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Crush Underway for Amista Vineyards at Rack & Riddle
Nearly a decade ago, Amista Vineyards gave Rosé of Syrah to a college winemaking class that wanted to try making bubbly. After tasting a bottle from that project, owners Vicky and Michael Farrow were inspired. When Michael handed over day-to-day winemaking to consultant Ashley Herzberg, a lover of bubbles, their sparkling program really took off. The effervescent stuff has become a mainstay—“the gems in the crown” of Amista’s still and sparkling wines, as Vicky says.
Amista, loosely translated as “making friends” in Spanish, has crafted largely estate-grown single varietal wine in the heart of Sonoma County’s renowned Dry Creek Valley appellation since 2003.
Today, Amista offers five different sparkling wines; each flies out the door so quickly via direct-to-consumer and wine club sales that no distributors are necessary for the brand.
“In 2009, we took a barrel of our already-fermented, existing Rosé to Penny [executive winemaker at Rack & Riddle], and said, ‘help us make sparkling wine.’ It was so good and our customers loved it so much, that the following year we made it ‘on purpose’—picking grapes specifically for sparkling,” said Michael.
Harvest 2016 began mid-August for Amista with Chardonnay for Blanc de Blanc picked and then crushed at Rack & Riddle in nearby Alexander Valley, where Amista makes all its premium, méthode Champenoise sparklers. Harvest started 10 days later than last year, “but coincidentally, three years ago we harvested on this same exact date, August 13th,” said winemaker Ashley.
Amista is often the first of Rack & Riddle’s 150-plus custom crush clients to bring grapes in at harvest. But it’s no race. Determining when to pick sparkling grapes takes precision, and the time from veraison setting in to harvest can go in a flash. Sparkling grapes are picked early, typically between 17 and 20 brix, whereas still wines are picked much later, around 24 brix and up for Pinot. This year Amista picked its Blanc de Blanc at 19.4 brix.
Ashley pulls samples from different blocks almost daily leading up to harvest, testing sugars, TA and PH for acidity levels. “But it’s still important to go off of flavors. If you just focus on sugars the outcome isn’t great,” said Ashley.
She looks for visual cues as well to determine when to pick: a softer, more see-through green berry; percentage of ripe berries vs. not-so-ripe berries; and signs the vine is ready for picking and done pushing shoots.
Prep work also involves dropping underripe fruit so only the best grapes go into the wine.
Previous years’ stats are taken into account as well. “I reflect on when we’ve picked, the weather patterns, what the fruit looked like, acidity—even if the brix is the same, the acid levels can be completely different,” said Ashley.
While California is still in a drought, Amista’s vines are much healthier this year than the previous three drought-stricken seasons.
“The weather has been more even, with good rainfall, and the crop size is a little higher. Last year a lot of Pierce’s Disease was expressed with the vines being stressed. And last year was much worse for us with hens and chicks,” said Ashley, referring to a fruit-set defect where underdeveloped and fully developed berries appear in the same cluster.
Hand-picking has always been Amista’s preference over machine, which can “squish around the skins… whole cluster by hand is all around better in my opinion,” said Ashley. “Left on the stem, the stems act as a support system—something for the grapes to press against, so you get a better yield.”
To pick the Blanc de Blanc Chardonnay, two crews, one all-female and one all-male, arrived in the foggy and cold 6 a.m. hour and picked three-and-a-half acres until 8:30 a.m. for seven tons of grapes. Then after a short trip to Rack & Riddle, the three-hour press cycle began, where Ashley monitored each press cut to make sure the juice tasted delicious (and not too “stemmy” or “woody”).
Throughout the winemaking process at Rack & Riddle, Amista enjoys the open door policy and ability to oversee their project and make key decisions. “But it’s also really nice to have somebody at the facility who’s a great partner—for us to share ideas with, to test ideas with,” said Vicky. “Ashley and Penny have a great relationship and that’s been a really valuable thing. It’s not just a facility, it’s the expertise that you can develop in a much deeper way as a custom crush facility making wines for lots of different clients each year.”
The wine from this particular harvest will be ready to release after about 18 months aging in bottle en tirage at Rack & Riddle. Crafted to be enjoyed right away, this bubbly would also age beautifully, says Ashley, from three to five or more years, especially for higher-acid wines like Blanc de Blanc. “But we can’t keep it on the shelves, so I don’t think we’ll get the opportunity!”
Photo credits: Amista Vineyards & Jolene Patterson
Visit Amista Vineyard’s tasting room at 3320 Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg, open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 707-431-9200. Check out the newest experience—a self-guided tour of the vineyards, where you can learn about each varietal, and, if grapes are present, taste test from the vine! For more information about Amista, to purchase wines, or join the Wine Club, visit www.amistavineyards.com.