Elephant Mountain Vineyard in Yakima Valley’s Rattlesnake Hills

Looking South from Elephant Mountain Vineyard across the Yakima Valley

We finished our breakfast and morning flyover seminar, courtesy of Wine Yakima Valley.  With caffeine ingested and a little more information to give us a some perspective on the Yakima Valley, we headed to Elephant Mountain Vineyard.

Rattlesnake Hills AVA

This is a super nested AVA, inside the Yakima Valley AVA which is itself nested within the Columbia Valley AVA. (It is the darker region north of 82 to the West side of the map).

Map Yakima Valley 2019 courtesy of WineYakimaValley.org
Map Yakima Valley 2019 courtesy of WineYakimaValley.org

Located on the North Western side of the Yakima Valley AVA the Rattlesnake Hills AVA was established in 2006 with vineyards dating back to 1968.  It’s about four miles south east of the city of Yakima, where we were staying.  The AVA spans over 74,000 acres with around 1,800 under vine.

Rattlesnake Hills take in the hills running east to west, that are north of the Yakima River.  Elevations for here are high, starting at 850 feet and going to over 3,000 feet, with most vineyards planted in the lower elevations.

Want to get really geeky on this area?  Visit the washingtonwine.org page for Rattlesnake Hills  https://www.washingtonwine.org/wine/facts-and-stats/regions-and-avas/rattlesnake-hills

Elephant Mountain Vineyard

It was October and harvest as we drove into Elephant Mountain Vineyard.  We passed bins filled with fruit harvested that morning and had to stop and take grape glamour shots. 

We climbed up the mountain through the vineyards surrounded by high desert landscape.  I will admit to it feeling a little odd.  We are from Vegas and to see a vineyard in the midst of this landscape was a little disconcerting.  We climbed the hill to the picnic area on top, where picnic tables were set out with bottles of wine and plates of wine grapes.

Elephant Mountain Vineyard
Elephant Mountain Vineyard, in Yakima Valley’s Rattlesnack Hills AVA

The Vineyard itself is located on the southern slopes of Rattlesnake Ridge which sits at the base of Elephant Mountain.  The ridge sits above the Missoula Flood plain.  Elevations here sit from 1320-1460 feet.The high elevation here means that they have about 30 more frost free days than the rest of the Yakima Valley.

Varieties Grown at Elephant Mountain

First planted in 1998 with Merlot and Cabernet, the vineyard has expanded to almost 120 acres which now includes Cab Franc, Mourvédre, Grenache, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Sangiovese, Cinsault, Counoise, Barbera and Viognier, Marsanne & Roussanne. 

I mentioned the grapes on the table.  It was a gorgeous line-up for tasting the ripe grapes of Cinsault, Counoise, Mouvédre, Grenache, Syrah, Marsanne & Roussanne.

  • Cinsault grapes at Elephant Mountain Vineyard
  • Roussanne grapes at Elephant Mountain Vineyard
  • Marsanne & Counoise grapes at Elephant Mountain Vineyard

Co got started giving us a little background on the area and then, Joe Hattrup, the owner of the vineyard met us to speak about the vineyard. 

Joe Hattrup speaking to us about his Elephant Mountain Vineyard
Joe Hattrup speaking to us about his Elephant Mountain Vineyard

Joe has been a farmer all of his life, but when they started this vineyard, he was new to wine grapes. So they set up a test block to see what worked and learn about the grapes before planting them in the commercial blocks.

Elephant Mountain Vineyard map
Elephant Mountain Vineyard map

They began as I said with Cab & Merlot and quickly got into Syrah. From there they found tat this site with it’s high elevation was good for many of the Rhône varieties. Most Rhônes are late ripening and the elevation here gives them those 30 additional days frost free, as well a great southern exposure late in the year to help with ripening.

They do have a second vineyard, Sugarloaf, also in the Rattlesnake Hills. He mentioned that they had pulled out the Viognier here at Elephant Mountain to plant Grenache which is in high demand and grows better with the protection this site provides.

A little on the Geography

We mentioned the elevation here, but Co put this into perspective with a few stats. At this point in the Yakima Valley, the river sits at 900 feet, and we were standing at about 1450 feet. When you head east to Red Mountain, the river there sits at around 400 feet. So you can see the valley is much lower there.

