Thank You Hoot n Annie!

Marion and Margaret

Marion and Margaret

My friends Annie and Matt Browne over at Hoot n Annie interviewed me for their blog.  It was published today.  Here is a link to it: “Interview: Hilary Graves of Mighty Nimble“.

This is a blog to follow my friends!  They do a great job of promoting Paso Robles as a whole, but also of educating visitors about this special place that we call home.

Thank you Matt and Annie for interviewing me for your blog!

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Green With Farm Envy

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I went to a party yesterday at the jaw-droppingly beautiful home of a friend of mine.  She and her husband were showing support for the local food movement here on the Central Coast.   They invited a couple of local breweries to serve beer and hard cider, someone made a few really great salads, and their wood burning pizza oven was churning out delicious pizzas at a fast clip.

At one point I was standing watching the band and a goldfinch landed on my hat!  I stayed super still and enjoyed the moment while everyone around me was jumping around saying “There’s a bird on your hat!”.  Because I didn’t shoo it away they thought I didn’t know it was there.

At the party I found myself surrounded by people who support small farmers, and even look at them with stars in their eyes.  Since I am a small farmer, it was a bit of a celebrity moment.  I didn’t want to ruin it by telling my new-found admirers how hard it is to do what I do.

What a coincidence when I woke up this morning and saw this opinion piece by Bren Smith titled “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers”  in the New York Times.   All of the things that I wanted to say to the party guests who felt Farm Envy are very well stated by Bren here.  Although she failed to point out the copious amounts of laundry this line of work creates.

I spoke to a young guy at the party who was excited to try farming and felt that he had a realistic plan to purchase a $3 million dollar ranch (300 acres) and pay for it by farming some crops, raising grass-fed beef (although he didn’t know what a steer was), and renting a barn on the property for $5k per weekend.  He thought he would make the purchase with a conventional 30 yr fixed rate mortgage loan from the bank.   Ok, I couldn’t let that one pass so I said something about the loan situation, but as for the rest of it?  It wasn’t the right time or place to point out the holes in the plan that this young man had been dreaming about.  And you have to respect that kind of enthusiasm, ambition, take-charge attitude, desire for hard work.  But Bren did a great job of pointing out the challenges for me.  Hopefully he sees her article.

Would I change what I do?  Never.  But don’t go getting all starry-eyed over it.

Farmer’s Market in Vienne

While I was in France I had the opportunity to visit one of the most amazing farmer’s markets I’ve ever seen.  It was beautiful and I was really surprised at how cheap the food was, in particular the cheese.  Feast your eyes on this!

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Late Harvest Roussanne at La Rosine

During my visit to Cote Rotie I had the opportunity to participate in picking late harvest Roussanne at La Rosine vineyard, one of the estate properties of Domaine Michel & Stephane Ogier.  The first thing that struck me about the site was how green the vineyard floor was.  The reality for us after three dry seasons in California is that everything around us is completely brown, including the oak trees.  My eyes were so soothed by the beautiful green grasses.

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A lot of the ground cover is familiar (see the fillaree in the photo below?).  And I was surprised to see that there are mushrooms everywhere too!  We don’t see those much on the vineyard floor in California.

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The first thing I learned is where the definition of  “back-breaking” work comes from.  At home the cordon height is about waist height on me, or 46″ from the ground.  In Cote Rotie, most of the vines have fruit zones only 8″ from the ground.

Notice how low I have to crouch down to reach the fruit.

Notice how low I have to crouch down to reach the fruit.

I was literally on my hands and knees picking grapes in this vineyard.  Imagine doing squats all day long.  My quads were experiencing muscle exhaustion relatively quickly, and I’m in pretty good shape.  I was thinking as I was picking that I could give them some insight on how to make this job infinitely easier…simply raise the height of the fruit zone.  But I didn’t take into consideration that they use the heat that radiates off the soil to help ripen the fruit on the vines in this cooler than Paso Robles climate.

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La Rosine is just outside of the Cote Rotie appellation, and it is relatively flat in comparison to most of the vineyards that I visited.  Still, there were some moments while picking grapes when I found myself using the stakes to hold myself in place.  At some other vineyards, I used them like ski poles to climb uphill.

Something that I saw in Cote Rotie that I would like to bring home to the vineyards in Paso Robles is the straw that they use to tie shoots to stakes.  It’s economical, biodegradable, renewable, and it doesn’t girdle grapevines.

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We picked the botrytis covered grapes into buckets, and then transferred them into bigger boxes for transport to the winery.

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Liquid gold!

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Côte Rôtie , How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways…

I returned home on Tuesday from a little over a week in France where I spent some time learning about the vineyards and wines of Cote Rotie.  It is a truly beautiful part of the world, and I learned a lot by visiting.

I stayed in the tiny village of Ampuis, at Domaine Michel & Stephane Ogier.  My hosts were generous beyond words, and they made me feel immediately at home.

The village of Ampuis

The village of Ampuis with the iconic vineyards of Cote Rotie in the background.

This is a phone booth at the railroad tracks!

This is a phone booth at the railroad tracks!

I spent some time “working” in the cellar, but VERY carefully.  I found it to be nerve-wracking working in someone else’s cellar.  Although the work is generally the same, we all do things differently in the winery and our cellars are private places, really.  I didn’t want to overstep or make any mistakes, but I had to get into the daily work routine in order to learn about the differences in the local processes.  The staff at the Domaine was great!  So capable and fun to work with.  It helped immensely that everyone spoke English, but I made the decision to spend some time learning French for future visits.  As is the case when you travel to new locations, if you allow yourself to have an open mind about things, there really is so much to be learned.

