Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the harvest of our Syrah from a couple of stellar vineyards: Three Creek Vineyard and McGinley Vineyard, both of the newly created Happy Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara. Grapes are typically picked in the middle of the night nowadays. This keeps the grapes cold, locking in their flavors and staving off the possibility of fermentation starting too early. In our case, this meant that crews from our fastidious vineyard manager, Coastal Vineyard Care, were ready to roll at 3:00 a.m.
It’s a bit disorienting to be awake this early in the first place, but as I approached the vineyard, the eerie sight before me only exacerbated my already unbalanced state. Lights hovered above the moonless vineyard like an alien spaceship searching for signs of life. I hopped out of my car, cursing myself for not bringing a flashlight. I picked my way up the sloping vineyard aided by the light of my cell phone. The soil in this area is good and gravelly lending to ideal drainage for grape cultivation. And ‘gravel’ is really a misnomer; if you’re not careful, you’ll trip face-first over gourd size stones.
As I neared the crew, I was struck by the frivolity of the wonderful souls picking what will become the product for which I care so much. There was singing, and hollering, and a sort of verbal whistling. The energy is contagious. When I opened by saying that I ‘participated’ in the harvest, I really should have said I ‘observed’ the harvest. These folks are professionals, and there is no room for Sunday pickers.
They were clad in half the layers I was wearing, despite temperatures dipping into the high 30’s. The grape vines rustled and plunged as the pickers expertly extracted the purple gems from the comfort of their yearlong homes. They move in teams of three, the rear picker eventually moving forward to become the front picker, in a rhythmic cycle until they reach the end of the row. The ‘bucket person’ constantly removes full buckets and replaces them with empty ones when a picker shouts, “Cubo!” The ‘leaf person’ hovers over the pallets removing any leaves, branches, or other foreign material, as the tractor and its four great overhead lights slowly motors just ahead of the pickers.
I’m a big fan of technology; I’d feel naked without my iPhone, iPad, and sophisticated bottling line –and I was an early adopter of screw caps for all our wines. But being in the vineyard, shuffling through the dirt, seeing our grapes hand-picked in the dark and cold by a proud, symphonic team, made me realize how few industries such as winemaking still exist in modern America. We actually get to observe and participate in the entire lifecycle of our product, from earth to bottle. And it’s still an industry where hand-picking and hand-crafting have meaning. Did I have to arise at ‘oh-dark-hundred’ to hustle out to the frigid vineyard? No. Would the grapes have been successfully picked with or without me? Yes. But had I stayed nestled in my warm bed, I would have missed that communion with the soil and people that collectively allow me to do my work.
With Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, I’m grateful for the wonderful people who, through their stewardship, are delivering beautiful fruit to our winery. I’m also grateful that I get to participate in such an ancient and timeless craft.
Mornings are cooler now in the Santa Ynez Valley; fog lies over the vineyards as dawn breaks, clearly indicating the onset of fall. Mother Nature withdraws her vaporous tendrils binding them up for the day to reveal crisp autumn mornings. Vines that have worked so hard all year to produce their fruit are showing signs of completing their cycle, their rich green leaves of summer are now dappled with amber. Most of the white fruit has been harvested in a mad dash to beat October’s first rains, and the thicker-skinned reds are drinking in their last weeks of sustenance before leaving the vine.
My workday starts and ends in the dark at this time of year. In fact, some days don’t end at all. Last week our little crew put in a 38-hour ‘day’ pressing Grenache Blanc and Roussanne ahead of the rain. We’re in a continuous cycle of punch down, crushing, pressing, testing, and bottling. We’re replacing gaskets, and wrangling with vendors to ensure that all equipment is up and running 24 hours a day. Each day I don the hat of mechanic, farmer, scientist, artist, winemaker, salesman, IT guy, and general manager. Weekends become a distant memory, as hazy as the foggy mornings. It’s times like these when I realize how fortunate I am to truly love what I do. If I didn’t, life would be unbearable.
I read Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech after he died last week. As absurd as it sounds, I was struck by a few parallels. The first was his comment that, “It wasn’t all romantic.” I think that many people have a romantic ideal wrapped around the notion of winemaking. And while some of it is true, there are some decidedly ‘unromantic’ aspects to it. Second, I too, was fortunate enough to stumble upon what I loved at an early age. I made my first wine in Australia at the age of 19 and have never looked back. And third, while he lost Apple for a while, I lost my estate vineyard and my winery in 2006. Like Jobs, I found the loss devastating, but it may have been the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m no longer shackled to my estate grapes. I’ve been able to search out grapes to specifically satisfy any flavor profile that I desire and establish a great new winery site. The resulting wines have been both personal and critical favorites.
Late at night, when I leave the winery exhausted from a day that is both physically and mentally taxing, I can’t help but think of those hardy pioneers who came out west to work the land. I go home to electricity, a hot shower, and a soft bed; they went home to lanterns, no bath unless it was Saturday, and a mattress stuffed with straw or perhaps feathers. Still, I suspect we share similar emotions of having completed a hard day’s work and knowing that our crops are in and hoping that we’ll be able to successfully take our product to market. My hands are stained from the grapes and split from the work, but when I look down at them, I know that, like Steve Jobs, I am quite possibly one of the luckiest guys on earth.
Recent wine history reads like a series of medieval sieges: high vs. low alcohol content, corks vs. screwtops, the rise of Pinot Noir and the decline of Merlot. Throughout the battles, I’ve had an opinion or two, but I’ve tried to always stay true to my mantra of ‘drink what you like.’ In the twilight of Robert Parker, Jr.’s indomitable influence on the wine industry, there is another battle, or perhaps more accurately, a revolution on the rise.
It may have been the Arab Spring, but in the wine world, it’s the Wine Blogger Dawn. Wine blogs are springing forth like local militias in eighteenth century New England. Some are commanded by veteran soldiers and some are led by enthusiastic new recruits. But like the revolutionaries before them, they have a common theme: a deep, abiding passion to be heard and counted for what they believe in. They believe in independence of thought and opinion and are unabashed about stating it.
Will this great democratization of wine overrun the Bastille and render the seasoned, established wine critics impotent? No. And that’s OK. Even after a revolution, there must be leadership…just look at what happened to post-revolutionary France…it wasn’t pretty. It sometimes takes a while, but the world eventually finds a relative state of equilibrium. Having been the grateful recipient of some recent positive reviews, I know that it is still a tremendous vote of confidence to get the nod from someone who tastes and writes about wine for a living; from someone who has the respect of many in the wine world. But how does that translate to the real world? For a wine newbie at a wine boutique or searching online to see that The Wine Advocate or The Wine Enthusiast gave a couple of my wines a 94, it lends credibility to my craftsmanship and might influence his or her purchase choice.
That said, I hope that that same newbie might find a wine blogger or local wine columnist who shares his or her palate too; a writer who is finding his or her way through the trenches of terroir, variety, and vintage; a blogger with whom he or she can have a lively and meaningful debate about wine. I’ve discovered some of my favorite wines in just this manner – through friends’ recommendations or wine bloggers/columnists whom I follow.
Ironically, wine is reverting back to what it once was, an accessible beverage to the masses. Sales of lower price wines are booming and wine bloggers and the old pros alike have seized on the notion of QPR – quality: price ratio. If you’re going to charge more, it had better be damned good, because people know that the emperor has no clothes. Glitzy marketing won’t make the customer like it more, and a great review won’t either. It might make someone buy it the first time, but it will no longer make him or her a repeat customer – they’re going to ‘drink what they like.’ Just as in ancient Greece, you have a voice at the assembly and we’re all listening.
‘Sustainability’ and ‘green’ are the buzzwords that seem to be getting more airtime than Charlie Sheen and the ‘debt ceiling’ these days. Poor Lindsay Lohan can’t even compete for press when pitted against an update on the green movement. If you don’t toss one of these words into your speech, website, LinkedIn profile, or campaign platform, you’ll be perceived as an anti-environment, polluting, miscreant.
The good news about the green movement’s popularity is that it’s bringing the notion of sustainability to the public fore. The bad news is that silence on the topic translates to presumed guilt and non-compliance. By nature, I am not a chest-pounder. I was never the guy who ran 74 yards for the game-winning touchdown, then spiked the ball into the ground (though that would have been cool); nor was I the guy who paraded around with a cheerleader draped on each arm (probably would have been cool too). I did my own thing, which included among other things: indulging my fascination with paleontology, playing a tennis racquet air guitar, learning French, and falling passionately in love with the art of winemaking. As a teen, these were not particularly ‘cool’ things. One of these less-than-sexy ‘things’ was an early respect for the environment and sensitivity to man’s impact on it. I’ve never thought of this as something to brag about or expound upon, but perhaps I should fill the silent void.