  • Desert, Vineyard and basalt. In Yakima Valley's Elephant Mountain Vineyard
  • Basalt at Elephant Mountain Vineyard

We were standing in a ring of basalt lava rocks which informs the soils. Up on the ridge behind us, if you look closely, you can see a tree line. A band of trees sites at about 1600 feet, right at the line for moisture, fog and snow.

The views

Spectacular panorama of the Yakima Valley from Elephant Mountain Vineyard
Spectacular panorama of the Yakima Valley from Elephant Mountain Vineyard
  • View of Mount Adams from Elephant Mountain Vineyard
  • Looking South from Elephant Mountain Vineyard across the Yakima Valley
  • Vineyard View Elephant Mountain.

The wines

The lineup of wines on the table, all from wineries who source from this vineyard, was diverse and impressive!  The grapes are concentrated and the wines from these grapes tend to be really inky.

We tasted a wide sampling of Rhône varieties and blends from an assortment of wineries, all with fruit from this vineyard. It was really interesting to see the reflection of the fruit with it’s similarities and then the expression of the various winemakers on top of this.

  • Wines made with Elephant Mountain fruit WBC18

We were treated to a great lunch following this tasting. A food truck with Authentic Mexican food arrived to fill our bellies. I felt even more at home, with food truck the desert sage brush. Once full, we climbed back into our vans and headed to Walla Walla for the start of the Wine Bloggers Conference. But along the way, we took in some spectacular views and our driver filled us in on the history of the area, ancient as well as recent.

I’ll do yet another shout out to Barbara Glover at Wine Yakima Valley. This visit that she planned for us was entertaining, informative and beautifully paced. Thanks also to Co Dinn and Joe Hattrup for taking the time to give us these great insights into the Yakima Valley Wine Region. And of course to WBC18, without which we might not have visited this beautiful region.

As always be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up to date on all of our posts.

Winter in the Vineyard

winter-vineyard

Winter in the Vineyard. It’s the quiet time. Harvest is over, the cellar has done their thing and now the wine sits quietly and ages. The leaves in the vineyard turn red or golden and then fall, the vines are going dormant. They will get pruned mid winter, cutting back the vines to ensure a healthy crop for next year.

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Fertilizing the vineyard

Now is the time to compost the vineyard. Many vineyards save the unripe fruit and/or pomice (the skins from the grapes after the wine is pressed off) to use in their compost. Sometimes additional fertilizers will be added. (We like when they used the natural kind). Then the soil is disked to get the nutrients mixed in with the topsoil. This way when the rain comes the soil can soak up all these nutrients.

Grapevines and mustard growing in California's Napa Valley

Grapevines and mustard growing in California’s Napa Valley

Cover Crops

Cover crops will also be seeded, and coming up, likely making the vineyards look green in early winter. Cover crops help with keeping down erosion, adding nutrients back into the soil and help lure in those beneficial insects. Vineyards with sheep and other animals may have them out grazing in the vines. This helps keep the soil loose and adds natural fertilizer.

Pruning

Pruning may seem simple. It’s just cutting back the vines of course, but there is strategy involved.

A weaker vine may be pruned more deeply than a healthy vine.

Pruning also has some determining factors for harvest. As you prune you determine the number of spurs per vine (the knubs left of the pruned branch which will bud out in the spring). Each spur will have a shoot in the spring that will probably hold 2 clusters. So when you prune you can calculate your crop size for the next vintage (of course accounting for frost, shatter, birds, rot and rain, LOL).

There is also the matter of timing in pruning. All the vines of a varietal that you prune at the same time are likely to ripen at about the same time. So spreading the pruning out a little, changes the pacing of your harvest. And Pruning will stimulate the vines causing them to push out earlier. So depending on your forecast for spring, you might hold your pruning until later.

The pruning typically removes most of the canes leaving just those spurs. As you prune you can see how the sap is flowing. The sap flows stronger as you close in on bud break

These vine cuttings can be used to graft to new rootstock to plant again.

Pruning is often done by hand and it is laborious work. There are Pre-pruning machines that can cut the larger parts of the canes back, making it easier to get in and finish the job by hand.

As winter ends we will head toward spring and as the sap starts to flow and we get closer to bud break the sleepless nights when freeze warnings happen. But that’s for Spring (and you thought spring was all bright greens and flowers?)

 

find out more of how the Seasons work in Wine country.

