Passionista Treasure Hunt: Vineyard Hike

Treasure Hunt

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The Passionista tasting room crew demanded a preview of the 8 new wines currently available for Pre-Release. We planned to conduct the tasting perched above the vineyard in the newly completed Villa Angeli.

Of course, holding a staff tasting requires sitting down for a meal together, so alas, we had a perfect excuse for Chef Bryan Blakeboro to break in the giant Villa Angeli Kitchen.
Winemaker Sashi Moorman had an even better idea. Sashi felt it would be invaluable to taste each wine within its specific vineyard block of origin rather than tasting indoors. We could sample both the ripe grapes and the finished wine from each particular block.
I set out a treasure hunt of chilled wine bags and water throughout the vineyard Sunday afternoon. At 6pm, the Passionistas met Sashi and Ruben on the grass under the Villa Angeli oak grove to begin our tasting journey through the vineyard.

Vantage Points

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From the Villa Angeli oak grove, we looked down at the L’Avion landing strip block, where, 70-80 years ago; the young cowboys that ran cattle through Ballard Canyon would crash land their rickety second-hand biplane. In the shade of the oaks, taking in the view of L’Avion, Block 6 Syrah, Beckmen La Purisma Mountain Vineyard, and Jonata across the Ballard Canyon bowl; we tried both the 2007 and 2010 vintages of L’Avion.
We wanted to make sure the Passionistas tasted an older vintage of L’Avion, and the 2007 happens to be stunning right now. The “Red Wine Drinker’s White Wine” ages like a red, becoming richer and more complex with a couple years in bottle. The Oak flavors, once pronounced in the 2007 L’Avion, are now integrated into a seamless finish.

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Headed West from Villa Angeli, we hiked down the rows of Sangiovese where Ruben is experimenting with wider trellising to spread out the clusters. The technique allows for more even ripening. At the bottom of the Sangiovese, we took a right turn to walk the length of the L’Avion runway. Along the way, we sampled the Roussanne grapes, which are surprisingly delicious thanks to the earlier harvest this year. Ruben demonstrated how he and La Cuadrilla hand-rotate each grape cluster to get an even “Rousse”, or rust-colored tan.

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At the Northern End of the L’Avion block we stopped in the shade of the large Oak Tree that the cowboys must have swerved around on take-off and landing. We popped a bottle of 2010 Estate Sangiovese as we inspected the 20 year old Block 3 Rodino Sangiovese vines. These vines have been dry-farmed for almost a decade and fight through each summer to give us a vibrant, concentrated crop.
We continued our ascent up the main vineyard driveway, and along the way, we looked at Ruben’s progress in lowering the fruiting wire on Block 2 Originals Syrah vines. Ruben first installed taller end-posts into the block, and now is lowering the trellising to allow for even more canopy control. With increased energy gleaned from optimized vertical sun exposure, these old vines intensify the flavors of their Syrah grapes to new heights.

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We climbed to the top of the Block 2 ridgeline then crouched through bird netting to arrive under one of the most picturesque Coastal Oak Trees out of all 55 on the property. Here we took in the view of the entire vineyard. Naturally, the first wine to try at this stop was 2011 Estate Syrah. We looked over Block 1, Block 5, and Block 6 where much of the Estate Syrah is picked.
Block B, where we now stood surrounded by vines, is the major source of Hilltops Syrah and in 2008 and 2010, Hilltops High Density Syrah. The tiny clusters and low yields of the tightly spaced plants gave the Passionistas a new understanding of why the 2011 Hilltops Syrah delivers so much intensity and richness.

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Looking south, the perfectly manicured La Croce hill appeared so symmetrical the vines rows could double as manor garden hedges. Rows of High Density Sangiovese grow along the Hilltops with narrow paths separating the hillside Syrah. Not only is the 2011 La Croce a co-fermentation, but it is also a vineyard blend as the two components grow side by side.
The high density La Croce Block A also provides us with the deep, perfumed 2010 Sangio degli Angeli bottling that rounded out our tasting.

DINNER
Sashi had to run back to the winery to check in on fermentations and prepare for the early morning arrival of fruit. The rest of us returned to the Villa to enjoy dinner paired with La Cuadrilla White and Red as well as the young, tannic Ruben’s Block 2010; that, still just a baby, cries for food accompaniment.
Over Dinner, the group chatted about everything they had learned.
Loose Soil = Healthy Soil

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As we climbed down the steep Sangiovese row from the Villa, Sashi first pointed out how loose the soil is. Ruben only runs the tractors with the John Deer Weeding attachment in the Spring, once for hedging depending on the row, and a couple sprays (organic, and infrequent due to low humidity). The result is healthy dirt with little compaction.
Organic = Avoiding the vicious cycle of conventional farming

The invention of the weeding attachment, which senses around vines and posts, should have effectively ended RoundUp and other herbicide use in vineyards for good. Unfortunately, many vintners think RoundUp is cheaper and quicker, and continue to spray it, sterilizing the ecosystem rather than leaving it naturally balanced. These same farmers then irrigate the vines, allowing more weeds to grow, and then spray RoundUp again to kill the new weeds! Ruben laughs at the stupidity of this cycle, but it’s really quite sad. Keep in mind, the ripening fruit is also hit by spray, and winemakers do not wash fruit before fermentation!

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Biodynamic: We Pick and Choose
Ruben’s explanation of our organic farming practices led to questions about Biodynamic farming. We have no desire to get certified Biodynamic, which would be around $25,000 a year in fees, and we enjoy the freedom to pick and choose from different Biodynamic practices. Ruben conducted trials in our young vines, and discovered that when he irrigates during the lower lunar gravity period of a waning moon, water penetrates eight inches deeper into the Limestone. We also embrace the Lunar Calendar in identifying optimal picking dates. We choose not to spray silica on the vineyard, as we don’t want to boost the vigor of our conservative vines. Because we don’t adopt every Biodynamic treatment, we run our tractors through the vines less, resulting in less soil compaction.

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Dry Farming: Why is our vineyard still green?
Stolpman’s vine canopies still look healthy and green while other vineyards are yellowing. Ruben attributes this to a brutal battle vintners waged against Mother Nature this year. The dry winter programmed vines to grow conservatively, but then vintners pumped water into their roots, swelling the leaves. Now vines in irrigated vineyards are stressed out and don’t know what to do because of the manmade reversal of nature’s cycle. The vines are now trying to go dormant and forget about the confusion of a dry winter and irrigation saturation over the summer.

Vineyard Blocks: Not just marketing

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Sashi conducted the tasting within the vineyard blocks because over the years, each wine has become clearly defined by where and how the vines are grown within the Estate. Seeing the blocks while tasting the wines gave the Passionistas a clear understanding of why the wines possess unique profiles and are bottled separately. I look forward to replicating the tour for our wine club members on October 5th!