On a beautiful Saturday August 21, 2010, bright and early in the morning, a small group of wine enthusiasts gathered to enjoy the first educational seminar at Denner Vineyards. While it was still a bit overcast in Templeton, it was a clear and crisp morning in this unusually pleasant Summer we have been having in Paso.
We met everyone at the back of the large 120+ acre vineyard at a large barn. There was a small group of wine enthusiasts there including a few friends. Faith from Hospice du Rhône, William from the Simple Hedonisms Blog, and Matt and Annie from Hoot 'n Annie's Blog along with a few others.
We were welcomed by coffee and some really nice bacon scones and sticky buns. Just the thing to get us started before a hard day out in the field. Everyone filled up before we headed out including some of the local wildlife.
Our hosts for the event were winemaker Anthony Yount (who also makes his own excellent Kinero label), vineyard manager Aron Navarez, and assistant winemaker Mike Chase. The event was an exploration of Syrah at the Denner vineyard. Denner grows estate Syrah for their powerful blends as well as a small amount of varietal Syrah. As we found out, they also continue to sell quite a bit of grapes to other winemakers. However, today was about the house offerings. We were going to trek around a large portion of the property and look at and taste Syrah in a variety of soils using different clones and rootstock.
We began by trecking to the far back of the property up a very steep hill overlooking Willow Creek road and the famous James Berry Vineyard. Much of the vines we walk through along the way were planted to Cabernet which is mostly sold to fine winemakers such as Justin, but at the top of the hill, Syrah is planted in deep clay soil.
We looked at a 4 foot deep trench the vineyard crew had dug which showed how rich the soil was and how deep the roots penetrated into the ground. Forgive me for not recalling all the clones involved.
Anthony pulled a bottle containing some Syrah from this part of the vineyard. He described this wine as a bit Slutty. It tended to give up its fruit in a loose and enthusiastic way. It was a powerful Syrah full of rich ripe fruit. I believe Anthony said that these grapes were mainly used in the Ditch Digger blend as well as the varietal Syrah filling out the powerful Paso Robles style Rhone wines. As these vines started at the top of the hill and ran North to South down the hill, Aron discussed the challenges of maintaining the vines both at the bottom where it got a lot of water, and at the top where some irrigation might be needed. Luckily, the rich clay soils tended to hold the water down deep. The vines this year were very vigorous and the team had a lot of work to do cleaning the canopy to insure enough air and light was getting in. In this soil, the vines tended toward a large crop so they also need to thin the grapes to maintain quality.
Our next stop was a bit down the hill though not that far away. However, the soil had changed dramatically. We now saw a large pile of broken stones which are the much discussed calcareous stones that came from the ancient ocean seabed. These stones are very light and porous and you can break them apart in your hands. They make the soil drain much more quickly than the heavy clay soil, however, the do hold in moisture and release it when things get dry.
Anthony pulled out another bottle with Syrah from this part of the vineyard and it was distinctly different. Still ripe with rich fruit but contained much more sense of minerality with some cocoa powder and tobacco.
We stopped next at a parcel down near the flat portion of the vineyard where they had grafted over the plants to Syrah from some older Merlot I believe it was. It was very interesting to see how the grafting process was done in the vineyard. Even with the skills of the veteran crew, not all of the grafts take and it is a continual project to keep everything growing out there. We also discussed the various pests such as leaf mites, ever present ground squirrels, and other diseases and animal pests. It is clear how much work goes into getting it all into our glass.
From there we headed down to the coolest part of the vineyard. This area sees quite a bit of frost in the cool season. This was clear from the frost damage on some of the vines. They also overall didn't show near the amount of vigor as up on top of the hill. Aron talked about the struggles they have had with frost management. They are working on new systems and planting strategies to combat frost in the future.
The last location was near a small area called the "Frog pond" for the seasonal watering hole at the low spot in the vineyard. In this area the soil is a couple of feet of topsoil covering a solid layer of limestone. It was very interesting to see the distinct layers. You could also plainly see that the roots of the vines didn't like to penetrate into the limestone layer and just sprawled out at the barrier with the topsoil.
The vines could have "wet feet" given all the water at this low point, but the limestone provides sufficient drainage. It did, however, give a wet and dank "pondy" smell to the soil and limestone rocks. As we tasted Syrah from this portion of the vineyard, they exhibited this pondwater characteristic, but in a good way. Unlike the full throttled fruit on the hill, the Syrah from this location exhibited characteristics of Syrah from much cooler climates very like those of the Northern Rhone. Their was some brine, peat, leather, and more complex earthy notes. Anthony said this Syrah was a component of the Dirt Worshipper blend that gave the wine an Old World characteristic. I really enjoyed this.
Along the walk back to the tasting room area we passed a number of interesting areas, some of the Mourvedre plantings as well as some really nice looking Roussanne vines. It is interesting though that you can see where some of the leaves have some redness on them that Aron mentioned was probably leaf mite damage.
We ended the vineyard tour at the front of the property, passing some recently planted head trained Spanish Grenache (which I can't wait to try).
We then headed down to the cellar to tour the impressive gravity fed winemaking facility. We tasted through a large variety of barrel samples including the impressive Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre, and Grenache, as well as barrels from the upcoming Rhone blends. My notes got a bit lost in the volume of interesting wines at this point, but there was a lot to look forward to. By the end of the day, it became clear that Anthony did think of these wines as Erogenous and we all agreed. What we say both in the vineyard and in the cellar was an impressive palette of flavors, colors, and styles, for the winemaking team to bring into the cellar to nurture to their full potential. The basis for excellent wine was their already, as Aron said, they just had to make sure not to screw it up.
Then is was to the patio for an awesome lunch, provided by Tom Fundaro from Villa Creek, of beef bourguignon, cucumber salad, crusty bread, and Denner Theresa White Rhone Blend, and Rose. The food, view, and company was a perfect conclusion to a really nice morning. The view from the patio at Denner is really outstanding. I really would like to thank Anthony, Aron, and the entire Denner crew for putting on a really interesting and enjoyable educational seminar. I certainly hope they offer this again in the future and urge everyone to check it out. Keep an eye out at Denner Vineyards.
As if all this wine wasn't enough, Faith and William were meeting with Hilary Graves from Graves Winegrowers to try some of her wines and they were kind enough to let us tag along. I had tried and enjoyed Graves wine both at restaurants in town as well as at Hospice du Rhone so I was eager to see what was going on. We met down in the Denner lab where many of the young winemakers work at Denner experimenting and create their wines. Hilary tasted us through an impressive array of her work representing much of what she has created. It was impressive to me how well all the wine were showing across the spectrum. Both Margaret and I enjoyed many of her wines in particular the Grenache Blanc, Mourvedre from her Ohana vineyard, and a Grenache dominant blend she calls the Trim Stinger. The wines were really nice at a good point. I look forward to watching these wines develop. Thanks Hilary for the taste and Faith, William, Matt, and Annie, for letting us crash the party.
After this, we headed home for a much needed nap...