Introduction

Winemaking: The Continuation of Terroir by Other Means.®

Welcome to the Amalie Robert Estate Farming Blog, aka FLOG. By subscribing, you will receive regular FLOGGINGS throughout the growing season. The FLOGGING will begin with the Spring Cellar Report in April. FLOGGINGS will continue each month and detail how the vintage is shaping up. You may also be FLOGGED directly after the big Cluster Pluck with the yearly Harvest After Action Report. Subscribe now and let the FLOGGINGS begin!

Rusty

"This is one of the Willamette Valley’s most distinguished wineries, but not one that is widely known."

- Rusty Gaffney, PinotFile - September 2016

Josh

"Dena Drews and Ernie Pink have been quietly producing some of Oregon's most elegant and perfumed Pinots since the 2004 vintage. Their 30-acre vineyard outside the town of Dallas, abutting the famed Freedom Hill vineyard where Drews and Pink live, is painstakingly farmed and yields are kept low so production of these wines is limited. Winemaking includes abundant use of whole clusters, which is no doubt responsible for the wines' exotic bouquets and sneaky structure…"

- Josh Raynolds, Vinous - October 2015

David

"...Dallas growers Dena Drews and Ernie Pink... showed me this July three of their reserve bottlings and thereby altered my perception of their endeavors. Since these are produced in only one- or two-barrel quantities, they offer an extreme instance of a phenomenon encountered at numerous Willamette addresses, whose really exciting releases are extremely limited. But they also testify, importantly, to what is possible; and what’s possible from this site in these hands revealed itself to be extraordinary!... And what a Syrah!"

- David Schildknecht, The Wine Advocate - October 2013

Wine & Spirits

"Finding that their whole-cluster tannins take some time to integrate, Pink and Drews hold their wines in barrel for up to 18 months - so Amalie Robert is just releasing its 2008s. And what a stellar group of wines: Bright and tart, they possess both transparency and substance, emphasizing notes of rosehips and sandalwood as much as red berries. The pinot noirs alone would likely have earned Amalie Robert a top 100 nod this year. But the winery also produces cool-climate syrah that rivals the best examples from the Sonoma Coast. And the 2009 Heirloom Cameo, their first attempt at a barrel-fermented chardonnay, turned out to be one of our favorite Oregon chardonnays of the year. Ten vintages in, Amalie Robert has hit its stride."

- Luke Sykora, Wine & Spirits Magazine – September 2011

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Amalie Robert Estate Climate Update: 2016 April

Hello and Welcome,

This is the April 2016 Climate Update from Amalie Robert Estate.

April is a cruel month. The vines are just waking up and starting to grow. They have about six months until The Great Cluster Pluck and they are on a tear to “ripen their seeds.” (This is vine code for “reproduce.”) The climate is transitioning from the last of the particularly nasty winter weather including hail, of course, and breaking bad into summer temperatures approaching 90 degrees – in APRIL! Fortunately, we had some measurable precipitation, aka rain, to keep the vineyard floor pliable enough to work in last year’s nitrogen fixing and soil holding fall cover crops of barley and peas and to drill in the nitrogen fixing and moisture sipping spring cover crop blend of buckwheat and vetch.


The vineyard floor is where the real action is happening at Amalie Robert Estate in April. We believe that the soil is the plant’s stomach and if you want to grow the world’s best Pinot Noir, you need to tend to the vines’ appetite.

A primer for nonfarmers: The air we breathe is made up of about 80% nitrogen. Some plants (peas and vetch) are able to “fix” nitrogen out of the atmosphere and make it available in the soil as a nutrient. Winter rains have a tendency to wash away hillside topsoil if you do not use plants with fibrous roots (barley) to help hold the soil in place. Our summers are typically dry and any spring cover crops (buckwheat) have to survive mostly on the gift of morning dew. Shall we proceed?

Nitrogen is a macro nutrient, along with phosphorus and potassium. They are the three main building blocks of all plant life. Phosphorous and potassium are “resident” in the soil year round. These nutrients bind to the soil particles and hang on through the winter rains. Nitrogen does not. And so the 45 inches of rain we get every winter washes nitrogen out of the soil. That means each spring the vines wake up to find there is very little nitrogen available to them. Unless you planted a nitrogen fixing and soil holding fall cover crop the year before.