From Dirt to Glass – Michael Larner on Heat Spikes during Harvest

Larner Vineyard Sunset

We spoke with Michael Larner out at his Ballard Canyon Vineyard in June and asked about how heat spikes affect him around Harvest.

“The nature of Syrah is that it is always harvested in October.” “We never see heat spikes in October so we don’t have to panic.”

Heat spikes cause sugars to go up. As the vines become stressed for water the first place they get it from is the berries. As the berries dehydrate from the vine pulling moisture the sugar levels increase and concentrate. This is only temporary and the sugar levels will stabilize again when the temperature drops or when the vine gets more water.

Watching the weather and planning ahead they can water before a heatspike so that the sugar levels don’t soar. This gives the clients a couple more weeks before harvesting when the wineries are typically full at the end of harvest. Michael says he tells clients “Let me water it, rather that you having to water it in the winery!”.

for more on Larner Vineyards

from Dirt to Glass

Larner Vineyard & Winery

Larner Vineyard Site

Ballard Canyon

Santa Barbara Wines- the Highlight Reel!

AVA Santa Barbara Elkpen Mural Central Coast Wine Country

We are back from our trip to Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles and I wanted to quickly get the highlights out and give some shout outs to people and places that made this an exceptional trip.

Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro SB

Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro SB

We started the trip in Santa Barbara, walking the beach, exploring the murals in the funk zone and then heading up to beautiful State Street for lunch and a flight at Wine Bistro Pierre Lafond.  This beautiful café has great sidewalk tables that let you take in the romance that is State Street while enjoying great food and wine.  There is great history here, more about that in a later blog.

 

Grassini Tasting Room

Grassini Tasting Room

Our next stop was Grassini Family Cellars.  This winery is located in Happy Canyon and they specialize in Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Their tasting room is located in the historic El Paseo shopping center near Au Bon Climat and Margerum.  This is a beautiful space and Katie Grassini stopped in while we were there and we had a wonderful conversation about their wines, the winery and the sustainable practices they are using there.

 

Carr SB Tasting Room

Carr SB Tasting Room

From there we headed off the beaten track a little to Carr and we tasted through their line up.  The space here is a converted Quonset hut giving it a feel of the inside of a barrel.  They also have wines available here on tap.

 

AVA Santa Barbara Elkpen Mural

AVA Santa Barbara Elkpen Mural

Now it was back into the Funk Zone proper to AVA Santa Barbara, previously known as Anacapa Vintners.  This beautiful tasting room features wines from each of the Santa Barbara AVA’s.  On the entire wall behind the tasting room bar you will find a huge Elkpen mural that shows the AVAs and describes the climates, soils and topography.  They have soil samples on the counter to look at and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable.  For wine geeks that get into the soil and climate this is heaven.

To finish our day we headed down to Stearns Wharf to Conway Family Wines Deep Sea Tasting Room.  This beautiful tasting room is on the 2nd level on the Wharf with beautiful views of the coast and the ocean.  Their Deep Sea Wines are made with coastal grapes.  Shout out to Lauren for a great tasting!

Conway's Deep Sea Winery

Conway’s Deep Sea Winery

 

We finished the day with some sunset shots followed by dinner on the end of the Wharf at Santa Barbara Shellfish Company…tiny and perfect!

Santa Barbara Shellfish Co.

Santa Barbara Shellfish Co.

 

Just before bed I realized I had a message from Morgen McLauglin from the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, she had been searching to see if anyone was harvested so we could go get some harvest shots.  Well she found a small harvest happening at none other than Clos Pepe.  So we were up early the next morning to meet her at the vineyard at 5:45.

Clos Pepe in the Santa Rita Hills

Clos Pepe in the Santa Rita Hills

This unexpected boon turned out to be so much more than we expected.  Michael jumped in getting shots and Morgen and I chatted and she walked me down to meet Wes Hagen, the winemaker.  Wes handed us gloves, clippers, a bucket and a head lamp and directed us on the finer points of harvesting pinot noir.  The harvest was for a sparkling project that he was working on with another winery. We spent about 2 hours helping to harvest 2 rows of beautiful tight clusters of pinot noir and watching the sun come up.  And…we were lucky enough that Wes invited us to tag onto a tour and tasting he was doing later that day.

