Year 2020 will go down in history as most challenging, shrouded by  COVID-19’s global pandemic, the devastating  fires in California and cataclysmic hurricanes in the south. Life as we knew has morphed into a new normal.  

Despite this anxiety-riddled year, Paso vintners  had plenty to be grateful for this harvest season. To get a reflection on Vintage 20202, I reached out to a few Paso winemakers around end September and early October lent that the overall consensus was that they have much to be thankful for.

Janell Dusi
Photo: Mira Honeycutt

“We are lucky to be here compared to Napa,” said Anthony Yount

in a phone conversation as the Glass Fire ravaged Napa and Sonoma regions. However, he expressed: “It’s been a strange vintage and it fits in with the year.” The winemaker for Denner Vineyards, was in mid harvest when we spoke and commented on the picking order which has been out of sync, such as picking viognier as the first pick. “Flavors are ahead of sugar levels which is not typical of Paso.”

Yount who also crafts wines for Sixmilebridge Vineyards planted to mostly Bordeaux varities, was two thirds done there and satisfied with the fruit. “The acidity is high which is a hallmark of Sixmilebridge,” he remarked. “And the native yeast seems to be happy.”  

Second generation winemaker Gelert Hart was finished with harvest at his family’s Ambyth Estate, founded by his father Phillip Hart and Mary Norwood Hart. The Demeter-certified biodynamic vineyard in Templeton, thrives on biodiversity. In addition to panoramic hillside vineyards  planted to 11 varieties of predominantly Rhône grapes, the estate is alive with bees, livestock, chickens, olive and fruit trees, plus a flock of sheep and a family of alpacas and llamas. 

Phillip Hart with son Bede at Ambyth Estate
Photo courtesy of Ambyth Estate

“The fruit looks good, we’re happy with the acid levels,” Hart commented on the phone. “Less yield than we would like, but vines look good and no problems this year.” Hart added, feeling blessed.   

“I love this vintage,” expressed Goran Bjekovic, winemaker and co-proprietor of Aleksander Wine focused on Right Bank style Bordeaux blends. “We had nice continuous steady ripening, which is not good for high alcohol or highly extracted wines,” Bjekovic declared. But ideal for his style of winemaking which leans toward Old World elegance hovering round 13.9 percent alcohol.   

“We were lucky to bring in our entire sparkling harvest prior to the hazardous air quality conditions,” said Lauren Rava in an email response.  

Jade Rava
Photo courtesy of Rava Wine

Co-founder of Rava Wines specializing in sparkling wines commented on lessons learnt working16 vintages alongside her husband Chad. “No two vintages are the same and each harvest gives us new surprises and lessons to learn.” 

Steve Viera, vineyard manager for Derby Wine Estate oversees a total of 450 acres under vine in their three vineyards – Laura’s on the east side, Derby on the west side and the coastal Derbyshire in San Simeon, planted to pinot noir, syrah and chardonnay.  

“It’s a phenomenal year for pinot, the best in ten years,” remarked Viera. He wasn’t sure why. “May be more dormancy,” he suggested. Viera was pleased with the zinfandel and petite sirah in Laura’s vineyard and  mid harvest was the 90-acre Derby vineyard planted to over a dozen varieties including Rhône, Bordeaux and Spanish. 

Steve Lock
Photo: Mira Honeycutt

Like most vintners, Steve Lock’s picking decision begins early September at his Ècluse Wines vineyard. “We start tasting through vineyards picking sample clusters,” said Lock when I met him at his winery’s expansive 1200-square foot terrace. Syrah was already picked by mid September and fermenting in bins, juice of which Locke strained out with a sieve and offered for a taste.

Rain in April, a cooler July and then heat spikes, Lock reflected on the unpredictable season. “It’s been erratic, but vines seem to be resilient.”  

Overall yield was lower this year, but the quality so far has been very good. “But we are a long way from being finished,” he added.

Janell Dusi also commented on low yields this year. The founder of J. Dusi Wines, Janell was  elbow deep in production, but took some time out to chat with me at her busy winery where I noticed several bins filled with cabernet sauvignon, tannat and petite sirah, fruit being processed from her 38-acre estate vineyard along Highway 46 West. The zinfandel comes predominantly from her family’s Dusi Ranch and Paper Street Vineyard.  

 Janell commented on the brief, yet challenging heat spike that can result in high sugar in the fruit. “This year you really have to give a little TLC,”

said the fourth generation winemaker, familiar with vineyards.  

“It’s looking like and awesome vintage from a quality perspective,” expressed  Jeremy Leffert, director of winemaking in the Rabble Wine Company’s harvest newsletter. “Yields are slightly below average, which is good considering the long relatively cool growing season.” This year Leffert is most excited about grenache. “The berries are small, which translates to intense flavors,” he noted.

Jeremy Leffert
Photo courtesy of Rabble Wine Company

Concerned about the danger of smoke taint impacted by the Monterey fires, Viera did have some wines tested. “So far everything’s come back clean,” he said with gratitude.

Others I spoke to didn’t express any problems with smoke taint. “If the smoke hangs around from 10-14 days then it would penetrate the fruit,” explained Hart. “Luckily it cleared in nine days.” 

Guillaume Fabre, co-founder of Clos Solène Winery also had reservations on smoke taint. “But so far everything tastes good,” he said in a phone conversation. Fabre acquired his westside property in 2017 and began re-grafting the vineyard that was planted to old vine vigorous rootstock. Till his fruit is ready for wine production he has been sourcing fruit for his predominantly Rhône style wine portfolio from 12 different vineyards in Willow Creek and Adelaida Districts. “The yields are lower overall, but we are pretty pleased.”

What will the 2020 vintage look like ?

“It’s too early to tell,” said Yount. “It will be pretty good, possibly a great year.” Dusi concurred: “Grapes are tasting great, quality is going to be, but time will tell.” 

Damian Grindley, founding winemaker of Brecon Estate reflected: “When you reminisce about 2020, Paso will be your best bet, it will be your go-to vintage.”

Wrapping the catastrophic year 2020, those words sound like a blessing.

Sip & Savor is a special to Paso Robles Press from Paso Robles Magazine November Issue.

Getting through this together, Paso Robles