We are boutique winery located in Elvillar, Rioja Alavesa, run by husband and wife team, David Sampedro and Melanie Hickman. Their goal is to make terroir-driven wines with soul, respect the land, work only with indigenous grapes, and to share their unique wines with good people with positive energy.
Thank you for visiting our new blog. We are two “struggling vines” with a lot of dreams. A husband and wife team with a boutique winery located in Elvillar, Rioja Alavesa, Spain. David is the talent behind the wines, a man of few words that works tirelessly in the vineyards and winery. I’m the communication side of the business … I love to tell our stories! Our goal is to make terroir driven wines with soul, respect the land (ecological/Biodynamic farming), work only with indigenous grapes, and to share our lives and unique wines with good people with positive energy.
Bhilar Plots tinto is a village wine sourced from one vine-grower in Elvillar, Juan Carlos Uribe. But this wasn´t how it began. The first vintage of Bhilar in 2011 was sourced from three vine-growers. We asked them to adjust their farming to reflect our values and at least attempt sustainable farming. We quickly learned that change isn´t always welcome, yet for Juan Carlos change was a breath of fresh air. In his words, he chose to be our sole partner because we are “different and he was he was ready to try something new.”
∼A Matter of Perspective ∼
“Weeds are the sign of a bad vine-grower” a common sentiment and a phrase that Juan Carlos´s father-in-law often directed at him. He was accused of being lazy when weeds started sprouting in his vineyards. But he didn´t care, this was purposeful. I sat down with him hear his perspective. Our conversation revealed that our request didn´t change his thinking, rather allowed him to experiment with something that was always inside of him, “I´ve always felt it is important to get out of my tractor and actually walk my vineyards in order to get a feel for what they need. If you follow a chemical schedule the work can become routine and boring.” He was already walking the path of sustainable farming.He admits it took some time to get comfortable with the idea of organic farming, but during our conversation his excitement was palpable, “I trust David and his ideas but deep down I´m a skeptic, I have to try something for myself before I believe it. This year is the first year I didn´t use any herbicides or pesticides in my vineyards that go to Bhilar, I´ve only used sulfur and organic copper. In Valmayor, I used organic sulfur so this my first 100% organic vineyard!” We encourage him to focus on quality, not quantity, paying the maximum kilo per hectare permitted, hoping he will bring in fewer kilos of better quality grapes while spending less on chemical products and diesel. He told me he can see the vineyards becoming more balanced, “I even notice more ladybugs. This is a good sign!” If things go well, he will convert more of his vineyards to organic. When I asked if he would ever consider organic certification, he said he would consider it but not until he understands how the change will affect his vineyards overtime.
I asked Juan Carlos his opinion on why more local vine-growers aren´t converting to organic or even sustainable farming, “You have to change the “chip” and have everything very clear in your mind about what you want for your vineyards. Many vinegrowers consider it a risk and aren´t willing to change. Some may consider it if the price for organic grapes goes up, but there aren´t many wineries asking for organic, so the demand is not there.” One of his last statements to me was very disheartening, “My father´s generation will not change and I suspect the same with my generation. It has to be the next generation to implement these ideas.” Personally, this affected me as I recently completed a 6-month viticulture class that often tried to weave organic topics through its contents and I could feel the descent from a majority of the students, many of whom were much younger than I am. I fear they will not veer far from what their fathers have taught them. Perhaps they will evolve over time and as Juan Carlos said, they will “change the chip”.
Juan Carlos cares for 6.5 hectares of vineyards for our Bhilar Plots wines from 6 different parcels/zones in Elvillar: Valmayor, Palos Corrales, La Revilla, Las Naves (walking distance from our winery), El Vedao, and La Hoya.
Age of vines: Range from 18 to 45 years. All planted by Juan Carlos with the exception of La Hoya (planted by his father-in-law).
We are proud to work alongside Juan Carlos and hope that his experiences continue to excite and intrigue not only him but those around him who are willing to take a bold step into new territory. These little changes benefit us all in the end.
With the ongoing construction of our home and winery, we are makings decisions and laying plans for our future on a daily basis. We were struggling to find the time to think about the landscape design surrounding our property. All the while, an obvious and sustainable solution was emerging right in front of us.
The road that ascends from the river Ebro to our village of Elvillar was being rebuilt from its original very narrow and winding path. Plantations of vines and olive trees were going to be cleared to widen and straighten the road. The boundary markers were put in place long before construction started so you could clearly see what would be eliminated. Many old olive trees were going to be lost, which sparked the idea in David to inquire about relocating the trees to our property.
