The Firestone family, the proprietors of the Curtis Winery and the 200 acre estate upon which it sits, asked me in the spring of 2013 to take over the day to day operations of the Curtis Winery, all while shrinking the Curtis Wine production to a very limited and exclusive level. By now, we hope that you have heard something about this via the Curtis Website, through visits to Curtis or tastings at our Los Olivos Tasting Room, or in the last Cellar Crew Newsletter. It was mutual admiration that led the Curtis owners and management to choose Andrew Murray Vineyards (AMV) to take over the day to day operations at their beloved Estate. They admired our 20+ year history in Los Olivos and our consistent dedication to Rhone varieties. They respected our numerous 90+ reviews and our commitment to quality and the environment. They were further confident that we would handle such an important and historic transition as carefully and elegantly as possible. In turn, I admired EVERYTHING about the Firestone family. I admired the near lunacy that prompted Brooks Firestone to continue growing upon his father’s folly of planting the first vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, well over 40 years ago…and watched with great pride as Adam Firestone, a Marine, returned as a veteran of the Iraq war to become the 3rd generation of the Firestone family to grow grapes and craft wine. I was there when they first opened Curtis Winery to the public, as we had begun Andrew Murray Vineyards about 5 years earlier. I was so excited to see them focus on my beloved Rhone varieties. Each member of the Firestone family, from Adam to Andrew, has a deep love and passion for crafting wine and growing grapes on the Curtis Estate. They selected my wife and me and my small (but growing) team of tasting room/hospitality associates and cellar crew to gracefully transition away from the Curtis Wines and to replace them with AMV wines. I will be frank with you all. It has been no easy task, and we have not handled all situations as well as I would have liked. I have fallen on my face more than once since the transition began. But, I can also hold my head high, because I have been at Curtis each and every (yes every single day) day of this year so far. We have had much to learn and even more to prove. We are learning every day and leveraging our 20+ years in the wine business in order to provide to you all the best wines possible with the best customer service, in the best darn winery and location in Santa Barbara County. We have a long way to go before we can say mission accomplished. But, please know that we will work tirelessly to prove ourselves worthy of your time, attention, and business. We have enjoyed the opportunities to meet so many of you at the Curtis Winery and at the events that we have held this year in your honor. We have greatly appreciated the praise of our wines and we have taken heed of your concerns and suggestions. Please see our event page for more upcoming festivities.
I also want you to know that we embarked upon a significant re-model to the Curtis Winery hospitality center with only one goal in mind…to be able to better serve and interact with Wine Club Members. To that end, we started outside with the addition of a Members’ Terrace, under the shade of the native oaks. On the inside, we have carved out two distinct and private spaces where we can accommodate small group, sit down tastings for up to 12 people. We hope to be able to sit down with you and share a more in-depth experience centering on the wines that we are crafting off of the Curtis Estate. We have added a Member’s bar where we anticipate offering different and exclusive wines just to Members. We have added a wine on tap system so that you can purchase glasses, carafes, or even “growlers” of special and limited production wines. We have even added a low-seating lounge area where you can order flights of wines to enjoy away from the traditional bar setting. In short (too late, I know) we have designed several spaces and new “experiences” where members can interact with myself and our team in order to gain a deeper knowledge and appreciation for our wines. In turn, we will be lucky enough to get to know you better.
We look forward to your next visit to the new and improved Andrew Murray Vineyards.