 

Vines at Carhartt

Vines at Carhartt

After a quick cleanup and breakfast at Succulent in Solvang, we headed to Carhartt for a winery tour with Joe the new Wine club manager.  We got to see all the new buildings the harvest prep and then head up to the ridge to see the vineyards as well as the newly planned vineyard site.

 

Saarloos & Sons

Saarloos & Sons

We headed back into Los Olivos for a little wine and dessert!  “Enjoy Cupcakes” has cupcake flights available daily to pair with Saarloos and Sons tastings.  If you are here on a weekend, this is really something you shouldn’t miss.

We managed to have time for one more shared tasting at Presqu’ile.  This is a stunning tasting room that they unfortunately closed after Labor Day.  Don’t be too sad though, they have a tasting room open at their new winery in Santa Maria.  Everyone I have spoken to says the new winery is beautiful.  The wines here I found to have a unique flair which seems to come from their winemaker.  I look forward to stopping by the winery on our next trip.

At this point it was time to head back out to Clos Pepe.  I will have an entire post about our visit here.  Wes Hagen opens his mouth and fascinating facts fall out.  The wines were spectacular and the information and knowledge shared was beyond expectations.  If you are in the area and love wine, you should schedule a visit with Wes.

We ended our day in the world’s tiniest tasting room at Carhartt’s which becomes quite the gathering spot at the end of the day.  They are open an hour later than the other tasting rooms and end up being quite the industry gathering spot. And then caught a light dinner at Avant in Buellton.

 

Hilliard Bruce

Hilliard Bruce

The next morning we were off to Hilliard Bruce.  As I was tweeting about our upcoming trip, I had a tweet from them saying, “If you can, you’ve got to see the canopy management at Hilliard Bruce Vineyards at least once before you die.”  Well with an offer like that…  So we went.  This is a mind bogglingly beautiful property.  John Hilliard and Christine Bruce are both Certified Master Gardeners and they love their plants.  The entire property is beautifully landscaped and truly, the canopy management is beyond anything you will see anywhere else.  Again, you will get an entire blog post on this exceptional property, but let me say that between the wine, the property and the people this was really an amazing visit.

Lots more fascinating details to come as well as photos and video!

A harvest vineyard walk at Tablas Creek Vineyards

Tablas Creek Wine Walk

We gathered in the shade just outside the Tablas Creek tasting room.  You could tell why we were here by our sturdy shoes.  Yes it was almost 100 degrees, but we were wine lovers ready to brave the elements to find out more about this wonderful winery with a vineyard walk and tasting.

Levi Glenn, the Tablas Creek Viticulturist gave us some basics on the winery history before we got started.  The Perrin and Haas families joined to find vineyard land here in California to grow the Rhone varieties that the Perrins’ have long grown at Chateau de Beaucastel in France’s Rhone Valley.  The Tablas Creek property is on the same latitude, the climate and soil are both similar and when they bought this 102 acre property in 1989 they began the process of bringing the traditional Rhone varieties grown on the Perrins’ estate to this country.  The cuttings from France had to go through a three year process to be sure that they were virus free.  In order to have enough vines to actually make wine, they started a nursery, bench-grafting vines to plant on the estate and enough to sell to other vineyards.  While they no longer have the nursery, they partner with NovaVine in Sonoma to create Tablas Creek clones from grafted vines and bud wood.  Many wineries are now raising Tablas Creek clones to create their Rhone style wines.

They grow sustainably, organically and use biodynamic practices.  There is a compost tea that they use to fertilize the vines and they plant sections of the vineyard with insectaries to encourage beneficial insects.

We headed down the drive then past the head-pruned Mourvedre by the gate and continued down to the lambing barn and barnyard.  Levi talked about the animals, they have 2 donkeys and 5 alpacas that guard the herd of 40 sheep. The sheep are primarily used to mow down the cover crops.  Over the season they can cover 30-40 acres of vineyard.  In addition they fertilize as they mow.  Once the vineyards are growing the sheep have to be moved elsewhere and still need to be fed.  Typically they grow legumes as cover crops to add nitrogen back into the soil.  They had some vines that were showing a little too much vigor so instead they planted barley as their cover crop.  This works beautifully as they can then harvest the barley to use as feed for the herd.

While here they poured us a cool and refreshing glass of the 2012 Vermentino, one of only 2 non Rhone varieties grown on the estate.  This was the wine that got me hooked on Tablas Creek when I recieved it as a gift from a friend.  Enjoying this wine as the sun came dappled through the poplars, we took in the animals, the view of the cutting shed and the beautifully ripening Grenache.