The view from 10,000 feet is to incorporate the nitrogen fixing and soil holding fall cover crop of barley and peas into the moist spring soil to give the vines nutrients for vintage 2016. And then to follow-on with the spring cover crop of nitrogen fixing and soil sipping buckwheat and vetch to be incorporated into the soil just after harvest to provide nutrients all winter long.

But wait, there is more! The nitrogen fixing and soil holding fall cover crop of barley and peas also gets drilled in just after harvest to complete the cycle for upcoming vintage 2017. In our previous lives, we would have called this an infinite loop where the only way to stop it is to pull the plug. But this is agriculture, and not just agriculture, but wine agriculture, aka viticulture, where if it looks stupid, but it yields positive results, then it is not stupid.


The view from ground level is a little more involved. There are several vineyard passes required to make this happen and all of this work has to be completed before the soil moisture in the top 6 to 10 inches of soil is gone for the year, as there is typically very little rainfall after the end of April. Ernie has 3 tractors, all Italians, and once you can get them started, they can affect significant change. And that brings us to the implements:


First we have the flail mower. It is accurate to say Ernie begins each growing season flailing out in the vineyard. Every other row contains the nitrogen fixing and soil holding fall cover crop that has grown all winter fixing nitrogen right out of the air. The flail mower chops these plants into digestible pieces for the soil.

Yes, it is true. We are growing plants to feed our vines. The alternate approach is applying chemical fertilizers. And when you see a vineyard that has permanent grass in all the rows, it makes you wonder how they are feeding their vines.


Next on the scene is the chisel plow. This is an old school implement whose purpose is to open up and aerate our sedimentary soils and break up any compaction from the tractor tires. Our soil type is Bellpine, a sandy clay loam. After years of experience and countless rototiller tines, Ernie has discovered the rototiller tines live much longer and more productive lives if he opens the soil with a chisel plow first.

And speaking of the rototiller, its main purpose is to lay down a beautiful seedbed for the nitrogen fixing and soil sipping spring cover crop blend. The rototiller also helps seal in the soil moisture. By fluffing the top 4 to 6 inches of soil, it breaks the capillary action of water and prevents the transpiration of soil moisture from the vineyard floor to the atmosphere.


Man that looks nice!

The last pass, and the one that you need to get done just before spring visits its last drizzle of rain upon you, is drilling the water sipping and nitrogen fixing spring cover crop of buckwheat and vetch.

The Schmeiser seed drill is just about as a precision instrument as you will find in the vineyard. Each drill consists of two disc blades to open a furrow and drop seeds at a predetermined rate and then a follower wheel to press it down into the moist soil. You know when that pass is complete as it looks like the rows have been combed. And then Ernie does the rain dance out by block 2 and hopes for germination!


This bi-annual process begins again in late September when the soil sipping and nitrogen fixing spring cover crop is incorporated into the soil and the nitrogen fixing and soil holding fall cover crop takes its place. While they look like dead trunks sticking out of the ground, the vines’ roots are taking up nutrients all winter long with the help of their little friends, the Mycorrhiza.

The month of May is the advanced class of canopy management. Getting those shoots to grow straight up through the trellis is accomplished with hand labor, and a lot of it. Ernie designed his trellis with three sets of moveable wires to catch the explosive spring growth.

The goal here is separation of the clusters to allow for good air circulation and sun exposure that will allow hang time into the fall rains without risk of mildew or bunch rot. If they start to rot before you want to harvest, you have to accept the fact that they are not ripe, but with the rot they are only going to get worse. That is why canopy management in May is oh, so important.

June brings us Dena’s birthday bouquet in the form of a gazillion Pinot Noir flowers adorned with bits of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Syrah, Viognier and 24 vines worth of Gewürztraminer. The vineyard is pungent with the heady scent of pollination. Add 105 days and that gives us an approximate harvest window. No more rain dancing now until after harvest.

July is hedging season. Ernie mounts the Collard hedger on the front of the tractor and takes those unruly vines to task. Cold years require a tall canopy to maximize leaf exposure to ripen our wine. Hot years, like the past two growing seasons, have Ernie dialing down the leaf exposure to slow down sugar accumulation that gives us more hang time into October to develop aroma and flavor on the vine. Early harvests, and the resulting pre-mature fermentation, are typically the result of weak canopy management discipline.

