ABOUT : WINEMAKING

          Every year between late August and November, the Hearthstone Vineyard in the Adelaida hillside yields its high quality fruit that allows the winemaking process to commence. During this time, 20-year Paso Robles, winemaking veteran and Hearthstone winemaker, Paul Ayers and owner Hoy Buell survey the grapes and determine the highest quality of each clone, focusing on harvesting those grapes of consistent ripeness and quality throughout each of the 20 varietals that grow in the hilly, calcareous vineyard.

               Being the small-production, boutique operation that Hearthstone is, all the grapes are hand picked once they have fully ripened, avoiding the potential damage to the grape clusters, the vines and terrain, which can result from aggressive machine harvesting. “This extra labor is one of the differences in high value wine and bulk wines”, says Ayers of the hand-picked fruit.
                 Even though carefully hand-picked at the vineyard, some grape clusters do not make the final cut upon arriving at the winery. The fruit is hand sorted (each cluster ok’ed or discarded) before going into primary fermentation bins. “This is a crucial step in the winemaking process, as a small percentage of unwanted grapes will significantly reduce the end quality of the wine” says Paul. 
The white wine varietals, including the Roussanne and Viognier, have their juice immediately pressed from the skins (must), which is then gravity drained gently into stainless steel tanks to ferment. Red varietals are whole berry or slightly crushed and begin their first fermentation; with skins, berries, and sometimes whole clusters are gravity fed along with the juice into 1.5 ton bins. This process, known as primary fermentation, takes place in 2-3 weeks, during which time the must slowly ferments and gains its color and tannic structure. During time that the red wines are fermenting, Paul is vigilant about performing what is known as the “punch down”, when twice a day, he essentially mixes the skins and seeds with the juice with a hand-held, non-mechanical ‘punch down’ tool, so as to extract as much color and tannic properties from the seeds and skins into the wine as possible.
                Of course, for each of Paul’s consistently successful vintages, certain elements – some natural, others introduced – must be present, and one of these is the yeast used to ferment the must. Sometimes Paul allows the natural yeast present on the skins of the grapes to convert the sugar into alcohol, although some of his wines are styled to perform better with non-native yeasts. “I am always looking to improve the quality of the wines through the use of different yeasts which accentuate flavors and I occasionally will use native ‘field yeast’ to ferment the grapes,” notes Ayers.
               After each wine has fully fermented, the red wines are pressed from their solids, and moved into oak barrels to age. Paul consistently checks the wine while in the barrels for quality, with the white wines aging for roughly 8-10 months in neutral oak, and the reds for as long as 2 ½ years. Ayers employs a variety of Oak barrels to enhance the wines, but not overpower them. Some varietals are aged by Ayers in what are called “neutral barrels”, which have previously been used and therefore lend little to no oak qualities to the wine. Other varietals, most notably the Cabernets and Syrahs, are aged in new barrels which can lend smoky, spicy elements to the pure fruit essence of the original juice.
                  After the wines are sufficiently aged, Paul is granted license to perform what Hearthstone is known for, unique blends. Occasionally, a single barrel of a varietal is deemed by Ayers to be of superior quality and is bottled as a stand-alone varietal, such as the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are sold only through the Hearthstone Wine Club. The majority of the wines get blended, where Ayers hand-crafts the award-winning Rhone, Bordeaux, and New World Super-Tuscan blends that are what have put Hearthstone on the map as a premier, small-lot, high-quality winery.
 “Paul’s ability to detect slight variations and prevent problems from growing is crucial to our success, and results from his constant weekly testing, topping, and of course tasting!! Paul’s attention to the wines maximizes the potential of the superior fruit coming from the field.” Hoy notes about Paul. Come and meet the winemaker who is often in the tasting room on weekends!