Ames Morison still feels the pain from what was supposed to be a wet winter.
The year was 1997, and an El Niño weather pattern had the potential to drench California with heavy rains. Morison, a co-founder of Medlock Ames, was on high alert. If enough rain fell, it could wash out the terraces of his elevated vineyards.
So, he ordered 50 tons of rocks.
“With super high rainfall, we thought it could create erosion and we’d lose our terraces,” said Morison during a recent Zoom tasting. “We hand-stacked 50 tons of rocks to save the vineyard. My back still pays the price for that.”
While he still winces at the thought of moving 50 tons of rock, the Medlock Ames Cabernet Sauvignon “Fifty Tons” 2017 ($90) is a spectacular homage to the site. It’s a juicy, yet intense cabernet where everything, the aromas, taste and texture are turned up just a little more than normal.
The year 2017 was one of the hottest they’ve experienced; Morison said there were 10, 100-degree days and a few that even got above 110 degrees. There was a blackberry jam, currant and raspberry medley of fruit flavors. Hot coals and a miso soup kind of note rode in on the finish. The tannins and acid suggested it will only improve if it were to live a long life in the cellar.
“There’s a little more bulk and dark fruit on the nose,” Morison said. “But on the palate, there’s more red fruit.”
Different blocks make up the final blend, which is 100% cabernet sauvignon.
“The grapes tend to come from higher-elevation blocks,” Morison said. “There’s a little more gravel and it drains better. The fruit is a little more exposed, and vines thus grow a thicker skin, and that’s where all the tannins are. With slightly drier conditions, you get smaller berries and thicker skins.”
Today, he’s handed winemaking duties to Abby Watt, and has turned his focus to how the 340-acre property, of which 50 acres are planted to estate vineyards, could be a better member of the global community.
Medlock Ames Bell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($60) had intense blackberry and blueberry with dark chocolate on the nose; there was some blue fruit flavor for added elegance, lavender and a cigar box note. Morison found an “iodine note, I call it sea spray, it reminds me of being on the coast.”
“The wine is meant to give you an overview of what Bell Mountain can do,” Watt said about the cabernet that is aged in all neutral oak. “It’s not hidden by a heavy oak character, we want the fruit and lavender to show.”
Even though it’s 93% cabernet, 6% petite verdot and 1% malbec, those splashes of other varietals matter.
“That 1% unlocks something else that comes alive in the blend,” Morison said.
With the Medlock Ames “Lower Slope” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2018 ($48), there was a very fresh nose of green moss, dried apricot and nutmeg. Flavors of apricot and pear emerged.
Spread across stainless steel tanks, new oak and neutral oak, the wine held a verve between the fruit, spice and body.
“The goal is to walk the fine line between freshness and youth of fruit, but still get richness and complexity from aging on the lees,” Morison said.
If the wines weren’t tasty enough, the Medlock Ames Olive Oil ($30) hails from the olive grove, which is another part of the ranch’s 340 acres. Pungent, briny and sharp tasting with a peppery splash on the finish, it’s perfect with crackers or bread. The Medlock Ames Mixed Berry Jam was brambly and sweet. It really shined when spread over butter on a cracker.
With wines, olive oil and jam, Morison is living the dream.
“I was living in Tribeca in New York, and my best friend [Chris Medlock James] and I had a dream to move to California and make wine 25 years ago,” Morison said. “I founded the vineyard 24 years ago. It was all planted to merlot. Slowly, we replanted and converted it all to organic production. I’m passionate about making wines organically from this one spot. I wanted to take care of our land. I wanted the way it was farmed to be safe for our people and the environment.”
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Medlock Ames’ Six Pillars
The Kincade fire “woke up” Ames Morison. The 2019 wildfire burned more than 77,000 acres and destroyed 374 buildings. He said “everything in the ranch was charred black.”
“It hit me that the abstract theory of climate change is already happening,” Morison said. “I did some soul searching on our purpose in the world. Are we damaging it by our actions? I thought about all the things I wanted our company to do, and had been thinking about these things [that had] seemed important but not urgent.”
It prompted him to make a list, a mission statement he’s dubbed “Medlock Ames’ Six Pillars,” detailing how the winery will be an ecologically responsible member of the world business community.
1. Conversion to solar or electric power. An expansion of solar panels, which had been in place for 15 years.
2. Convert all trucks and tractors to electric power.
3. Increase the ranch’s biodiversity. Owl boxes were installed around the vineyard. A barn owl eats rodents that can gnaw on vines. Plant a flowering cover crop to attract beneficial insects.
4. Reduce the reliance on water. A change in farming techniques has helped retain more carbon and organic matter in the soil to trap water and thus reduce the need to irrigate.
5. Thin out the densely wooded part of the ranch’s 340-acre property, and clean up low-hanging branches that can further fuel a wildfire.
6. Make everyone feel welcome in an inclusive work environment. Medlock Ames is working on partnering with International Wineries for Climate Action, whose goal is to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050. Morison hopes to do so sooner. The winery expects a report from an environmental carbon accountant soon. Also, they will be Regenerative Organic Certified, which is an add-on to existing Organic Certification, which also features soil health and worker safety.