August is when we start to see the little green berries start to blaze “en flagrante!” It is also the time we estimate our crop load and start thinning excess clusters off the vine. “Survivor: Vineyard Edition” so to speak… And of course, this also includes the late to ripen wings. After all of this work, we don’t need unripe flavors from the wings showing up in the wine because we cut corners. No sir, that’s why our labels are square.

September is the “hurry up and wait” phase of winegrowing, usually. The canopy has stopped growing, the crop load is set, the nets are up and the bets are down. We know the flocks of marauding birds, just like the rain, are due anytime now. Nothing but risk as far as the eye can see. So we go to the top of our perfectly positioned hill, take in the expanse of 60 to 70 tons of wine on the vine and marvel in the gift Mother Nature has bestowed upon us.

It is going to happen in October, you can count on it. Maybe we start in the first week or maybe the week before and it goes right on through to November when we bring the Syrah and Viognier home. The Great Cluster Pluck is the culmination of all the decisions and weather events that shape the idiom of each vintage. And while it is true that we harvest all of our fruit by hand, we go to great lengths not to “bucket up.”

The numbers. For those of you just joining us for the 2016 FLOGGING, this is the part of the communiqué where we tell you what just happened, with perfect accuracy, whether you knew it or not.

Degree days, aka heat accumulation, is the way that humans try and understand what the vines are experiencing during the growing season. A growing season at Amalie Robert Estate in the Willamette Valley with around 2,000 degree days is a pretty moderate vintage. Below that mark we typically see wines defined by elegance and brilliant acidity. Above 2,000 degree days we see more expansive wines of great depth and character. And in Oregon we vacillate to both ends of these extremes frequently. This is nice as it gives people the opportunity to discuss the ying and yang of each uniquely Oregon vintage. Something for everyone, you could say.

We come up with these numbers by taking a temperature reading in the vineyard every 12 minutes. At the end of the period, we average those readings and deduct 50 degrees, because below 50 degrees it is too cold for the vine to get much done. We then multiply the average by the number of days in the period. That results in the degree days for that period, typically one month at a time. We accumulate those degree days from April 1st through harvest, or October 30th, whichever comes first. Next month we will explain tractor gearing vis-à-vis ground speed as measured in furlongs per fortnight. This graph depicts the historical degree days specific to Amalie Robert Estate. Note: your mileage may vary:


For the month of April, we accumulated 165 degree days. The high temperature was 88.9 degrees on April 19th and the low temperature was 37.8 degrees on April 4th.  Once again we see a warm start to the growing season, but at this point on the calendar anything could happen, and most likely will.


We will be keeping a keen eye on nighttime temperatures again this year. The 2014 and 2015 vintages saw elevated nighttime temperatures and that was the catalyst that brought early ripening as defined by sugar accumulation. Sugar accumulation is typically a response to heat in the vineyard – the warmer it is, the faster the berries accumulate sugar.

Warm nighttime temperatures are sneaky because the daytime temperatures may not be that hot, but the vines continue ripening the fruit all night long because it is (well) above 50 degrees. And this is relevant because once the berries accumulate 25 brix worth of sugar (15% alcohol), you gotta pick them otherwise the yeast will die before completing fermentation leaving you with a “stickie” Pinot Noir.

Rainfall was perfectly timed to germinate the cover crop with a total of 1.57 inches for the month of April providing a year to date total of 24.34 inches. The year to date number is important because we are dry farmers. We believe the irrigation program is far too important to leave to modern man, so we trust Mother Nature to get it right. However, we always like to start the growing season with the soil fully charged with water.

Please consider joining us at the winery for our Pre-Memorial Day weekend. This event is open to our e-mail list only and is not otherwise publicized. We will be showing, among other things, some of Ernie’s Unicorn wines. Dena will be sending out the details shortly. Not to be missed…

Kindest Regards,


Dena & Ernie

Friday, April 22, 2016

Amalie Robert Estate: 2016 Spring Cellar Report "Factotums ad Infinitum"


Hello and welcome to the vast array of Spring toiling that is Amalie Robert Estate. While this Spring missive typically deals entirely with subterranean diurnal activities, we will be delving deep into the breadth and depth of toiling required to keep diesel in the tractors. Please be aware, there may very well be some meandering and not everything is as it appears, certainly not linear. Specious is a fairly well befitted adjective to describe the fully vertically-integrated wine industry, such that it is an industry.

