Q&A with Amy Butler of Ranchero Cellars

Without question I would list Amy Butler as one of the coolest winemakers in the Paso Robles area. We’ve known her for roughly six or seven years and are happy to call her a friend. When we first met her she was the winemaker for Edward Cellars, which has since gone out of business, but bounced back with her own projects (including Ranchero Cellars, we are wine club members) as well as consulting for several local wineries.

She’s a winemaker to watch, that is for sure. If you haven’t yet tried her wines I strongly encourage you to do so. You won’t be disappointed. Let’s dive in…Q&A with Amy below:

Matt: How long have you been in the wine business? What region did you start in? 

Amy: I graduated from UC Davis in 1997 with a degree in Enology. I’ve been doing nothing but working toward being a winemaker ever since then. My first job was actually a harvest internship at Chalone in 1996. Then, once I graduated, I went straight to Napa.

Matt: Favorite variety to drink? 

Amy: Chardonnay! That may surprise you, but some of the most memorable bottles I’ve had are Chardonnays.

Matt: How many cases do you make on the Ranchero Cellars label?

Amy: Around 600.

Matt: What other projects do you have going?

Amy: I’m doing a lot of consulting right now. I’ve been advising Red Soles for about five years now, and most of my other work is with startups. Right now I’m particularly excited about Four Lanterns, with an amazing estate vineyard in the Templeton Gap growing some very special and quite mature Syrah and Viognier (two of my favorite varieties to work with).

Matt: In my opinion it’s dumb that you are a “female winemaker” and not just a winemaker. Do you have any thoughts on that aspect of the industry?

Amy: It’s possible that being a woman informs some of my stylistic decisions, but I don’t know, because I’ve never been a man. In general, winemaking presents the same challenges to both men and women. And I’m glad to see that more and more women are getting into the field. Historically though, there have been a lot of exceptional female winemakers (Zelma Long, Helen Turley, Heidi Peterson Barrett) so I do think people should just move on and stop dwelling on gender.

Matt: Being a female winemaker do you feel the industry has double standards or do you think the industry is pretty fair?

Amy: Sometimes I feel like people don’t take me seriously, but I’m not sure if that’s because I’m a woman or because I’m just a goofball. I used to worry about not being strong enough to do certain things in the winery, but it’s gotten better since I learned to ask for help, about 6 months ago.

Matt: What’s your favorite thing about Paso Robles? Least favorite thing?

Amy: I love everything about Paso. The weather, the air, the downtown, the people, the vineyards.  If I had to name a least favorite thing, it would be something small and crabby, like how certain streets are in disrepair, or there’s too much traffic on 13th St. Little stuff.

Matt: If you’re not drinking wine you’re drinking what?

Amy: Coffee most likely. During harvest, quite a bit of beer. And tons of water. Hydrate!

Matt: Favorite wine and food pairing?

Amy: I haven’t found it yet. There are so many options, and I love to explore. The palette is endless, and so is the palate. Except when it comes to dessert. Please, I wish everyone would stop trying to pair dry wines with chocolate. Stick to port or vin santo.

Matt: Where do you see the wine industry going in the next 5 to 10 years? What do you see being the next big thing?

Amy: It’s important here to distinguish between Wine People (chefs, sommeliers, hipsters, winemakers, people who read and write wine blogs) and the rest of America. I could be like “Trousseau is the next big thing” but in the middle of the country, somebody is mixing Yellowtail with Red Bull and THAT’s the next big thing. In the wine community, there’s always ever-changing buzz about biodynamic wine from Croatia, or Orange Wine from Georgia, but let’s remember that the majority of the country is still just drinking wine for the pleasure of food and company, and what’s really crucial to the industry is that they continue to do that without having to be intimidated by the overwhelming fickleness of the wine press, telling them what the next big thing is.

Matt: You’re a Carignan lover, why and how did this come about? 

Amy: Well I first tasted Carignan from the Priorat in around 2006. I was blown away. Carignane (note the California “e” on the end) was one of the varieties we crushed in our wine production classes at Davis. At the time, it was considered a nothing grape, long since shoved aside in favor of trendier varieties, like Zinfandel. In the Central Valley (and Davis is in the Central Valley), it was prized for its ability to maintain a fair amount of acid and structure during super-hot summers. But not prized enough. The resulting wine was insipid, pale in color, thin in texture, and made by college students. But the Spanish Carignan I tasted then was a revelation. I elbowed the guy next to me and said “Hey – I have to make this wine!!” Gushing, I told him that if I could get some old vine Carignan, I would totally start my own brand. In 2008, he called my bluff, informing me (in the middle of harvest) that we were going to visit a Carignan vineyard in Mendocino County. The trip itself generated a bunch of unforgettable stories for another time, but the end result was that I entered into a long-term contract for Carignan and Ranchero Cellars was born.

Matt: Any thoughts that stick out regarding harvest 2014?

Amy: 2014 was a very interesting vintage. The fruit quality was really high, but the weather (unseasonably warm from budbreak to harvest) was such that ripening was kind of variable and inconsistent.The grapes tended to accumulate sugar faster than they matured in flavor, so it was not a year for inexperienced winemakers, or anyone really who picks on numbers alone. I mean, you really had to trust your palate. And if you did, the rewards were fantastic! Color is dense, flavors are concentrated, and acid balance is even better than usual. I actually got to work with a few unfamiliar varieties this year, so that was fun as well. I learned that Nebbiolo is crazy challenging, while Legrein is like Cheating! Easy, fruit-forward, practically makes itself.

Matt: What other local winemakers are you intrigued with in regards to the work they are doing?

Amy: I’m excited about Jordan Fiorentini’s side project, Magna Mater – it’s exclusively Sauvignon Blanc, which few are doing in California anymore! She came from Chalk Hill and has something of an SB pedigree, and this wine is not to be missed. The Kruses at Jack Creek are working on a Sparkling wine – I hope I haven’t let the cat out of the bag, but I can’t wait! I’m also super happy about the success that Janell Dusi is enjoying at her new tasting room and winery. I also think she makes the best Zinfandel in town.

Matt: Favorite hangout spot in Paso Robles?

Amy: Villa Creek! But sometimes I sneak over to the bar at Artisan. :)

Matt: Favorite wine region in the world, other than Paso?

Amy: Italy, because there’s so much to learn! I’m really weak on the wine regions of Italy, and I’m constantly googling stuff. I also have this great book, Vino Italiano, that’s pretty beat up at this point. I like this because if I’m not learning, I’m bored.

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