Winter in the vineyard means pruning — it has to be done while the vines are dormant and before the buds break.
So now that the pruning is done and it’s spring, what’s next?
There’s much important work to be done in the winery as well as in the vineyard.
On a beautiful early spring day during the midst of an amazing wildflower season, friends gathered at the South Mountain Winery above Santa Paula, California, to help Clos des Amis winemaker Bruce Freeman and his partner Gretel Meys Compton bottle the 2018 rose — a blend of mostly mourvedre along with some syrah from the South Mountain vineyard that I had helped prune in January. I This is where I’ve been “interning” this year and learning about pruning, but I must admit, I got out there a bit late because my son was in a robotics competition at Ventura College. But I jumped right into the line and began pressing the corks into the neck of the bottle as soon as those bottles got to me!
After getting corked, the foil capsules get placed and sealed then the bottles get wiped and labeled then wiped again. With eight people on the line, it went fast as long as we were all focused. It was hard to do much conversing or take photos in part because while the machine I was using was easy and straightforward, each step requires attention and focus. I was distracted at one point and found that I broke the cork– and we had to pull that bottle from those to be sold. Which meant that bottle went home with one of us on the line — our “payment” for working being a bottle to take home.
Like all of Clos des Amis wines, this rose is a very small production — so get it while you can! Five cases are already spoken for and will be showing up in Beverly Hills later this week– and we only bottled around 20 cases! Retail is under $20 which is a steal for this handcrafted beauty.
This is the kind of bottling that occurs in a small operation such as Clos des Amis — which is French for “Circle of friends.” Another model for bottling is what I first participated in at Old Creek Ranch under the tutelage of Micheal Meegher, using a bottling truck that goes from site to site. Cantara Cellars in Camarillo also brings in a large trailer set up which is mostly automated and much quicker. It still requires many hands to make light work however! Also to make it worthwhile, several other wineries bring their wine to Cantara for bottling.
In contrast to both of these methods is Herzog, located in nearby Oxnard: they have their own bottling line and it is un use almost constantly. I say almost because they are a kosher operation and they don’t run the line during sabbath or religious holidays or during the day when they stop for prayers.
After we were done bottling the rose, we took a break for lunch and I interviewed Gretel Mays Compton. Then we experimented with sparkling wine trying to figure out the dosage (how much sugar to add to the wine to bring it into balance; more on this process soon! And oh my this sparkling wine is amazing!)
Gretel Meys Compton grew up around wine: “I was raised in a more European household,” she told me, “so we would have dilute wine with dinner on Sundays or special occasions.” She graduated on to spirits (with a particular love of gin and tonics) and “then Bruce came along…” With trips to France and samples of wonderful wines, she realized
“there is such a beauty in the perfect glass of wine.”
“Over and over again,” Gretel says, “I have had perfect glasses of wine that paired with food, fired my tastebuds, and engaged me.” Bruce has been a wonderful guide, she explains. His family in France have “taken him to treasured places.” He also had the opportunity to learn how to prune vines there; Bruce learned about wine from Brooks Painter who started Coho and is now winemaker at Castella de Amarosa. Next Bruce worked under Adam Tolmach with The Ojai Vineyard
“So I have had some super unique bottles!”
With Bruce, Gretel has had a number of amazing wines, and because of this, “I understand where he’s going with his wine making and it’s not where everyone else is going.”
After helping Bruce with every aspect of the vineyard and winery experience, Gretel wanted to make her own wine– one where she’d make all the decisons.” So she got a bin to make a barrel: for two years she made merlot then a cab franc.
Next she’ll make a cab from vines she planted in Fillmore and she “planted albarino because I had tasted a bottle from Opolo and I was enthralled with it – honeyed but crisp floral and I kept pestering Bruce about that and Sandy (the land lord) said we could carve a space for that.”
“Sandy’s been our angel supporter with cheap land, says Gretel of her landlord,” and he’s the orginal planter of the grapes up there and he’s a consummate farmer. I would like to eplore moe Spanish wines and Spanish grapes.”
