Having spent some time in Priorat, Spain, I became pretty spoiled about cariñan (A.K.A. carignan). My memories are completely romanticized by unique experiences involving drinking cariñan in 200 year-old cellars with exposed llicorella walls and Segovia's captivating music playing in the background or enjoying a glass of cariñan while listening to a violin player surrounded by XII century ruins at the Scaladei Carthusian Monastery.
The misconception of cariñan being an only Spanish varietal vanished abruptly from my head as soon as I met Amy Butler.
Amy and her carignan have a lot in common: savage and unique.
I met her at Denner winery, where she makes her wine. "Where do you feel more comfortable?", I asked. Before I had a chance to finish my line, she said "The lab", without hesitation.
Dark sense of humor, arty, academic and scientific. She would say shocking things with a straight face during our session. In several occasions I had to put my camera down because I wanted to give 100% of my attention to what she was saying about her wines and the techniques she uses while making them.
A couple of times, she smiled in a way where her whole face was smiling, specially her sharp blue eyes. A second after, she would go back to her default assertive look.
I visited Amy Butler in different occasions. She was always working hard. Either steaming up barrels or moving stuff with the fork lift, she would talk to me while moving around in her western jeans and winemaker boots. With dirt under her nails during harvest and purple lips, Amy has become one of my favourite wine people in Paso and it's always mesmerizing to watch he flow around the winery while making wine.
Being a woman photographer -photography is a man's world- taking pictures of winemakers -yet another business dominated by men- it was a real pleasure to photograph Amy Butler, an accomplished winemaker pushing hard in the Central Coast of California.
Note of the Photographer: Even though I'm a fan of her balanced and elegant carignan I recently tried Amy and Janis' (Denner) silky chardonnay which is perfect for a warm afternoon with friends and fun conversations.Here's Amy Butler's profile, excerpted from "The Winemakers of Paso Robles" book, written by Paul Hodgins.
Tasting Room: Fri & Sat 1-7pm, Sun 1-5pm
1140 Pine Street, Paso Robles, CA 93446
3280 Township Rd.
Paso Robles, CA 93446
Amy Butler owes her career in wine to four influences: her mother, Trader Joe’s, John Munch and Gerald Asher.
“My mom was really into wine, and we lived in an isolated small town – Ridgecrest, on the road to the Sierras – where wine was hard to come by,” said Butler, proprietor and winemaker at Ranchero Cellars (and the winemaker at Pelletiere Estate). “So my mom would make regular pilgrimages to Trader Joe’s, which was quite a drive.
”Butler’s mother also belonged to a sin-gle wine club: Adelaida Cellars. Amy was too young to taste, but she was enamored by its winemaker at the time, John Munch. “I would wait eagerly for each shipment because John’s missive would come with it.” Munch’s famous newsletter, written in his inimitable over-the-top style, fascinated her. “It was a wonder to read. He was like Hunter S. Thompson – wild and crazy.”Butler wondered what kind of business would produce such an eccentric genius. “It never occurred to me that I would actually meet him in real life and call him a friend."
Butler stood out in high school as a bit of an odd-ball and a passionate foodie. Her favorite magazine was Gourmet, and it was there that she found her inspiration to pursue winemaking.
“It was when I was read-ing one of those great Gerald Asher stories” (Asher was a columnist and the wine editor of Gourmet for more than three decades). “He was saying that such-and-such a winemaker had gone to UC Davis and gotten a degree in enology. I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s what I’ll do!’ And that’s what I did.
But not immediately. Butler’s first major in college was the classics at the University of Oregon; she wanted to follow in the footsteps of a beloved teacher from high school. “I like science as well as the humanities, and wine involves a little bit of both.
”In the mid-1990s, the wine program at Davis was still fairly intimate, Butler recalls. A core group of grads and under-grads took many classes together and got to be close friends. Butler chafed occasionally at the Davis program’s academic approach to winemaking. “You don’t get your hands dirty there as much as students do at Fresno State or Cal Poly. It’s much more theoretical.”
Finally, Butler made wine in her senior year. But the students’ excitement turned to dread when they got their assignment. “Our wine was carignan. We were all like, ‘Oh, my God, why are they making us do carignan?’ All these big, pale clusters. And we didn’t know the practical side of winemaking. It was awful.
”During her first internship, at Chalone Vineyard in Healdsburg, Butler learned about how interdependent different parts of the winery are.
“In college I worked in a bagel shop, but I never thought, ‘Wow, my cream cheese spreading is supporting this whole company.’ In the winery I realized: ‘If I don’t punch down this tank, no wine will be made. If I don’t sanitize this bucket, I could contaminate everything and the harvest will be all for nothing.’ All those things finally became obvious to me at 19.”
At Ranchero, Butler’s wines – her line-up includes several red and white blends, viognier and (surprise) carignan – are known for their finesse. Butler is renowned for her lab work, and many in the industry think she is one of the most talented and knowledgeable winemakers in the region. She is judicious about sourcing and experiments with natural yeast, oak, concrete, skin contact and blending, but in the end, she admits, her craft is about instinct.
“So much of winemaking is magic. I can’t explain it. Certainly it has to do with the land and the climate, but the older I get the more I trust my gut. I find myself going, ‘Hmmm, that just doesn’t smell right.’ Or, ‘That smells exactly right.’ Every year brings new challenges. But I’ve learned to let my instincts guide me through them.”
Ironically, Butler gets most passionate when she talks about carignan, the problematic grape she wrestled with in college.
“It’s the reason I started Ranchero Cellars. In 2006, I was at a tasting. We had some carignan from the Priorat. I said, ‘I’m going to make this.’ It’s robust and meaty and a little feral. It goes with strong, gamey meat. I just love it so much. I could talk about it all day.”
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