The first varietal we planted after we purchased what we came to call Morningsong Vineyards was Syrah. The entire vineyard was planted in Chardonnay when we bought it. Shortly thereafter we killed off the vines in the back of the vineyard. This was not the plan. Unfortunately, we were still living in New Jersey, knew nothing about growing grapes and hired a vineyard manager who wasn’t familiar with our vineyards. It turns out the soil in the back half of the property is very gravelly, being near Dry Creek, and needs more water than the front. It didn’t get enough water, which weakened the vines and made them susceptible to disease.
We had to rip them out. But what should we plant? We drank wine in those days, but our favorites were Cabernet and Zinfandel. We were advised that those varieties were not well suited to the valley floor, where our vineyards are located. Syrah was supposed to be the next hot grape variety at that time, so we planted Syrah. I’m not sure we had ever even tasted a Syrah. Even though Syrah has not (yet) become “the hot variety”, we have fallen in love with it. So have our guests and members. We use it in many of our wines and it was the gateway grape that got us into Rhône varieties.
In 2011 we decided to replace some of the Syrah vines. We were anxious to experiment with other Rhône varieties. Rather than rip out the 11-year-old vines, we used a technique called T-budding, where a T-shaped cut is made and a bud from the new variety is placed in the graft. We grafted about an acre each to Grenache and Mourvèdre. Another advantage of grafting is that you don’t have to wait four years for the vineyards to produce a crop. By the harvest of 2012, the new vines were producing a small amount of fruit and we made our first Grenache and a blend we call Tres, composed of all three of our Rhône grape varieties.
Tres was an instant hit and became Mike’s new favorite. It was the first blend we made on purpose (our dessert style wine was technically our first blend, but it started out as a Zinfandel that would never go dry – a story for another day). A major impetus for doing a blend was winemaker Ashley Herzberg, who had joined us in 2011. Our wines had always been single varietal from a single vineyard. That was what we did. But winemakers love to do blends and Ashley patiently talked us into making a GSM-style blend (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre). Mike was prepared not to like it and it is now his go-to wine.
The Grenache started out more as a well-kept secret. We didn’t put it in the wine club shipments because we made only 44 cases the first year. It was a lighter body wine than any of the other reds we were making at the time. In fact, we referred to it as our Pinot alternative. For Pinot lovers, Grenache was a welcome discovery. For Mike, who thinks most Pinots are too thin, it wasn’t a wine he was prepared to like.
One night I served it with dinner and much to his surprise, he liked it. After dinner we moved to our chairs to watch TV and have another glass of wine. The bottle was sitting on the table between us, and I noticed Mike pouring himself another glass. A while later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him reach over, grab my glass and pour my wine into his glass. Do you suppose he thought I had gone to sleep? That’s when I knew that he had made a new friend in Grenache.
Grenache has also become one of the stars of our winemaking program. It became so popular that when we replanted some of the aging Chardonnay vines, we replaced them with Grenache. In addition to making a red Grenache, we now make a Rosé of Grenache and a Sparkling Grenache, and we use it in four blends, Tres, Rosé de Tres, Sparkling Tres and Fusión.
Mike has gone from a Grenache skeptic to a fan, and it is frequently the wine he chooses to have with a meal. And speaking of meals, I want to share a recipe for something we had the other night that was perfect with the Grenache. We often have Grenache in the summer, slightly chilled with light dishes – grilled salmon, pastas with fresh picked tomatoes or grilled vegetables. I was delighted that is also paired beautifully with a winter stew that I crave. It’s nothing fancy, just one of those heartwarming, comfort dishes that makes you feel cozy.
Here is my recipe for White Bean Stew with Kale and Crispy Prosciutto
Have you heard the news? I am excited about the launch of Sparkling Discoveries, a brand-new community for sparkling wine producers, enthusiasts, and leaders. We went live on Global Champagne Day, which fell on October 28 this year. This is my latest project and like most things in my life, it started as a seed of an idea that germinated, blossomed and grew with the help of friends and colleagues.
I’ve been writing this blog, Sparkling Moments in Wine, for the last several years to answer the frequently asked questions about my experiences as I moved from the corporate world to becoming a winery owner and advocate for sparkling wine.
Anyone who knows me, knows I love bubbles, but I am equally fascinated to discover how others got involved and the twists and turns in their journeys. Sparkling Discoveries started as an idea to tell the stories of those people. Initially I was thinking of winemakers and owners of sparkling wine houses in Sonoma County.
As I kicked around the idea with friends and colleagues, we realized that we are experiencing a sparkling wine boom, made up not only of those who make sparkling wine, but other thought leaders and enthusiasts. And it isn’t just happening in Sonoma County. There are fascinating stories from all over the country and all over the world.
This needed to be something more than a blog. We decided we wanted to build a sparkling community. And it needed to go beyond Sonoma County. We also realized there is no single site dedicated to sparkling wine that is brand neutral, providing information and resources on everything from what’s happening in the world of sparkling, to how it’s made and what foods pair with different kinds of sparkling wines.
So, we created a section called Sparkling 101 with some basics on the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine, how and where sparkling wines are made, and different styles and types of sparkling wines. As we get questions and ideas, we’ll add more resources. In the future we’ll add sections on wine and food pairings and events.
We are also inviting sparkling wine lovers, wine professionals, and the community at large to nominate those who are making an impact on the growth, promotion, and future of sparkling wine. Nominees can be winemakers, marketers, social media influencers, hospitality workers, winery owners, and beyond. The nomination period will be open through December 31, 2022, and individuals nominated will be celebrated online, through social media channels, a promotional campaign, and a signature event in 2023.
