September 2009

Evergreen at Estancia

By: Deborah Parker Wong
Photos by the author

There’s an art to growing top-quality wine grapes on the windswept benchlands of Monterey’s Gabilan Range, and at Estancia’s Pinnacles Vineyard, it’s done with the help of the Australian Pine or Casuarina tree. The pines—named for their drooping needles, which resemble the plumage of the cassowary bird—are planted to form dramatic clos, tree-walled blocks protected from the steady northwest winds that blow through the Salinas Valley from nearby Monterey Bay. The stately trees form such an effective barrier that they foster microclimates several degrees warmer in the vineyard’s most sheltered blocks. While the invasive roots of the closely-planted evergreens compete with nearby vines, the loss of a few rows seems a small price to pay given the protection they provide for an estate that exceeds 1,200 acres.

  Three Wineries in One

In its entirety, Estancia encompasses three different estate vineyards, each contributing a unique terroir to the winery’s portfolio. Up-valley from Pinnacles, which is planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio, lies the Stonewall Vineyard, 83 acres planted to Chardonnay and a selection of Pinot Noir clones in the cooler-climate Santa Lucia Highlands AVA. In Paso Robles, an hour and a half south, the 616-acre Keyes Canyon Vineyard is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and red Bordeaux varieties. Estancia crafts close to a million cases of wine each year; Chardonnay reigns as the estate’s top varietal, followed by Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and relative newcomer Pinot Grigio, which is showing a fast rise in popularity. 

Under the direction of Scott Kelley, winemaking at Estancia takes place in three different buildings, dedicated to the production of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Bordeaux varieties respectively; the facilities are routinely upgraded to drive advances in quality designed to showcase the vineyards’ pristine fruit. Kelley’s conviction that “wines are made in the first ten days of their life” means the winery works 24-hours a day during harvest and uses TankNET, a web-based temperature and fermentation management system, to keep close tabs on fermentation data.

Kelley’s winemaking style—one that emphasizes “a precise fruit and acid balance”—was influenced by his years working in Italy and Australia with Robert Mondavi’s joint ventures and on the company’s La Famiglia label in the U.S. A native of nearby Salinas, Kelley began working in the industry when he was in high school and went on to study fermentation science at U.C. Davis before working as a brewmaster and winemaker in Monterey County.
Estancia winemaker Scott Kelley.
Sustainable Expansion

Gazing down at Pinnacles Vineyard from the estate’s highest point on Burrito Hill, it’s impossible not to wonder what it takes to achieve such a park-like oasis in an otherwise barren landscape. For vines to thrive in the free-draining decomposed granite soils of the Gabilan Range, irrigation during the growing season is essential; Estancia’s deep wells alleviate worry about drought and the competition for water that plagues many producers in Northern California. This year alone, the winery planted 50 acres of select Pinot Noir clones and has another 50 acres each of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the planning stages.

Despite appearances, it’s the estate’s unique climate that fosters balance; steady afternoon winds blow from March to October, keeping the vines virtually free from rot and improving the performance of sustainable treatments like Stylit, a paraffinic oil that Kelley uses to control mildew. Practices such as under-row cultivation and alternating row cover, as well as careful canopy management techniques like shearing, are used to control vigor and ripening across dozens of microclimates in each vineyard site. As blocks other than those dedicated to the reserve program are machine-harvested, state-of-the-art technology, including the Pellenc “Selective” harvester, plays an important role in delivering clean fruit to the crusher. By sorting in the field with the Pellenc system, Kelley can forgo the equipment and labor costs associated with hand sorting.

Style and Substance

From its earliest days in 1986, when Chilean Agustin Huneeus purchased the Paul Masson vineyard ranches and first planted the now-famous Pinnacles Vineyard to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Estancia has never been short on style. The winery developed a signature Chardonnay that relies on 25 percent new American oak and a small percentage of Hungarian oak, a style from which Kelley has not deviated. “Our Essential tier Chardonnay is a food wine,” says the winemaker; “we are still at 50 percent ML in the blend, and the coconut signature of the American oak complements the tropical fruit flavors that are characteristic of our terroir.” The 2008 release combines lemon-infused vanilla custard and ripe pineapple, underscored with a focused minerality and bright, clean finish.

   Pinot Grigio is one of Kelley’s newest varietal bottlings and the winery’s first release under a screwcap closure, as part of Estancia’s Contemporary Series. The wine has been a runaway success and it’s easy to see why—creamy aromas of white peach and pear give way to wet stone, ripe Meyer lemon zest and minerals on a concentrated mid-palate. “My challenge was how to come up with a concentrated wine,” said Kelley who sourced 60 percent of his fruit from Monterey and the remainder from Lodi. With sales of domestic Pinot Grigio growing by 50 percent over the last twelve months, it’s likely that value-minded consumers are forgoing pricy imports and selecting trusted on-premise brands like Estancia.

Kelley’s Stonewall Vineyard Pinot Noir (SRP$29.99) is a dark, well-integrated wine with complex spice box aromas, an expressive mid-palate of savory black fruit and licorice anchored by elegant, fine-grained tannins. The use of small, open-top fermenters and frequent punch-downs gives Kelley precise control over extraction and the resulting style. At 5,000 cases, Stonewall can sit side-by-side with the priciest, small-production Pinot Noirs in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

The winery’s reserve tier also includes a red Meritage, blended from 58 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 34 percent Merlot and 8 percent Petit Verdot; the 2007 release marks the winery’s 20th consecutive vintage of this wine. Estancia was one of the founding members of the Meritage Society, which coined the term in 1988 to promote the quality of domestic wines made from a blend of Bordeaux varieties.  The 2006 release delivers chocolaty black fruit, star anise, dried herbs and sweet oak tannins, a powerful reminder of the winery’s heritage and the merits of blending.

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