No two grains of sand are alike - or so a geologist will tell you - and the same goes for fistfuls. Take, for example, a microscopic photograph of grains of sand. What we believe to be a uniform substance (silica, just like the dictionary tells us), is in fact a random conglomeration of particles from many varying origins, depending on where and how the sand originated. Not only is every handful of sand different, but sand can vary greatly from one area to the next.
This past spring, vines went into the ground on our very own land, a five-acre postage stamp in the Solomon Hills, on the western side of the Santa Maria Valley AVA. We dubbed that postage stamp The Warner Henry Vineyard, after my late father. When we purchased the property it was basically a sand pile, a house on a hill surrounded by oak trees, chaparral, and pale-colored dirt. The land here had never been farmed, despite the world-class vineyards that have sprung up on all four sides of it.
Planting new wines is a leap of faith. You can do all your homework - test the soil, choose just the right location and microclimate, find a good water source - but whether your grapes are world-class or just plain average is left to the gods. A friend of my father’s once purchased a site that was surrounded by some of the most famous Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma, and professed to my father that due to the vineyard’s location, the future quality of wine was a sure bet. Fast forward twenty years and no combination of high-tech farming practices, night-harvesting, or world-famous winemakers can make a great wine from that vineyard. The old adage was proven ever-true: you can’t make a good wine from bad grapes, or in this case, a great wine from mediocre ones.
One thing that is a known is that Pinot Noir loves sand. Grape vines in general love its drainage, which means the vines send roots deep in search of water, and the soil never gets too soggy (which makes a grape vine get lazy and produce flabby fruit). But what about the mineral components of the soil, and how does sand influence flavor? Some viticulturists will tell you that farming in sand is like growing hydroponically - the only nutrients in the soil are what you put in it from the outside. I believe that is true to some extent, but then I harken back to the microscope, and what it tells us about sand composition. Sand does, in fact, impart a flavor to the wine, and not just due to soil amendments.
When the land was cleared of all hubris there were two distinct types of sand on our hilltop. One was white and the other reddish-brown. James Ontiveros came up for a visit one day and told me that two sand formations were at play here: the Marina Series and the Arnold Series. Without getting too scientific, the Marina soils (reddish brown) are ancient sand dunes that were once at the shore, and the Arnold (white) is decomposed sand stone of even older origin. A close-up picture of either one reveals a mixture of rock types, many of which are calcareous rock, as well as bone and shell fragments from sea creatures, mixed with clay and other organic material. A formula, we hope, that will make for happy vines.
A test of our soil revealed that it did, in fact, have a good amount of organic material, and by all accounts was very ‘healthy’ on the spectrum of soil fertility. We dug test pits all over the property and learned that the sand went very deep - deeper than the backhoe could get to. That spells very good drainage. We added the recommended soil amendments - organic compost, with a small dose of gypsum (for moisture retention and aeration) and lime (to adjust the soil’s pH). A few weeks later vines went into the ground.
The vines have now seen their first season of growth, and look happy, as far as we can tell. But the big question remains: will the Warner Henry Vineyard eventually achieve greatness? We won’t know until enough sand has run through the Lumen hourglass.
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[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][vc_column_text]In the past week, winter has finally set in along the Central Californian coast and rain is soaking the now-dormant vineyards. The harvest is officially in the bag, even for those vintners that like to let the grapes hang late. Lumen’s wines were tucked away in their barrels in late October, safe and sound until racking in the spring. We had a lot of extra help this harvest - even Winslow did her part (mostly watching daddy work, and asking LOTS of questions).
2018 will be a banner year for most of California. My winemaker friends all seem to think it could be the vintage of the decade, from Napa to Santa Cruz to good old SBC. The reasons for that, of course, are manyfold.
First off, the weather was perfect for most of the growing season. We had fairly normal timing for bud break, when the vines come out of dormancy after their winter sleep. A brief frost scare in March was narrowly averted, after which we had a normal spring followed by an unusually cool summer. For the first time I can remember in California, we had no Indian Summer heat wave. Labor Day slipped past with temps barely cresting 75 degrees in the Santa Maria Valley. The nights were cold. What that means is that the grapes ripened slowly and the acidity levels stayed high - the perfect combo for making world-class wine.
Lane and I are always trying to pick at the lowest sugars possible. In other words, we are hoping for maturity in the grape’s flavor before the fruit gets too ripe. In banner years like 2018, the fruit matures without the sugar spiking, meaning that natural acidity is high, and the ensuing alcohol content in the wines will be very low. Even better, the wine’s pH will be perfect for long-term bottle age.
