Meet Miguel Lepe: A young winemaker launches a new brand in Monterey, and makes Riesling interalia


Miguel Lepe explains that he makes Riesling for his eponymous label “because of Claiborne & Churchill.” Claiborne & Churchill (see Riesling Rediscovered, pp. 326-28) is the original aromatic white specialist among California producers, focused as early as 1983 on Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Lepe, born in Salinas, now the owner and winemaker at Lepe Cellars, interned there in 2009 while earning a degree in Wine and Viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.


Lepe calls himself a “millenial Hispanic.”  This is now the largest age cohort within the largest ethnic population segment in California. He is, however, by no means typical. He belongs to the first generation of his family to be college-educated. He had essentially zero experience with wine as a beverage – neither he nor his parents consumed much alcohol –when he chose vine growing as an elective to complete the requirements for an A. S. degree in Business Administration at Hartnell College in Salinas. To explain this choice, Lepe says simply that he “liked plants and gardening.” Out of the vineyard and into the cellar, he was gradually hooked; for him “the smell of wine fermenting” was mesmerizing. In 2009, A. S. degree in hand, Lepe transferred to Cal Poly’s program in Wine and Viticulture. In addition to Claiborne & Churchill he worked harvests and internships across a large swath of land, heading a few miles north to Justin in Paso Robles, south to Waters Edge Wineries in Rancho Cucamonga, and eventually farther south by almost 3000 miles to cool-climate-oriented Casas del Bosque in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. Drawn back to the area around his Salinas home in 2013, he was handed a full-time job at Figge Cellars on the strength of a single interview. In a remarkable turn of fate Peter Figge (1970-2017) then became Lepe’s boss and mentor, encouraging and enabling him to create his own brand in 2015, to be made side-by-side with Figge’s, in part of a business park recently remade as a wine ghetto in Marina, a sprawly seaside town tucked between what was Fort Ord and the artichokes of Castroville. Lepe’s 2015 and 2016 vintages consisted of just one ton each of five varieties: Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Syrah (for rosé) and Riesling, enough to make fifty cases of each. In 2017, production of each wine doubled to 100 cases of each, thanks in part to a successful Kickstarter campaign. More recently he has “teamed up with new Monterey vineyards” to help grow his fledgling business.


Lepe sources the grapes for his Riesling from Luis Zabala’s meticulously farmed vineyard in Arroyo Seco, just south of the pioneering plantings begun ca. 1971 at Ventana. The Riesling at Zabala was mostly planted in 2007, in the deep alluvial gravel typical of the area. To execute his take on Riesling, Lepe has created a pick and cellar protocol that seems simple at first blush, but is not. He likes Zabala qua site for its “very good acids,” by which he means acids that high enough and strong enough to handle his circumstances and preferences. The former include very small lots and barrels as fermentation vessels; the latter includes an affinity for some malolactic conversion; “personally,” he explains, “it’s better to start with more acid than not enough.” At the same time, Lepe is one of many Riesling makers around the world who prefer a dry wine persona overall, but still worry that the wine may turn out a bit too lean if it contains no residual sugar at all. Lepe trusts his palate to find the golden mean, which may vary from vintage to vintage. So his protocols are roughly as follows. First, he picks Riesling twice, once between 19 and 20 Brix for acid and structure, then again around 22 Brix for a bit more ripeness and fruit expression, the combination giving him a “broad sensory profile” — and two (rather than one) fermentation lots in each vintage. Two of anything creates a blending opportunity. He prefers whole-cluster pressing to pre-fermentation skin contact. He settles the juice overnight in a stainless steel tank before transferring it to “well used” barrels for fermentation. (Lepe notes that “well-used” barrels are all he can afford; a good thing in my view, since Riesling is too naturally flavorful to need makeup!) At this point, things get really interesting. He co-inoculates the settled juice with a combination of yeast (Assmanshausen) and malolactic bacteria. Although malolactic conversion was normal in Riesling a century ago, a natural concomitant of multi-year élevage in large wooden tanks, few makers encourage it today, and most block it completely. (There are notable exceptions, of course, e.g., Zind-Humbrecht and Peter-Jakob Kühn, see Riesling Rediscovered, pp. 188-90 and 199-200.) For Lepe, ML is an important part of his toolkit. While the Assmanshausen ensures a strong (and relatively slow) fermentation capable of carrying the wine to full dryness, the ML bacteria transforms part (but not all) of the grapes’ sharp malic (apple) acid into softer lactic (milk) acid. But because Lepe also seeks to avoid the normal signatures of malolactic conversion — think butter and popcorn – he proactively starts and stops the malolactic conversion simultaneously with the primary fermentation.  And he uses a strain of bacteria that does not produce diacetyl – diacetyl being the compound responsible for the aforementioned buttery aromas in most ML-converted whites. In 2018 Lepe added yet one more parameter to his protocol. He slowed the speed of the primary fermentation by moving the Riesling barrels to a temperature controlled space within the winery where he could set the ambient temperature at 45°F.  The cooler temperature gives him more time to taste the unfinished wine and react, should he wish to arrest the primary fermentation before the last grams of sugar are turned into alcohol. Once dry (or stopped as the case may be) and racked, Lepe likes to leave the new wine on its fine lees for 4-5 months, to gain complexity and texture and to avoid any impression of “linearity,” and he generally stirs the lees once every two weeks. The twin fermentation lots generated by the two-picks protocol remain separate until about two months before bottling, when they are reunified. Sulfites are used parsimoniously, “just enough to keep things sound.”