From the beginning in 1990, Andrew Murray Vineyards has been committed to sustainable farming and green business practices. ‘Green’ is not a fad for us; it’s a way of life. As a small, family-operated winery, our children have been with us amongst the vines since their birth. The last thing Kristen and I want is for our children to cavort in a chemical fog, or to work the land so hard that we eliminate the opportunity for them to have a future in this business.
Our vineyard manager, Coastal Vineyard Care, is committed to the principles of sustainable, organic, and biodynamic vineyard farming. Their low input viticulture methods ensure that the growing of our premium grapes has minimal impact on the environment and their workers. Practices include attention to soil structure and cover crops to reduce soil erosion, use of biodegradable oils, soaps, and plant extracts for controlling pests and mildew, and introducing microorganisms into the soil to encourage nutrient cycling.
Inside the winery, packaging and promotional materials are selected with careful consideration to environmental impact. Our boxes may not be the sexiest ones on the shelf, but they’re made of kraft, natural, recycled cardboard (no virgin pulp) with one color soy ink and no bleach for the printing process. Our letterhead is made from recycled paper, and we use only chemical-free cleaning products. We were early adopters of the Internet, and long ago went paper-free in terms of newsletters and communications with our customers.
There are a variety of bottle thicknesses and shapes available in the wine industry. Variation in these areas translates to variation in weight and raw materials. Though we understand the romantic nostalgia of a big, heavy wine bottle, its additional weight burns more fossil fuels in transportation, and its volume requires more raw materials and fossil fuel in its manufacture. Instead, we use a lighter bottle, thereby reducing use of these valuable resources. In addition, we recently reconfigured our wine club to reduce our carbon footprint in terms of shipping. We now ship three times a year, rather than our former four.
Our friends here in the Santa Ynez Valley often tease us about wearing our ‘life preservers’ (down vests) around town. It’s the uniform that Kristen and I wear day-in-and-day-out at the winery. Of course, wineries are supposed to be kept cool, but we figure not heating our office is just one more way to save energy and go green. We may not be flying a green flag, and we may not be the grooviest folks in the industry, but our concern for the environment has been marked by a steady dedication to sustainable farming and business practices – this is who we are, not something we’ve recently become!
The wine world is filled with a background drone which periodically elevates to a full-fledged din. Like the style of jeans, it’s fickle; one year it’s skinny jeans, the next it’s low-rise, then it’s bell-bottoms, and eventually, a variation of Levi’s 501’s are the thing again. The topic of the buzz changes every couple of years, but it’s always there humming away.
Currently, the wine glitterati cannot satiate itself over the subject of alcohol content in wine. There are essentially two concerns: 1) Vintners are consistently lying about the alcohol content in their wine (claiming it’s lower than it really is) and; 2) The increased alcohol content is ruining wine. Popular bloggers, renowned wine critics, and professional sommeliers are all weighing-in on the matter. The movie Sideways even took a swing at this topic. For some time, I’ve found myself champing at the bit to register my opinion. The other day, however, I read a blog post that encapsulated most of my feelings on the subject. It was written by Steve McIntosh of www.winethropology.com. It was perhaps a bit angrier than I might have written it, but it hit a number of key points: In summary, this is much ado about nothing. The San Francisco Chronicle’s investigation has revealed far fewer offenders than the buzz alluded to, and the worst offender was off by 1.07%. Who cares? And if people are still enjoying wine at a slightly elevated alcohol content, who cares?
Which brings me to the point I would still like to make: Drink what you like. You are the consumer- the customer – trust your own palate. If you want to add an ice cube to your glass of wine, go for it. I’ve been in the wine business for twenty years now. I’ve tasted lower alcohol wines that finish hot, and higher alcohol wines that are perfectly balanced. At a recent event, I sampled a wine that was being lauded for its low alcohol content (12.7%) and for being organically grown. For me, it was so acidic and so out of balance, that it was nearly undrinkable. But that’s my opinion for my palate. As a winemaker, my goal is balance.
This is not Watergate. At the end of the day, jeans are still made of denim and some styles will fit you better than others. Don’t let others tell you what you should like. Trust yourself.
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!