Well, you reap what you sow, and in the world of wine, that means planting grafted vines that you ordered (and paid for) the previous year. Sometimes, you can get “lucky” and there are grafted vines available on the “spot market” the same year you want to plant them (please refer to the law of “supply and demand” for pricing.) These are typically over-runs of vines when a nursery happened to have fewer “exceptions” in the grafting process than they anticipated. On the rare occasion, as is one equal to the frequency of winning the lottery, a nursery will have available the exact wine variety and clone grafted onto the exact rootstock that you are looking for. Planting on principle is a costly and time intensive endeavor.


This is why Ernie has his own rootstock block – nobody ever has any extra of what he is looking for because nobody else seems to grow it. The road less travelled is an altruistic concept, and a befitting one, but Dena simply says, “When I first met Ernie it was clear right off the bat, he didn’t run with the traffic. It almost got him killed in Ireland until he learned how to look on the “left” side of the road for the oncoming bus.” Of course their idea of a highway is called the “Dual Carriageway” and that should also tell you something.

Once you have placed your order, paid your money and waited about a year, your vines (or a portion of them) may, or may not, be ready. Some of you reading this may recall sending in two box tops and a dollar to cover postage and handling. Ordering vines is the adult, agrarian version of this toil. You pay your money and you take your chances.

When the much anticipated nursery truck shows up, you take their manifest and compare it to your order, or at Amalie Robert Estate we use the ubiquitous “Control Sheet.” Despite your best laid plans, this is when you find out what in fact you will be planting on that wonderfully manicured, perfectly positioned “Last Best Place to Grow Pinot Noir ™” hillside.

You point out to the driver the fact that the manifest of vines does not match your order. By the look he gives you, it is clear he has been in this position before. “Ah yeah, so you want for me to put these vines back in the truck, or do you want to go and plant that hillside?” So Ernie took those vines, along with the invaluable lesson he just learned, and planted his own rootstock block so that he was never again put in that unenviable position.


The hardest part about planting vines is everything, like preparing that old cherry orchard to accept vines and then getting the aforementioned correct vines. Then there is layout. This is the never-ending process of getting straight AND parallel lines over the top of a surface that more resembles the topography of your fist than a flat plane. You rely on a 400’ aircraft cable pulled as tight as you can muster and popsicle sticks placed in the uneven soil every 4’ apart. Yeah, Ernie packs them in tight. Then we move over 7.5’ and do it again – 1,452 vines per 43,560 square feet (that’s an acre, folks.) The vineyard is currently 129 rows wide, and still going… Sometimes we can see each other at the end of the rows, and sometimes there is a rise between us. If you wonder where the complexity in our wines comes from, we can tell you it literally starts in the field.

Ernie performs QC with the tractor. That first run through all the rows will reveal just how straight and parallel they are. The tractor rows are 90” wide and the widest tractor Ernie drives is on tracks - at 68” wide. In the “epic fail” scenario, the rows hourglass to the point where the tractor will not pass. Double, double toil and trouble…

But in the ground those plants go, usually during the wind and the rain. This makes for a nice day of toiling. As a dry farmed Estate, we have learned how to plant water with our vines. We use a substance that absorbs water during the rainy season and then releases it to the vines throughout the dry growing season. Watering vines is simply a toil we cannot stand in the least.

Bottling is another way we toil away the New Year. Nearly every bottle of Amalie Robert Estate wine will reveal both Dena’s and Ernie’s fingerprints. We are the factotums - bottling team edition. No fancy bottling truck and “rent-a-crew” here. Oh no, can’t have that. The bottling trucks can do well in excess of the 50 cases an hour we can handle. Ernie fills them two at a time, and Dena squeezes in that 75 cent piece of tree bark, under vacuum, of course. And all of our bottles are shipped with a free cork, which is not always the case with the “rent-a-crew.” “Hey, do you have any more corks? This thing is empty…” But they still look nice with the foil covering the void.

Once the wine has rested comfortably on its cork through the bottle shock phase Dena will order labels. While not as arduous and time consuming of a process as ordering vines, the art department can, and often does, see things differently than you would like. The result is toiling over seemingly endless revisions. You can’t sell a wine without a label, and that is when Fedex “Same Day” service can help, aka Fedex EMERGENCY.