“I really love that I work in the vineyard and I grow these grapes and I pick these grapes and I press these grapes and they end up after sleeping over the winter as these amazing things that talk about a place and they talk about time and they talk about the season and the weather so it’s such a very expressive experience and I feel like wine making is very artistic,” said Gretel during our conversation.
Later that day, Gretel sent me the following background story:
I had worked as a graphics manager for an educational agency for over 30 years, all through raising my three children. When my oldest child was almost out of high school, I decided it was time to go back to my goals as an artist and I became an artist-in-residence at Studio Channel Islands Art Center, then located on the campus of CSUCI. I had tried to exercise my artistic wings several times over the years of mothering, taking some classes here and there, had a two person show even with Buenaventura Art Association. But it was just too hard to juggle raising kids, working full time, and having a creative space for myself. So getting a studio of my own was a first step back to my art life. When SCIART moved from the campus of CSUCI to the Pleasant Valley School site in Old Town Camarillo, I wanted to take a whole classroom and turn it into a shared printmaking workspace, my artistic emphasis. I emailed art groups and school art departments both north and south to advertise that I was looking for people to share the cost and use of this workspace. The Art Center got one response. I needed three people besides myself to cover the cost, otherwise the room would have to be broken up with other artists in other media. In desperation I called my former teacher, Bruce Freeman. I had taken his screenprinting class several times at Ventura College and he was also a former colleague where I worked. I thought that he wouldn’t be interested so much in sharing the space as he might have students or his contacts at the college who would be interested. I hadn’t spoken to or seen him for several years. He was kind on the phone but didn’t give me a response on the studio space. Instead he offered his condolences on my recent divorce after 29 years and told me he had split up with his wife after 25 years and would I like to get together over wine and see pictures of his recent trip to the south of France? I found out that Bruce was very involved in winemaking along with his art career. I had remembered him trying to get students in his classes to come help pick grapes. I never had the time with my job and family obligations. Ironic. We started to see each other and with our past connections to art and education, it felt like old friends, only much better.
Little by little I moved into his world of winemaking and he ended up sharing my studio space after all. Soon we were talking over dinner about starting a winery, making the step from “home winemaker,” which he’d already left behind, doing a business plan, questioning if we could make it work. I continued at my job, waiting for retirement time. I moved in with him and then he moved in with me. Our daughters got married. My youngest went off to college. I became more and more involved with the mechanics and magic of making wine. Bruce taught me what his mentors, Brooks Painter and Adam Tolmach taught him. Good practices, patience, trust your nose, and above all, cleanliness. Bruce is particular about everything in its place and things done a certain way. Although one could chafe against his demands, reality is, they totally make sense. You don’t want bad bacteria, you don’t want bugs, you don’t want accidents tripping over something left out, you just don’t want a mess where you can’t find what you need.
Bruce has embraced my presence as co-winemaker, especially since I finally retired June 2015 after almost 37 years at my job! And since my children are all off on their own as well, now I can devote my time to winemaking and art.
What a life! I now love picking grapes. I help prune the vines. I thin the leaves and canes as the grapes progress. I love and respect the agriculture or farming aspect of winemaking. Seeing these beautiful clusters of grapes become wonderful wine. Bruce told me what he learned…that wine is made in the vineyard. Good farming makes good wine. So I go out where the wine is growing.
“I’d say that sitting around a table and enjoying a glass of wine is what it’s all about,” Gretel told me near the end of our conversation. In conclusion she said, “One of the reason I retired at 59 is because I had something to do – I had a wine career to look forward to. I’m blessed to have a pension and the money to be able to just do this and just enjoy life.”
Want to know more about South Mountain Winery and Clos Des Amis?
Subscribe to keep reading about my journey into the other side of wine — what it takes to make it! I try to report at least once monthly near the end of the month. Here’s January about pruning at South Mountain. Here’s February about what’s happening in Ventura County vineyards.
Here’s an article about my first visit to Clos des Amis in October of 2016 –– where I was almost run off the road or hit by a telephone pole on the way there!
And here’s one more article the includes Clos des Amis— together we rise following fire from November 2018.