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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Medlock Ames: Progressive, sustainable, winemaking in Sonoma's Wine Country

When I first read about Medlock Ames Winery on the Wine Road website I was immediately intrigued. Located in the Alexander Valley in Sonoma's wine country, the goal of owners (and friends) Chris James and Ames Morrison was to be not only winemakers but progressive stewards of the land in a way that would allow them to ethically produce estate wines while at the same time preserving the natural beauty of the property for the benefit of the wildlife. But they feel it's a symbiotic and sustainable relationship. They are able to craft better quality, ethically produced, artisan wines with the help of the flora and fauna they are preserving and protecting.

To experience Medlock Ames you'll need to head out of downtown Healdsburg. The winery is located on Toby Lane up on Bell Mountain and down Chalk Hill Road. You'll need to make arrangements for a tour ahead of time by contacting the winery. For a nominal fee you'll be taken on a guided tour that ends with a wine tasting.

Hubby, my friend Tracy Logan (from the Wine Road), and I began our tour in the winery building. This is actually a photo of the rear of the building because I forgot (bad blogger) to take a picture as we approached the front. As we stepped inside the building was naturally lit by the many windows on the second floor.

As we entered the crush pad area our welcoming committee included winery dogs Mojo and Royal.

One of the first things I noticed was that the interior of the building was beautiful. I have to say this was the first time I felt as if there was a real emphasis on making the production area aesthetically pleasing. Most noticeable was that the center section of each wine barrel was stained a beautiful red color. When I asked Katie Abrosi, our guide for the day, about this she explained that because the wine would often drip around the opening of the barrels they decided to stain the center section so the drips are camouflaged. As a creative and visual person I loved and appreciated that such a small detail was not only given thought but executed in such a tasteful manner. As I'd learn that day no detail is too small when it comes to producing wine at Medlock Ames.

Our tour led us through the tank room and we got a peek at some of the tools of the trade.

Next Katie led us downstairs to the cellar to view where the barrels are stored. Medlock Ames barrels are almost all made from French oak. They also use modern stainless barrels that has interior sections for French oak staves. Staves are the vertical boards that are used to create a wine barrel. In the stainless tanks a crank allows the wine to be mixed infusing the flavor of the oak into the wine. The stainless tanks will last indefinitely while the oak barrels age out of optimum flavor after five years.

Through the final cellar area and out the backdoor we found the healthiest and most heavily laden blackberry bush I've ever seen. The berries were huge and plentiful. Clearly a sign that the plants of Medlock Ames not only thrive but produce uncharacteristically extraordinary fruit. We followed a path and staircase up behind the winery building and onto the property.

The vineyards are comprised of 375 acres of land, only 56 of which are used for 100% organic wine production. One of the things I found most appealing about the Medlock Ames business model was that they have purposely left natural corridors between their vineyard blocks to allow the local wildlife a way to commute from one section of the mountain to another. I loved that this was part of their thought process when they laid out their plan. To leave so much land untouched and natural is definitely a form of progressive thinking.

There are five ponds scattered across the property including this one used as a fire back up water source in case a fire ever breaks out on the property.

We were there approximately a week before the harvest began and the grapes were gorgeous! I was surprised over and over again that they are really more blue than purple. In fact, they looked like clusters of blueberries hanging from their vines.

We saw evidence of how natural of a property Medlock Ames is by their raptor perches, owl boxes, shedded snake skins, and even this large feather that looks as if it belonged to a hawk of some type. The feathers were strewn throughout a small section of the vineyard and belonged to a bird that perished during an altercation with another predator.

Solar panels are also located out in the vineyards. The winery produces 100% of the power they need from the sun.

And then I saw, for the first time ever, a woodpecker! It was far off in the distance, and I didn't have a tripod with me to steady my 300mm zoom lens but I was able to capture a halfway decent picture nonetheless. The funny thing is we had been talking earlier about how I'd seen woodpecker damage on the winery building over at Russian River Vineyards the night before and how owner Chris said that they bore holes into the wood and fill them with nuts to attract bugs that they come back to eat later. Katie said she'd have something to show me near the end of our tour. But to see one in real life was a thrilling moment.

And then we arrived at what had to be the most picturesque block in the vineyard. Not that I'd doubted their intelligence at any point that day but when our guide told us that this particular block was named Katie & B's block for Chris and Ames' wives first names I realized they were even more brilliant than I'd realized. LOL. Who wouldn't want the most beautiful part of a vineyard named after them?

