October 2015 Issue of Wines & Vines

Epoch Estate Wines

New winery dedicated to producing Rhône wines on Paso Robles' York Mountain

by Andrew Adams
Arial punchdowns at Epoch Estate
Winemaker Jordan Fiorentini does a punchdown on one of the winery's open-top concrete tanks.

In the early 20th century, the world-renowned Polish musician and concert pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski purchased a ranch near Paso Robles, Calif., after visiting the city’s famous hot springs to treat his rheumatism. Paderewski would later grow Zinfandel and other wine grapes on the ranch and send the fruit off to an old winery on nearby York Mountain to be made into wine.

His wines would go on to garner awards at state competitions and earn some acclaim before the onset of Prohibition in 1920. Paderewski was far less successful prospecting for oil on the thousands of acres he owned and last visited the area in 1939.


  • The historic York Mountain AVA in Paso Robles, Calif., is now home to a new winery focused on producing Rhône blends, Zinfandel and other wines from estate grapes.
  • Key equipment includes several concrete fermentors and a unique harness system to ensure employee safety during manual punchdowns.
  • All wine movement is facilitated with gravity at the modern yet simple winery.

A century after he bought the parcel in California’s Central Coast, grapes are once more being trucked from the Paderewski Vineyard and turned into wine at the top of York Mountain, but the winery and vineyard are now owned by geologists who came to the area for its calcareous soils rather than mineral hot springs.

York Mountain is now the home of Epoch Estate Wines, which is owned by Bill and Liz Armstrong, who founded Armstrong Oil & Gas in Denver, Colo. In 2004, the Armstrongs purchased 350 acres of land that had been part of Paderewski’s original ranch, and in 2010 they purchased the York Mountain property that had been the site of a winery dating back to the 1880s.

The Armstrongs had planned to build a modern winery near where the defunct historic winery stood, but a separate 20-acre parcel on York Mountain that was already home to a winery went on the market in 2012, and the Armstrongs purchased that instead.

The winery was Stephen’s Cellar, which had been built by Stephen Goldman, whose family purchased the historic York Mountain Winery in 1970 and would later create the York Mountain AVA in 1983. The Goldmans sold the York Mountain Winery property in 2001 to David Weyrich, who also owned Martin & Weyrich Winery, several vineyards and a luxury hotel. Weyrich was forced to sell all of those assets in a bankruptcy brought about by the recession and the failure of several ambitious business ventures. The historic winery was severely damaged in a 2003 earthquake and had sat unused until the Armstrongs recently set about to revive it as Epoch’s new tasting room. By purchasing both properties on York Mountain, the Armstrongs have reunited the site of one of Paso Robles’ oldest vineyards with its first bonded winery.

In addition to the 65-acre Paderewski Vineyard, the Armstrongs also purchased the 30-acre Catapult Vineyard on Paso’s west side and plan to plant another vineyard at the winery.

Modern simplicity
Tucked away in a grove of mature oak trees, the 17,000-square-foot winery has a subtle yet modern design and is constructed with exposed steel beams. An open area in the center of the structure serves as the crush pad. A small warehouse borders one side of the crush pad, and the main fermentation cellar is on the other. Both structures and the crush pad share the same roof. Delivery trucks can drive through the open-air middle section to deliver grapes, turn around on the other side and then drive back down the one road that provides access to the hilltop winery. In addition to the main production hall, the winery also features two underground barrel rooms as well as offices and a lab in a separate structure built with the same design.

Architect Brian Korte designed the winery as well as the new tasting room that is currently being built. The Armstrongs met Korte when they hired the firm Lake-Flato to design and build their home and the Armstrong Oil & Gas office building in Denver. The Phoenix, Ariz.-based firm The Construction Zone was the general contractor on the winery and is handling the new tasting room as well.

Winemaker Jordan Fiorentini came to Epoch when it opened after working as the director of winemaking at Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma County, Calif. Fiorentini and associate winemaker Peter Turrone oversee all wine production at Epoch. The winery’s main focus is Rhône varietal blends, but it also produces Zinfandel and Tempranillo wines from estate grapes.

The strategy in the vineyard is Biodynamic, but the estate has not been certified. The vineyard manager is Kyle Gingras, a Biodynamic specialist who studied enology at California State University, Fresno, and worked in France before joining Epoch. Gingras consults with French Biodynamic expert Philippe Armenier.

Justin Smith, winemaker and co-owner at Saxum Vineyards, also consults for Epoch and introduced the Armstrongs to the then-fallow property that would become Paderewski Vineyard. Total production is around 6,500 cases, but the new winery could expand to 10,000 cases or more. About 80% of the wine is sold direct to consumer with the rest to mostly on-premise accounts in several states.

Just in time for harvest
Construction of the winery finished in the summer of 2014, and Fiorentini said the production team moved into parts of the winery as workers finished building the facility. She pressed whites and reds with a Puelo membrane press and fermented those wines in the small warehouse. The crush pad and main fermentation area was finished just in time for the red grapes that started showing up at the end of August.

Grapes arrive in half-ton MacroBins, and the clusters are dumped onto a Key Technology shaker table for an initial round of cluster sorting before getting processed with a Pellenc Selectiv’ machine. The destemmed berries fall onto another Key Technologies table for further hand sorting before they’re collected with a stainless steel receiving bin.