Let me start this post off by sending out warm wishes of gratitude. I am so very thankful to you for tuning in and caring about Andrew Murray Vineyards. You all challenge and push me to always give 111% of myself. You all expect wonderful, unique expressions of Rhone varieties and blends. Yes, I love what I do each and every minute of my busy days. But, you all give me purpose and clarity. Suffice to say that I am humbled and grateful for your trust and support. While I have always sought acceptance, I have never adhered to normalcy. I have always followed my own path and beat to my own drum. I never did this to simply be rebellious or mischievous. I never set out to be different in the wine world. When I started (truly fresh out High School), I had a very limited knowledge of the world of wine. I simply loved Rhone varieties because of many family visits to this part of France. I loved Grenache and Syrah and Mourvedre, etc. I loved them alone and in blends. I loved them before I was 21 years old. I loved them before many US wine consumers and makers had ever heard of them. I loved them before anybody cared. When we started AMV, our limited focus on all things Rhone had nothing to do with marketing opportunities or creating a niche, boutique brand. Hell, we were not even trying to create a brand! Honestly, sometimes, Sometimes, I wish that I knew more when we started. At other times, I am glad that I simply learned as we went along. In the end, we kept our heads down and focused on the challenges of starting and running a small family business. You would never find me headlining a big tasting or auction or seminar. You never saw me beating my chest and proclaiming that I was doing anything cooler or hipper or better than anyone else. That was (and is) simply not my style. I have always preferred to go at it alone and a bit more quietly than the others. All that said, we managed to grow and evolve from the fledgling winery of a twenty-something into where we are today. We have been fortunate enough along the way to have been written up in many publications. We never sought the attention. Rather, we stumbled upon it, grateful for the bit of noise that we were generating.
AMV is firmly in the early years of middle age, informed by our 21+ years of winemaking. In order to stay relevant and forward seeking, we found ourselves once again sending our wines out for critical review after a very long hiatus. I never loved sending my wines out for review. We do not make our wines for critics. We craft our wines, rather, for you all and for ourselves and for the sheer joy of crafting and blending wine. Either way, we have found ourselves over the last couple of years in the good graces of bloggers, critics, and most importantly our legions of fans. Our wines have been selling at a record pace. You might hear or see me “bragging” about this score or that review. You might see me headlining a seminar at Boston Wine Expo in a couple of weeks. You might find me out there as we grow our distribution network (look for our wines soon in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, South Carolina, and…) I look forward to hanging out with you all as I move around the US a bit more. You will see that I am the same, humble, passionate and curious person that I have always been, even if I quote a score or a critic every once in a while. I thank you for joining me on this journey. I hope that you stay with us. We have a couple of new wines this year, including a Mourvedre that so many of you have asked for.
I just finished an interesting article on strong beers in the Wall Street Journal…all about imperial stouts weighing in at 9-11% alcohol. The craft beer industry is falling all over itself to bottle and can stronger and stronger beer, while the wine world (championed by born-again critics and winemakers alike) is busy apologizing for the rich, intense wines (often with higher alcohol levels) it used to bottle; now favoring lighter (color and flavor), higher acid wines! I remember when I was proud to have “graduated” out of light, plonky, fizzy beer with about 3.5% alcohol, to craft beers with flavor, color, and extract. Now, I am made to feel like I am wearing a coat of some rare exotic fur for crafting and consuming rich, full-flavored wines. I am sorry, for NOT being sorry! Some call it a natural progression, I call de-evolution!
This is the time of year when I begin to worry that perhaps I need to be medicated. I come off the heady, frenetic pace of harvest and crush, the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and run headlong into the mire of alcohol-related bureaucracy. Come January 1, my feet are trapped in the greedy goo of countless reports demanded from a juggernaut of government agencies. A dark cloud descends over my entire countenance. Instead of bottling volumes of wine, I’m bottling volumes of red tape.
Every state has a different permitting and licensing process. Reports must be filed, varying taxes must be paid, permits and licenses must be renewed. Exporters require their own special documents. Federal paperwork must be filled out and data must be collected. Accountants, lawyers, and licensing specialists must be engaged and paid to file and report on our behalf.
As a small winery, I’m the guy who also needs to source all of our glass, capsules, labels (with their concomitant bureaucracy), boxes, and closures. One could consider these activities equally mind-numbing, but at least they have a direct correlation to the end goal of producing our product, a bottle of wine.
Just as I don’t need to hear actors expounding on foreign policy, you probably don’t care to hear a winemaker talk politics. But I can’t help but start to feel pretty libertarian at this time of year. I realize we have some need for alcohol regulation, but honestly, this is ridiculous. Did you know that we cannot legally ship directly to customers in 12 of our 50 states? Much of state regulation still contains vestiges of prohibition laws and/or is designed to protect excise taxes and distributor rights. How does any of this benefit the consumer?