Wall of barrels

Wall of barrels

I think it was most impressive for me to see the vineyards there.  Slopes that we would never consider planting in Paso Robles were covered with grapevines in Cote Rotie and Condrieu.

A vineyard in Condrieu

A vineyard in Condrieu

In those very steep spots, almost all of the work is done by hand.  The row spacing is too tight for equipment (in many places the spacing is 1.1m between rows and .8m between vines), and the slope is so steep that equipment cannot safely be used there anyway.

A photo of the schist "soil" that is found on the Cote Brune slopes.

A photo of the schist “soil” that is found on the Cote Brune slopes.

Spraying is done by hand with backpack sprayers.  Horses can be used in a few spots for tilling, but other than that they rely on good old-fashioned hard manual labor to manage the vineyards and bring in the crop.

Classic training of vines in Cote Rotie

Classic training of vines in Cote Rotie

I was so impressed with the vineyards that I am determined to try a small block “Cote Rotie Style”, here in Paso Robles.  I plan to plant a block at my own vineyard, but I’m licking my chops looking for another willing participant who is open to experimentation and wants to give it a shot.  (Yes John, I’m talking about you.)

A vineyard in Condrieu

A vineyard in Condrieu

I found the wines of this appellation to be classic and exemplary, consistently showing remarkable finesse, chic style, and lasting sophistication that is the marker of the region.

A beautiful view

A beautiful view

Since I’ve been home my colleagues are asking, will I change my winemaking style now that I’ve seen how they do it in Cote Rotie?  I don’t think so.  If I learned anything there it is that terroir is king.  I have to make wines that showcase the terroir of Paso Robles with a little bit of my personal flair somehow shining through, and those wines will be a lot different from wines made anywhere else.  That’s the point of it all, don’t you think?

The Falconer’s Apprentice

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Hi Everyone!  I’ve been absent, I know…but writing here is on my mind often.  It is difficult to put into words exactly how busy this time of year can be for us.  The days are jam packed with picking and processing, driving to pick up and deliver fruit, monitoring ferments and managing people, feeding animals, loading cattle, and taking care of the land we have been trusted with.  Somewhere in there I have to handle paper work (most of the time, I skip that!), sell the wine I’ve made in past vintages, take care of my kids and my husband, cook, eat, sleep, and keep my teeth brushed.  In the middle of all of this activity I often think, “Oh, I’ll take a picture of that to document this craziness on my blog!”, but my phone tells me that I have no memory left with which to take pictures.  Bummer, dude.

But a fun thing happened yesterday when we hosted the lower elementary students at Children’s House Montessori School in Atascadero for a lesson about falcons and how we use them to control pests in the vineyard.  The kids are always fascinated by these amazing birds.  I am equally fascinated.  Each and every time I see them it is as exciting as the first time I saw them fly.  Marina announced today that she is going to apprentice in falconry next summer.  She made her debut today with Holly, pictured above.

In the winery things are humming right along.  I have a bunch of ferments that are ready to press so I’ll be doing that over the next few days.  Have a great weekend everyone, and I will try to post again soon!

Wine Advocate Scores!

New scores are out by Jeb Dunnuck of The Wine Advocate.  Mighty Nimble did well, and what a welcome event that is.

I am always dead scared of having writers score my wines.  Stressful!  It takes a grown, confident, adult woman back to those high school days where my internal dialogue was: Am I pretty enough, are my clothes cool, am I acting like a dork or what?  Everyone has different tastes and preferences, and each time I submit wines for review it is a leap of faith.  I just hope that the reviewer can see the wines from my point of view, respect my style, and recognize that the creative outlet is what keeps winemakers on the hook with perfecting our craft.

Experimentation is key for me, both in the vineyard and in the winery because it is the way I learn more.  I can’t always be absolutely sure about what I am going to get…but I usually have a pretty good idea.

Jeb had this to say about the 2011 vintage Mighty Nimble wines:

Coming all from Paso Robles, these rich, full-flavored efforts are made by Hilary Graves. They have beautiful purity of fruit, loads of texture and ripe, upfront profiles that are perfect for drinking over the coming handful of years.

Fruit Tramp

Starting with the reds, and a blend of equal parts Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Grenache Blanc, the 2011 Fruit Tramp is a gorgeously pure, ripe effort that delivers loads of richness and depth without ever seeming heavy or cumbersome. Black raspberry, licorice, spice and hints of green herbs all show and this medium to full-bodied beauty has a voluptuous texture, sweet tannin and a great finish. Enjoy it over the coming 4-5 years. Drink now-2018.  91 points

Rock Candy

Silky and polished, with beautiful purity, the 2011 Rock Candy checks in as a blend of 50% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 20% Mourvedre. Exhibiting plenty of ripe black raspberry, new leather, crushed flowers and creamy licorice, it hits the palate with a voluptuous, creamy texture and ripe, chalky tannin on the finish. It is a sexy red that should impress over the coming 4-5 years. Drink now-2018.  91 points

Small Black

More structured, yet a touch less integrated and charming, the 2011 Small Black is a rock-solid blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Syrah. It possesses deep, rich aromas and flavors of red and black fruits, leather, licorice, sage and hints of liquid smoke as well as a full-bodied, decadent feel on the palate. With sweet tannin, solid mid-palate depth and juicy acidity on the finish, it should continue to drink nicely through 2018. Drink now-2018.  89 points

Thank you, Jeb, for your kind comments!

All of these wines are available for purchase with all-natural grass-fed beef if you are a member of the Mighty Nimble Ranch Club, or individually by contacting me at hilary@mightynimble.com.  Tours and tastings are by appointment only.