My Itinerary:


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A Visit to Derby Vineyard

Derby Vineyard and Derby Wine Estates

Current releases and barrel samples:

’07 “Fifteen10” White, Derby Vineyard, Paso Robles: 40% Marsanne, 40% Roussanne, 20% Viognier. The “Fifteen10” name is a play on the vineyard address, 1510. Medium straw color, ripe stone fruit and tropical fruit aromas with characteristic Roussanne wax and honey notes. Medium-bodied on the palate, with enough acidity to keep the mouthfeel lively and not heavy, smooth finish.

’06 Pinot Noir, Derbyshire Vineyard, Central Coast, San Simeon: Medium ruby color, ripe black cherry, tea leaf, and spice, with underlying earth and oak. The acidity is still somewhat sharp and could use a couple of years to calm down, while the finish is very tasty and clean.

’07 Pinot Noir, Derbyshire Vineyard, Central Coast, San Simeon (barrel sample): Similar aromatics to the ’06, with ripe red fruits and tea leaf, and perhaps a shade less of the earth component, but with some additional richness and texture on the palate and more noticeable tannin on the finish. An intriguing combination of ripe fruit and unexpectedly juicy acidity. Like the ’06, this really needs a few years of bottle age, and it should work nicely with a variety of foods.

‘07 Counoise, Derby Vineyard, Paso Robles (barrel sample): Tasted at the Friday HdR “Rhône Rendezvous” tasting. Super-intense aromas of ripe boysenberry / wild berry with baking spice notes, smooth mouthfeel and mild tannins, very tasty. This will probably go into the “Fifteen10” blend, but some might be bottled separately – I sure hope we see a varietal bottling of this wine!

’05 Cabernet Sauvignon, Laura’s Vineyard, Paso Robles: 100% Cabernet. Cassis, plum, and herbs on the nose, with a mild overlay of sweet oak. Medium-bodied, with a mineral note on the palate, and moderate tannins on the finish.

’06 “De Facto,” Paso Robles: Port-style wine made from 60% Syrah and 40% Counoise. Sweet plum/prune, with more vanilla/oak influence than the other wines.

Derby Vineyard Tour
We were indeed a bit late, but as it turned out, we arrived at Derby Vineyard right behind Tiffinee Vierra, with whom we were scheduled to meet. Tiffinee is the winemaker and general manager for Derby Wine Estates, who own three vineyards in the Paso Robles area. After studying food science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Tiffinee worked for a number of Central Coast wineries including Wild Horse, Edna Valley, Tablas Creek, and Four Vines before heading up the Derby team a few years ago. Tiffinee’s husband Steve works for Vineyard Professional Services, which manages the Derby vineyards and about 2,500 acres total. They also manage Denner, Jada, Cass, and Caliza among others. Derby Wine Estates is owned by Ray and Pam Derby, who moved to the Paso Robles area in 2006 after living in Cambria since the early 1990s. In addition to being growers, the Derbys have their own wine label, currently producing about 2,000 cases annually, mostly from their own fruit. The sell about 95% of the fruit from their three vineyards to other wineries.

We all piled into Steve’s pickup truck and drove slowly along the low rolling hills of the Derby Vineyard, seeing both older plantings and newly planted blocks. Located off of Live Oak Road a few miles west of Highway 101, the vineyard is in the heart of the Templeton Gap, where cool marine air contributes to large diurnal temperature swings. Derby Vineyard was established in 1998 as Rozet Vineyard. Notable wines from the Rozet Vineyard were made by Edmunds St. John and Garretson. After Bruce Rozet passed away about six years ago, the Derbys purchased the property. The vineyard was not in great shape at that time, but they have turned it around since the current management team took over in 2006.

There are about 35 acres currently planted out of just under 100 total acres on the property. The vineyard has been known for its Rhône varieties – Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Counoise were planted there in the late ‘90s. Most of the fruit is sold to a number of smaller wineries, with only about 15 tons going to the Derby label. Other wineries that purchase fruit from the vineyard include Sans Liege, Kukkula, Kiamie, Herman Story, and L’Aventure. An ambitious series of new plantings is underway, and includes more Rhône varieties, plus some Spanish and Bordeaux grapes. Phase 1 of the new plantings, done last year, include Albariño, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Carignane, Graciano, Mourvèdre, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, and Zinfandel. The Rhône varieties are generally being planted in the cooler parts of the vineyard. Phase 2, to be planted this year, will include Cabernet Franc, Cinsault, Grenache, Malbec, and more Mourvèdre. There are more planting phases planned for the future.

