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Ambullneo Vineyards (rrruff!)

The Legend of Zorro is based on the life of Solomon Pico, a murderous bandit who camped in the Santa Maria hills. People still climb the Solomon Hills looking for treasure that Pico allegedly buried. Greg Linn, owner and winemaker of Ambullneo Vineyards, is Santa Maria’s modern day Zorro. Camped out at Bien Nacido Vineyards, he is pursuing the quest for great Pinot Noir and stealing Pinot-loving hearts along the way.

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Greg grew up in Jersey and you can still sense the accent. He moved to California and became a successful businessman in the mortgage business. Wine was always on the family table and when his discretionary income allowed, he began collecting Cabernet-based wines from California and France. Like many wine enthusiasts, Greg eventually transitioned at from a cabphile to a burgphile and took to Burgundy seriously. His epiphany was a 1985 Domaine Romanee-Conti Romanee-St-Vivant. Now his personal wine cellar houses a large preponderance of white and red Burgundy with a little Barolo thrown in. Greg says that “If God had to select one wine to make, he would choose Pinot Noir.”

Greg loves Pinot but he is also a dog fancier and the name of his winery reflects that. Ambullneo stands for AMerican BULL Breeds and NEOpolitan Mastuff. The Ambullneo breed of dog is a cross between a bulldog and a European mastiff. This canine breed is fearless and powerful and moves with grace and agility. Like the Ambullneo dog, Greg’s Ambullneo wine has great strength yet is graceful and is the perfect companion.

Ambullneo is a partnership between Greg and several investors, but Greg is the man in charge and makes all of the calls. He is a fanatic about quality. He says “There is more bad than good Pinot Noir and Burgundy,” and he is clearly focused on the good. He spares no expensive, declaring he is not interested in making “a fast, slapdash, budget wine.” Greg does merciless green cropping in the vineyard, dropping fruit often on three separate occasions. Grapes are picked at 2:00 AM. After a moderate cold soak of five days or so, fermentation proceeds with native yeast and MLF with native bacteria. Whole clusters are included in a proportion relative to the fruit of the vintage. No press wine is used in Ambullneo wines. The cooperage is top-rate - tight-grain French oak costing $1100 a barrel. Greg insists on special heavy glass bottles, lengthy, high-quality corks, and wax-dipped tops. He knows that his consumer base is sophisticated about wine and he is committed to provide them a memorable drinking experience. Everything about the winery and the wines exudes confidence and class.

Greg started out only making blended wines, believing that a blend of multiple vineyards provided more complexity in the finished wine. He has since relented as he as been able to source special vineyard fruit and unique blocks within vineyards and now produces both blends and vineyard designate wines. His first releases were “big-babe” Pinots that Greg said, “Ain’t your grandma’s Pinot.” Since the 2005 vintage, however, Greg has mellowed and fine-tuned his style. He picks earlier (22.8-23.2 Brix) and alcohols have fallen as a result every year since 2002 (all of the 2006 vintage are between 13.3% and 13.7% alcohol). His wines have taken on more elegance and sophistication and are more akin to the Burgundies that he holds in such high regard.

I visited Ambullneo recently and tasted through the 2006 lineup of Pinot Noirs and one 2006 Chardonnay (my “chaser.”). The Pinot Noirs were still in tank, awaiting bottling. I met Greg’s assistants, South African Peter Conjra and Matt Murphy (Eric Bolton also assists). We sat in the winery on a gorgeous sunny day sampling extraordinary wines that as Greg says, “Have astonishing beauty.”

2006 was a challenging vintage at Ambullneo, but the wines are clearly the most successful for this winery to date. Spring through early summer brought unusually high and prolonged humidity. It was a constant scramble to stay ahead of mildew and botrytis and frequent dropping of fruit was necessitated. Judicious picking and sorting further reduced the fruit that Greg considered optimal. Total case production was down as a result. Much of the wine was sold as futures in August, 2007, but check the winery for current availability. Allocations may be necessary for future vintages as popular restaurants in California and Las Vegas snap up a large part of production.

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2006 Ambullneo Solomon Hills Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay

13.4% alc., 100 cases. 100% oak fermentation, 80% MLF. There are two other Chardonnays and all three of the Chardonnays are made differently. Fang Blanc (340 cases) has less oak than the Solomon Hills with more acidity. Big Paw (340 cases) is fermented in more stainless steel and neutral oak, again with more acidity than the Solomon Hills. The last two will be better with foods like shellfish, the Solomon Hills preferable on its own or with cream sauces. · Impressive for its perfect integration of oak and lively acidity. Butter aromas and flavors are only hinted at making it a very sexy drink.

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2006 Ambullneo Canis Major California Pinot Noir

135 cases, $95. Eight barrels from northern and southern California vineyards featured in the Mastiff and Bulldog. 40% whole cluster, 45% new oak. Greg says it recalls a Latricieres Chambertin. · Darkly fruited with a floral lift and a mineral streak, this is an immensely satisfying drink with great Pinot expression that explodes on the palate and leads to a huge, lingering finish. Sturdy yet suave in texture, this wine walks the walk.

2006 Ambullneo Solomon Hills Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

$95. This wine was bottled as a separate vineyard designate because of the stellar fruit in this vintage. There is more clone 667 and 777 in this wine. · Dark in color, this wine leads off with a nose of dark Pinot fruits with a hint of oak. On the attack it is rich and earthy, with plentiful black cherries, plums, and herbs. There is considerable potential here but time is need for integration.

2006 Ambullneo Bien Nacido Vineyard Block One Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

135 cases, $119. Old Bien Nacido vines on shallow soils which yield only 1.75 tons per acre. Mt Eden clone. Greg likens it to a Musigny. · Very dark ruby in color and the deepest colored wine in the lineup. The nose is flat, grapey and funky, withholding the charm to come. The attack is beefy and gamy with prodigious truffled dark Pinot fruits. The massive fruit is front and center, and although muscular, the mouth feel is soft and the tannins well integrated. Greg loves this one. This is a wine that demands sipping and contemplation and like Musigny, needs a number of years to round out..

2006 Ambullneo Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir

135 cases, $119. Greg’s first 100% whole cluster wine that prompts thoughts of La Tache he says. 50% new oak. This vineyard seems to provide fruit that is perfectly suited to whole cluster fermentation. · This really is a charming wine that is very approachable now. Lovely floral and oak spiced aromas. Complex flavors of black and blue fruits, forest floor, Asian five spice, and toast. Excellent balance and length with a long, chewy aftertaste. A feast and one of my favorites.

2006 Ambullneo Rim Rock Vineyard Arroyo Grande Pinot Noir

100 cases, $119. A former Syrah 1-acre vineyard that has been replanted to Pinot Noir under the direction of viticulturist Greg Phelan. Greg says think Clos de La Roche. · I had difficulty getting a handle on this one. There is no doubt that there is a mass of dark fruit here but it is hidden and brooding. Earthy, tight and unwelcoming at present, there is noticeable tannin to shed. Good acidity indicates a long life ahead.

Ambullneo Vineyards website is www.ambullneovineyards.com. The wines are sold on the website, via a mailing list, and through limited retail distribution. 805-474-5858.

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