Olive trees are hardy and can live a very long time, for millennia in fact! Many of these trees had been around for 300 years. The idea of having mature trees with so much history on our property felt like our destiny. One of David’s friends from childhood, Toño, works for the village and had the same idea and concern for the trees. Together they worked together to form a committee and relocate the trees. Toño felt it was important to keep the trees in Elvillar and reached out to the community see if others were interested in saving the trees. Approximately 100 trees were saved, replanted and maintained thanks to Toño’s efforts.
We were responsible for the transport and replantation, which was money well spent. Toño helped David prune the trees so they could be removed and transported to their new home … our winery and surrounding vineyards. We now have 36 olive trees gracing our property, 25 of which are surrounding our newly planted Graciano vineyard.
Olive trees and vineyards historically were grown within the same parcel before society became obsessed with monoculture and production in exchange for money. You can often spot an older vineyard by the diversity that was maintained in the parcel. This stemmed from the self-sustaining society of our past, olive trees, vines and sometimes fruit trees shared the land as they were all dietary staples needed to feed their families.
As society evolved, the need to create olive oil has been replaced by a visit to the local supermarket and grapes are now grown as a commodity and sold in exchange for money. For as much as we live this life, it’s as if part of our soul yearns for us to reconnect with the past. David and I always seem to look back to move forward, it’s one thing that connects us – in a world where the chaos of our daily lives constantly tries to pull us apart. Over the new few years, the olive trees will heal, establish new roots, and will start to produce fruit once again. We will harvest the oil and use it to feed our family and our guests. As I write, I feel like the olive trees are a touchstone of our family … our story. We’ve changed, moved and had our branches clipped from time to time, but we too will evolve, grow and lay down new roots that will sustain our future.
David’s reaction when his first “palo” arrived was quite similar to the boy in this commercial, finding immense value in an object where most would find none. To me, it is humorous to witness such reactions from a man who generally holds a serious demeanour. Yet with his stick (palo), another trailblazer story has come to pass.
A few years back David experimented with posts in one of our vineyards. This system is very rarely seen in Rioja but being a fan of the Rhone where this system is quite common, David was familiar with the concept. The idea came to life shortly after we started using horses to plow our vineyards. The vines in our La Revilla vineyard were planted with a rather large distance between the vines running along the row. In addition to working the land between the rows, we often have to work by hand between the vines to loosen the soil. David wanted to take advantage of this surface area to allow the horses to work in both directions if needed. In order to do so, both pathways needed to be clear, which is where the posts came into play.
Post enable the growth of the vine to be contained in an upward manner, rather than spreading horizontally. As the shoots of the vines grow, a small cord is used to control the growth and tie it to the post. This work needs to be done two to three times per year. A major benefit to this is you avoid the need to green prune. Often when you cut the growth of the shoots, the plant spends it energy recovering and rebuilding the lost vigor and if not done correctly the vine can regrow even longer.
Another advantage to this system is protection from the wind. Our vines are located near the slopes of the Sierra Cantabria which often carry strong north winds which can be damaging to the vine. Specifically in the spring when the stems are still young and don’t yet have the strength to withstand the damaging winds. A majority of our vines are old bush vines that have no trailer system to provide protection from the wind. While this process can be laborious, tying up the growth in a timely manner prevents this damage from occurring.
It has also proven to be an effective method of controlling oidium (powdery mildew fungus) in the vineyard, as it allowed more airflow to pass between the vines. Prior to the use of this method, by late summer the vigour would expand the space of the vine in that there would be crossover amongst the canopy. The only “prune” required for this system is a cleaning of the leaves that cover the grapes ensuring exposure to the sun and proper maturity.
It’s a costly system to implement therefore we have to balance which vineyards are best suited to receive it. We started with one vineyard, La Revilla, three years ago and now have successfully utilised this system in three of our vineyards. A lovely reminder of the beauty that can be found in simple pleasures, such as UN PALO!
Another year has passed, so I’ve decided to recap our harvest, which was nothing short of a miracle for many reasons.
Ian testing the grapes
The first fruit of our labor (actually my labor) arrived on Tuesday, September 13th with the birth of our 2nd son. While in labor, David enlightened me with a little nugget of information on the drive to the hospital; in Spain, Tuesday the 13th equates to Friday the 13th in many other parts of the world (he really has a way with words). With that sentiment, I was wondering what little demon would be expelled from my body. Apparently, superstitions are only valid if you are of that culture. Our son was born only 30 minutes after our arrival to the hospital and he’s been quite an angel so far.