Refreshed, it was time to move on up the long hill to the top where Chef Jeff Scott waiting under the oak trees.  The vineyard views are beautiful.  At the top of the hill you have a view of the las tablas creek area including Halter Ranch next door.  Reveling in the shade they poured us glasses of the 2011 Estate Rose, a blend of Mourvedre, Grenache and Counoise. We enjoyed the view and Chef brought out a tray of figs topped with goat cheese to pair.

We headed back down the hill to the  head pruned Roussanne block.  We believe these are the only head-pruned Roussanne vines in the state. The 2009 Roussane is a gorgeous golden color.  Rousanne is often very difficult to grow (NovaVine calls it “the princess”).  This is the backbone to the Esprit du Beaucastel Blanc their flagship white wine adding richness, weight  and honey with a nice salinity on the backend.  Chateau du Beaucastel makes their Roussanne Vielles Vignes which is considered one of the greatest white wines in France. “Roux” is the French word for “russet” which describes the color of the grapes when ripe and gives us the base for the name “Roussanne”.  This is the latest ripening white Rhone varieties that are grown at Tablas Creek.  The vines respond highly to sunlight and bunches that get sun on the western side will ripen faster than those on the eastern side.  This is also a wine that will age well, case in point we were drinking a 2009 and it was rich and stunning.  After Levi gave us the run down on the grape, Chef Jeff pulled out the pairing.  This was a crostini with fresh ricotta and thyme roasted golden beets topped with a piece of candied bacon.  Beets and bacon pair well and both were gorgeous with the wine.

Across from the Roussanne there are scattered fruit trees including some Quince.  Levi supplied me with a quick recipe for quince paste.

As we had walked down I noticed a large rack with netting and asked Levi when they netted before harvest.  He said that they no longer net.  There are so many vineyards locally that the birds no longer descend and feast, but rather just stop in here and there for a snack which is not an issue.  They still have air cannons when needed.

We headed back up the hill to the head trained Tannat.  This is the other non Rhone variety grown on property.  Levi said that it has been called Tablas Creek Zin, as it is so rich, deep and flavorful.  This grape thrives in the Tablas Creek climate and soils.  Levi says that it takes almost no work and produces consistently good fruit.  Tannat is found most notably in the Basque country on the Spanish border.  Growing this at Tablas Creek was actually a little bit of an accident.  The Perrins’ French nurseryman included cuttings when he packed up the Rhone varieties in 1990 even though it was not requested.  His instincts told him that this grape would do well in Paso Robles and I for one would like to thank him!  The berries have very thick skins which add to the tannins in the wine.  It is fermented open top to allow more oxygen to soften the tannins and then is aged in small barrels again to introduce more oxygen.  In 2010 most of the 248 acres of Tannat planted in California came from Tablas Creek cuttings.  This wine is beautifully balanced with acid, fruit and tannin.  Chef Jeff Scott then had to figure out a way to do a cold red wine pairing out in the vineyard!  He succeeded overwhelmingly with this small bite, which still makes my mouth water whenever I think of it (and I think of it often!).  He prepared Rillettes in the style of the south of France. The pork is slow cooked for 6 hours in it’s own fat then sits in olive oil, thyme and garlic to soak up some more goodness.  This is placed on crostini topped with caramelized onions, drizzled with a pommerey mustard aioli and sprinkled with fleur de sel and black pepper. The fat in the rillettes paired with the acid and tannins in the wine were perfect.  We enjoyed the wine, watched the sun set, had some great conversations and suddenly turned around to find that only 1/3 of the group was left!  We headed back down to the winery and tasting room in the slowly dimming light, sated and fulfilled.  There’s really nothing like being part of the Tablas Creek family.  The staff was incredible and the other wine club members we met share our love for great wine and fascinating wine facts.  Levi was extremely patient as we all pummeled him with questions, answering and enlightening us.  All in all it was a glorious evening.

A weekend in West Side Paso.

Paso-Robles-Feature

Our trip to Paso this time is a little more focused as we hit the North end of Vineyard Drive and the West end of Adelaida Road.  The big events we are attending are a Tasting through the Vineyard with Neil Collins (winemaker) and Levi Glenn (viticulturist) at Tablas Creek and a Vineyard View Sunset BBQ at Halter Ranch.  So our other tastings we chose to keep in the neighborhood.

