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The one universal truth in wine is that there are no universal truths about wine. That is one of the reasons it’s such a maddening and magical pursuit. Recently I read yet another article on the subject of whether “old” vines make better wine. That simple question immediately brings up at least three central disputes that deepen the discussion.
What is “old”?
What is “better”?
Did the vine’s age make the wine?
In addressing the first question, we must rehash a debate (or deception) that’s been going on since Zinfandel’s resurgence in the late 1970’s and up to this day. The phrase “old vine”, much like “artisanal”, “hand crafted”, “small lot”, “Reserve”, or “natural wine”, has no legal definition. Which is funny, seeing as how there are so many rules about commercially fermenting grapes in the United States that we have an Entire Government Agency enforcing them. Yet some of the most common, most used (and misused), and deceptive terms in the industry can simply be used with no context or accuracy. My rule of thumb is that if I would not describe a person as old at a certain age, I would not describe a vineyard that way either. 30? No way! 40, 50? Not even close. 147 (like the Original Grandpére Vineyard here in Amador County), you bet!!
Better is even a more subjective question because we all desire something different from a glass of wine depending on when we are drinking it, where we are, and how our tastes vary. It’s fair to say that old vines tend to produce more intense wines, richer on the palate, possessing more layers of complexity, and expressing a spicier, weightier mid palate than wine from young vines. But does that make the wine “better”? On a warm summer afternoon, I’ll take a cold bottle of Rosè over a 100-year-old red Zinfandel every time. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that old vines produce a unique category of wine.
So back to the main question – Is the age of the vine the reason these old vineyards are so esteemed? There is one school of thought that says as a vine ages it deepens its root structure and moderates its productivity creating an availability of resources and a balance that makes for great wine. There is, however, another possibility. Perhaps the vineyard is old because it was great to begin with. Over time most vineyards are eventually replanted to respond to the needs for new or different varietals or because the vineyard is failing in some way. But if year in and year out a vineyard is producing great wine, why tear it out? So perhaps it’s not that the these vineyards are great because they are old, but they are old because they are great!
We'll let you be the judge. Try our Original Grandpére Zinfandel and let us know what you think.
I just returned from a sales and wine club trip to Hawaii and it was a great reminder of why we make so many darn wines. The wines that were deliciously appropriate in the 40 degree rainy weather when I left California were certainly not the same ones that were appealing in the sun and sand (and humidity!) of Hawaii. Why every restaurant in Hawaii is not carrying Andis Sèmillon is a mystery to me and a current life goal!! : )
It's funny how much you learn about your own creations when experiencing them in a different environment. Here in California I love the Sèmillon for its weight on the palate and the low tones of fig and beeswax in the aromatics. In Hawaii I love the floral, white flower aromas and the refreshing crispness when it hits your palate. It's fun to see the same wine in such different facets, like seeing a painting or photograph you know well and love under different light. Context changes things.
The other great discovery on this trip was that Cabernet Franc is back and back in a big way. We've made Cabernet Franc since the inception of Andis and the truth is we always had a bear of a time getting people interested in it. We source the fruit from an amazing, high elevation vineyard and age it in our concrete egg tank; it's one of our most beloved wines. That said, you gotta sell the stuff! It got to the point last year that Jenae and I recommended to Andy that we discontinue the program. : (
Andy’s response was classic:
Andy: But it’s good wine
Jeane and Mark: For sure
Andy: Then why would we stop making it? People will come around.
Sure enough they did! Starting in December, sales of the Cabernet Franc have skyrocketed and all the cool kid bloggers are posting stories about how Cab Franc is THE wine for 2016. So many other producers had already given up hope that we found ourselves in the fantastic position of being one of the very few belles left at the ball. Proof yet again that perseverance and a dedication to great wine generally pays off in the end.