Needless to say, free time nor sleep was very common during the days leading up to harvest. We’ve been working on the construction of the winery for a few years now (yes, I said years) and this year we had no choice and would harvest in our bodega “si o si” as David would say. The production of fruit in the region was so large, he knew no favors would be granted by friends as their space would be at maximum capacity. In the 11th hour, David scrambled to get the winery in condition for the Appellation to authorise us to harvest in our own winery. A nail-biting 2 days prior to the day that David had selected to harvest our first vineyard we got the green light. (i.e. miracle #2)
HARVEST!!! The year started out with a cold and dry winter. February and March brought rain and good conditions to start the cycle of the vine in the coming months. From Bud Break to Fruit Set, the vines were showing signs of a bumper crop. As Spring came to a close the rain started to subside and a hot and extremely dry summer evolved. During the month of August, many areas in Rioja Alavesa reported zero rainfall and there were days when temperatures hovered around 40 degrees, which is quite uncommon for this area. The dry conditions caused some vinegrowers to panic start to harvest at the end of August. The grapes had a lot of sugar but were not mature and ready. We decided to wait and were rewarded by light rainfall at the end of September and beginning of October, approximately 20 liters, enough to complete ripening and offer a nicely balanced grape. In Elvillar, we received approximately 700 liters of rain over the course of the year.
Bhilar post fermentation in concrete tank. Ready for the press
Preparing Phinca Lali for the crush
We started to harvest on October 12th with our Hapa and St. Julien vineyards. After a short break, we continued with our Bhilar Plots vineyards, followed by Phincas during the last week of October. All vineyards harvested prior to October 20th were de-stemmed. After October 20th, the stems were no longer green and ready to be included in the fermentations. We wrapped up our harvest the 1st week of November with our single vineyards. We were very happy to be able to harvest in our new winery, not have to rush the process and to see such ideal grape conditions in terms of quantity and quality.
All of our single vineyards are foot-crushed and fermented in 500 L barrels
In short, 2016 consisted of a lot of stress, hard work, and changes in our family yet all of our labours were rewarded greatly by a wonderful harvest in many respects. 2017 is sure to be another challenging, fun and extremely rewarding year for our family as we continue to build our dreams. A heartfelt THANK YOU to all of our friends, fans, distributors and partners who help us make it all happen. We couldn’t do it without you!
I’ve had a change of heart with the start of the new year. The birth of our 2nd son combined with work at the winery has prevented any form of promotion of my memoir. When I released it, I swore I would never offer it for free via Kindle due to the amount of time, effort, money and the fact that it is our personal history. However, as I reflect about why I decided to share our story, it wasn’t about us. It was to show the power of love, faith, learning to follow your intuition and your dreams. So my wish for 2017 is that someone who needs to read this story discovers my book and through our experience finds inspiration to be kind, love deeply, and be vulnerable. Let 2017 be the year to direct our energy towards empathy, understanding, positivity, and hope for our children’s future.
The adage states Struggling Vines make the best wine. My husband, David Sampedro, viticultor from Rioja Alavesa, has had to struggle every step of the way to get where he is today. We hope this adage will prove itself with the realization of a dream, our very own winery located outside of his village, Elvillar.
In a country where heritage is fiercely protected and passed down for generations, David wasn’t so lucky. He came from a family of viticultors and spent most of his childhood and teenage years tending to his heritage, his vineyards. When his parents divorced in the late 80s, his mother sold a majority of her vineyards, leaving David with 1 hectare of vineyard. When his uncle passed at an early age, vineyards that traditionally would have been divided among the siblings were given to the only other male sibling, his uncle. Determined not to lose any more of his heritage, David signed an agreement with his Aunt to buy her portion of vineyards providing him with enough land to pursue his dream.
At the young age of 17, driven to obtain a higher education but unable to afford it, David independently applied for scholarships and received help for 80% of his university expenses. To cover the remaining expenses he worked in his best friend’s winery in Elvillar and tended to his vineyards on the weekends. Knowing he would soon be the full financial provider for his ailing mother, time was of the essence and he earned his Bachelor in Agricultural Engineering and went on to get his masters in Oenology (winemaking) in only 5 years. Despite the pressure of time, he finished his Engineering degree first in his class.