We stopped at a high spot along the vineyard road to get a good overview of the site. Tiffinee and Steve talked with us about the vineyard soils and vine management. There are a number of different soil types on the property – there is some alluvial soil, along with large sections of calcareous soil with a layer of clay loam near the surface. Steve pointed out that much of the “limestone” that’s often claimed to be in Paso Robles is not true limestone. I’ve heard the same thing from other growers in the area, and have also read it in an interview with local soil expert Dr. Thomas Rice, which appears on the Appellation America website. While there is true limestone in Paso Robles, a lot of what is said to be limestone is actually calcareous mudstone and shale. The calcareous shale soils at Derby are around 40% calcium carbonate, and although definitions vary, this is below the percentage usually accepted to qualify as true limestone.

Vine spacing and row orientations change within Derby Vineyard but are kept consistent within each vineyard block to help in uniform ripening, trying to match slope, aspect, and soil types to the vines in each block. Many of the new plantings have a northwest-southeast row orientation with vertical shoot positioning trellising. The goal is to create even sun exposure on the fruit during the hottest hours of the day during the growing season, balancing the vines so one side does not get substantially more sun/heat than the other. New portions of vineyard are going in at 8x4 and 8x5 spacing, and there are some blocks that have head-trained vines. Cover crops are planted in every other row – about 60% Cayuse oats and 40% bell beans.

At this point we were all getting a bit thirsty, and right on schedule, Tiffinee and Steve broke out some of the Derby Wine Estates wines for us to taste. We started with a refreshing white Rhône-style blend from Derby Vineyard, then continued with wines from Derbyshire and Laura’s vineyards. As we tasted through the wines, we learned more about the other two vineyard sites.

Derbyshire Vineyard is situated barely a mile from the coast between Cambria and San Simeon. First planted in 2002, the 63 planted acres are strictly Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Pinot Noir clones 115, 667, and 777 clones are planted, all on 101-14 rootstock. The soil is mainly sandstone and sandy loam, more acidic than the calcareous soil at Derby Vineyard. The windy coastal location creates some difficulties with flowering and setting crop, but Tiffinee and Steve told us that ripening the fruit is seldom a problem there. The vines are cane-pruned, with fruiting wires set low to ground to gain heat from the soil. The acidity of the grapes stays very high late into the growing season, so they have to pick a bit on the ripe side for acids to drop sufficiently. The yield has been miniscule – they have improved year by year but still only get about ½ ton per acre! They are confident that they can improve this yield to the point where the vineyard is more economically viable. Besides Derby’s own label, other wineries buying Derbyshire fruit include Tantara, Wind Gap Wines, and Wild Horse.

Laura’s Vineyard, about six miles east of Highway 101 and just north of Highway 46, is the third of the Derby Wine Estates vineyards. It is the largest and oldest of their properties, with over 250 acres planted. Part of the original Estrella River Winery property, and named for Gary Eberle’s mother Laura, it was originally established in the late ‘70s. The vineyard was replanted in 1997 after phylloxera struck the original vines, and the Derbys purchased the property in 2001. Laura’s Vineyard has deeper soil with clay over calcareous shale. Most of the site is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petite Sirah as well.

There have been plans for a new winery building at Derby Vineyard, but the approval process has hit a snag, so it’s uncertain what will happen. Derby’s wine is currently made at the large Paso Robles Wine Services custom crush facility, so all wines are inoculated with selected yeast and malolactic cultures. The “Fifteen10” white blend is whole-cluster pressed, with all lots kept separate until blended prior to bottling. It’s made mostly in stainless steel with some neutral barrels as well. The Pinot Noir is destemmed (although Tiffinee experimented with some whole-cluster fermentation in ’08), and undergoes a cold soak of about three days. It’s inoculated with Assmanhausen yeast, then after pressing, it’s aged for around 24 months in about 50% new oak, using mostly François Frères and Vernou barrels, with some Meyrieux and Billon as well. The Cabernet is also aged for 24 months in about 50% new oak.

In addition to the wines we tasted at the vineyard, Derby has released a Pinot Gris from their Derbyshire Vineyard, a Chardonnay sourced from Edna Valley, a Rosé made from both Derby and Laura’s Vineyard fruit, a Mourvèdre/Cabernet blend sourced from both Derby and Laura’s, and a Zinfandel and a Meritage-style red blend, both from Laura’s Vineyard. They just bottled a number of other wines shortly before our visit (including the ’07 white blend we tasted) – these include a Syrah and a red “Fifteen10” Rhône blend from Derby Vineyard, a Petite Sirah from Laura’s Vineyard, and a Cabernet Franc and a new Meritage-style red called “Implico.” These newly bottled wines will be released over the coming year.

Derby Wine Estates is producing some very nice wines from a trio of diverse vineyard locations. The Derbyshire Vineyard Pinot Noir, with its combination of ripe fruit and great natural acidity, was especially distinctive, and the Derby Counoise was an amazing blast of pure fruit and spice. As the current Derby vineyard and winemaking team gains experience with their three sites, we can expect to see the quality of their wines continue to improve.

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