Tablas Creek and Neil Collins you will find plenty of blog posts on.  They are perhaps my favorite winery on the planet.  This event will give us the history of the vineyard and winery as well and learning about the farming techniques and tasting grapes on some of the blocks and then the wines that have been made from them.  There will also be small bites to pair.  Really, this sounds like heaven to me and I can’t wait to tell you all about it when we get back!

Halter Ranch Spring Vines

Halter Ranch Spring Vines

At Halter Ranch we will enjoy a Vineyard View Sunset BBQ on the deck of the new winery.  The dinner line-up sounds amazing, and the views are sure to be spectacular.

At some point there will be lunch at Kukkula.  The name means hill or high place in Finnish. The vineyard is on 80 acres overlooking the Adelaida schoolhouse.  The tasting room is beautiful and modern and built into the hillside.  It was designed to be energy efficient.  They serve lunch on the weekends so this looks like a perfect spot.

We also plan to get out to DAOU which we missed doing on our last trip.  They will have music Friday afternoon, so the goal is to make it for that. This winery is perched at 2,200 feet on the hills on the south side of Adelaida Road.  The views from their Spanish Colonial style winery are spectacular.  An anomaly in this area of the valley, they grow and focus on Cabernet!  The property, the Hoffman Mountain Ranch was originally found by non other than Andre Tchelistecheff.  Dr. Hoffman purchased it in 1964 and this was the first commercial winery in Paso and…they grew Cab.  We will enjoy some music, taste some Cab and learn more about this amazing property!

Lone Madrone is Neil Collins personal label and he has a new tasting room across from Adelaida.  This is perfect to keep his tasting room and Tablas Creek close.  He sources grapes from small, locally owned and sustainable vineyards on west side Paso, working closely with the vineyards.  The new tasting room is in a converted barn and has two patios where you can enjoy the wine and the view.  I am hoping that we can also taste some of the Bristols Cider that Neil makes.

Jada, which is on Vineyard Drive, offers cheese pairings from Vivant, and how can you pass that up!  They have an open air tasting room and you can reserve tables on the patio.  They focus on Rhone and Bordeaux style wines here.

After reading Alice Feiring’s book “Naked Wine”, I felt I had to plan a visit to Carmody McKnight!  Gary and Marion Conway purchased this land near Justin more than 40 years ago and have been making “Natural Wines” here ever since.  Soil studies on the property show that there were once three volcanoes here and the soils here have been dubbed super soils and wonder soils that are seen nowhere else on the planet. So…we will taste their natural wines and learn about the super soils and get some of their opinions on “Natural Wines” which is a pretty hot topic these days!  Oh and on the celebrity side, Gary Conway began as an actor and artist and Marian McKnight Conway is a well-known former Miss America.   Their daughter Kathleen is the winemaker.

In all the times that we have been to this area of Paso Robles, we have never managed to stop at Pasolivo the olive oil company.  The trees here are over 15 years old and they are an award winning olive oil company.  With a variety of flavored oils I may just stock up!

Winemaker Kevin Riley is the consulting winemaker at Shale Oak and several other wineries locally.  Proulx (Pru) is his own winery with his wife Genoa.  The vineyard here is 55 years old.  In addition to their own fruit, they source from the best Paso vineyards.  This tiny winery produces just 1500 cases yearly.  Maybe, we will get lucky and Kevin will be around and we can talk winemaking with him!

And it’s close to harvest so we hope to get lost of great shots of grapes ready to pick, maybe some harvest action and get to speak with fabulous wine makers!

Yes, it’s an ambitious trip and while we want to fit lots in, we will stop along the way to smell the wine.  We will sadly have to edit stops on the way so that we can spend time and fully appreciate the places we do stop.  You can look forward to great blog posts on our return!

Gravity flow wineries. Isn’t this just common sense?

Halter Ranch Gravity Flow

Gravity flow wineries.  Lately it’s a high tech term, but really it seems like common sense doesn’t it?  In Bordeaux Chateau Lynch-Bages built a tank house that employed a railed gravity flow system in 1850. The lower level held the vats and the upper level was for de-stemming and crushing so that the juice would flow (via gravity) into the vats below.