More raptor perches and owl boxes. Many of the wineries in Sonoma use them because by attracting the raptors like eagles, hawks, falcons, kites and owls to their properties they automatically gain natural predators for the rodents that might damage their crops or become problematic in the buildings. If you care about the environment it's a better solution than using toxic, chemical rodenticides that can leach into the ground or be accidentally ingested by other animals, both wild and domestic.

The natural state most of the property is kept in also encourages communities of beneficial insects that combat any vineyard pests that could damage the vines. Using natural predators as pest control is a tremendously important step when it comes to organic and sustainable agriculture of any type.

The winery produces Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Reserve Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, a Red Bordeaux Blend, estate bottled olive oil, verjus and preserves.

Here are some olive trees just across from another pond.

There is also a culinary garden that produces a wide variety of vegetables and fruit that the winery uses for farm to table dinners as well as their fruit jams.

And here was the other woodpecker surprise. The door to this building is made of wood. Wood that the woodpeckers slowly but surely have not only borne holes into, but have used the gaps between the slats to fill with acorns. Not only could I see the holes the birds had made on their own, but those slats in between were simply impacted with nuts. I'd love to spend an entire day just sitting there watching that door to catch them in the act. How they are able to place the nuts so tightly together would be fascinating to behold.

With that our tour of the property concluded and we headed back towards the winery and office. The office where there is also a kitchen.

And in the kitchen someone had recently been making jams and canned veggies from the culinary garden.

Next we headed down Bell Mountain to the Medlock Ames tasting room located at the intersection of HWY 128 and Alexander Valley Road.

While most of the space is used as a daytime tasting room, there is also a small, speakeasy style bar open in the evenings.

Outside there were more culinary gardens, ornamental grasses, picnic areas and a pizza oven.

Inside, the same sense of aesthetic I saw earlier in the day was translated into an elegant and understated tasting room. While the wall of wine display was very modern, the muted colors, wood floor, unpolished wood bar, and even a little hummingbird's nest on a side table were all visual cues to help visitors realize this is a company that embraces naturalness.

The filament light bulbs I had to include simply because they are ubiquitous in Healdsburg. We saw them everywhere we went from wineries to restaurants.

And for those who forget their picnic supplies, the Medlock Ames tasting room offers a small selection of cheeses you can purchase along with a bottle of wine to enjoy on their back patio.

But perhaps the most surprising thing I learned that day was the existence of verjus. Ver what? Verjus. (pronounced vuhr-zh-ew) is the second growth of grapes that follow the first clusters which are the ones allowed to mature and are harvested to make wine. The second growth is normally culled meaning they are picked from the vines and tossed aside allowing the vines to concentrate all of their energy on the first growth. But some wineries take those green, unripened, second growth grapes and process them into verjus.

Used mostly as a culinary ingredient, verjus is basically a green grape vinegar. We were invited to sample the recently bottled, yet to be labeled (hence the Post It note label) verjus that day in the tasting room. I loved it! As I sipped it the flavor was bright, tart and crisp, like granny smith apples. In fact the best way I can describe it is if you combined green apples and pickle juice. But it didn't taste like pickle juice, it just gave the mouth feel of pickle juice.

I would have bought a bottle but because it wasn't labeled it wasn't available to purchase. In fact, I was told this is an item that will probably not be available for retail purchase as it will be offered to the Medlock Ames wine club members who will probably purchase all of it. Sadly, it makes no sense for me, the (super taster) girl who can only drink the sweetest of dessert wines, to join a wine club with a years worth of wine I can't drink, just  to be able to purchase a non-alcoholic beverage. LOL such is my lot in life.

A sincere thank you to Katie Abrosi of Medlock Ames for the fantastic tour she took us on that day and to Tracy Logan of the Wine Road for joining us that day. I hope more wineries follow the example Medlock Ames has created in using organic cultivating methods, solar power, composting (we didn't see the compost piles that day but it sounds like I could do an entire post about them), wildlife corridors, natural predators and beneficial insects as part of their business model.

Medlock Ames (website)

Tasting Room
Online Reservation or call 707.431.8845

Winery Tours at Bell Mountain Ranch
Call for Appointment 707.431.8845

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