Fred Brander and the Birth of the Los Olivos District AVA

February 9, 2014

photoFred Brander begins his discussion of the Los Olivos District not by reeling off statistics or carting out maps, but by walking out of his cellar with 4 bottles.  2 are unlabeled, 2 are in brown bags.  Brander comments as he pours a first taste from one of the bags, “This is a producer I really admire… I think it’s a good example of someone making more balanced Cab here in California.”  Its notes of cedar, ripe blackcurrant, and cassis, along with a prominent signature of American oak, place it squarely in Califonia; it turns out to be Ridge’s iconic estate bottling from Monte Bello Vineyard.  Next he pours the two shiners: one is a barrel sample of his young vine Cab, meticulously planted 5 years ago with an incredible array of rootstocks and clones (12 combinations in total); the other is a barrel sample of his old vine Cab, own-rooted, planted in the mid ‘70s.  Though young, there is already an intense, gravel minerality to both, along with all that exuberant young fruit.  He proudly informs me that the alcohols are in the mid to low 13s.  We finish with the other brown bag, which has harder tannins, just-ripe plum, and a finish filled with notes of sharpened pencil.  We are clearly in Bordeaux here (it turns out to be a Pessac-Leognan from Chateau Haut-Bergey), though the leap from the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Los Olivos District to the Old World is, refreshingly, not a huge one.  His point is clear: this area is capable of site driven, balanced wines that can stand toe to toe with the benchmarks of the world.

A Master of Wine candidate and one of Santa Ynez Valley’s pioneers, Brander tastes blind like this just about every day, comparing his wines with other producers from around the world, seeking out new ideas, constantly thinking about how to improve his wines, his vineyard, and our growing region.  His latest passion is the birth of the Los Olivos District AVA.  The idea that this part of the valley may be worthy of its own AVA first arose over 10 years ago, when the Sta. Rita Hills became official.  “Sta. Rita Hills was the first to differentiate itself, and they did it based mainly on climate, which made me want to look further into the Santa Ynez AVA and see what made us different here besides the fact that we’re warmer.  As it turned out, the area that we are now defining as the Los Olivos District has very distinct and uniform soil and climate.”

Fred Brander tasting room
Fred Brander in front of his iconic tasting room

The soil in the Los Olivos District is part of the PositasBallardSanta Ynez association, which consists of alluvial soils and lots of gravel, in many ways reminiscent of Bordeaux’s Left Bank.  It is distinct from the limestone of Ballard Canyon or the serpentine and chert of Happy Canyon, the two AVAs that bookend the region, and its mineral presence is readily apparent in the area’s wines.  For Brander, this soil, and its uniformity throughout the District, is the most compelling reason for the creation of the AVA.  “The weakness in California AVAs is that they’re frequently not as specific with soils.  Even in Napa, where you have so many sub-AVAs, there is uniform climate within them, but there are often varied soils.  That is one of our big strengths here, that we have such uniformity.”  Starting at the 1000-ft. elevation mark (above this the soil shifts into a different, sandier soil series) in the San Rafael Mountains and sloping gently down to the Santa Ynez River, one also finds great consistency of temperature and topography.  “The climate is consistent, the topography is consistent, the soils are consistent, and I think these factors make a very strong case for this deserving its own AVA.”

gravelly loam that defines the Los Olivos District
A closeup of the gravelly loam that defines the Los Olivos District

Brander has become famous throughout the world for his various expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, which for me capture a minerality and purity rarely found outside of Sancerre.  Many producers within the District also channel this more restrained style, which is a wildly different expression from the rich, musky, tropical style found in Happy Canyon, one that I also love for very different reasons.  “Climate is a big factor.  Here in Los Olivos we have cooler temperatures, less of a diurnal shift, and the wines tend to have lower pH and more malic acid than Happy Canyon.  This area, in my opinion, is more conducive to making a fresher style of Sauvignon Banc, unoaked.”

While Sauvignon Blanc in a more precise style may be a defining expression for the AVA, for the most part the area’s varietal identity is still being sussed out.  “Rhone and Bordeaux varieties are certainly the two main groups that are planted, along with some Spanish and Italian varieties, and I think all of those have been successful,” says Brander.  “I’ve even tasted some Rieslings and Pinot Grigios that have been very good.  Chardonnay can also be viable in a style reminiscent of classic Napa, picked early with blocked malo.”  For my palate, which leans unabashedly Eurocentric, I find particular interest in the Bordeaux and Italian varieties coming from the District.  There is a freshness and balance in these wines, be it Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese, which is distinctive and highly mineral, with a different character than that found in Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon.

The Los Olivos District AVA is currently in the process of establishing its growers’ alliance, an important step for solidifying the community that will advocate for this region on a large scale.  “The AVA has the greatest number of wineries, i.e. winemaking facilities, within an AVA within Santa Barbara County.  We also have the history: the earliest vineyards were planted within the boundaries of the AVA, and we also have Ballard as the first township in the Valley, along with Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, and Solvang.  It’s more reminiscent of Europe’s appellation model where you have little towns inside them.”  Brander goes on to share that the next step in the AVA process is for the petition to come up for public comment, which will likely occur this summer.  If all goes according to plan, it should be finalized and approved by the end of 2014.

A map of the pending AVA
A map of the pending AVA

Santa Barbara County has seen an explosion of AVAs in the last 10 years, though unlike many areas established through the AVA system, which seem to have marketing as their raison d’etre, the division of our growing region has been firmly rooted in science and site character, with the goal of giving consumers an idea of the style and sense of place in the bottle. “If we can subdivide the Santa Ynez Valley into the AVAs needed to fill out the puzzle, I think it’s better off for the consumer,” says Brander.  “Besides this AVA, we need AVAs to demarcate the areas north of us, like Foxen Canyon and Los Alamos.  But I think we’re certainly advancing the ball more than we were 15 or 20 years ago.”  The Los Olivos District certainly has my vote, and I look forward to seeing the further discovery and refinement of this AVA in the coming decades.

Purchase Brander’s top Estate bottlings:
2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
2016 Sauvignon Blanc

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