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MAHA Wines: Bridging the Biodynamic Gap in Paso Robles

MAHA Wines: Bridging the Biodynamic Gap in Paso Robles

Valerie Kathawala
MAHA vineyards | Photo credit: Max Delsid

On a summer’s midday, Paso Robles, California is a stunning chiaroscuro of chalky white soils and sharply drawn shadows. Shadows of soaring birds, passing clouds, trees. Especially trees. Above all, the magnificent, embracing oaks that give Paso Robles (Spanish for “Pass of the Oaks”) its name. Standing in the shade of a Coast Live Oak — a native species whose span can easily exceed its prodigious height — it is easy to imagine that the existence of these trees made life bearable for early settlers toiling under a merciless sun.

Forests of these heritage species have defined the Central California landscape for generations. But since the world discovered Paso Robles’ potential, first for almond cultivation in the 1920s, then for viticulture in the ‘70s, the gentle giants have gradually been succumbing to the relentless pressure of human development.

Precious few Paso winemakers appear to appreciate the oaks’ silent but significant role in shaping a balanced ecosystem for their vines. But among those who do are Chris and JoAnn Cherry, owners, winemakers, and organic/biodynamic growers at Villa Creek | MAHA in West Paso.

The Cherrys’ 60-acre MAHA estate is one of just four (out of more than 200 total) Paso wineries that farm biodynamically under Demeter certification, a strict standard for farming in accordance with time-honored regenerative practices. (The other three biodynamic estates are Castoro Cellars, Tablas Creek Vineyard, and AmByth Estate.) Even if these are some important names in Paso wine, four is a small number, too tiny to call a movement or to impact policy or identity. Yet.

Early one pandemic morning, the Cherrys and I met over coffee and Zoom. Cris in a t-shirt, vest, and knit beanie; JoAnn in glasses and refreshingly unaffected morning hair; roosters and dogs causing a ruckus in the background.

The Cherrys’ down-to-earth candor and deep-rooted interest in alternative agriculture  struck a contrast to their wines, which come in imposingly weighted bottles topped with impressive swirls of golden wax and ex-cellar prices near $100. The wines within don’t fit the usual biodynamic profile either, with alcohol levels at 15 percent; the fruit rich and lushly in the foreground.

How did this back-to-the-land couple come to be making such posh, marquee wines and where does biodynamics fit into that story?

Cherry-picked path

JoAnn & Cris Cherry | Photo Credit: MAHA Villa Creek

JoAnn and Cris both grew up in “foodie families”; she in southern California, he in Vail, Colorado. Though they met on the first day of college, they didn’t get together until many years after they graduated. “When we reconnected,” JoAnn recalls, “we realized we had this shared interest in food and wine.” Cris’s family had a ranch near Paso Robles, in Cayucas, called Villa Creek. Cris and JoAnn married there and fell in love both with the area and the idea of opening a restaurant.

Fast forward to 1996, when the couple, by then with two toddlers in tow, left San Diego for Paso. “Downtown Paso looked like a great opportunity to open a restaurant because nothing was here yet—no food to support this wine industry that was starting to pop,” notes JoAnn.

Influenced by Robert Parker’s early writings on the Paso appellation (“he was touting it as the next Napa,” says Cris), they began to explore its vineyards. Cris notes that, in general, Paso was “seen as a kind of ‘b-tier’ region with low-dollar industrial fruit going into industrial wine.” So when the Cherrys opened their restaurant, they made a point of showcasing wines from other places—“to offer some perspective on what other producers were creating.” This, they remember, left some local vintners a little bent out of shape.

But the Cherrys were undaunted, and in time, their restaurant became a hub for growers and winemakers. “Cris was there on the floor most of the time,” JoAnn says, “and struck up relationships with them. Those connections have been formative in our work.”

They had always harbored a dream of making wine themselves, but never thought it could come true until they were living smack in the middle of wine country. “When our friends started making their wines on a tiny scale, we grabbed our kids and went to watch,” remembers JoAnn. Not long after, Cris was offered some grapes through a restaurant connection. Things took off from there.

By the early 2000s, the Cherrys had launched their Villa Creek winery, sourcing grapes from West Paso neighbors for a line of consumer-friendly reds.

