Taken from VinoPasoRobles.com, Fall-2011
by Josh Petray
Ambyth Wine Estate crafts fine biodynamic wines out of Templeton Gap
Biodynamic pioneers Mary and Phillip Hart’s Templeton hilltop estate originally planted with vineyards in 2004 has become more of a farm. For the owners, it’s a lifestyle choice. And a healthy one at that, they said.
The Harts, owners of Paso Robles American Viticultural Area’s only certified biodynamic/organic vineyard and winery, say they never undertook the niche certification for the money or the marketing boost it would provide in a culture arguably intrigued with sustainable buzzwords like biodynamic and organic, but their wines happen to be both.
Witnessing the growth of the vines and evolution of farming practices on their estate — situated in the Templeton Gap and cooled by Pacific coastal breezes — is part of what characterizes the “new ancient,” as Phillip coined it, for Ambyth Estate Wines.
“Huge,” Phillip said as he stood perched looking at the two cows mowing weeds on the estate vines in response to the question: How has the growth been on the vineyard since it was planted?
The vines — stronger. Grape clusters — more organized. From a wine-growing perspective, advancement as one could hope, according to Phillip.
Sixty-five apple and pear trees, more than 60 fruit and nut trees and eight beehives adorn the property. Chickens bear eggs that the family eats. Two sheep that roamed the property, fertilizing it, are now in the freezer, awaiting an epicurean twist. Rabbits are reared for weed-eating and eventual consumption.
“We’re not just a vineyard,” he said. “We have become much more of a farm.”
The couple’s love of the land is visible at every step of the way at Ambyth Estate. Olive-oil lovers have been known to make the trek all the way to Ambyth to pick up what Phillip described as fine an olive oil as one can get. Five-hundred-and-forty olive trees adorn the property, producing a two-and-a-half-ton harvest last year.
In addition to the dry-farmed olives, the Harts make their own honey from beehives situated throughout the Templeton property.
“That was outstanding — just to have our own extra virgin olive oil,” Phillip said. “In my opinion, it’s as fine of an olive oil as you can find on this planet. It is purchased by people just the same as honey — it’s just good stuff. Here, right out of the winery.”
He’s quick to point out that whole farming/biodynamic component wasn’t necessarily in the couple’s master plan. It was just “the path that just keeps opening up.”
“When I think by being biodynamic, the path has opened up more because it does tend to make you read more to understand what you’re doing,” he said.
What follows is a learn-and-dothrough- reading approach that’s allowed him to see what others have done successfully on their properties, and then emulate it.
“There’s a gas that apples give off that’s great for all other growing plants,” he said, offering up a theoretical example. “You go, ‘Ooh, I have a west fence that the breeze comes through every day — that would be a great idea.’ That kind of stuff. Really, that’s how it happens.”
“It was never a marketing plan,” he said. “It was a choice of a way of life, but there seems to be a nice peripheral sides that go with that.”
In fact, the proprietor and Persian rug aficionado said he’s not heavy on the whole certification side of things. Although Ambyth carries the heavy organic and biodynamic certifications, it blends in nicely with the natural approach already being undertaken at the farm.
Despite any preconceptions about the mysticism steeped in biodynamic farming, Hart professes that biodynamic pioneer Rudolf Steiner “is no guru,” nor a “prophet,” simply someone who took information from the past and spoke about it in a way that people could understand intellectually and move forward.
“It’s not a mystical way of farming — it’s actually an old-fashioned way of farming,” he said.
The “natural way” of farming biodynamically appeals to Mary, too.
“It’s a safe environment that we’ve created here on our property, not only for our family but for our animals, any beneficial predators or insects that we have. Visitors, if people come and eat at my table they’re going to get food that is healthy and clean for their bodies, and wine as well,” she said.
At Ambyth, Phillip handles the vineyard and winery. Mary takes charge of the gardens, fruit and nut trees, small animals.
“We’re trying to create a closed system,” Mary said. “Things just keep going — it’s circular.”
That’s not to say that biodynamism isn’t something that’s misunderstood by the vast majority of farmers and wine enthusiasts.
“Some people are wide open to it, and of course as with everything else in life, other people are absolutely closed shut, and that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with it,” Hart said.
According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, the movement laid its roots in the 1920s with a group of practicing farmers who were concerned with the decline in the health of soils, plants and animals, and sought the advice of Steiner, founder of anthroposophy. The movement embraces a “unified approach to agriculture that relates the ecology of the farm-organism to that of the entire cosmos,” according to the group.
It’s an approach, from the preps to the harvest that the Harts believe in. From planting the vines to making the wines, all facets of winemaking occur onsite at their estate.
Among natural approaches, the Harts do not fine or filter and use only native yeasts. Lower alcohol level wines are sought after.
“Take a look at the property,” Phillip said, offering evidence of the success of biodynamism. “Look at the vines.”
Wines harvested from Ambyth vines are oftentimes described as “interesting,” said Phillip. That — and they’re “very pleasing.”
“I typically hear that they’re all different,” he said. “I think that’s what you get when you go this way. The question of do I really believe in it? Well, it’s self-evident.”
Just this year, the couple purchased quartz from an exclusive New York distributor to be buried in the vineyard, among other prep work undertaken.
Varietals grown on the property include grenache, grenache blanc, mourvedre, syrah, viognier, Rousanne and Cuonoise.
Last year’s vineyard crop was good, in part due to the rain, according to Phillip. This year, the couple has decided to take a step back and sell about half the fruit in order to take a breath and tend to some of the other things around the farm.
Hart comfortably described the zero growth statistic in sales for Ambyth wines in 2010 from the year prior, which he described as “pathetic,” and “a horrible year business-wise.”
“You should have growth in those early years,” he said, adding, “This year we’re on target for where I thought we were last.”
People do travel the beaten path to seek out Ambyth, the couple said. For Mary and Phillip, it’s always kind of fun to see visitors seek out their estate-grown wines, from places near and far. They’ve grown to learn just how many natural wine enthusiasts there are out there. Though limited (and admittedly not providing an exciting business climate due to its limited range), they’re a dedicated bunch that will single Ambyth out for a taste of something distinct and different.
“I didn’t quite realize how many biodynamic wine nuts there were out there,” Phillip said. “Natural wine nuts — and I say that in a friendly way because I’m a natural wine nut.”