Guided tours are available by reservation, and if your time permits, the tour is like a Discovery Channel presentation on Biodynamic farming along with Nan sharing her journey with you. It was a very enjoyable afternoon and I learned a lot about the challenges of Biodynamic farming, combining winemaking with farming along with the rewards the combination of both provide.
Today, Martian Ranch & Vineyard is a Demeter Certified, biodynamically farmed estate winery, a designation that is being sought by many winemakers today. Biodynamic principles, which take organic farming to the next level, strive to create a diversified and balanced ecosystem while focusing on the health and fertility of the soil. Lunar, solar, and cosmic rhythms are followed for all farming practices, which create an optimum environment for the vines. Each part of the growing process revolves around four elements: root, leaf, flower, and fruit. Together, these elements create the highest expression of harvest.
On a recent visit to Los Alamos, I made an appointment to meet with Nan Helgeland, the Vineyard owner, and she gave me a tour and the story of her journey to fulfill her dream of a biodynamic vineyard. Less than 15% of women are involved in winemaking or running a winery in California. And what a journey it was! This is her story.
History of Martian Vineyard
Nan was a Massachusetts native who married Brian Helgeland (screenwriter on “L.A. Confidential” and several other major movies) and moved to Los Angeles. After raising her two sons and sending them off to college she decided to follow her dreams by looking for a property that would be a combination ranch and vineyard. The University of Massachusetts literature major was willing to get her hands dirty and learn all she could about viticulture.
On her 40th birthday, she bought the 102-acre Alisos Canyon property. She knew absolutely nothing about wine and decided to take the biodynamic route and went back to college at age 46 to study biodynamic farming. She made contacts with college staff, and friends that she and her husband knew, did research on every facet of wine and the biodynamic process. She was like a sponge and absorbed every facet of winemaking, vineyard management, and varietal profiles. She was going to show that …”That blonde from LA” really knows her stuff!
With the book stuff down pat, she dove into the execution. A pond was built and stocked with fish to attract migrating birds. (We saw a beautiful heron perched on the dock). She brought in Irish Dexter cattle to use for manure, and her locale was a popular place for swallows who promptly settled in the eaves of the barn. Other types of birds can be seen on the property and the Western Blue Birds are a big solution to a lot of pests.
A large water tank and pumping facility to the well was installed for water self-sufficiency. A field for alfalfa has been completed so she will not have to purchase feed for the cattle. A large dedicated area provides fresh vegetables.
Wildflowers are abundant near the vineyard rows to attract non-damaging insects. (See my article on the Roses and Vineyards) Nan gets all the credit for my education on this topic.
The vineyards were planted in 2008, with the first Estate vintage in 2011.
She shared an interesting statement that “It takes 5000 decisions to make 1 bottle of wine.”
While she has a Vineyard Manager, Farm manager, and Winemaker, Nan is very hands-on in every aspect of the operation. In the end, she has created a self-sufficient ecosystem that contributes to some really special wines.
Her attitude: “I look at my vineyard as a living entity, my third child. When I’m not here I miss my vineyard as though it were a person.”
There may or may not be Aliens lurking around the Vineyards at night but the name really is a combination of the names of her two sons; Martin and Ian.
The current winemaker is Gretchen Voelcker formally with Rideau. Her passion for wines stems from time spent in Europe and a deep connection to nature. She has been fortunate enough to work with great wineries in both California as well as New Zealand and brings to Martian Ranch her diligence, conviction, and zeal for crafting great wines.
Our tasting was complemented with a charcuterie board and a homemade strawberry tart that was made by the Tasting Room Manager and it really enhanced our tasting experience.
2015 Down To Earth Rose
100% Mourvèdre. This varietal is fast becoming an alternative to the traditional Provence Pinot Style.
Crisp cherry, kiwi aromas with Bing cherry, watermelon and a touch of strawberry. The finish has a bit of acidity that will work with or without food. A Provence style with a bit more body.
2015 Stella Viognier
Aged six months in Foudre barrels and full malolactic fermentation.
The nose had honeysuckle, green lime and a touch of green apple and some floral. On the palate, there were hints of white peach, stone fruits, and it was a crisp wine with a lingering finish. Unlike its European counterpart, this wine had a bit more substance.
2015 Gamay Noir
Martian sources this grape to several other vineyards. This is produced via carbonic maceration in the style of Beaujolais nouveau, which adds creaminess to the finish.
Clearly, this was my favorite. Very soft on the palate and low in tannins. Fresh red fruits aromas of cherry and cranberry. Taste is like a true French Beaujolais with raspberry, bitter cherry, and a hint of licorice. This wine is very well balanced with a nice acidity and supple tannins on the finish.
2014 Radiant Cabernet Franc
Initial aroma of chocolate and black fruits, and a forest floor essence that comes when the wine opens up. It is a bold wine and clearly needs some food. Think Lasagna, couscous, and even pizza. It is well-balanced and smooth with good complexity and a long, lingering finish.
2014 Dark Energy Syrah
We finished with the 2014 Dark Energy Syrah. It begins with whole cluster fermentation.
This is a big wine! A lot richer than the other reds. Aromas of blueberry and blackberry on the nose followed by cracked pepper and finishes with hints of black licorice, with notes of smoke and leather after it opens up. A moderately long finish. This wine needs a little age but will develop to a 90 pointer in time.
This wine does need a big New York Sirloin or Rib Eye.
An exciting new venture for Nan is a new canning class using the extra produce from her garden. Nan will teach a new eight-week summer series of canning classes.
“Part of biodynamic’s is going back to the basics,” Dawn explained. She will teach the classes at the tasting room in the new professional-grade kitchen.
Martian Ranch will provide wine to drink and all of the organic produce and canning supplies necessary.
“We’ll teach everybody how to do it, and then they’ll get to take home the products,” Dawn explained.
Every class will feature a different recipe made with Martian Ranch wine, and everyone takes home an instructional booklet.
Canning classes will cost $34 for wine club members or “Martians,” or $49 for “Earthlings,” meaning everyone else. True to her personality, Nan keeps on learning and expanding her horizons. It will be exciting to see what is next on her journey!