I decided earlier this spring it was time for another harvest experience.
I can drink wine till the cows come home (see exhibit A) but as an educator, I know the best learning happens when students are given hands on, real-world experience and – most importantly – responsibility for making real-world decisions.
In the wine world, where I’ve traded my educator role for intern status – $takes are as high as the rows are long. Real-world decisions have financial implications, like knowing how to fix a barrel that’s leaking freshly transferred 2017 cabernet, quickly determining which gasket size (1”, 2”, 3”) fits the basket press hose that’s about to be turned on two floors above and understanding if the ethyl alcohol levels in the fermenting wine are sufficiently high to remove nail polish on my toes when I’ve been assigned a punch-down– aka grape stomp – aka pigeage à pied*?
This, people, is real-world learning…
I set my sites on Paso Robles, California for all the reasons described in my last post. I was keen to work with big, bold, new world reds and taste some of the unconventional blends grabbing headlines. Paso’s Rhone Ranger movement and Bordeaux reds promised serious harvest curriculum. But how to decide which winery to invade…?
Cue YouTube and the Wine Brothers
Paul Hinschberger is one half of the Wine Brothers, a YouTube channel exploring Spanish and Italian wine. Paul is the somewhat reluctant sidekick to big brother – and channel visionary –Bryan Hinschberger. Their playful, fric and frac routine involves distributor and bon vivant, Bryan, offering a deep dive on a wine’s origin and region and Paul – the winemaker in the family – offering his wry, slightly ironic, commentary. The channel has some 64 videos so the brothers have the routine down pat! When I was studying for my sommelier exams, the Wine Brothers YouTube channel functioned as an entertaining study guide for me, helping add some sparkle to the learning.
Fast-forward two years, I’m researching Paso wineries and the name Paul Hinschberger turns up. There was baby wine brother, now a head winemaker, blogging on spring vineyard practices and the joys of birthing lambs at Rangeland Wines in Paso Robles.
As luck would have it, the owner of this stunning vineyard, Laird Foshay, hailed from Nova Scotia. A Canadian land baron in Paso paired with a witty wine brother? It was meant to be…
Paul Hinschberger Welcomes Team Canada
Paul invited me to join him as an intern for the September harvest in Paso Robles and didn’t blanch when I asked if my two wine-loving friends – Cathy Doyle and Lynne Robson – could join me.
When he’s not feeding the YouTube beast as a wine brother, Paul’s busy. After working at his parents’ restaurant “the Cellar” in Idaho and graduating from business school, he got his sommelier degree. He went on to work harvests for Grammercy Cellars and Waters Winery in Walla Walla, Kosta Browne in Sonoma, more harvests in Sebastopol, Woodsinville, the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and onto Man o’ war Vineyard in New Zealand. In 2013 Paul moved to Paso Robles to work as assistant winemaker for Denner. He joined Rangeland in spring, 2015.
With 40 acres of vines, Rangeland is pretty typical size for a small family vineyard in Paso. The entire Adelaida Springs mountain ranch is 1,500 acres and as we drive the long and winding road up, up, up to the vineyard, I’m surprised to see a healthy woodland and green arbour framing our ascent with stands of majestic old growth oak forest reaching back into the hills. At the crest of the hill, we get our first glimpse of the vineyard and ranch in all its glory. A beautiful freshwater pond for watering the vineyard lies below, nestled in the centre of the valley floor with golden pastures rolling off in every direction. After five long years of drought in California, and here, in the western hills of Paso’s Adelaida District, the greenery and brimming pond is a welcome sight.
Team Canada arrives at Rangeland’s spectacular Adelaida Springs Ranch and Vineyards on Sept 20, in time to see Paul install two port-a-potties on the west side of the property. “You don’t usually see this in a winemaker’s job description,” he laughs, “but when you work at a small winery you get to do it all.”
“The last few years our yields have been way down,” says Paul, who took the winemaker’s job in a year ravaged by drought. “The 2015 wines are concentrated and fresh as ever, but the winery output definitely took a hit.”
The winter and spring rains this year added a much-needed 58 inches of moisture to the limestone and sandstone bedrock underpinning much of the vineyard. Paso has one of the largest limestone veins in California and a sizeable portion of Rangeland’s vineyard is planted on this prized, calcareous rock. It’s naturally acidic and beautifully porous, so it absorbs and holds moisture, a huge hydrologic gift in a hot and drought-ridden region. Rangeland has the added advantage of being 12 miles from the Pacific so it benefits from cool Pacific breezes and the Templeton Gap effect that bestows regular cool, moist evening air on the ranch.
“We had that heat spike in September which sent temperatures soaring into the 100 degree range for 10 days, followed by a wave of cooler temperatures so that was a little concerning,” says Paul of nature’s grape growing mood swings, But I think this year will be a good year. Not a spectacular year, but a good year.”
For a play by play of our winemaking curriculum – or at least the highlights of my “internship”, you can see the Rangeland photo essay in blog 3. Meantime, here are some teaching notes on winemaking from Paul’s playbook:
Paul on Paso: “No….I wouldn’t say I had any great ambition to work in Paso, but now that I live here, I love it. Paso is known for being rustic and cowboy, and that’s a centuries old tradition. I really like the dichotomy between fine wine culture and the working class culture of farmers and growers. It’s a really interesting confluence of cultures, which is great.”
Paul on Paso’s community of winemakers: “We feel like the underdog in comparison to other wine regions. Even though we’re the third most popular wine region in California, there are still so many people that haven’t heard of us. So there’s this ‘we’re all in it together’ mentality here…we’re trying to make a name for ourselves for Paso as a whole… and if one of us does well, it betters the whole region.”
Paul on Paso wine: “I think on average, Paso is moving away from big reds. We still make big wines and that will never go away because of the climate, but many producers here are trying to make more balanced, elegant wines. There’s also a lot of other things going on here – lots of diversity with the wines. We’re more than big reds.”
Paul on Rangeland wine: “I have a lot of ripe fruit already. With the heat, that’s a given. I’m trying to add nuance, elegance, minerality to the wine. I like to experiment with ferments – cold soaks, whole cluster and stems to add aromatic expression and complexity. I want to show the wine for what it is. Rangleand is a cool site, different from any other vineyard, in part because we are so far away from most producers….so far west. We’re fortunate because we do have a different set of influences affecting our terroir.”
What’s the best part of harvest this year? Working with and teaching Team Canada! (ok, I made that up!)
So what did we learn? Way more than I expected…I’ll share that in my next post.
* Pigeage à Pied is done during fermentation to punch down the cap of grape skins being pushed to the surface by the CO2 below. “Treading grapes by foot” is an ancient Roman practice and helps extract the colour, flavour, and tannin from the fermenting juice.