February 2, 2014
It was nearing dusk when I met Ryan Roark on Zaca Station Rd. “Follow me…”, and up a winding gravel road we went, deep into the Firestone property. As the road turned to dirt, we passed a simple wooden sign: “Jurassic Park Industrial Complex”. Rolling slowly past oil derricks, around a bend in the road, we finally came upon the dramatic hillsides of one of Santa Barbara County’s hidden gems: Jurassic Park’s old vine Chenin Blanc.
In my mind I had imagined this place to be flat; for a commercially challenging grape like Chenin Blanc to survive so long here, I figured it must come from land no one prized all that highly. What I discovered instead was steep slopes and intriguing soils. The fact that this hadn’t been grafted over to one of Foxen Canyon’s more prized grapes, like Syrah or Grenache, was proof that someone saw something very special in these vines. As it turns out, Firestone had kept this fruit alive as a blending component for their program through the years. It really wasn’t until 2008, 26 years after it was planted, that a critical mass of winemakers suddenly started clamoring for this fruit.
I recently spoke with several of the producers crafting Chenin Blanc from this site about the different approaches and influences each brings to his expression, and felt the palpable excitement for Jurassic Park. “I make this wine as an homage to my grandparents; they loved wines from the Loire,” says Habit’s Jeff Fischer. Planted in 1982 by legendary farmer Jeff Newton (Coastal Vineyard Care), on its own roots, these vines thrive in the sand and sandstone (Arnold series to be exact) that make this vineyard so distinct.
Walking the rows, I observed distinct soil differences between the western and eastern sides (separated by a dirt road in the center). The Western half appears to be more purely sand; walking up these steep inclines after a recent rain, my shoes continually sunk several inches into the soil. The Eastern half, while still very sandy, had much more apparent chunks of sandstone, rockier in general, with perhaps a bit more loam. “There are definitely some soil differences,” says Roark, “though I don’t know if they’re necessarily that apparent in the wine.” Indeed, the aromatic profile of Chenin here seems to share a common thread among these producers, with their own personal stylistic choices creating the major differences.
For his Habit wines, Jeff Fischer strives to capture the minerality of Jurassic Park: “I love the high acidity, and like to pick on the early side. I have been making it entirely in stainless steel, fermenting cold, and aging on the lees.” This comes across in the wine, which marries the weight and aromatics of lees contact with beautiful salinity and very precise, just-ripe fruit character. There’s a varietal and site-driven profile in his wine that reminds me of the drier expressions of the grape from Vouvray or Montlouis. Fischer has worked alongside Ernst Storm, winemaker for Curtis, for his first few harvests, and says he has been inspired by Ernst’s history with the grape.
Born and raised in South Africa, Storm grew up around Chenin Blanc (Steen as it’s known in Afrikaans), the flagship white of his home country. As winemaker for Curtis, he has had the opportunity to work with this fruit in the Curtis and Firestone programs for several years now, and will be releasing the first Jurassic Park Chenin under his eponymous label this spring. “With 30 plus years in vine age, the roots have penetrated deep into the ground, giving us fruit that opens up to one more dimension. I am a big fan of a style where the juicy acid is balanced by the added texture from ‘sur lie’ aging.” Storm points to the sandy soil here as being a big factor in the unique character of the wines, one whose challenges are worth the risk. “The sandy soil controls the vigor naturally, and with a minimal, sustainable farming approach, the vineyard consistently yields fruit with a lot of natural acid, juicy flavors and added depth. However, it is quite apparent that the fruit is Nitrogen deficient due to the locality and vine age, so paying close attention to the fermentation needs is imperative.”
Ryan Roark built his label around the Chenin Blanc from Jurassic Park, discovering it while working at nearby Andrew Murray, and seems to have undergone the most radical shift in his winemaking approach of all the producers I spoke with. Inspired by time spent working in the Loire Valley, Roark’s style has moved closer and closer to his greatest source of inspiration, Savennieres. Savennieres, whose wines are frequently (and positively) described as smelling of wet wool and cheese rind, produces incredibly distinctive and long-lived Chenin. To achieve an expression of the grape that hews more closely to this influence, Roark has moved to neutral barrel for aging. Sulfur is utilized only when absolutely necessary, fermentations are performed by indigenous yeast, malolactic fermentation is allowed to occur, and there is great acceptance and encouragement of microbial development. His 2012 was the first wine to prominently showcase this shift, and his 2013 in barrel really displays the cheese rind/wool aromatics of great Chenin.
Mike Roth, who recently left his post at Martian Ranch to launch his own label Lo-Fi, also derives inspiration from Savennieres. His Chenin captures this richer, powerful expression of place with those same intriguing non-fruit characteristics. While the argument could be made that these renditions are more style-driven, I still find the same thread of minerality and sense of place in these wines, channeling a different facet of site that is still unmistakable.
“I think I pick Chenin riper than anyone out there, probably a week later than everyone else.” This is how Nick DeLuca begins his discussion of the Chenin Blanc he crafts for his Ground Effect label. Granted, in this case, ‘ripe’ is only 22.8 brix, with intense acid. DeLuca also takes the unique approach of blending his Chenin Blanc, typically with nontraditional grapes, giving it the proprietary name ‘Gravity Check’. His 2010 saw it joined to Viognier from elsewhere on the Curtis property. The 2011 was accompanied by Pinot Gris and Albariño from Edna Valley’s Paragon Vineyard. And the 2012, his best yet, marries 87% Chenin Blanc with 13% Riesling from Area 51, another vineyard on the Curtis property. Yet it is the Chenin in each vintage that has been dominant and readily apparent, its intense minerality being framed by the various accompanying grapes. “There’s an earthiness to Jurassic Chenin, and it really comes out as the wine ages. I opened up a 2010 a couple weeks ago, and it’s roasted without being roasty.” Nick elaborates further that this roasted character is along the lines of hickory or BBQ smoke.
Other producers I spoke with identified the minerality here as being like sea salt or saline. Without a doubt there is that oceanic influence in the wines, whether it is the roasted, almost peaty character that comes out with age, or the more precise, inorganic earth of young releases. However one wants to describe it, this is the mark of a great site, where the soil and climate speak clearly through whatever stylistic choices a winemaker chooses to make. Time will only tell if these wines will make old bones, but given the overwhelming passion devoted to the site and how to best express it, I have no doubt we’ll be happily sipping 2013 Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc in 2030, reminiscing about simpler times, savoring this time capsule in a glass.