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I am honored and excited to be a winery intern for the upcoming vintage at Rhys Vineyards, in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, starting in August, 2011.             The core philosophy at Rhys is as follows:

At Rhys Vineyards we aspire to make great wines from unique and expressive vineyards. This pursuit has lead us to select five different sites in the Santa Cruz Mountains for growing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. Our overriding belief that unique vineyard expression is the key to truly great wine leads us to an approach that includes:

  • A relentless, spare-no-expense, focus on producing the best possible fruit in the vineyard
  • Carefully selected cool weather sites that offer interesting and expressive soil character
  • Natural winemaking with minimal intervention

These core tenets help us produce ageworthy wines that emphasize vineyard expression, balance, fresh fruit, and concentration.”

I DON’T THINK IT IS JUST HYPE…

Although Rhys is a relative newcomer in the California wine industry, due to the intuition, diligence and financial resources of owner Kevin Harvey, Rhys is at the forefront of California’s biodynamic and cool-climate wine growing scene.

Indeed, in the short time Rhys has been on the market (first commercial release was 2004) it has garnered much attention. Not just from assorted blogs which put them as the next cult producer to watch also from well-respected critics such as Josh Raynolds of IWC, and  Allen Meadows . Most recently, Rhys has also drawn comparisons with “the finest red Burgundies” from Mike Steinberger both. The list of accolades goes on here.

Regardless of the hype, I am really looking forward to my next adventure traveling the world to research and learn biodynamic viticulture and non-interventionist enology and could not think of a better place than Rhys Vineyards.

A LITTLE BIT OF THIS AND THAT

Rhys Vineyards (pronounced REECE) is comprised of just over 40 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from five distinct sites throughout and close to the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, a rather quaint but diverse viticultural region just south of San Francisco. The Santa Cruz Mountains, long overshadowed by Napa and Sonoma, is defined by a mountain range, a major fault-line and two resultant  main points of difference in terms of grape growing: climate and geology.

CLIMATE

Due to the proximity to both the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, the Santa Cruz Mountains  are defined as a temperate, or cool, climate region. The degree days in the Santa Cruz Mountains are similar to that of Champagne, France, Côte-d’Or, Burgundy, France, and  Friuli, Italy as well as  Willamette Valley, Oregon,  Tasmania, Australia and Marlborough, New Zealand.

The region, as it’s name might suggest, is mountainous. Rhys  has found three micro-climates at different altitudes  which imprint the vines with distinct characteristics.  The temperate climate typically encourages early bud break and due to the proximity to the ocean, fog tends to roll in some sometime in the late afternoon, until the sun burns it off the next morning.  This allows the grapes to ripen in cooler temperatures and the longer growing season allows the grapes to mature slowly with intensely complex flavor.

Anyone who has been on a hike up a butte or small mountain knows how temperature going down and up as you ascend or descend. Image how this can impact the flavor, aroma and texture of a Pinot noir grape! What is at work here is the rather extreme diurnal variation, or the difference in temperature between day and night. This is what helps retain acidity in grapes and allows for a slow, even-ripening of both flavors and sugars.

GEOLOGY & SOIL

The second point of difference, soil and geological formations, are both more complex and, according to Kevin Harvey, more essential in terms of determining the quality and character of Rhys wine. The Santa Cruz Mountains are largely the result of compressive uplift caused by a leftward bend of the San Andreas Fault. What this means is there is an amazing diversity to geology; it’s almost like there are two different geological worlds on each side of the fault, from the top soils to the subsoils and clear through the regolith to the bedrock material  in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This fault-line soil diversity sets the Santa Cruz Mountains apart from much of the rest of California.

To determine what sites to plant, Kevin Harvey did a huge amount of research using geological maps of the Santa Cruz Mountains and looking at climate studies (he originally placed more importance on climate than he would now).   After doing his homework, he found sites that had interesting geological makeup and beginning in 2001 began an ambitious planting program that would eventually yield carefully chosen sites which are now producing distinctive and transparent wines from throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains.

VINEYARDS OVERVIEW

MICRO-CLIMATE#1

Family Farm and the Home vineyards are planted at the lowest altitude micro-climate, at 400-500 feet with two different loam soils on bases of decomposed sandstone. These two vineyards are not officially in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, due to their low elevation.

Family Farm Vineyard was planted in 2002 and is 6.2 acres.

Newly grafted heritage clones at Family Farm

Elevation: 400′
Soil: Alluvial Clay Loam
Geology: Decomposed Butano Sandstone
Clones: 115, Pommard, Swan and 8 different “Suitcase” clones

Home Vineyard is where the oldest vines are planted; 1/4 acre was planted in 1995 and 1998 to 6 clones . In 2007,  Home Vineyard was expanded by adding 1.4 acres of very tightly spaced rows of “Suitcase” clones.

2007 expansion at Home Vineyard

Elevation: 450-500 ft
Soil: Clay Loam Ranges in depth between 24″ and 40″
Geology: Whiskey Hill formation sandstone
Clones: 115, 777, Pommard , Swan, Wadenswil and 10 different “Suitcase” clones

MICRO-CLIMATE#2

Horseshoe Ranch and Alpine vineyards are planted at 1200-1600 feet on thin topsoils  over bases of  11-15 million year old sedimentary rock and volcanic ash and 4 million year old sedimentary shale and sandstones

Horseshoe Ranch Vineyard was planted in 2004 and is 17.5 acres; there are  10 acres of Pinot Noir, 4 acres of Chardonnay and 3 1/2 acres of Syrah, Word on the street is that 1 acre of Syrah was grafted over to Nebbiolo in 2008.

lower section at Horseshoe Ranch

Elevation: 1360′ to 1610′
Soil: Top soils range from 6″ to 20″ with a base of sedimentary rock and volcanic ash
Geology: Monterey formation is 10-15 million years old (Miocene)
Clones: 13 Pinot Noir clones, 4 Syrah clones; 2 Chardonnay clones

Alpine Vineyard  was planted in 2001-2003 and comprises 13 acres of shallow rocky soils. This vineyard is very steep and has very  low average yields.