Their hunger for an organic approach was already in place. They were aware of biodynamics, but knew little about it. What they did know “seemed a little too out there,” admits JoAnn. “We weren’t really sure about the practical side.” But “never having been ones to jump on the conventional train with anything,” she and Cris were open to seeing the vineyards “like the human body: a living, breathing organism.”

It was drinking biodynamic wines — especially those of Giles Troullier in the Roussillon and Nikolaihof in the Wachau — that convinced the Cherrys holistic farming was a worthy pursuit. “Those wines had such clarity and expression,” remembers Cris. But “the real light bulb” for him was tasting barrels with other vintners: “One day a barrel tastes great. A few weeks later, it’s not what it was. That really turned me on to the root, leaf, flower, and fruit days.”

Influenced by AmByth’s Philip Hart, JoAnn started to get a “practical sense of what biodynamics was all about.” Like a lot of people when they first encounter biodynamics, Cris remained a little more skeptical. “We were at the Harts one New Year’s Eve. They were crushing silica and explaining that 2 grams of silica would go into a tea to spread over 10 acres. I was wondering how that was going to be effective at all.” But once he started to think of the ripple effects of practices like these, it all began to make sense in terms of “soil health and energy structure,” he says.

Paso Certifiable

Photo credit: MAHA Villa Creek

Around that time, JoAnn and Cris were out bicycling in a favorite part of the western Paso hills. They passed a particularly magnetic plot: a 60-acre parcel rising to 1,800 feet above sea level, with coveted clay-over-limestone and limestone soils—ringed by majestic oaks. When they learned it was for sale, they jumped on it. They  moved onto the property in 2004, built the winery in 2006, and set out to prepare the land for vines.

Like nearly all biodynamic growers, they acknowledge how much they had to learn. When they planted the MAHA vineyards in 2012 and 2013, they hired two well-known biodynamic consultants, “the two Philippes” as JoAnn calls them: “Philippe Coderey, the more practical, and Philippe Armenier, the more celestial.”

Although MAHA is a small part of the estate’s overall production, the Cherrys were thinking big. They planted a full complement of Rhône varieties—Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Roussanne, Clairette—everything trained in gobelet because the site is “pretty exposed” and the Cherrys wanted the vines to have natural shading. Though they did put in irrigation, “dry farming is the intent and our soil structure enabled us to establish a great root system early on.”

Through trial and error, and by looking to other biodynamic growers, the Cherrys began to feel their way and learn the needs of their vines. After six years of working with the consultants, they “took off the training wheels” and took on the farming themselves, supported by a small hired crew.

In 2015, MAHA earned Demeter Biodynamic and CCOF Organic certification. Cris says he felt this was important because “both words can be thrown around rather loosely; third-party certification gives you credibility.”

“When Demeter certifies, they certify the entire property,” notes Cris. In MAHA’s case, that is  340 acres of land, where  uncultivated ground vastly outnumbers the vines. Agriculture is all about control,” he continues, “But if you come here, you’ll see we are surrounded by oak forests. Those oak trees will be here much longer than we will. We’re not able to control what’s out there, and we don’t want to. One of the things with biodynamics is adapting to your surroundings and making the best thing possible from what nature gives us.”

So far, the Cherrys have only cultivated 13 acres at the MAHA site; they hope to expand that to an additional 10 to 15 acres over the next few years. It’s a lively place of nesting birds, a small herd of sheep that eat the grasses and fertilize the soils, with a trio of guard dogs to protect them.

Photo credit: MAHA Villa Creek

There are signs that  the Cherrys’ philosophy is taking firmer root. Neighbors like Castoro have expanded their organic viticulture to an impressive 1,400 acres. The Regenerative Organic Alliance, which is spearheading a farming initiative based on no-till practices that capture carbon in the soil, has partnered with Tablas Creek, with its 120 acres, as a pilot site. (“We tried to get in on it, but Jason Hass was already ahead of us,” laughs JoAnn.) This high-profile affiliation has the potential to  give the regenerative viticulture movement a significant boost in Paso.

A New Narrative

The cluster of AVAs that make up West Paso is marked by their proximity to the Pacific Coast, with startlingly high elevations and a cool, marine freshness in some of the best wines. But make no mistake: It gets plenty hot here. And this is why southern Rhône  varieties feel so at home. It’s also the reason Paso has largely had a reputation for burly, high-alcohol wines that pander more to Prisoner tastes.