Customers, who have tried our wines elsewhere, frequently ask me why our wine is not available in their states. My answer is simple, either it’s not legal to ship direct-to-consumer in the state, or the cost to set-up licensing, permitting, etc. in their state is economically prohibitive. There’s a great website that addresses this topic: http://freethegrapes.org/. If you’re feeling like a 60’s activist today, you can use it to quickly let your legislators know that you’d like to see changes in these regulations.
Rant over…cloud already lifting….
People often ask me about the necessity of decanting, especially around the holidays. Everyone has a relative who is particular about his wine; you know, the one who cradles his bottle like he’s brought the Messiah himself and looks over your shoulder as you gingerly place it on the counter. He’s the one who took a couple of wine education classes after graduate school and is pretty sure that if he only had the time, he’d be the 181st person to hold the title of Master Sommelier.
Let me start by saying, I’m no pro in this department. All I can do is give you a little background, then share my personal thoughts about the subject – tell you what I do when I drink wine. Decanting originated as a means of clarifying wine – particularly older wine. It was meant to remove the sediment that can occur in wine over time. Modern wines that are intended to be imbibed within a few years generally will be sediment free due to modern filtration processes. Wines that are prepared with aging in mind, will eventually show sediment in the form of tartrates and pigmented tannins resulting from phenolic polymerization (red wines)1.
When you go to a fancy restaurant and order an expensive bottle of wine, there’s no option for requesting that it be decanted; the sommelier will do it as a matter of course. He (or she) will bring a candle to provide pure light through the bottle, and as he or she pours, the moment sediment becomes visible in the neck of the bottle, the pouring stops. Though there may be a meaningful percentage of your pricey wine left in the bottle, it is considered contaminated by the sediment and will not be poured.
Decanting is thought by some to have the added benefit of introducing oxygen into the wine. The act of pouring the wine from the bottle to the decanter aerates the wine. The big broad base of the decanter is designed to optimize surface area. In other words, it optimizes the volume of wine that comes in contact with the air. Why do we care about aerating the wine? Aerating is thought to develop the bouquet of the wine. The great French oenology professor, Emile Peynaud from the University of Bordeaux, felt the exact opposite: to aerate a bottle of wine is to lose the concentrated aromas – in effect to dilute the sensorial experience. Besides, one can always aerate the wine by swirling it in one’s glass.
So, do I decant my own wines? No, I don’t. Should I? Perhaps, but I drink wine in a manner that works for me. The screw top is such a reliable device that it only allows a very limited amount of oxygen into the bottle. This makes our wines age in a slow, controlled manner, with little opportunity for generating a flaw in the wine. In addition, our careful, minimalistic winemaking approach results in limited sediment. My issue with decanting is that it’s a fatal process. Once you’ve decanted an entire bottle of wine, you’d better be prepared to drink the whole thing – there’s no going back. A few new products have hit the market which allow you to decant a glass at a time. The Vinturi is one of them. Incidentally, for those of you who are less geeky than I am, Vinturi is a nice play on words…a merge of ‘vin’ for wine, and ‘Venturi’ which is a fluid dynamics/physics term. But again, after a long day in the winery, I’m not likely to fool with a gadget.
My advice is that if you have a wonderful bottle of aged wine, decant it to ensure that you eliminate the sediment. If you can truly taste a difference in newer wines due to the aeration, then aerate them. If you can’t, then don’t bother. If your brother-in-law wants you to decant his wine, indulge him. It’s the season for giving and you can save the arguing for something more interesting like politics or religion.
1 – As I was writing this, I did reference Jancis Robinson’s excellent tome, “The Oxford Companion to Wine”, and specifically her entries on ‘Decanting’ and ‘Sediment’.
Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the harvest of our Syrah from a couple of stellar vineyards: Three Creek Vineyard and McGinley Vineyard, both of the newly created Happy Canyon AVA of Santa Barbara. Grapes are typically picked in the middle of the night nowadays. This keeps the grapes cold, locking in their flavors and staving off the possibility of fermentation starting too early. In our case, this meant that crews from our fastidious vineyard manager, Coastal Vineyard Care, were ready to roll at 3:00 a.m.
It’s a bit disorienting to be awake this early in the first place, but as I approached the vineyard, the eerie sight before me only exacerbated my already unbalanced state. Lights hovered above the moonless vineyard like an alien spaceship searching for signs of life. I hopped out of my car, cursing myself for not bringing a flashlight. I picked my way up the sloping vineyard aided by the light of my cell phone. The soil in this area is good and gravelly lending to ideal drainage for grape cultivation. And ‘gravel’ is really a misnomer; if you’re not careful, you’ll trip face-first over gourd size stones.
As I neared the crew, I was struck by the frivolity of the wonderful souls picking what will become the product for which I care so much. There was singing, and hollering, and a sort of verbal whistling. The energy is contagious. When I opened by saying that I ‘participated’ in the harvest, I really should have said I ‘observed’ the harvest. These folks are professionals, and there is no room for Sunday pickers.
They were clad in half the layers I was wearing, despite temperatures dipping into the high 30’s. The grape vines rustled and plunged as the pickers expertly extracted the purple gems from the comfort of their yearlong homes. They move in teams of three, the rear picker eventually moving forward to become the front picker, in a rhythmic cycle until they reach the end of the row. The ‘bucket person’ constantly removes full buckets and replaces them with empty ones when a picker shouts, “Cubo!” The ‘leaf person’ hovers over the pallets removing any leaves, branches, or other foreign material, as the tractor and its four great overhead lights slowly motors just ahead of the pickers.
I’m a big fan of technology; I’d feel naked without my iPhone, iPad, and sophisticated bottling line –and I was an early adopter of screw caps for all our wines. But being in the vineyard, shuffling through the dirt, seeing our grapes hand-picked in the dark and cold by a proud, symphonic team, made me realize how few industries such as winemaking still exist in modern America. We actually get to observe and participate in the entire lifecycle of our product, from earth to bottle. And it’s still an industry where hand-picking and hand-crafting have meaning. Did I have to arise at ‘oh-dark-hundred’ to hustle out to the frigid vineyard? No. Would the grapes have been successfully picked with or without me? Yes. But had I stayed nestled in my warm bed, I would have missed that communion with the soil and people that collectively allow me to do my work.
With Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, I’m grateful for the wonderful people who, through their stewardship, are delivering beautiful fruit to our winery. I’m also grateful that I get to participate in such an ancient and timeless craft.
Mornings are cooler now in the Santa Ynez Valley; fog lies over the vineyards as dawn breaks, clearly indicating the onset of fall. Mother Nature withdraws her vaporous tendrils binding them up for the day to reveal crisp autumn mornings. Vines that have worked so hard all year to produce their fruit are showing signs of completing their cycle, their rich green leaves of summer are now dappled with amber. Most of the white fruit has been harvested in a mad dash to beat October’s first rains, and the thicker-skinned reds are drinking in their last weeks of sustenance before leaving the vine.
My workday starts and ends in the dark at this time of year. In fact, some days don’t end at all. Last week our little crew put in a 38-hour ‘day’ pressing Grenache Blanc and Roussanne ahead of the rain. We’re in a continuous cycle of punch down, crushing, pressing, testing, and bottling. We’re replacing gaskets, and wrangling with vendors to ensure that all equipment is up and running 24 hours a day. Each day I don the hat of mechanic, farmer, scientist, artist, winemaker, salesman, IT guy, and general manager. Weekends become a distant memory, as hazy as the foggy mornings. It’s times like these when I realize how fortunate I am to truly love what I do. If I didn’t, life would be unbearable.
