Saturday, October 1, 2011

Chamisal Vineyards: A Day in the Life

You probably have never heard of the Edna Valley. It’s sandwiched between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach, and this small inland wine growing region, home to a dozen wineries, is beginning to get its share of attention. The first vineyard planted here was Chamisal Vineyard in 1973. It then became another winery but has now come back (forgive the pun) to its roots. Fintan du Fresne, a New Zealander by birth, is the winemaker here. Chamisal has reclaimed not only its name, but its emphasis on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I got to spend a few days with Fintan, Fin as he’s called, during the 2011 harvest.

Fin explains calcareous soils
Before we get to grapes, a word about Fin’s hair. In these photos it’s a mohawk. Every year during harvest Fin cuts his hair; not only a change of appearance, but a sign of the forthcoming harvest. It made me think about doing some yearly thing as a writer…I don’t know, maybe a slice of pie each time I meet a deadline (I simply can’t pull off a mohawk like Fin).

Chamisal makes 50,000 cases a year of wine, predominately Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but there is also Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Gris and a very intriguing stainless steel tank Pinot Noir (virtually all Pinots are barrel fermented or barrel aged). Though Fin has a preference for indigenous yeasts (those yeasts which live naturally in the vineyard) he uses some cultured yeasts – those grown specifically for the purpose of making wine. “With cultured yeasts I can still direct the flavor profile,” he says, meaning he doesn’t have to rely on wild yeasts that may do something unexpected during fermentation. He produces three Chardonnay’s (ranging in price from $18 to $38) and three Pinot Noirs ($38 - $80). I’m a fan of the lesser expensive Chard and Pinot, not because of the price, but because the Chard is stainless steel fermented making it light and crisp with terrific acids, but used to match with food.

The Pinot is a blend of 9 different clones and has traditional soft raspberry notes. The other Chards and Pinots use more oak, not a bad thing; I just prefer a lighter style of wine, but check out their entire portfolio and find what your like. They offer 2 different tastings of wine priced at $9 and $15, and many of their wines are tasting room only, so you won’t see them on store shelves. They have a lovely outdoor picnic area where you can get a bottle of wine and share it with your friends (call me I’ll be right over!). Chamisal is SIP certified, (Sustainability in Practice) a Central Coast-based sustainable farming certification process, which is more rigorous than many sustainable programs on the state and federal level, and takes into account whole farm integration of its resources. To that end the wines are made in concert with the environment. After all, it’s important to have respect for our earth with our farming practices. But harvest is not all work.

Just pressed Pinot Noir grapes at Chamisal
We kayaked at Morro Bay with a crew from Central Coast Outdoors, who provide a great selection of adventure trips, and paddled the back bay observing shore birds, seals, sea lions, and making a brief appearance - an otter.

At one point a seagull hopped aboard Fin’s kayak, looking for food, but the bird decided to just hang out and, apparently being a free-loader, stood on Fin’s bow for about 10 minutes. Back at the winery we tasted through tank and barrel samples of wines he’s currently working on.

Fin and the free-loader seagull
Specific to this, he lets me taste Pinot Noir clone 667, picked and crushed the day before. The bright pink juice is sweet (as wine grapes are) and still has scents of the dirt and the vineyard. Another tank sample, in the thick of the fermentation process and also clone 667, was picked and crushed a week prior. There is little tannic structure and the fermentation causes a nearly astringent mouth feel but it is a more mature example of the first tank sample, a simple grape-juicy beverage. Eventually these Pinots will be blended into either their estate wine, or maybe their Monologue, a high-end Pinot Noir made only in certain years when the exact conditions are right to create an outstanding wine.

Barrel samples of Pinot Noir

Chamisal Vineyards is, like many of the wineries along the Central Coast, an operation making terrific wines from the calcareous soils in the region and taking advantage of our particular growing seasons. And this is what life is like on the Central Coast, it is work mixed with play, a sense of urgency counterbalanced with a sense of the long view. So stop by Chamisal in the Edna Valley, or any Central Coast Winery and you will be engaged by these juxtapositions. Enjoy, educate yourself and experience what the Central Coast has to offer.
Working at Chamisal Vineyards

Chamisal Vineyard:
Central Coast Outdoors:


  1. Very nice piece Michael! Glad you enjoyed your visit.

    Kimberly Charles