Usually, conversations with local wine makers and winery owners start with me asking, “What’s new,” or “What’s up?” And as most of us who call Amador County our home know, one of the special features of living here is that you actually meet, work with, play and party with not only friends who work in the wine industry, but also the owners of the vineyards and the winemakers. They are accessible to everyone, making a trip through our region and tasting award-winning wines all the more special. Such was the case when I ventured into Andis Wines (11000 Shenandoah Road, Plymouth), to catch up with Andy Friedlander, Andis Wines owner and Mark McKenna, winemaker. The question, “What’s new?” quickly turned into a conversation worthy of sharing with the readers of the Amador Ledger Dispatch.
Andis Wines opened in November of 2010. It is a state-of-the-art winemaking facility surrounded by panoramic 360-degree views of the Shenandoah Valley and the 25-acre vineyard site. What I did not know is that the winery was built to minimize energy requirements and water usage. “The 17,000-square-foot facility is set on an east-west axis in such a way as to reduce heat from the sun, thus minimizing the need for excessive air conditioning during the hot months,” explained McKenna. “We utilize evaporative cooling instead of air conditioning in our barrel and production areas. This is a tremendous energy savings as well as a system that causes less wine losses due to evaporation and allows the wines to experience moderate temperature fluctuations while aging, ultimately resulting in more stable wines.” Indeed, the winery design exceeds California’s strict Title 24 energy standards by over 15 percent. The beautiful decorative stave wall is made from retired and repurposed wine barrels — and includes names of club members in appreciation of their support and love of Andis Wines.
One of the big lurking issues for Andis Wines and the winery industry as a whole is sustainability, the hottest topic lately being water usage and the persistent drought we are all too familiar with in California. “Our grapes are almost exclusively dry-farmed, meaning we don’t irrigate them,” said McKenna. The only irrigation used is on newly replanted parcels to ensure vines get properly established. “This allows us to use as little water as possible and force the plants to develop deep and sustainable root systems,” said McKenna. All of Andis Wines landscaping was designed to require minimal irrigation, as well.
And in the “What’s New“ category, McKenna was kind enough to show me the steam sanitation process. In the past, washing and sanitizing a single wine barrel required approximately 60 gallons of water. The steam sanitation process is not only more effective, but reduces that usage to just three gallons of water per barrel. “It has reduced the amount of water we use to clean tanks from 200-300 gallons down to less than 15. It’s more effective and ensures the wines are even better cared for than before,” said McKenna.
As any Amador County gardener will tell you, mole and vole populations can be a problem. Andis Wines installed owl boxes to attract predatory birds to protect the vineyard. “This way we don’t have to use any chemical inputs in the vineyard or around the winery to control the rodent population,” said McKenna. “We use cover crops to help amend the health of the soils in lieu of chemical amendments and are planning to use baby doll sheep starting this year for weed control.”
In the cellars themselves, tradition and innovation go hand-in-hand. Using alternative aging vessels (concrete and “flex” tanks) in addition to barrels allows Andis Wines to make wine of more intense character while reducing the need for barrels, saving some trees along the way. My personal favorite is the refillable carafe. “We save a bottle, label, cork and case each time a customer purchases one of our refillable carafes,” said McKenna. “It also happens to be a great deal at $15 for a one liter refill (only $10 if you are an Amador County resident) — because for us, local matters!” Coming soon is the installation of one of only two Tesla and EV charging stations between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.
Building a state-of-the-art winemaking facility and winery that utilizes “green” design is expensive. Andis Wines views it as an investment and critical to the future of the Amador wine industry. The mission is to craft delicious wines with balance, character and complexity. Garnering 90+ point scores in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, glowing reviews and placements in some of the finest restaurants in Northern California and Hawaii, I would say Andis Wines is the perfect blend of vineyard, winemaker and winery.
If you are considering a trip to the Shenandoah Valley and Amador wine country I would encourage you to relax in the picnic area, spending time with family and friends. As their website states, “Our contemporary design, gracious staff and commitment to making superior wines make Andis a must-stop on your Amador wine tasting adventure.” Personally, that statement is 100 percent correct. And knowing their commitment to sustainability and the future of Amador County, California and the wine industry as a whole makes their wine all the more delicious. Amador has made wonderful wine for a very long time — come enjoy the next chapter. Visit andiswines.com for more information on Andis Wines.
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