I read Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech after he died last week. As absurd as it sounds, I was struck by a few parallels. The first was his comment that, “It wasn’t all romantic.” I think that many people have a romantic ideal wrapped around the notion of winemaking. And while some of it is true, there are some decidedly ‘unromantic’ aspects to it. Second, I too, was fortunate enough to stumble upon what I loved at an early age. I made my first wine in Australia at the age of 19 and have never looked back. And third, while he lost Apple for a while, I lost my estate vineyard and my winery in 2006. Like Jobs, I found the loss devastating, but it may have been the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m no longer shackled to my estate grapes. I’ve been able to search out grapes to specifically satisfy any flavor profile that I desire and establish a great new winery site. The resulting wines have been both personal and critical favorites.
Late at night, when I leave the winery exhausted from a day that is both physically and mentally taxing, I can’t help but think of those hardy pioneers who came out west to work the land. I go home to electricity, a hot shower, and a soft bed; they went home to lanterns, no bath unless it was Saturday, and a mattress stuffed with straw or perhaps feathers. Still, I suspect we share similar emotions of having completed a hard day’s work and knowing that our crops are in and hoping that we’ll be able to successfully take our product to market. My hands are stained from the grapes and split from the work, but when I look down at them, I know that, like Steve Jobs, I am quite possibly one of the luckiest guys on earth.
Recent wine history reads like a series of medieval sieges: high vs. low alcohol content, corks vs. screwtops, the rise of Pinot Noir and the decline of Merlot. Throughout the battles, I’ve had an opinion or two, but I’ve tried to always stay true to my mantra of ‘drink what you like.’ In the twilight of Robert Parker, Jr.’s indomitable influence on the wine industry, there is another battle, or perhaps more accurately, a revolution on the rise.
It may have been the Arab Spring, but in the wine world, it’s the Wine Blogger Dawn. Wine blogs are springing forth like local militias in eighteenth century New England. Some are commanded by veteran soldiers and some are led by enthusiastic new recruits. But like the revolutionaries before them, they have a common theme: a deep, abiding passion to be heard and counted for what they believe in. They believe in independence of thought and opinion and are unabashed about stating it.
Will this great democratization of wine overrun the Bastille and render the seasoned, established wine critics impotent? No. And that’s OK. Even after a revolution, there must be leadership…just look at what happened to post-revolutionary France…it wasn’t pretty. It sometimes takes a while, but the world eventually finds a relative state of equilibrium. Having been the grateful recipient of some recent positive reviews, I know that it is still a tremendous vote of confidence to get the nod from someone who tastes and writes about wine for a living; from someone who has the respect of many in the wine world. But how does that translate to the real world? For a wine newbie at a wine boutique or searching online to see that The Wine Advocate or The Wine Enthusiast gave a couple of my wines a 94, it lends credibility to my craftsmanship and might influence his or her purchase choice.
That said, I hope that that same newbie might find a wine blogger or local wine columnist who shares his or her palate too; a writer who is finding his or her way through the trenches of terroir, variety, and vintage; a blogger with whom he or she can have a lively and meaningful debate about wine. I’ve discovered some of my favorite wines in just this manner – through friends’ recommendations or wine bloggers/columnists whom I follow.
Ironically, wine is reverting back to what it once was, an accessible beverage to the masses. Sales of lower price wines are booming and wine bloggers and the old pros alike have seized on the notion of QPR – quality: price ratio. If you’re going to charge more, it had better be damned good, because people know that the emperor has no clothes. Glitzy marketing won’t make the customer like it more, and a great review won’t either. It might make someone buy it the first time, but it will no longer make him or her a repeat customer – they’re going to ‘drink what they like.’ Just as in ancient Greece, you have a voice at the assembly and we’re all listening.
‘Sustainability’ and ‘green’ are the buzzwords that seem to be getting more airtime than Charlie Sheen and the ‘debt ceiling’ these days. Poor Lindsay Lohan can’t even compete for press when pitted against an update on the green movement. If you don’t toss one of these words into your speech, website, LinkedIn profile, or campaign platform, you’ll be perceived as an anti-environment, polluting, miscreant.