Another seemingly endless toil is labeling and foiling. With the help of a small air compressor and a 220 volt motor, Ernie can apply labels and foils at a rate of about 35 cases per hour. Note:  He does not differentiate between red and white wine. Stack them on a pallet 14 cases per layer and 4 layers later, well that’s a 56 case pallet of wine. Whew, time for a Dog-nose beer! (Cold and wet.)

And then there are wine sales. While we do our best to present a professional image in the marketplace, by the third afternoon things can get a little loose. As is the case in this brief exchange - picture this:

Ernie was sitting at a restaurant bar counter with a tall glass of ice water. The restaurant’s wine buyer had not yet come down from a meeting and the distribution representative who was selling our wine that day (let’s just call him Mike) had run off to the restroom. When Mike returned, the barman asked Mike if wanted anything to drink while we waited.

Mike said “Sure, I’ll just have what Ernie is having.”

“Well Mike,” Ernie informed him, “That’s an awful lot of vodka for someone your size.”

Blending is by far and away the most engaging toil we perform. It is not nearly as cerebral as people might think. We believe wine is a luxury product that should provide you pleasure, and we approach it as such both personally and professionally.

I could toil away the hours, conferrin' with the flowers
Consultin' with the rain.
And my head I'd be scratchin' while
my thoughts were busy hatchin'
If I only had a brain.

Why just last month we had two Pommard Clone blends we were evaluating. At just two barrels each, not only were they hard to find among the 500 barrels of pure magic we have lurking in the cellar, but both blends were equally stunning. They both displayed the three halves of Pinot Noir, and were great on their own and with dinner, but which blend to choose? After that first blending trial it was clear, we were in for a considerable and extended toil.

We finally chose a blend, albeit after significant toiling. Note: Dena is a whole lot better at “rock-paper-scissors” than she lets on. Typically, a two barrel blend will produce about 50 cases of wine. Well, let’s just say for this blend we will be saving a couple of bucks on glass and corks.

And that leads us right into the growing season. Ernie is just about to strap on a tractor, he has three of them, and get to farmin’! Once again this year, the FLOG will keep you up to date and in good stead with the growing season. As you are enjoying your FLOG, we suggest you “drink ‘em if you got ‘em.” And if you need some, we can help. Just click your red heels together three times and say “Send me some wine, Fedex Emergency!”

If you are not getting FLOG’d, please sign up. If you are getting flogged and would like to receive our FLOG, you can do that too. And be sure to FLOG a friend!

Toiling, we remain, Factotums ad Infinitum,


Dena & Ernie

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Amalie Robert Estate Vintage Update: 2016 Bud Break

Hello and Welcome, 
Here they come! It’s that time of year again – Bud Break. The first intrepid vines to show off some new leaves did so on April 5th, 2016. This is a little later than March 24th, 2015, but closer to the historical average of April 15th. While we need to wait until we see the vines flower before we can predict a harvest date, we can certainly deploy the first stages of the farming plan. 


The vineyard floor is where it all begins with the Spring mow job. All of the prior year shoots have been removed from the trellis wires and placed in the alternating permanent grass rows. Ernie’s first task is to run the flail mower through these rows to chop up the dried canes and mix them with the fresh grass clippings – Browns and Greens.



This begins the nutrient recycle program at Amalie Robert Estate. The soil is the vine’s stomach and every other row represents the “chow line.” The astute reader will notice that by placing the canes in every other row, Ernie only has to drive half the vineyard, saving not only diesel and time, but also a trip to the back cracker. The therapy sessions, however, continue unabated.


And this being a leap year, we also bear witness to the spectacle that is the race for the highest office of the land. Since the citizenry chose leap year for this extravaganza, we are all exposed to an extra day of disturbation surrounding these events. (Yes, this is a word. At least it was in Webster’s 1913 dictionary.)

And the first week of April saw record high temperatures in the Willamette Valley. We are talking about unprecedented heat in the 90 degree range. All we can say is that is quite a bit of hot air making its way into the valley. But the ebbs and flows of farming take it all in stride. At least the mowing tractor started this year, without a new battery.

Prepare to be FLOG’d! Each month, as the growing season unfolds leading up to the great cluster pluck, we will be updating our Farming bLOG (aka FLOG) with pertinent, relevant and somewhat irreverent updates to the 2016 vintage. We are just farmin’ it like it is, so don’t shoot the messenger.


Kindest Regards,

Dena & Ernie