We picked our fruit later in the summer than we have since Lane and I started working together. The buzz around SB wine country was that it was an unusually late harvest - but the old-timers chuckled and said it was actually a normal year, and that the rest of the decade has been early. Wherever the truth lies (and I side with the old guard), 2018 will be a vintage for the record books.
- Will Henry[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
There is nothing more compelling than natural beauty. Ad men always have said that sex sells (such as this photo, above, of Lane Tanner enjoying a "Pinot bath"), but these days, natural sells almost as well. Natural cosmetics, natural clothing, natural foods, and now natural wine. But just how natural do you want to go?
As the wine director at Pico Restaurant, I frequently hear people ask, “What natural wines do you carry?” The increasing popularity of the natural-wines movement seems to be taking the industry by storm. Nonetheless it has many sommeliers searching for answers as to what “natural wine” actually means.
According to Rawwine.com:
"Natural Wine is farmed organically (biodynamically, using permaculture or the like) and made (or rather transformed) without adding or removing anything in the cellar. No additives or processing aids are used, and ‘intervention’ in the naturally occurring fermentation process is kept to a minimum. As such neither fining nor (tight) filtration are used. The result is a living wine – wholesome and full of naturally occurring microbiology.
One of the big challenges in defining natural wine is that no legal definitions currently exist. The most strictly enforced designations, such as the French SAINS, require strict adherence to organic farming and tolerate no additives to the wine whatsoever. The French AVN (L'Association des Vins Naturels), also one of the strictest, allows for up to 30mg/l sulfite additions. Italy-based VinNatur allows for up to 50 mg/l sulfite levels. While all of them share some very similar themes, there is still no world-wide consensus.
The biggest challenge to winemakers is the sulfite dilemma. Sulfites have been used for centuries to help preserve the freshness of flavors in wine, and to give them the stability for extended aging. The chemical agent, sodium metabisulfite, is also a natural byproduct of fermentation - so even wines with no added sulfites actually have naturally-occurring sulfites in them. If you have ever bought dried apricots at the supermarket, you have seen exactly what sulfite additions can do. The apricots with added sulfites are soft, orange-colored, and fresh tasting, while the ones without are brown in color, oxidized in flavor, and harder to chew.
Strict adherents to the “no additives whatsoever” philosophy must eschew sulfites entirely. Yet sulfites are a relatively harmless additive that have been used in wine for eons, albeit at varying levels. Many people claim to have sulfite allergies, yet medical research suggests that less than 1% of the population actually does. I can attest that, after tasting many wines that have no added sulfites, I tend to prefer the ones that do. Wines with no added sulfites rarely have the qualities that I would be proud to put on Pico’s list. They are frequently dirty tasting or “mousy,” they often lack good fruit character, and there is a tremendous amount of bottle variation. Needless to say, if I were spending $150 on a great bottle of Burgundy or Barolo, I would want a little more assurance that what I was purchasing would both taste good and be suitable for aging. .
That being said, many winemakers have made a commitment to using the bare minimum sulfite additions - just enough to keep their wines stable. Others also have a commitment to following good farming practices - organic, biodynamic, or sustainable - that assure the purity of the fruit that they are starting with, and a commitment to low-impact production. Furthermore, many of the winemakers who produce wines in small lots are able to give the kind of hands-on care to their wines to not only limit sulfite additions, but also to steer clear of any other kinds of chemical additions that many larger-scale, industrial-sized wineries do out of a matter of habit.
The winemaking team at Lumen has been committed all along to making wines with as little sulfites as possible, without sacrificing any quality in the finished product. Lane Tanner is one of those few people in the population with a sulfite allergy, and hence for the past thirty years she has perfected a winemaking regimen that uses the bare minimum of added sulfites. The amount of free sulfur in our finished wines is usually under 25 mg/l, which would qualify our bottles as natural wine under most standards. Almost all of our grapes come from vineyards who practice the utmost stewardship to the health of the environment: most of them are either certified sustainable, organic or biodynamic. In our winery we go even further, with hands-on care given to each bin and barrel, allowing us to make pure wines without any harmful chemical additives.
If you have a strong opinion about natural wine, and want a product that is pure and free of chemicals, don’t expect to find it on the supermarket shelves. Find the small-scale, family-owned wineries that are committed to making a superior product, like those of us at Lumen.
- Will Henry, Lumen Winemaker