The good news about the green movement’s popularity is that it’s bringing the notion of sustainability to the public fore. The bad news is that silence on the topic translates to presumed guilt and non-compliance. By nature, I am not a chest-pounder. I was never the guy who ran 74 yards for the game-winning touchdown, then spiked the ball into the ground (though that would have been cool); nor was I the guy who paraded around with a cheerleader draped on each arm (probably would have been cool too). I did my own thing, which included among other things: indulging my fascination with paleontology, playing a tennis racquet air guitar, learning French, and falling passionately in love with the art of winemaking. As a teen, these were not particularly ‘cool’ things. One of these less-than-sexy ‘things’ was an early respect for the environment and sensitivity to man’s impact on it. I’ve never thought of this as something to brag about or expound upon, but perhaps I should fill the silent void.
From the beginning in 1990, Andrew Murray Vineyards has been committed to sustainable farming and green business practices. ‘Green’ is not a fad for us; it’s a way of life. As a small, family-operated winery, our children have been with us amongst the vines since their birth. The last thing Kristen and I want is for our children to cavort in a chemical fog, or to work the land so hard that we eliminate the opportunity for them to have a future in this business.
Our vineyard manager, Coastal Vineyard Care, is committed to the principles of sustainable, organic, and biodynamic vineyard farming. Their low input viticulture methods ensure that the growing of our premium grapes has minimal impact on the environment and their workers. Practices include attention to soil structure and cover crops to reduce soil erosion, use of biodegradable oils, soaps, and plant extracts for controlling pests and mildew, and introducing microorganisms into the soil to encourage nutrient cycling.
Inside the winery, packaging and promotional materials are selected with careful consideration to environmental impact. Our boxes may not be the sexiest ones on the shelf, but they’re made of kraft, natural, recycled cardboard (no virgin pulp) with one color soy ink and no bleach for the printing process. Our letterhead is made from recycled paper, and we use only chemical-free cleaning products. We were early adopters of the Internet, and long ago went paper-free in terms of newsletters and communications with our customers.
There are a variety of bottle thicknesses and shapes available in the wine industry. Variation in these areas translates to variation in weight and raw materials. Though we understand the romantic nostalgia of a big, heavy wine bottle, its additional weight burns more fossil fuels in transportation, and its volume requires more raw materials and fossil fuel in its manufacture. Instead, we use a lighter bottle, thereby reducing use of these valuable resources. In addition, we recently reconfigured our wine club to reduce our carbon footprint in terms of shipping. We now ship three times a year, rather than our former four.
Our friends here in the Santa Ynez Valley often tease us about wearing our ‘life preservers’ (down vests) around town. It’s the uniform that Kristen and I wear day-in-and-day-out at the winery. Of course, wineries are supposed to be kept cool, but we figure not heating our office is just one more way to save energy and go green. We may not be flying a green flag, and we may not be the grooviest folks in the industry, but our concern for the environment has been marked by a steady dedication to sustainable farming and business practices – this is who we are, not something we’ve recently become!
We hosted a complimentary Wine Club Appreciation Party at our Los Olivos winery in June. The big hit of that afternoon was our Sangria. Many of our wine club members have been asking me how to make Sangria, AMV style. Of course, there are myriad ways to make it, but the key to good Sangria is to start with good wine. I must admit that I found myself feeling a bit like Merlin as I added a little of this and a little of that to create the desired potion. No, I didn’t wear a cape and a pointy hat to the party, but I hope you’ll find this blend ‘magically’ refreshing!
Magically Refreshing Summer Sangria
- 1 bottle AMV Esperance
- 1 bottle AMV Sanglier Rose
- 1 bottle AMV Syrah Kingsley Vineyard
- Juice from: 3 oranges and 3 limes
- 2 lemons – thinly sliced and seeds removed
- 2 limes – thinly sliced and seeds removed
- 2 oranges – thinly sliced and seeds removed
- 3 tsp granulated sugar
- 18 oz ginger ale
- Sparkling water (we like Pellegrino) to taste
Mix the wine, orange and lime juices, and sugar together in a large container. Add fruit slices and gently stir to combine.
Just prior to serving, add ginger ale and sparkling water to taste, and additional fruit as a garnish.
Add ice and serve!