by Jerry James Stone, TreeHugger.com, March 16, 2011
Tucked away high in the hills of Templeton, California is AmByth Estate, the first and only certified biodynamic vineyard within the Paso Robles Appellation–an area well known for its Zinfandel and Rhône varietals. And AmByth does not disappoint. The boutique winery is family-owned and operated by Phillip Hart and Mary Morwood-Hart, and produces over a thousand cases of certified biodynamic wine every year (and certifiably yummy!). Oddly enough, being biodynamic is something they never intended to be. It was a lucky accident. While both Phillip and Mary are serious wine connoisseurs, Phillip’s been making wine in their backyard since ’96 along with his friend Frank Hildebrand. In their first year they produced almost 200 cases! Frank now owns his own certified biodynamic winery in Placerville, California called Narrow Gate.
Mary explains, “Phillip is a trained chef. He is one of seven kids and each sibling is an incredible cook. The whole family has always been into food and wine.” So it is of no surprise that he gravitated towards winemaking. Philip confirms this, noting he even owned a wine cellar in college.
Originally from Orange County, the Hart’s purchased the first portion of the AmByth Estate back in 2001 and the remainder by 2002. They settled on living in Paso Robles–simply called Paso by the locals–because they found themselves visiting a lot after a family friend relocated here. The vineyard’s first planting happened in January of 2004, and while they’d planned to be pesticide free, they had no intention of being green. “We were just going to be weekend farmers. We were going to plant with irrigation,” notes Phillip. Luckily, it didn’t quite work out that way.
“This all happened by accident. We spent the day in Paso Robles wine tasting before planting, where we stopped at our friends place, Bella Luna…we were poured a very large glass of wine by a very tipsy lady and [after one sip] we both looked at each other and said ‘What is this?’ It was different from anything we had had that day,” says Phillip. It was a dry-farmed Sangiovese and it was “amazing.”
The very next day Phillip met up with their farmer. “I was now curious about dry farming,” he admits.
But it was one of the country’s leading biodynamic agriculture consultants, Phillippe Armenier, who transformed the Harts from eco-curious to Demeter certified biodynamic. Hart recalls of his visit, “We walked the entire property. We walked the woods. We spoke about the birds. We spoke about the grass and the weeds. We talked about everything…except wine.”
Mary confesses that “We [then] started looking through our cellar and noticed that all of this wine that we love had been farmed biodynamically. And we didn’t even know it!”
A big part of AmByth’s charm is not just that they are small, but that they intend to stay that way. Many wineries produce yields around 5 tons or more; Phillip has a goal of two, which is a production level that keeps AmByth wines at a higher price point than most — around $45 a bottle.
The property is a modest 42 acres with less than half of the land dedicated to agriculture: grape vines, olive trees, vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Apple trees line the property’s west side, as they put off a gas that’s beneficial for the vineyard. The gas is carried throughout the property by the Templeton Gap’s east-blowing breeze. Some olive trees are mixed in with the rows of grapes to act as both insectaries and rest areas for hawks. Hawks help keep the rodent population under control.
Avoiding the Single Crop Syndrome
“Vineyards are monocultures and that’s not the best way to farm, as we know. So you want as much activity going on as possible,” Phillip says about AmByth’s diversity in agriculture.
The couple doesn’t even weed the property. They leave it for their cows, bees and sheep. With eight beehives, the little buzzers appreciate the change in scenery. I’m sure the cows appreciate the free meal! But with cows comes, well…cow poop. It’s collected along with the family’s food waste and then aged for a year along with their biodynamic preparations. The end result is then used for fertilizer. If you’re vegetarian, cover your eyes! They do slaughter their cows for meat. Free-range chickens also roam the property.
The vineyard is also the winemakers’ backyard, so if you wish to visit the vineyard yourself or the tasting room, it’s by appointment only.
Since the grapes are dry-farmed, the wines have a low alcohol content–around 12%. This has been a huge issue with California wines, as the alcohol content has increased by 10% since the late 80s! Jaymi Heimbuch, our feature photographer, loves wines from dry-farmed grapes. “I want to have a glass of wine at night but I don’t want to get drunk. With 15% alcohol, I can [only] have a third of a glass,” she admits.
The vineyard was certified biodynamic by Demeter back in 2006, and the wine is certified too. Phillip boasts that “we make wine the way that all of us think wine is made…grapes, foot stomping [stems and all], fermenting, rest and bottle.” That means the wines are also unrefined and unfiltered. To preserve the wine’s more delicate notes, they use a gravity-flow bottling system. As their website states, “AmByth Estate believes in producing wines that are made with minimal intervention: letting the wine make itself.”
AmByth’s wines revolve mostly around the following Rhône varietals–Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Counoise–with a few other Tempranillo/Sangiovese-based blends. One of my favorites is the 2008 Grenache. The fruit on this wine is exceptional without being jammy. It also holds the honor of having no additional sulfites for those of you affected by them. But you really get a sense of Phillip’s nuance for winemaking when tasting AmByth’s Maiestas, Adamo and their ReVera. Each are made using the same four grapes. The wines are available through AmByth’s wine club and online.
Mary confides, “There’s a whole bunch of additives and adjustments that you can [legally] make to wine. Everything from flavoring to coloring. You can buy a yeast that is formulated in a laboratory that will impart more of a vanilla-oak flavor. To Phillip and me this is so outrageous!” And I would have to agree. So it comes as no surprise that the word AmByth is Welsh (as is Phillip) for “forever.” Phillip and Mary view this land as their legacy.
“We consider our wine a health drink,” says Mary. And I’ll drink to that!