San Luis Obispo wine country, or “SLO wine country” as it is locally referred to, is situated California’s Central Coast about 30 minutes south of Paso Robles and west of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range in an area impacted by extreme coastal influences. Most vineyards are planted an average of just five miles from the Pacific Ocean and are nestled into two major AVAs—Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande.
I recently visited the region on a two-day whirlwind press trip, and one of the great takeaways came from a visit to Bassi Ranch Vineyard in Avila Valley with Mike Sinor, the winemaker and proprietor of Sinor-LaVallee Wine Company. We were just 1.2 miles from the ocean, which on a clear day, you can see from the vineyard, though we had to take Mike’s word, as it was a bit hazy.
Sinor farms organically with “biodynamic inputs,” he said. But his explanation of why he practices certain tenants of biodynamic farming was the most revealing, and helped to paint a clear picture of why, for instance, cowhorns filled with manure are buried in the ground, and what actually is going on, at the microscopic level with biodynamics’ infamous “preps”—the field sprays that require an hour’s worth of stirring.
Having put himself through school at the California Polytechnic State University by working at wineries, Sinor first outlined his philosophy on winemaking, which is anything but technical. “Passion of wine is place. And this is a pretty glamorous experience—the vineyards are picturesque, the ocean is right there, but the fact is, this is an agrarian life, pretty tough work. And when wine is done well it really speaks of a place,” he said.
Sinor and his wife Cheri, whose maiden name is LaVallee, founded their winery in 1997 and in 2013 bought the 30-acre Bassi Ranch Vineyard, which is now their “Estate” vineyard. It was here that we gathered around a barrel Mike had buried three-quarters into the ground. Describing his winemaking past and present—currently the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks in Paso, consulting winemaker for Center of Effort in the Edna Valley, President of San Luis Obispo Vintners Association, stints at Domaine Alfred Winery (now Chamisal), Byron Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, working for Mondavi even before that, on and on—he removed the lid from the barrel, and there, at least 150 yards from any water source were two frogs, hanging out around a set of cowhorns.
“Inside the horns are all these microbial microorganisms, and life forms you won’t find anywhere else,” said Sinor. And the manure inside the horns has turned to dirt over time—to prove it, he dug one horn out of the earth, then dug out the stuff packed into the horn and passed it around. Vivid black in color, it smelled of intensely fresh earth and soil, which would serve as the base for the “500 prep.”
And the prep itself, Sinor explained, serves to “transport bacteria and micro-life forms that get stirred into the ‘prep’ and then sprayed out over the entire field.” Ah. That is something I could wrap my head around.
He then showed us his worm farm. “Verma compost is what you want by the root of your new plants, because that comes from worms, and this—,” he pointed to the water collecting underneath the worm farm, “is worm juice. ‘Compost tea,’” which also gets sprayed onto the fields.
There’s plenty to read up on when it comes to biodynamic farming and winemaking, but to simply understand that the practice is rooted in the idea that microorganisms, millions of them, are beneficial to vineyard health, is something anyone can wrap their head around. Think about it: there are millions of microorganisms living inside our mouths, hanging out on our teeth, devouring bacteria and helping in ways we don’t fully understand. According to Sinor’s explanation, biodynamic farming seems to work in similar fashion, with millions of microorganisms helping out in ways we don’t fully understand. And beyond the fact that Sinor believes in the importance of these microorganisms, that’s about where the scientific buck stops, and passion, and the acceptance that whatever is happening, it’s incredibly positive, takes over.
As for the wines, Sinor-LaVallee offers Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Gris and Albariño. Sinor’s whites are characterized by bright tropical fruit notes and tightness in the acidity—great grip. The pinots are intensely floral with pronounced marine character, almost like minerals and seashells or what you’d expect a handful of coastal earth to taste like. The syrah is smoky, meaty and juicy, but with intense fruit character above all. In short, they are dynamic wines, well-balanced, with verve, energy and a real sense of place.
For further biodynamic study, Sinor recommends reading up on Dr. Elaine Ingham‘s work and I suggest checking out Katherine Cole’s Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers.