A Tale of Two Vineyards
Two sites near Paso Robles farm conscientiously, and both make excellent wines. But in the climate change era, one gets enough rain, the other doesn’t.
TEMPLETON, Calif. — This is a story of two wine producers in the Paso Robles region. They are different in size, background and intent, yet they have important elements in common, starting with a commitment to the land and to creating diverse, sustainable ecosystems. One is thriving, the other struggling to survive.
When Phillip Hart bought 42 acres here 20 years ago on a set of steep, knobby hillsides, it seemed like a fine place to put a vineyard.
Cool marine winds blew in from the Pacific through gaps in the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, which kept the air circulating and discouraged the sorts of insect and fungal threats that would harm grapevines.
Mr. Hart had grown up on a farm in Wales, and though he had gone into the carpet business in Southern California, he had a vision of farming and making wine. This spot, south of the town of Paso Robles, rang true.
He knew he wanted to farm biodynamically and without irrigation, so he set about preparing the land. By 2005, he had planted 17 acres with an iconoclastic mixture of French, Spanish and Italian grapes, along with olive trees and fruit trees.
Up to 40 percent of the land was to be kept wild in the hope of maintaining a diverse, self-sustaining ecosystem, in accordance with biodynamic principles. Today, bats, owls and hawks patrol the skies, helping to manage pests. A small herd of sheep and a few humans work the land.
Mr. Hart named the place AmByth Estate, after the Welsh word for “forever.”
In 2010, AmByth harvested two tons of grapes per acre. That’s not a high yield compared with the four tons an acre a quality-minded vineyard might expect on the Napa Valley floor, or with the eight to 10 tons an industrial vineyard would farm with chemical fertilizers and other treatments.
But for an uncompromising farmer on a hillside vineyard, two tons an acre was enough.
The future looked bright. And the wines were terrific, produced as idealistically as the vineyard was farmed, without any additions, not even sulfur dioxide, a stabilizer, used almost universally except by the most resolutely natural producers. AmByth often fermented and aged the wines in terra cotta amphorae.
Most of the whites are macerated with their skins, as with orange or amber wines, producing textured, lightly tannic wines that are fresh, lively and pure. The reds are elegant, earthy and subtle.
The only problem has been, AmByth cannot make enough wine.
“We were hoping for at least 10 years of good production,” said Mr. Hart’s son Gelert Hart, who, with his wife, Robyn Hart, now oversees AmByth. “But two tons turned out to be a pinnacle.”
A late frost came in the spring of 2011, just after the vines had budded, killing half the crop. That happens in agriculture. The next year wasn’t bad, but then in 2013 came the beginning of a prolonged drought, which, except for a two-year interruption in 2016 and ’17, has more or less been the norm ever since.
The nadir came in 2015, with a yield of just 300 pounds an acre, less than a tenth the size of 2010s crop.
For the Harts, the drought, and the increasingly hot summers, have become an existential challenge. With some changes in pruning techniques, the yields are now just under a ton an acre, and the wines are still exciting. But Gelert Hart wonders daily, he said, whether AmByth can sustain itself into the future.
They have considered irrigating the vineyards in the winter, using water from aquifers that are already seriously depleted. But he has resisted, he said, as irrigation would go against everything AmByth stands for.
Dry-farmed vineyards like AmByth’s can be healthier than conventional sites, as the vines are forced to plunge deeply in search of water and nutrients. Regular drip irrigation encourages roots to remain near the surface.
Mr. Hart said over the course of the drought AmByth had lost maybe 8 percent of its vines, while irrigated vineyards had lost 20 to 25 percent of theirs.
But irrigated vineyards can be planted more densely. They can produce more fruit and bigger yields, even if more vines are lost. Even irrigation can’t make up for diminished rain over the course of a year.
“We’ve always said the biggest problem with the agriculture industry is growing things where they shouldn’t be grown,” Mr. Hart said. “We’re wondering if we have to eat our words now.”
From the house at the top of a hill, where Gelert and Robyn Hart live with their two young sons, Kyler and Owen, the vineyard stretches out down slopes in several directions. The vines, trained in free-standing, goblet-shaped bushes rather than on wires, form a pale-green contrast to the brown grasses covering the earth surrounding the vines.
Other vineyards are visible on hills across the valley, their leaves on trellises an almost iridescent green from chemical fertilizers and regular irrigation, despite the water shortage. This part of the Paso Robles appellation has received just eight inches of rain this year, and aquifers are dangerously depleted.