With his fourth vintage now in the cellar, Lepe’s finished Rieslings have varied noticeably from one vintage to the next. My experience is limited at this point to the 2015 and 2016, both of which are current. The 2015 (tasted in 2018) is a good wine, fruit-forward, round at mid-palate, redolent of resinous herbs. It is not entirely dry, containing about 12.5 g/L of residual sugar. By contrast the 2016 Riesling is almost bone dry and (to my palate) very impressive.   Pale straw in color, chamomile and lemon peel on the nose, citrus and pear on the palate, this is a taut, textured and long-to-finish wine with nice energy, intense flavors, and herbal accents of tarragon and summer savory. It is also extremely well priced at $22 per bottle. I look forward to tasting the 2017 when Lepe is ready to release it, and the 2018 in due season. The week after Christmas 2018, Lepe reported the 2018 still fermenting slowly, with about 8 g/L of sugar remaining. “I am aiming for as dry as I can,” Lepe wrote me, “but my decision will be based solely on taste.”


Lepe has attracted some attention for his unoaked Chardonnay, which has medaled in competitions, but the Riesling still flies a bit under the radar. For now, this suits Lepe quite well, giving him a product that can be sold in the tasting room he hopes to open sometime in 2019. For further information about Lepe Cellars, visit www.lepecellars.com.






Two American Rieslings that Push-the-Envelope

Sometimes epiphanies come in pairs. In April of this year, on different days in different places, I happened to taste two American dry Rieslings of vastly more than routine interest. Each pushes the dry Riesling envelope in a distinctive way, with surprising results that I report here.

Stirm Los Alamos Valley Riesling Kick-On Ranch “eøølian” 2016

A special lot of Riesling from the Kick-On Ranch in Santa Barbara’s Los Alamos Valley; see Riesling Rediscovered, p. 333-335 for details on the vineyard. Ryan Stirm of Stirm Wine Company, about whom more is found in an earlier post on this site (http://www.oenosite.com/is-a-riesling-renaissance-beginning-in-california-chapter-1-ryan-stirm/), enjoys pushing vinous envelopes of many kinds. In 2016 he elected to experiment with a zero-sulfur protocol for part of the fruit he takes from Kick-On, dubbing it Kick-On “eøølian.”  Half of this lot was sold in kegs to high-end on-premise establishments where keg wines by the glass have good visibility. Visibility aside, kegs can be advantageous when sulfur has been excluded from winemaking; not only are keg wine sold through quickly, but inert gas automatically replaces wine as the latter is removed, avoiding oxidization. The rest of the lot was bottled conventionally. My notes: Aromas of lemon and straw. A cornucopia of citrus, pear, apple and melon flavors on the palate is punctuated with sabers of minerality. A combination of malolactic conversion, long lees contact and abundant (ripe) acid creates rich texture, tension and a long bone-dry finish. This wine is persistently exciting from first sniff to last drop. 11.4°! Note that Stirm’s “classic” vatting from Kick-On in the same vintage is also excellent. Without the eøølian for comparison, the classic cuvee would have been impressive enough.  In comparison, however the eøølian soared, showing exceptional purity, precision and jump-from-the-glass excitement.  My notes on the classic cuvee follow: Macerated yellow flowers and yellow plum buttressed with citrus pith and a tense structure, and delicious, and a friendly 12.9°.  Chalk up a goo example for the folks who have often said that “natural” wines display a brilliance lacking in their sulfured siblings.


