became an ideal material to ‘stopper’ these inconsistent openings. It can be compressed to fit in the bottle opening then its extraordinary resilience causes it to expand to create a decent seal. It had the then unknown ancillary benefit of also allowing a small amount of oxygen to transfer into the wine.
The oxygen transfer is so important to the making of great wine, that today we talk about the Oxygen Transmission Rate (OTR) in the viniculture world. The slow oxidation of wine adds to the proper maturation of the wine’s flavor. In fact, tests conducted on hermetically sealed wine bottles concluded that great wines MUST be exposed to a certain level of oxygen in order to achieve full flavor development of the wine.
This all sounds pretty straight-forward, but the problem is wines stoppered with cork suffer a 3-5% failure rate. What do I mean by failure rate? Cork is an organic material harvested primarily from the bark of cork oak trees from southwestern Europe and northwestern Africa. During the manufacturing process, the cork is typically treated with a fungicide, is washed, bleached, and finally sterilized. Unfortunately, about 3-5% of the time, some element of this chemical process is leached into the wine, resulting in a ‘corked’ bottle. This cork ‘taint’ is caused by the production of TCA (trichloroanisole) and will cause the wine to taste like wet paper and have a decreased fruitiness, ruining the fresh bouquet of the wine. In short, the result is not what the winemaker set-out to create.
The other contributor to the 3-5% failure rate is leakage through the cork. This might seem fairly innocuous, but note that leaks are never a one-way street; if something can get out, something else can probably get in. A leak often translates to a considerable amount of atmospheric oxygen insinuating its way in to the wine, thus contributing to the 3-5% failure rate. This phenomenon will prematurely oxidize (age) the wine, resulting in less than optimal drinking conditions.
To combat these problems, ‘cork alternatives’, or what I call ‘cork replacements’ have been developed. They have been engineered to produce an optimal OTR, and they do not introduce undesirable chemical elements into the wine. I like to think of them as the Gore-tex® of the wine industry; Gore-tex® keeps moisture out while simultaneously allowing for breathing. Screw tops with food-grade liners allow for the perfect transfer of oxygen into the wine, but keep the wine in the bottle and foreign bodies out. For someone like me who is obsessed with delivering wines that are as fresh as the day we bottled them, I couldn’t authentically face my customers knowing that I was still using what I consider a flawed product – conventional corks.
Our shift drove the purchase of an entire new (and expensive) bottling line using saranex, Stelvin screw tops, but it’s an investment that I’ll never regret. I work hard to eke out the flavors and bouquets in each of my wines and I want my customers to experience precisely what I sought to deliver. With screw tops, I can do that. Now and then I miss the romance and nostalgia of the cork, but I know two things: every bottle of Andrew Murray Vineyards wine is going to taste the way I hoped it would; and I can always open a bottle of AMV whether I have a corkscrew on hand or not!