“Everyone is just sucking it out of the ground,” Mr. Hart said. “We’re the freaks.”
Twenty miles to the west, another idealistic estate, Tablas Creek Vineyard, has had a very different experience. Like AmByth, Tablas farms biodynamically. In 2020, it became the country’s first vineyard to receive a regenerative organic certification, which requires meeting standards in encouraging soil health, and in promoting animal welfare and farmworker fairness.
It’s far bigger than AmByth, with six times the vineyard. It has a guest center, a parking lot and a professional hospitality staff. When visitors make their way up the hill to visit AmByth, Robyn Hart meets them and pours the wine.
Tablas Creek, too, makes superb wines, though more conventional than Ambyth’s, primarily blends and varietal wines made from 16 Southern Rhône grapes.
Unlike AmByth, Tablas began with a serious plan. The owners are a partnership of two families with long experience in wine. The Perrin family in the Southern Rhône Valley of France had been the proprietors of Château de Beaucastel, a venerated Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate, for generations. The Haas family in the United States had a successful wine import company, Vineyard Brands.
In the mid-1980s the families decided to look together for property in California to grow Rhône grape varieties. After a long search, they settled on a 120-acre site west of the town of Paso Robles, just 12 miles from the Pacific.
They chose the site because the rocky soils were geologically related to those at Beaucastel, the climate was similar to the Mediterranean and because they believed the annual rainfall would permit them to farm without irrigation, as at Beaucastel.
Planting did not begin until 2003, as the vines, imported from Beaucastel, had to pass through quarantine in the United States. When they put in their first vineyard, said Jason Haas, the general manager, they tried to plant as densely as at Beaucastel, with far more vines per acre than was typical in old California vineyards that were dry farmed.
But in Paso Robles the rain patterns are different than in the Rhône. Tablas Creek might have a similar annual rainfall, but it mostly comes in the winter rather than spread through the year. The densely planted vines competed in the summer for the small amount of water in the ground. Many were lost.
These vines had to be irrigated, though Mr. Haas said Tablas tries to irrigate in a way that encourages roots to grow deeply rather than stay at the surface.
“We irrigate once or twice a summer, for 12 hours, rather than 2 hours every 2 weeks,” Mr. Haas said. “It’s kind of conscious root training.”
Since that initial vineyard went in, Tablas has continued to add to it. The newer vineyards are planted far less densely, 380 to 640 vines to the acre rather than 1,600 to 1,800, which permits farming without irrigation once the vines are established. Today, 30 percent of Tablas is dry-farmed, Mr. Haas said, with a goal of 50 percent as planting continues.
Why is dry farming important?
“For two reasons,” said Neil Collins, the executive winemaker and vineyard manager. “First, the fewer the inputs, the better to make wines of place, which is our goal. Second, because it’s more responsible.”
When it comes to dry farming, Tablas has a significant advantage over AmByth: Its part of the Paso Robles region that averages 25 to 28 inches of rain per year, twice what AmByth has been getting to the east.
Even as the drought persists, Mr. Haas said, Tablas is able to harvest two tons an acre in its dry-farmed blocks, along with three to three-and-a-half in the areas that require irrigation. He agrees with Mr. Hart that the dry-farmed vines are healthier, and noted they require less labor.
“They’re more self-regulating,” he said. “You don’t have to do a lot of the stuff you do in irrigated vineyards. It’s less expensive, lower intervention, and the quality of the grapes and the health of the vines are really good.”
Climate change and its ramifications, like the drought and the threat of fires, are problems at Tablas just as they are all over the West. As of yet, though, the threat is not immediate. Tablas can focus on other issues, like defending the vines from gophers, putting in enough solar panels to provide 100 percent of its energy needs and protecting its 300 sheep from mountain lions and other predators (two Spanish mastiffs seem to have done the trick).
AmByth has no such cushion, but Mr. Hart has not given up on his site. Sales of his wines have never been better, he said, than during the pandemic. He’s been buying grapes from vineyards with similar principles to supplement the estate fruit.
His hillsides have been spared fires so far, but he’s noticed trees in the surrounding forest falling victim to Sudden Oak Death, a disease that scientists say has been amplified by climate change.
“They’re definitely telling us something,” he said.
He wants AmByth to succeed where it is, but can’t help considering moving if things become unsustainable.
“Maybe in the next couple of years we’ll have to decide that this experiment is done, either moving on or changing our strategy,” Mr. Hart said. “AmByth means forever, whether it’s here or somewhere else.”
Medio: The New York Times