Niner Wine Estates

It’s an affair of the heart at Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles. And I think Heart Hill Vineyard must have something to do with it.

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The winery’s vineyard wraps around a renowned local landmark, an unusual heart-shaped grove of oak trees that in many ways exemplifies the Niner family’s commitment to the land, their vineyards, and their wines.

Heart Hill and its grove overlooks Niner’s tasting room on Highway 46 West, emblematic of what the winery and its people are trying to achieve. They’re all affected by it: Andy Niner, the winery’s president; Heather Lane, the winery’s hospitality director; Meagen Loring, the winery’s executive chef; and no doubt the winemakers, marketing team, tasting-room crew, all of them.

I have visited wineries all over the world, and it’s rare to find an entire team of people, working together under one roof, so enamored of what they’re doing and the place they’re doing it that they can scarcely believe that what they do is actually work.

Dick and Pam Niner
Dick and Pam Niner

The connection to the land begins with the tasting room and office building itself. It’s built entirely of stone. The interior is open and spacious, with massive floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a view of Heart Hill. It allows tasting-room visitors ample room to wander with their glass and enjoy the overall experience, letting Heart Hill seduce them as well.

It continues to the vineyards, where clonal selections are married to the terroir through the right rootstock and trellising.

And it concludes in the winery building, a massive creation that uses gravity flow from crush to bottling so as to preserve the grapes’ essence, a throwback to a bygone era when wines were handcrafted.

Not long ago I visited the winery and sat down with Andy and Heather on the patio outside the dining room—lunch is served there Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.— and it was there that I became aware of this phenomenon.

Niner Wine Estates has three vineyards: Bootjack Ranch, on Highway 46 East at Union Road, the winery’s first vineyard; Heart Hill Vineyard, the winery’s home vineyard; and Jespersen Ranch in Edna Valley, the most recent acquisition. Each vineyard is planted with vines suited to the unique terroirs. Bootjack Ranch is planted primarily to Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and their cousins, plus Italian varietals Sangiovese and Barbera. Heart Hill also has some Bordeaux varietals, but is more heavily planted to Rhone grapes, both red and white. Jespersen Ranch, in the Edna Valley, is principally planted to cool-climate varietals Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

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Andy poured some of the 2013 Niner Estate Chardonnay ($25 suggested retail) from the Jespersen Ranch. He said it had spent 10 months in French oak barrels and had gone through malolactic fermentation (converting the grapes’ natural malic acid to lactic acid). I was mildly surprised at how light the wine was; usually wines that go through ML, as it’s known, are heavy and viscous. Not so with this wine.

As he talked about the wine, I was reminded of a father speaking proudly of his child, perhaps not surprising as the winery does bear his family’s name. But then Heather started talking about it, and she was just as excited.

Then Andy poured a Grenache Rosé made from Heart Hill Vineyards fruit. The juice had spent six hours on the skins to get its beautiful light pink color before being fermented in stainless steel tanks. Andy and Heather practically glowed when talking about the wine, especially Heather, who is a certified sommelier. I’m a big fan of rosé, but also recognize the white-zinfandel stigma attached to pink wine. Andy and Heather acknowledged that most tasting room visitors had to be persuaded to try the rosé, but once they tried it they usually wound up buying a bottle or two.

“We sell the rosé through our own excitement,” Andy said.

It’s easy to be excited about Niner wines. The family has pulled out all the stops to deliver handcrafted wines that are among the best California has to offer.

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“Dad wanted to create something special that reflected Paso Robles,” Andy said. “We’re one hundred percent built around making amazing wines.”

And they are doing just that, thanks to the vision of Andy’s father, Richard Niner, a West Virginia native with country roots who always envisioned returning to the land.

“Dad was the fifth of eight kids,” Andy said. “He grew up farming, and always wanted to return to farming.” Before he did, though, he engaged in a successful career investing in and building small businesses. Andy said one of his father’s business ventures brought him to San Luis Obispo County in the 1990s, and when he ventured north to Paso Robles, “he fell in love with the area and the people.”

Richard and his wife, Pam, bought their first vineyard, Bootjack Ranch, in 2001, then Heart Hill Ranch in 2003, and “the final piece of the puzzle was Jespersen Ranch in 2011. They spent the better part of a decade building their tasting room and winery, finishing construction in April 2010.”

The winery building was completed a year earlier, in time for the 2009 vintage to be made there. The building is just over the hill from the tasting room, situated so it is shaded by the hills. “We pick at night, and can stage fruit in the morning until about ten or eleven,” Andy said.

And this fall, the operation converted to 100 percent solar powered. The family was never in a hurry; the emphasis was on doing things right.

As if to emphasize the point, Andy poured a 2014 Albarino made from fruit from the Jespersen Ranch, Niner’s second vintage of the Spanish white grape (sorry, currently sold out). Fermented in stainless steel, the wine was crisp and fruity, delightful with a fish course or as an aperitif.

Jespersen also was the source of the 2012 Pinot Noir ($35). Dijon clones deliver the fruit for a deep and sensuous wine loaded with flavor.

The tasting room is on Highway 46 West, just a few miles west of the intersection with U.S. 101. The $10 tasting fee is waived with purchase of a bottle.

Perhaps Heart Hill will touch you, too.

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