A Sip Wines "Winelight"
Phillip Hart, Founder
Mary Morwood Hart, Founder and Partner
Gelert Hart, Winemaker and Vineyard Manager
This week, I want to introduce you to AmByth Estate, a certified organic and biodynamic winery in Paso Robles, California and one of our beloved Sip Wines partners. “AmByth” means “forever” in Welsh, the language of founder Phillip Hart’s homeland of North Wales, and it reflects his deep commitment to stewardship of the land--as well as the family legacy he has worked to create.
In the beginning… there were sheep.
Apparently, sheep and wine go together like peas and carrots (if you've read our other Winelights, you'll know what I'm talking about.) AmByth’s story actually begins with sheep--literally. Phillip Hart grew up on a sheep farm in Wales, which is important for reasons way beyond the presence of our ovine friends.
I didn’t personally speak with Phillip, but I did get to chat with his son Gelert--Ambyth winemaker extraordinaire--and it was pretty clear that growing up on a Welsh sheep farm was a very different upbringing than most of us in the US understand. I mean for one thing, he BARTERED. Like, as an actual legitimate form of consumer transactions. Did you know anyone bartered after, like, the Industrial Revolution?
The organic OG.
Gelert made the next observation so quickly in our conversation, almost flippantly, and yet in some ways it was one of the most revealing aspects of our conversation. In summarizing his father’s upbringing in a Welsh farming community, Gelert said: “They were organic before it was even a thing.” We didn’t explore that further, but upon reflection it was pretty clear what he meant.
We tend to forget that all of our, ahem, non-organic practices are relatively recent developments in the grand scheme of things, and before humans invented all these nifty chemicals and machines, “organic” was just… normal farming. Back in Wales, they just… farmed. And that’s what Phillip learned, and carried with him. Along with a love of wine, inherited from his family and sustained through the years.
But first, Phillip had to make a few stops along the way, starting in South Africa. I’ll be honest, I didn’t catch the reason why Phillip was in South Africa to begin with, but that’s not really important. What IS important is that this fortuitous trip led him to meet Gelert’s mother. One thing led to another, they moved to Southern California, and Phillip dove into the flooring business, specializing in Oriental and custom rugs.
And there he remained for the next 35 years.
It’s never too late…
As I said, Phillip worked in the flooring business for 35 years, based out of Orange County, California. He timed his relocation to SoCal beautifully, arriving in the 1960s right when the area was getting seriously fancy, filling up with money, and creating a perfect market for selling high-end rugs.
According to Gelert, Phillip was living the good life at that point--but he was still a farm boy at heart, and he felt the pull of that life. Before he was ready to fully embrace it, Phillip remained true to the values of his youth, particularly a strong connection with the earth and the importance of sustainability and preservation. He remained deeply committed to an organic way of life, to the extent that he made every effort to buy his food directly from sustainable farms .
Phillip clearly plays the long game, because after 35 years in flooring, he was ready to pursue his true passion: wine.
There had been some changes in his life along the way, of course. He and his wife had two sons together before deciding to go their separate ways; happily, his work in the flooring industry led him to meet Mary, who wholeheartedly supported his dream to start a wine business. By 1998, Phillip and Mary had purchased a dream property in Templeton, CA, although at that point Phillip's vision was more along the lines of building a small vineyard (5-10 acres) and quietly retiring there. In 2003, he planted his first crop, with the help of Gelert (which is also quite excellent foreshadowing in this story).
The best laid plans…
Well, so much for the small retirement plan. Phillip ended up buying the entire adjacent hill to his property--42 acres in total--and AmByth was born.
I mean, yeah. Dude clearly doesn’t do anything by halves.
Why be organic when you can be biodynamic?
Obviously Phillip was going to incorporate organic farming into his new vineyard life, and he obtained organic certification post haste. But Phillip had learned a lot since Wales, most notably on a trip to Italy where he first learned about biodynamics.
In a nutshell, biodynamic farming is the ultimate embodiment of holistic principles: a farm is seen as a living organism made up of many interdependent elements, all of which must be respected and nurtured for the health of the whole. Although similar to sustainable and organic farming, and in many instances overlapping, becoming certified biodynamic can actually be the hardest of the three, with only a single US-based certification (Demeter) currently in use.
Remember one paragraph ago when I said Phillip doesn’t do anything by halves? Yeah, well...you know that part in Legally Blonde when Reese Witherspoon sees her ex-boyfriend after she got into Harvard Law and she was like, “what, like it’s hard?” If not, well, how did you miss that movie, but anyway yeah so Phillip took biodynamic farming, got the Demeter certification, and then was like, let’s go one step further.
Do as the Romans did!
For real. AmByth uses ancient Roman dry farming techniques, which almost no one in California does anymore (because, to be clear, it’s HARD). Dry farming means about what you would expect; unlike most farms that use irrigation systems to provide a steady supply of water to crops, dry farming practices are almost entirely reliant on rainfall. As you may know, California is a region that frequently struggles with drought. Ouch.
In practice, here’s what it looks like: AmByth provided each vine with 5 gallons of water from a drip bucket to help it get established prior to its first winter season… and that was it. From then on out, those vines are on their own. Even when there’s no rain.
Why, you may wonder, would one do this? More specifically, why would AmByth?
The answer is pretty obvious: it produces great wine, sustainably. In his travels in Europe, Phillip had also learned that dry farming is the key to great terroir (meaning the reflection of the full natural environment in which a wine is produced, including soil, topography, and climate). Moreover, dry farming leads to significantly fewer issues with insects, mildew--all the reasons many farmers rely on chemical treatments.
For all the benefits, it’s a pretty risky endeavor when you’re making wine for a living, particularly in a drought-prone region. A grape vine is not a cactus, after all, and at a certain point will seriously suffer from a lack of precipitation.
Incredibly, AmByth has managed to produce a vintage every year since their start, although 2015 (Gelert’s first year as winemaker, yikes) only yielded two barrels; to compensate, they purchased grapes from other vineyards (which Gelert actually enjoyed because he felt free to experiment with winemaking in a way that his natural protectiveness over his own fruit might not otherwise allow). They got through the drought, they’re still making amazing wine, and they’re still not watering those vines.
A retirement, and more sheep.
With his wine dream realized, Phillip decided to retire to Costa Rica--another dream-- in 2016. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that he still comes back for harvest season. The rest of the time, however, he leaves AmByth to flourish in the masterful hands of Gelert, who has carried on the biodynamic and dry farming practices so important to his father.
Also, in a truly poetic denouement, Gelert breeds sheep at AmByth.
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AmByth was actually the first wine I ordered when Sip Wines opened its (virtual doors), and I was hooked. AmByth wines are what you might call "natural wines"- made with organic grapes and have no added sulfites. I’ve truly never tasted wine like it before, so utterly different in its complexity and richness and yet hitting every desired note for a deep red. I can’t describe it any better than that, so probably you shouldn’t take my word for it and instead just order some.