Busy Being Born: Angela Osborne and A Tribute to Grace

March 31, 2014

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A good wine captures its vineyard.  A great wine captures its vineyard AND the personality of its winemaker.   When I think of the wines that have inspired me- Didier Dagueneau’s various expressions of Pouilly-Fumé, Soldera’s Brunello, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bob Travers at Mayacamas- I think of them not only as the essence of the place they grow, but as an encapsulation of their creators.  To that list I would add Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace.  She puts her heart and soul into every bottle, and one can sense her presence in the glass, a feminine, ethereal, joyful rendering of site and self.  I spoke with her this week about her new spring release and the character that makes these wines so distinctive.

Cynicism is impossible around Angela Osborne.  She radiates such positive energy that even when she discusses the more esoteric aspects of her winemaking philosophy or her views on farming, there is such genuine belief and lack of artifice that one can’t help but be compelled.  Take the hummingbirds that grace the corks of her current vintage.  “The Chumash believe the hummingbird represents the grandmother energy, and both of my grandmothers became angels last year, so now they watch over all the bottles of Grace,” says Osborne.  “There were 13,776 hummingbirds that came into the world this vintage, which was really powerful for me.”  It is these little details- imbuing something as mundane as a cork with so much love- that make her wines stand out.

This detail-oriented approach extends to the winemaking.  Her varied experiments in the cellar are some of the most thought-out and intriguing I have seen.  Techniques that may have worked in past vintages will be altered or abandoned completely if the current vintage or a burst of inspiration calls for it.  Her new release is a great example of this, in particular her Grenache rosé.  Angela’s 2013 is a wildly different take than her 2012.  The ’12 came from Coghlan Vineyard on the western fringe of Happy Canyon, was aged in large neutral oak puncheons, and went through full malolactic fermentation, making for a rosé with heft and richness.  The ’13? “The 2013 spent 24 hours on the skins, and then fermented cold in stainless, aged entirely in stainless, no ML.  It’s also from the Highlands this year.  Bottled on my birthday, March 3rd.”  Despite the critical acclaim she received for her previous rosé, she felt the need to do a total 180 and explore a new winemaking approach.  “I really liked the ’12, it was really soft and approachable, but I wanted to experiment this year with something a little higher acid, especially working with the Highlands.  It feels like it’s got lighter feet, a bit more playful, which suits me at the moment.”

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The Highlands that she speaks of is the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard.  It is a site so perfectly suited to Osborne’s style, and her chosen medium of Grenache, that it’s difficult to imagine her without the Highlands and vice versa.  Located on the eastern edge of Santa Barbara County, in Ventucopa, this lunar-looking site is one of the most unique in California.  “It doesn’t really feel of this world.  It’s very moon like.  Kind of silences you a bit,” says Osborne.  At 3200 feet elevation, and subject to an extreme continental climate, it is separated into two sections: the valley floor and the Mesa.  Angela’s single vineyard Grenache has typically been a mix of both, but with 2012, she has shifted to utilizing entirely Mesa fruit, with the valley floor being used for rosé and her Santa Barbara County blend.  While the valley floor is very sandy, the soils of the mesa are loamier, and, more importantly, laced with igneous rocks- basalt, quartz, gneiss, and granite- making for soil conditions that are singular within Santa Barbara County.

“The ’12 has an entirely different tannic structure.  This is the first year I’ve bottled the Mesa by itself, and there’s much more strength there.  It’s 50% whole cluster, whereas my valley floor blocks are all destemmed,” says Osborne.  Her Grenache from the Highlands has always been noted for its delicate nature and elegant texture, though she doesn’t worry about losing this with the addition of whole cluster; rather, she is seeking more structure, with the hope of giving the wines the ability to age like the great Chateauneufs, particularly Chateau Rayas, which she admires.  “I’ve yet to come to a point where the whole cluster becomes too much.  I hope it will give longevity, in a different way energetically than acid, but hopefully with the same ability to age.  I don’t want it to be overt, but I love the spice of Grenache, and I feel a lot of that comes from whole cluster.”  She also chooses to make the stylistic separation in the cellar between her varying lots of whole cluster or destemmed fruit in typically creative fashion.  “I always separate the fermentations into whole cluster, layered, destemmed, and whole cluster and destemmed,” says Osborne.  “I label my barrels as sun and moon, because I feel the moon energy is represented by the whole cluster, and the sun is the fruit.  So each barrel lists percentages of sun and moon.”

The future for A Tribute to Grace is wide open.  The Osborne clan is hoping to eventually split their time between Santa Barbara County and Angela’s home country, New Zealand, working two harvests a year, having a small patch of land to call their own, and raising a family.  It’s a goal that, like the wines of A Tribute to Grace, is beautiful and true.

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