Weinbau Paetra Eola-Amity Hills Riesling “Elwedritsche” 2016

This wine has nothing in common with the Stirm except that it is exciting, and pushes the envelope for dry Riesling. This is an  Eola-Amity Riesling dubbed “Elwedritsche.” The grapes come from Methven Family Vineyards at the northeast corner of the AVA, whose cellar also happens to be home to Weinbau Paetra, the creation of Bill Hooper and his family. Hooper personally farms for Methven the vine rows used for Elwedritsche and other Rieslings; he insists on this, so that he can grow grapes as he wants them for his wines. (Elwedritsch, for the curious, is the name for a possibly mythical, possibly extinct gallinaceous bird said to inhabit [or to have inhabited] woods on the east flank of the Haardt Mountains in the German Palatinate, just north of Alsace. There is even a museum dedicated to this creature in Speyer, a historic city on the Rhine in the Palatinate.) Hooper learned winemaking not far from this habitat, at Fachschule für Weinbau und Oenologie in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, between 2009 and 2012. While a handful (or two) of Americans have studied at Geisenheim over the years, Germany’s highest-profile wine school and research center, Hooper is one of only two to have completed the entire curriculum at Neustadt, including associated apprenticeships, one of which was worked with the talented Andreas Schumann, the mind behind Weingut Odinstal (http://www.oenosite.com/wachenheims-secret-vineyard-odinstal/). How an American from the upper Midwest was launched on this trajectory — which took him through wine retailing in Minnesota to a special interest in Riesling, then to a German girlfriend who became his wife, then to Germany for the aforementioned studies, and finally to Oregon — is too long a story to tell here, where the point is Elwedritsche-the wine. There were only 88 cases of this wine made in 2016, but it is a tour de force. It begins with a deep, rich nose of yellow stone fruits, especially apricot. The palate is intense and concentrated, laced with spicy fruit, ginger and mint, and it tastes clean, with no bitterness, though it makes a poly-phenolic impression. It is also intentionally evocative of the Palatinate (Pfalz) – dry and stone-fruit-driven as these wines typically present — but with an exceptionally powerful personality. The must macerated on the skins for 24 hours before fermentation, which is long by Pfälzisch standards; thereafter there was neither added yeast, nor enzymes, nor fining agents of any kind, and only modest additions of sulfur.   Although the alcohol is modest at 13°, acidity substantial at 7.5 g/L, and residual sugar low at just 4g/L, this is a powerful wine, to be savored, discussed and remembered, but perhaps paired cautiously with food. It is also a bold indicator that very serious Riesling has been grown and made at Weinbau Paetra since 2014. Volumes are tiny, quality high and prices very reasonable. ‘Nuf said. (http://www.paetrawine.com)


Fact Check: California’s Oldest Riesling


Where in California are the oldest Riesling vines still in production? When Riesling Rediscovered went to press in 2015, the answer was clear enough: the oldest such vines were in Block 3 of the Stony Hill Vineyard, in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains northwest of St. Helena, planted in 1948. In 2015, however, Block 3 gave just 0.83 tons of fruit per acre, and in 2016 only a trifle more – an even ton to the acre. Because such yield is not even close to profitable, and the vines seemed to be losing a long battle with red blotch virus, Stony Hill was obliged to consider replanting, and did so seriously.

Three years later, however, Block 3 is still in production. Bravo. Slightly improved yield in 2017 (1.2 tons per acre) deserves partial credit for the reprieve.   So does the burden associated with expensive re-plantings in other blocks, and the chance to include some new Riesling (0.67 acre) in the replant of Block 6. Plus, confesses Sarah McCrea, granddaughter of the Stony Hill founders, “we have such a soft spot in our hearts for those vines,” now 70-years old. Block 3 thus remains in 2018, as it was in 2015, the oldest stand of California Riesling that is still in production.

When the clock finally runs out for Block 3, presumably sometime “a few years” hence, next in line for the “oldest California Riesling” title is probably a chunk of the Wirz Vineyard, about three hours’ drive south of Stony Hill in the Cienega Valley AVA. But some fuzziness surrounds exactly when the oldest Riesling at Wirz was planted. Winemakers who now buy Riesling from this vineyard cite dates between 1952 and 1965. At the early end of this range, Wirz’s claim would probably be uncontested. By the 1960s, however, the earliest plantings of Riesling in Arroyo Seco would also need to be considered. Records at FPS show that Riesling cuttings taken from the Foundation vineyard at Davis were used to plant Increase Block 36 in Wente’s Arroyo Seco Vineyard “between 1963 and 1968.” The planting history of vineyards is often imperfectly recorded by the original actors, and can be genuinely difficult to reconstruct 50, 60 or 70 years after the fact.