Is it possible for a winemaker to be both pragmatic and fearless at the same time? Or maybe the question should be whether both qualities are a requirement? Pretty quickly after meeting winemaker Amy Butler it was clear to me she is a very practical person. She’s direct and grounded and also has a keen sense of humor.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Amy and taste a sampling of the wine she makes under her own label, Ranchero Cellars. We were first introduced to Amy through her role as winemaker at Pelletiere Estate Vineyard & Winery. Tasting wine with the winemaker is always so interesting.
Amy is a UC Davis-trained winemaker who has been making wine in Paso Robles since 2004. She attributes her career path as a winemaker to an article she read in Gourmet Magazine about a winemaker who studied at UC Davis and then went on to make wine in Italy. “Until then, I didn’t know it was possible to earn a living making wine,” she told us. She had friends who were going to UC Davis and she decided she wanted to go too. “It just sunk in,” Amy said of the winemaking classes she took.
Amy knows exactly what she likes to taste in her wine glass and how to achieve those flavors. It involves knowing the vineyard and picking early. After tasting this group of wines I asked Amy how she achieves such complexity in her red wines without so much as a hint of heat on the finish. Her answer was reflexive, “I’m fearless.” She picks her grapes early and feels many winemakers wait too long to pick. Amy joked that her winemaking friends say that when she picks her grapes it’s time to start tasting theirs.
She insists on plenty of fruit flavor in her wine, but never overripe or pruny flavors. And bright acidity is another hallmark of her wine. They are fresh and juicy with a very long finish.
Amy prefers French oak (“Always French oak,” to quote Amy) mostly neutral, for fermentation and aging. “Some of my barrels are almost old enough to drive,” she joked. She also uses stainless steel and concrete vessels in her winemaking.
Especially with her white wines she prefers to begin fermentation with indigenous yeast. She believes a long, cool fermentation lends complex aromas to the wines. Amy isn’t dogmatic about native yeast ferments, and will augment with commercial yeast if necessary.
Amy freely admits her love affair with Carignan. The variety is, by her description, “my raison d’être.” She remembers a time in 2007 when she was tasting wines from Priorat with a friend. She was captivated by a Carignan she tasted. Amy told her friend that if she could find Carignan she would consider starting her own label.
“He called my bluff,” she told us. He found Carignan in a vineyard in Redwood Valley near Ukiah that was available. It was during harvest. She was busy and so was he, but they went anyway. They rented a vehicle and the small group left at 4 am the next day to retrieve the Carignan. “By 11 am we were in a barn drinking Carignan from Dixie cups,” she laughed. “We shook hands on the Carignan and the rest was history,” she added. By 10 pm they were back in Paso.
Amy started Ranchero Cellars in 2008 with Grenache Blanc and Carignan. The name comes from a 1960 Ranchero she drove at the time. The Longhorn image on the Ranchero Cellars labels was inspired by the tailgate badge on her Ranchero. It also fits nicely with an Old West image that appeals to Amy.
If it were practical Amy would make just Carignan, but she knows consumers don’t live by Carignan alone. Her current wine list includes Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Carignan, Revolver (a Carignan blend), and a Rosé. In 2018 she added Grenache and Petite Sirah.
2017 Ranchero Cellars Chrome, Paso Robles — beautifully aromatic with flavors that follow and include stone fruit, minerals, citrus all supported by bright, juicy acidity. Fermentation took place in neutral French oak (you know the ones, they’re nearly old enough to drive). 100% Grenache Blanc $30.
2017 Ranchero Cellars La Vista Vineyard Viognier, Paso Robles — delicately floral with citrus and nice roundness in the mouth. Aged for 18 months half in concrete, half in French oak (one new barrel). $32
Both the Grenache Blanc and the Viognier are grown in the La Vista Vineyard located in the Paso Robles Adelaida District. The steep site is at about 1700 feet in elevation and is extremely rocky. The Grenache Blanc is located at the top of the south-facing hill and the Viognier is just below it.
2015 Ranchero Cellars Self Ranch Carignan, Paso Robles — once again the aromatics are stunning. Generous berry and loamy earth aromas and flavors along with spice and minerals. Tannins are lovely and the finish is long. $36
The Carignan comes from a 2-acre block of Carignan located on Paso’s west side. Amy quickly recognized sourcing Carignan from Mendocino county would not be sustainable and began looking for a local source. A friend planted and manages this vineyard.
Having said that, Amy has old vine Carignan in the barrel that she sourced from Healdsburg that pleases her greatly. She just can’t help herself. And besides, she now is able to hire a truck and driver to retrieve the Carignan.
2016 Ranchero Cellars Revolver, Paso Robles — dark in the glass with dark fruit flavors of blueberries, blackberries and an interesting earthy bramble. Tannins lend structure. $48
Revolver, named for the Beatles album (not a type of gun) is always Carignan blended with something else (so it’s a revolver in that sense.) In 2016 it was Tempranillo and it’s delicious. Amy has blended with Syrah in the past and will make a blend with Grenache as well.
Amy pours her wine at Paso Underground in downtown Paso Robles. The tasting room is located on Pine Street just next to the park. Hours are Friday & Saturday 1-7pm. Other days by advance appointment 805.423.3765. Wines are also available for purchase on the Ranchero Cellars website.
One of the benefits of being part of the winemaking community in Paso Robles for so long is that Amy now knows the location of many small, very special vineyards planted to a variety of soil types. These are the vineyards she and other small-production winemakers in Paso favor.
If you are interested in tasting wines with character stop by and give Amy’s wine a try. You might just make a new friend. As Amy put it to us, “Any fan of Carignan is a friend of mine.”