Gravity flow these days is seemingly expensive with huge complexes built to support this method.  The Palmaz Winery in Napa is the ultimate example of this. This is  the ultimate in gravity flow winery design.  This winery is built in Mount George in Napa.  The wine cave is 18 stories tall with fermentation tanks that rotate on a carousel under the crush pad.

 

Halter Ranch Wine Making Facility

Halter Ranch Wine Making Facility

Halter Ranch in Paso Robles just finished a beautiful new facility that is designed for gravity flow and ease of work flow for winery workers.   On top of that the place is stunning. ( more on Halter Ranch Soon)

Of course there are simpler methods.  Take Willakenzie Winery in Yamhill Oregon.  This winery is simply built to be 3 stories down the side of a hill.  The top floor is for sorting and de-stemming, the middle floor for fermentation and tank storage and the bottom floor for barrel storage.  The juice/wine flows from one floor down to the next via gravity.

But even small wineries can make this system work.  You just have to have your tanks higher than your barrels!  A simple hose from the tank to the barrel will work!  You save the expense of the pumping equipment as well as the maintenance and energy costs.  This method is a bit more time consuming though.  You can fill a barrel in 4 to 5 hours, but…if you don’t wish the gravity to push too hard on your wine, you might adjust your hose to allow the juice to flow more slowly taking 7 to 8 hours to fill a barrel.  So if you are a big mass producing winery you probably don’t want to take the time to do this.  But…if you are in the business of making good wine…

So what kind of damage can pumping do to wine?  From the top you want to gently press the grapes and have them release their juice.  Crushing is actually a pretty harsh word.  In crushing the concern is breaking the seeds and imparting the astringent tannins into your wine. (of course there are winemakers who utilize the tannins in both seeds and stems to great result! ie Brewer/Clifton)  Pumping can force through solids and then requiring additional filtration for your wine.  Pumping also imparts oxygen into the wine and this can affect the aging of the wine.  Pumping can be especially unwanted with the more nuanced varieties of wine like pinot noir as it can disturb the subtleties in the wine.

From an environmental standpoint it is reducing the energy use.  You don’t have to pay for gravity on the electric bill!  Building a gravity flow winery in the beginning will save you energy and equipment cost in the end.

So does it make the wine better?  Well, it treats it more gently and after we torture the grapes on the vine, that seems to be the preferred method of treating them post harvest.  It is energy efficient and seems to be kinda common sense (work smarter not harder!).  In the end there are so many variables.  When you use gravity flow you are again trying to have as little outside influence on the grape as possible.   After that it is in the winemaker’s hands.  And…well before that it is in the vineyard managers hands, as well as the weather.  So many variables.  All in all, a gravity flow system is an ideal, that can be put into practice with a little forethought in building.  It is environmentally better and should in the long run be cheaper.  As to it making the wine taste better?  Maybe it’s time for a comparison test!?  (Any excuse to taste more wine!)

Ponte Family Estate Winery, a Tour in Temecula, CA

We visited the winery earlier this year in February (see our previous blog post on Ponte here) and enjoyed lunch on the patio at the restaurant and then Fred gave us an astoundingly informative tour, and then a tasting with Michel in tasting room.  We recently planned a trip to Temecula, which we will be posting on shortly while researching our trip we came upon some lost information that we learned from our tour with Fred, an we though we would share.

Ponte Family Vineyard, Christmas 2012

Ponte Family Vineyard, Christmas 2012

Ponte Winery is in Temecula California, just northeast of San Diego.  The vineyard is located where it directly receives the maritime influences of the coast from the Rainbow Gap.  The soil structure here is coarse and poor.  This is ideal because you can then control exactly which nutrients you feed the vines. This nutrient mix is provided through irrigation once each year in March and the blend is different for each vineyard depending on the variety. With poor soil you don’t have to be concerned with nutrients already in the soil so it doesn’t interfere with the ideal nutrients for each grape.  Grape vines have an aggressive root structure, burrowing deep searching for ground water.  The water table at Ponte sits at 50 feet deep. Falker  (a winery down the road) did measurements to see how deep some of their 25 year old vines roots went and found that they went about 17 feet deep.  On the Ponte property are 10 acres 2 blocks of 5 acres each of Zinfandel and Sangiovese that were planted in 1960.  The roots on these over 50 year old vines go down 30 ft.  Eventually these roots will hit the water table and they will self irrigate.  Irrigation in wine country is not like in farm country, you are not looking for big juicy grapes.  Rather than watering daily they stress the vines by doing one 18 hour drip irrigation session once every 2 to 3 weeks. This keeps the grapes small and intensely concentrated.