David started his career working as a member of winemaking teams for various well-known wineries in Rioja, but his vineyards kept calling him home and David knew that his “struggling” old, bush vines growing in poor limestone soils were worthy of their own bottle. In 2000, he changed the management of his vineyards to organic and a few years later discovered Biodynamic farming and started implementing techniques as he learned more about the philosophy.
His first attempt to bottle his vineyards was a joint-venture with a friend from Rugby. Making wine can be costly and in order to provide for himself and his mother and to keep the project going, he worked a second job consulting for a winery in Ribera del Duero. It was a budding winery just starting out and didn’t offer the financial support he had hoped for. Expenses for the 2-hour drive each way and menial income was starting to aggravate rather than help his finances. He recalls sleeping on the floor of the winery during harvest unable to afford gas money or a hotel while working 17+ hour days typical during harvest. During one of his many drives to and from Ribera, he was running low on fuel and had no cash. He stopped at a familiar station along the route hoping they would be sympathetic and fill his tank with the promise to pay them back once he got paid. He offered his government ID as collateral and they accepted. Expenses were quickly catching up with him and when he fell behind on his electric bill, services were cut , “I will never forget the sinking feeling arriving home and seeing my mother sitting in the dark. It felt like no matter how hard I worked, financially I was failing.”
His own personal venture bottling his wines with his friend soon deteriorated due to personal differences and winemaking philosophy. He took his vineyards and walked away from his investment leaving him further in debt. Fortunately, around the same time, he was brought in as a full-time winemaker by a winery in Rioja that allowed him to use their space to start again and bottle his first vintage of Phincas in 2007. This enabled him to start building his own personal brand and he started to get noticed on an international level. After a number of years, driven to focus on quality wine “with soul”, his personal views were clashing with the owners who were more focused on profit driven commercial wines. The bottom fell out around the same time that I decided to move to Spain from the United States. Timing wasn’t ideal, as he was without a winery and income, but I knew David needed to work independently in order for his artistic talents to thrive. We were determined to continue his dream of producing terroir driven wines that reflect the characteristics of his village, so we decided to bring his wines back to Elvillar, where they belonged. We rented a home and became Garagistes, making his small production wines out of our garage. With financial help from a few close friends who believed in his talents, the income from the sale of my home in the USA, and a few loans from the bank, we were able to pull through financially.
After a few years, things slowly started to turn around, not only in his Rioja Alavesa wines but all of his projects throughout Spain. The time and money he had invested were starting to pay off. He was able to pay back his debts and we were finally in the black, but we knew the time in our Garagiste location was limited. Logistics for the winery proved difficult having to make/age the wine below our house, and bottle and store the wines in separate locations on the other side of the village. As we grew and added a few wines sourced from local viticultors, we were running short on space.
We would frequently take long walks to check on the vineyards and talk about our dreams for the future, knowing that soon we would have to bite the bullet and apply for a new set of loans to make it happen. Dreaming of a château concept, in 2015, we started securing loans, purchasing a location just outside of the village and planning for construction. We run the operation together and while it hasn’t been easy, we believe our journey has a purpose … sometimes things with the most character and complexity come from a vine that has had to struggle.
Why the name Phincas? A common question. David claims that many names for his wines were decided over numerous glasses with friends. If I may digress for a moment, who discusses PHI while drinking?!? Anyway … the first half of the equation is a play on words, “finca” in Spanish roughly translates to vineyard. David replaced the “f-i” with PHI to represent the Golden Ratio. Why? The Golden ratio, 1.618…, is represented by the greek letter PHI. It is a special number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part. This concept simplified is David’s way of communicating his winemaking philosophy; the smaller part is the winery, the larger part (and in his opinion, the most important) is the vineyard and both elements together equal the art of winemaking.
The use of the word “art” here, is no accident, as this equation, also known as Divine Proportion, was illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci among numerous other artists including Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Dali. The Golden Ratio was used to achieve balance and beauty. To quote David, “I believe wine can be compared to the visual arts, since it’s a kind of universal communication that harbors a concept and an aesthetic in much greater measure than the non-expert might suspect.” Similar to its application in design, the concept of the Golden ratio applied in art of making wine to create a sense of beauty through harmony and proportion.
Interestingly, you can also find a plethora of examples of the Golden Ratio in nature. Its beauty can be found in flowers, seashells, pineapples and even honeycombs.
The Greeks believed there to be three “ingredients” to beauty: symmetry, proportion, and harmony. They judged life by this mentality and we welcome you to judge our wines by the same means. Cheers!