We’re building a community one sparkling wine enthusiast at a time. We already have nominees from Napa, the Finger Lakes region of New York, Michigan, Oregon, Paso Robles, Sacramento, Healdsburg, and a U.S. based family member representing a grower Champagne house in France.
The centerpiece of the platform is Sparkling Conversations, in-depth profiles of sparkling wine makers, thought leaders and advocates. I’ve had the privilege to tell some remarkable stories - all different, all fascinating.
Owner and CEO Joy Sterling, Iron Horse Vineyards, talks about what living in Paris as a teenager taught her about life and how it ultimately led her back to joining the family sparkling wine business. She revealed her inspirations - from the creation of unique bottlings of sparkling wine, to her favorite food pairings to the way she leads her team.
Entrepreneur Bruce Lundquist, co-founder of Rack & Riddle, describes the long and winding road to founding a sparkling custom wine services business and recounts the lessons he learned in his career and what he hopes his six kids learned from his experience.
Winemaker Penny Gadd-Coster of Rack & Riddle, Breathless Wines and Pénélope Wines, describes how she eventually became a sparkling winemaker following two surprising previous careers, her unique approach to sparkling winemaking, her favorite pairings and the best and worst moments in her sparkling career.
Our own Amista Vineyards Winemaker Ashley Herzberg reveals her goals for making sparkling wines, how she hopes people will feel when they pop the cork and her fascination with grower Champagnes, including the ones she has in her fridge right now.
Kathleen Inman, Owner and Winemaker of Inman Family Wines, talks about how two continents, two degrees, two careers and a series of positive omens led her to sparkling wine.
Retired CEO and Winemaker Eileen Crane of Domaine Carneros describes her determination to make sparkling wine that started with her first taste of Champagne at a family Sunday supper and her happiest moments - the best pairings with sparkling wine, open book management and the most rewarding time in her career.
If you love sparkling wine, we invite you to join us. Here are some options:
And next time you’re in Healdsburg, come Taste With Us and explore the sparkling wines of Amista Vineyards.
This year marks winemaker Ashley Herzberg’s 12th harvest at Amista Vineyards. She has been a sparkling wine trailblazer! She was the first to make a “grower sparkling wine” in Dry Creek Valley.
At the time, most sparkling wines in California were made by large producers with grapes purchased from multiple vineyards in the tradition of Champagne. In France, grower Champagne has become the rage in the last two decades with small, family-owned houses making Champagne from their own grapes.
Grower Champagnes are treasured because they are limited and hard to find. People love to discover hidden gems! And that’s what Ashley is making right here in Sonoma County.
We had a conversation recently about her sparkling discoveries.
I know you love Champagne and sparkling wines. I’m curious to know what first drew you to sparkling.
I actually really didn't like sparkling wine at first. My parents are the ones who introduced me to wine, and they didn't drink a lot of sparkling wine. My only exposure was to really bad sparkling!
I didn't know what was possible in the world of sparkling. I don't know what the exact catalyst or the exact wine was, but I think it was a Champagne and I realized how complex it could be. It can be toasty and yeasty, fruit driven and acidic. It can be so many things all in one glass and I just loved it.
So, the first time you finally had a good sparkling wine, you fell in love?
The very first time! Before that I thought very sweet sparkling wines were the only things that were available. Even when I was a child, I did not have a sweet tooth. I had an aversion to sugar. The only thing I knew was sparkling wine is sweet. And it's gross. It's not good wine.
And then discovering that there was this whole other world, was so exciting. I realized there’s so much to learn about sparkling wine and so many wines to try. And there are so many different varietals you can use to make it.
Clearly you developed a fascination with trying sparkling wines but when you joined us in as our winemaker in 2011, you had not yet made a sparkling wine. Did you even know we made a sparkling wine?
Ashley Herzberg Performing a Sabrage on a Bottle of Sparkling Wine
Yes, because Mike (co-founder of Amista) had given me a couple bottles of your Sparkling Syrah as a Christmas gift. I assumed it was going to be sweet. I said to myself, “I’m not drinking that.” Many months later I pulled it out for my girlfriends, and they loved it. I had my first taste and was so excited.
Then two years passed between me tasting your sparkling before I came to you and said I wanted to work with you as your winemaker. In that time, I had already begun my exploration of sparkling wines and realized how much I loved them.
I wanted to work with you because I had familiarity with your still wines. But the challenge and excitement of making a sparkling wine was enticing.
Aside from being a lover of sparkling, I know you are also a lover of learning. What would you say are your biggest lessons learned about making sparkling wine?
When I made that first sparkling wine, I knew how to pick for still wines, but I was so worried about when to pick for sparkling wines. How do you maintain the acidity and not have too high a sugar level? Penny (Gadd-Coster, consulting winemaker) at Rack and Riddle said, “you just still pick for flavors. You're shifting what you're looking for in those flavors. But you're still picking for flavors.” And I was like, oh, OK, I know how to do that!
OK, so learning how to pick the grapes for sparkling wine was a big lesson learned. What else?
Since I was starting from scratch on making sparkling wine, I didn't have any base of knowledge, so everything was something new to be learned. Penny was very important, especially that first year.
She was a ball of wisdom. Little things would come up in conversation. Penny had this very chill attitude about it, the way I had come to feel about making still wines. What I learned is that it’s just winemaking.
People say, ‘I’ve never made sparkling, and I wouldn’t know where to start. It’s so different than making still wine.” But it’s not. If you know how to make wine, you can make sparkling wine. Yes, there are some different processes for sparkling, but it is basically just the same as making still wines. That was really helpful to learn - you're just making wine.
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