The bin is then dumped into a hopper that’s placed on the top of fermentation tanks to replicate gravity processing. Red fermentations are managed with punchdowns and pumpovers. “We don’t like to pump must,” Turrone says. “When we do pumpovers with a pump, we have screens in all of our tanks to filter out the solids so we’re not mashing up skins and seeds in our pumps. It’s just juice for the pumpover.”

Fiorentini said she lets the vintage dictate whether or not she inoculates or allows the must and juice to ferment spontaneously. “Usually, since our fruit is ripe and Brix relatively high, we let fermentation commence naturally and then pitch a yeast to ensure fermentation finishes about one-third of the way through the ferment,” she said. “But years like 2011, we were 100% native.”

The winery is equipped with a harness system that enables workers to safely move from the top of one tank to another while doing punchdowns. The harness is connected with a carabineer to a rope attached to secure mounting that glides along on a steel wire attached to the winery ceiling. The cable enables a worker to reach all sides of the cap when punching down an open-top tank.

Fermenting in concrete
The winery is equipped with 10 concrete fermentors custom built by Vino Vessel in Paso Robles. Fiorentini said the supplier was more than willing to design a custom mold for the tanks and even apply a board form to the exterior surface to give them a patterned appearance that matches the overall winery design. The board pattern also gives the concrete tanks a look that is evocative of oak fermentation vats. The concrete tanks can hold a little more than 3 tons of sorted and processed grapes.

After working with concrete for several years, Fiorentini said she’s come to appreciate how well they help the must hold a consistent temperature. “We do have heating and cooling capabilities just in case, but we’ve been very happy with the fermentation temperature curves,” she said.

Fruitier varieties such as Grenache also benefit from fermenting in concrete because the material seems to pull out more of the grape’s subtle mineral characteristics. “Paso has so much amazing sunshine that the fruit is off the charts. There is so much fruit character, but we also want the wines to have more gravitas,” she said.

Fiorentini went so far as to say she’s adamant about fermenting Grenache and Mourvèdre in concrete. Zinfandel and Tempranillo also do well in concrete, she said, with the concrete-fermented Tempranillo “remaining fresh and interesting on the palate.” Fiorentini said she has not preferred Syrah in concrete more than stainless tanks, which also work well for Zinfandel and Tempranillo. “We pretty much ferment in many different vessel shapes, sizes and materials,” she said, “always matching size and wine to be made with the fermentor.”

Fiorentini said when she’s done a délestage on the concrete tanks, the cap appears to have been compressed by the truncated shape of the fermentors. “You get the feeling that it’s compressing the cap into the wine more than if you had straight sides,” she said.

The 10 open-top stainless steel tanks are by Transtore. Six large stainless steel tanks from JVNW in Canby, Ore., are used for blending, but the smallest (which can hold 12,000 gallons) are used for the winery’s largest fermentations.

A Hypac basket press is set on a raised platform near the crush pad, and the winery has space for a second press, if needed. All of the fermentation tanks are positioned on a platform a few feet above the floor so that workers can shovel pomace directly into the press basket. A forklift operator then lifts the basket into the press, and the free-run and press-run wine flow by gravity to either barrels or a portable tank.

The winery has two underground rooms for barrel storage. One is located closer to the fermentation area and has space for barrels as well as concrete vessels for aging from the Italian company Nico Velo, concrete eggs by Nomblot and dozens of puncheons. “We really liked that. Part of the reason for the new expansion was to have the aging ability for concrete,” Fiorentini said. “Concrete-aged wines that I’ve done seem to retain more freshness than the barrel components but also have a different texture on the palate.”

The winery uses barrels from mostly French coopers and has several dozen puncheons, which Fiorentini said she often stands up on their heads to use as small open-top fermentors. “Syrah, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah and Mourvèdre do well in those type of fermentations; the wines are softened and nicely extracted, but you do have to be careful,” she said. The larger oak vessels also help add soft tannins and round the palate of the wines without compromising freshness, Fiorentini said, adding that Epoch has begun to use more of the larger hogshead barrels.

Fiorentini and Turrone said they use Tonnellerie Sylvain, Tonnellerie Meyrieux, Ermitage-Berthomieu Tonnellerie, Tonnellerie Boutes, Tonnellerie Vincent Darnajou and Tonnellerie Taransaud. “We love Taransaud, actually,” Turrone said, “which surprises people because it’s more of a Bordeaux cooperage. But it seems to work really well with Tempranillo and Syrah.”

An in-house lab allows for most wine analysis, but the winery also works with Baker Wine & Grape Analysis, ETS Laboratories and Vinquiry. Once ready, mobile providers SLO Bottling and Bottlemeister fill Saverglass bottles with the wine and seal them with corks from Scott Laboratories—except for the Epoch rosé, which is packaged with an Amcor screwcap.

The name Epoch comes from the owners’ background as geologists but also takes into account how the new winery follows other, distinct periods of viticulture and winemaking including the historic York Mountain Winery and Paderewski’s time in Paso Robles. Like the different layers of a soil profile, each period is distinct yet connected by the same place.

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