40 degree slopes at Alpine Vineyard

Elevation: 1200’ to 1490′
Soil: Topsoils range from 6″ to 20″ with a mélange of sedimentary shale and sandstone below
Geology: marine Purisima formation, 4 million years old (Pliocene epoch)
Clones: 4 Chardonnay and 16 Pinot Noir primarily “Heritage” and “Suitcase” selections, including Calera, Swan, La Tache, Hyde and Wente.

MICRO-CLIMATE#3

Skyline vineyard is planted at 2270- 2360 feet with very thin top soils high in iron over ancient fractured mudstone, sandstone and limestone dating from 34 million years ago! Skyline Vineyard is one of the highest in California and is comprised of 2 1/2 ares of Pinot Noir and 1 acre of Syrah, purchased in 2004. The Pinot Noir blocks are spaced at 2×3, which is 7000 vines per acre,  likely the most densely planted in California. In order to plant, they had to drill into pure rock…

Skyline Vineyard

Elevation: 2270’- 2360’
Soil: A mélange of fractured mudstone, sandstone and limestone
Geology: San Lorenzo formation is Oligocene (like Vaqueros) or Eocene, approximately 34M yrs old.
Clones: 12 Pinot Noir (Selection Massale); 2 Syrah (Côte Rôtie and Chave)

WINEMAKING

Our winemaking is focused on accomplishing the following goals:

  • Pure, silky concentration that can only be achieved through low yields
  • Beautiful balance with no component revealing itself separate from the whole
  • Fruit that tastes fresh-picked and perfectly ripe, not jammy
  • Capturing complex aromatics
  • Ability to age and improve in the bottle. Nothing compares to the aromatic beauty of aged wine!
  • Thrilling complexity and beguiling interest that never leaves you bored
  • Wines with a strong sense of somewhereness (rather than someoneness)

Consistent with our organic/biodynamic approach to viticulture, we believe that hands-off winemaking provides for enhanced vineyard expression and complexity.


At harvest, all grapes are picked into shallow 500lb bins to minimize fruit damage. Each cluster is rigorously sorted by hand and gently dropped directly into our small stainless steel one-ton fermenters. This methodology insures that only the best grapes are used, and allows us to have many unbroken grapes for our whole cluster fermentations. We do not add any yeast or supplemental nutrient in order to allow the native yeasts from each vineyard to perform a completely natural and biologically diverse fermentation.


Once fermenting, our wines are gently punched down by foot in small one-ton, open-top tanks. These small tanks allow us to evaluate each of our half-acre vineyard blocks separately, as each fermenter produces a 2-barrel lot of wine. This micro-vinification allows for a rigorous selection of barrels for vineyard designates as well the isolation of blocks with unique character within our vineyards.


In the cellar, we employ barrels built from the finest French Oak that have been air dried for four full years in Burgundy. This expensive program requires that we purchase our oak as stave wood 4 years before the barrels are even made, but accomplishes two important goals: very consistent barrels year after year, and wines that are differentiated entirely by the vineyard and not by the barrel. The resulting barrels are extremely gentle and help raise our wine with pure fruit rather than noticeable oak flavor.

Our process, from harvest to bottling, is based on a gentle gravity system and our wines are never pumped, fined, or filtered. This gentle approach is intended to deliver the purest possible reflection of our vineyards’ unique character in each bottle.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

The cool climate and the distinct geological profiles of each vineyard as well as the biodynamic/organic viticultural practices combined with gentle but exacting winemaking techniques helps to explain why Rhys Vineyards wine has received the attention that it has to date.

I’ll post my own notes on the wines soon, hopefully!

Rhys Vineyards sells all wine through their mailing list. And there is a waiting list to get on the mailing list. You can get your name on the list here.

PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING

Here are three videos (taken by a wine blogger and connoisseur named Richard Jennings, whose blog RJ on Wine is very well done), from a recent visit to the winery, where  owner Kevin Harvey leads a tour and talks about how Rhys uses their new constructed cave throughout  production as well as touching on general philosophies and specific techniques for their Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay.

Video#1

Video#2

Video#3

Here are the reasons  why I am so excited about this internship:

– the focus is on Pinot Noir, though I will be working with Syrah, Chardonnay, maybe even a bit of Nebbiolo

– all fruit is estate farmed using biodynamic and organic viticultural practices

– there are distinct soil, geology and altitude characteristics in each vineyard site

– the clonal diversity within each site is wonderful and there are a number of “Heritage” clones I have never worked with

– the consistent and minimalist winemaking practices allow site characteristics to shine through

– there is a heavy reliance on whole cluster fermentation

– micro-fermentation: the main fermentation vessels are open-top, 1 ton stainless steel fermenters. This allows  1/2 acre blocks to ferment separately.

–  pigeage is very gentle, in fact, all punchdowns are done by foot (!)

– all fermentations rely on indigenous yeast (primary and secondary)

– there is no use of enzymes, tannins or water  (tartaric acid has been and may be used, but sparingly)

-a consistent barrel program, comprised completely of  four year, air-dried, very tight grain barrels from Francois Freres, limits excessive oak impact and decreases variability in extract, flavor and intensity

-the wines are not fined or filtered

Other than all this, I am really looking forward to getting back into the vineyard and winery to learn how vignerons and vintners are growing and producing  world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Visit the Rhys Vineyards website here.

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