While there is frost protection with fans and misters for the citrus groves that surround many of the vineyards, the vineyards are not concerned with frost protection as the season for frost is short enough that the vines are always dormant at that time. Bud break happens in March.  Winemakers and Vineyard Managers can tell which vine is which by the flowers in bud break.  By testing the flowers and leaves they can see how much nickel etc. is in the vine and that in turn helps to determine how to mix the formula for nutrients.

We tasted a Dolcetto that was exclusively Temecula. This juice is being staged for blending with material with Paso and Santa Barbara.  This was a tank tasting from of the stainless steel tanks out on the crush pad. It was still decidedly grape juice and was very tart, but you could taste the potential in it!

At Ponte they harvest during the night.  Sunlight affects the sugar levels of the grapes, causing the brix level to change throughout the day. To avoid this variable and have a uniform brix level you harvest at night.  After the grapes are harvested they go through the destemmer, are crushed twice and then the skin seeds and all are put into the large stainless steel tanks.  At Ponte they only process one type of grape at a time. After this comes the settling process where the grape juice settles for 3 to 5 days.  During that time skins rise to the top and seeds sink to the bottom.  The winemaker then checks the acidity etc to see how much yeast to add.  Then yeast is added and here begins the chemical reaction changing sugar to alcohol.  This generally takes 7-10 days for fermentation to be complete.  The winemaker stops at the alcohol level he has predetermined and then pumps off.  All of the skins and seeds sink to the bottom and workers scoop out this “must” which is then put back into the soil.

The barrel room is kept at 60 degrees.  All the red wines are aged here as well as the oaked Chardonnay’s. The Ponte Viognier is not oaked.  95% percent of the barrels Ponte uses are French oak that either come from Vosges near Alsace or Burgundy which is noted for it’s perfect white oak wood.  They have been experimenting with white oak from Hungary and Bulgaria and some American oak.  The difference between French oak and American oak is that the staves in Europe dry for at least 3 years, whereas in America they only dry for about a year and a half.  This creates a coarser product and more intense flavors.  The more aged the staves are the more subtle the flavors.

French barrels are expensive currently running $850 per barrel new.  Each barrel will be used for about 3 agings.  The wine maker earns their pay by also knowing which wines to age in new, medium and late oak to impart the exact flavors they are looking for.  You can tell a late oak barrel in the barrel room by the stain and seepage (angels share).  After the barrels have run their lifespan they are sold at $75 each to wine club members.  Each barrel weighs 100 plus pounds empty because the staves are so thick.  The majority of Ponte’s barrels are done at medium to light toast.  Their Syrah is done with a heavier toast and is probably their smokiest wine. About 80% of their barrels have light toast the rest are at medium toast and then winemaker blends. Each barrel holds 288 bottles or 24 cases of wine.

As the barrel room is kept at 60 degrees people often ask about how they can do events in there? When the barrels are backlit the room is really stunning.  They can warm the room for 1 night to 75 or 80 degrees and it won’t really affect the wine.  If however, it was held at that temperature 4 or 5 days….then you might have a problem.

We tried the 2008 Port out of the barrel.  This will be aged another year and it will release as a reserve port.  It is a Zinfandel port as most of their ports are, but they have made a Cabernet port in the past.  The port had a bit of a bite from the alcohol content, but with an additional year it will be stunning.  A port of this quality should run $85-$90 per bottle. But only their wine club will be lucky enough to get a shot at it!

The reserve room at Ponte is reserved for wine club members and is open on Saturday and Sunday to give wine club members a place to get away from the crowd.  They also do small plates menu.

The restaurant is open Friday and Saturday nights for dinner.  With the Tasting room closed at that time it’s quiet, you can see the stars and enjoy the noise of the romantic frogs.

In addition to the winery, tasting room and restaurant they recently opened the Ponte Vineyard Inn so you can stay in comfort right in the heart of Temecula Wine Country.

Ponte Inn, Temcula in oil

Ponte Inn, Temcula in oil

If you are in Temecula, I highly recommend both lunch and a tour.  Plan ahead and book a room at the Inn!