A few days into my trip to California I realized I had a problem- I was addicted to natural wine. Unfortunately, the wines I had come to love (and grow dependent on) in Paris were hard to find Stateside and I wished I had packed a secret stash before leaving La France.
Natural wine withdrawal symptoms included the horrible hangovers that followed over-indulgence of industrial wine and a terrible longing for terroir.
There is no lack of wineries in California, but driving past vast expanses of homogenous vines chained vertically to trellises in barren fields of the wine country did little to encourage hopes that I would find biodynamic grapes. That's why it came as such a relief to discover Ambyth Estate, a certified biodynamic, natural winery in California's Central Coast.
Thrilled by the prospect of a natural wine fix, my husband and I scheduled a tasting and made our way through the winding roads and rolling hills of this breathtaking region.
Ambyth Estate was founded in 2003, with a biodynamic approach being used from the beginning. "We wanted a completely healthy living environment for our children, our animals, and our guests staying in our home and enjoying the fruits of the land" Mary Morwoood Hart, who owns Ambyth with her husband Phillip, explained when asked about the choice to go biodynamic.
To this end, Ambyth is committed to both natural farming and winemaking techniques and has the certification to prove it. The Estate has two sets of Demeter certification: one for the vineyard and one for the farm.
While farm and vineyard remain separate categories as far as certification is concerned, at Ambyth Estate it is hard to distinguish where the farm ends and the vineyard begins. Cows graze happily in a field that cozies up to the vineyard, chickens strut through aisles of grapevines while rabbits hop in and out of your field of vision.
"The animals have a few different roles to play" Mary explained, "they fertilize the vineyards while free-ranging (with their manure), they act as weed abatement in the winter, the chickens aerate the soil with their scratching, we enjoy talking and interacting with them. And quite frankly, they are also our source of food. We believe in raising our own meat & produce."
An exciting new addition to the Ambyth farm/vineyard is neither plant nor animal, but the Italian imported "amphorae", clay pots used for fermentation and aging. The winery has started experimenting with the new containers, in which their Grenache based Rosé is currently aging.
Mary and Phillip hope that the use of clay pots will "allow the wine to breath like oak does, yet they will not impart an oak characteristic." Testing new methods of natural winemaking is central to Ambyth's quest, "We are...fanatically in pursuit of wines that are INTERESTING... wine with character and a story." explains Mary.
Ambyth's journey towards wines with a sense of personality and place never strays from the biodynamic approach. A commendable and unfortunately uncommon commitment among Californian vineyards.
Mary observed that "many wineries in California practice BD (biodynamic) in the vineyards, but DO NOT carry it through in the winemaking process because of the restrictions: we are prohibited from adjusting the wines at all, and this is too much for some winemakers who want to “make” the wine. We pursued certification from the very beginning so people knew we were serious and honest. Too many farmers out there say “we practice BD as much as possible, but…”—I can’t tell you how many times we've heard this. Certification, to us, means we are really doing what we’re saying!"
Mary's comments reminded me of an experience I had earlier in the week, at a tasting of organic wines. I asked the winery representatives if they practiced biodynamic farming and they replied yes, and then added "but we don't do all of that moon stuff" (biodynamic farming is based on respecting the lunar calendar, or doing all that "moon stuff").
Interacting with Mary and visiting Ambyth Estate really brought home to me how important it is to know your winemaker and support those who are making real, natural, interesting, quality wines.
My husband and I were in heaven tasting Ambyth's Viognier, Adamo, Red Table Wine, and Rosé, which were served to us by the friendly and welcoming (and adorable) Gustavo.
We emptied our pockets of cash and bought as many bottles as we could, so content were we to have found what felt like contraband, such a rare commodity in this confusing wine country where mass production is the standard and small farms and vineyards are few and far between.
Ambyth Estate breaks that mold and luckily for us they do. Go find out for yourself by making the trip to Templeton and visiting the vineyard or by ordering directly on their site.
Special thanks to Gustavo and the Ambyth dogs for the warm welcome and to Mary for sharing her insight and passion for this piece!