As a result, few consumers associate Paso with the style of wines typical of biodynamic farming — “lean and mean,” as JoAnn puts it, referring to the slender, energetic, low-alcohol profile typical of the low-intervention wines.

This point can’t be underestimated. If people come to Paso looking for a certain plush, fruit-driven style that biodynamic growers don’t deliver, those customers may not be inclined to give them a chance.

So the Cherrys try to be as inclusive and undogmatic as possible with their style and their customers. “We are an open book,” says Cris. “We encourage people to come check things out. Drink the wines. Walk through the vineyards. If we can shed any light, please let us. We understand that biodynamics can be a little hard to grasp.”

See Also

The Cherrys also understand that making wines that meet the consumer where they are may be  the perfect way to gain acceptance for some of biodynamics’ less readily comprehensible elements.

“We always have to explain ourselves to customers in a more practical sense,” says JoAnn. “Like with the cow horns”—a foundational practice in biodynamic viticulture that is sometimes mocked—“they attract this amazing quality and quantity of microorganisms; that’s easier for people to grasp than the more celestial explanations.”

On the flipside, JoAnn explains, “our wines are rich and expressive and we do use sulfur in our winemaking, though at levels within Demeter range. But in the circle of natural wine, your average biodynamic wine consumer wants a wine that is lower in alcohol, with that leaner style. We are bridging the gap between the consumer who wants a more fruit-forward, more giving wine, and also wants a healthier wine.”


Photo credit: Valerie Kathawala

Hundred-dollar wines have very high expectations to meet. Cris justifies this by saying he believes Paso’s true terroir expression comes at a price, and that the wines should be considered in a broader context, both in terms of standards and cost: “They’re wines that compete with Châteauneuf or Priorat or Barossa.”

The Cherrys sell most of their MAHA wines direct to consumers via their website and tasting room, though the wines are also available in local markets around the US.

The wines are elegant, harmonious, beautifully integrated, and built to age. But they also have a vitality and energy, a living quality, that sets them apart. The Cherrys make just 900 bottles—“only the cream” Cris emphasizes—of MAHA wines each vintage, and the meticulous attention to detail, the focus, and the love, clearly show.

Before Anyone Else 

Clairette, a still relatively obscure white Rhône variety, is having something of a comeback back home in France and in Paso Robles. “Whites are some of the best wines our region does,” Cris says, countering the mainstream impression of Paso as a red-blend powerhouse. He explains that when they were planning their plantings, he and JoAnn were walking the vineyards with a consultant, and they all had Grenache on their minds. But the consultant suggested Clairette. Since the Cherrys make a point of looking to old-world regions similar to theirs to figure out what works best and seeing how it adapts to their Paso terroir,  were convinced Clairette could be a good fit.

Clairette proved to be happy in MAHA’s clay and chalk soils. And the Cherrys’ deft cellar work, which includes bladder pressing into barrel, native yeast fermentation, full malo, bâtonnage (lees stirring) several times a week, and 18 months in French and Hungarian barrels (roughly 30 percent new oak),pays off in a happy wine. It is textured, rich, and rounded, but charged with energy, edged with grip, and enlivened by a current of acidity that will surely allow for years and years of bottle aging. “The idea was to create an age-worthy, textural, thought-provoking wine,” says Cris. In this they have succeeded spectacularly.

Backlit

This is an inky and concentrated red blend led by Petite Sirah, with small proportions of three other southern Rhône red varieties. It is unabashedly juicy, with casis, licorice, and blackberry notes carried forward by terrific acidity. They use concrete and stainless-steel fermentation vessels, plus French and Hungarian oak barrels with just a fraction of new wood to yield a full-throttle but lively expression of  MAHA fruit.

Understory

There’s one word for this wine: ravishing. It seamlessly stitches  together Grenache, Mourvedre, and Carignan in a dense, supple, and elegant showcase of what site and sensitive farming can do. Cris says, “I think you taste the root depth. The Grenache has seen no water at all. The wines just get deeper, darker, richer, and more serious.” Notes of garrigue, bark, dark-cherry fruit, and high-toned florals are balanced by excellent acidity and integrated tannins. Cris says “the hardest part” of gaining customer acceptance for this accessible wine is that “it’s Grenache, not Cabernet.” A little open-mindedness would serve wine lovers well here.


What you taste in the living wines of MAHA is oak. Not the barrels, but the trees—and their cool whispers of gratitude.