Ancient Roots: An Introduction to Kitá

April 30, 2014

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“We take each year as it comes.  Recipes are boring.  We look at what nature gives us and go from there.”  Kitá’s winemaker Tara Gomez is a straight shooter.  With some winemakers, you get the feeling they are thinking about their marketing strategy before they answer a question.  With Gomez, there is none of this artifice or pretense; instead, there is a delicate and thoughtful honesty.  This past week I tasted through numerous 2012 and 2013 barrels with Gomez and assistant winemaker Tymari LoRe, and discussed their approach in the vineyard and the cellar.

The young Kitá label was created by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, debuting with the 2010 vintage.  Gomez herself is Chumash, and seeks to carry on the stewardship of the land that her ancestors have been part of for centuries, now via their estate vineyard, Camp 4.  Fess Parker originally planted this large, stunning 256 acre vineyard with 19(yes, 19!) different grape varieties in total.  In 2010 the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians purchased the land, and since taking over, they have fine-tuned the farming along with the team at Coastal Vineyard Care Associates (CVCA), working towards their goal of a more sustainable ecosystem and more expressive site character.

With the managing team of Rudy Bravo and Ben Merz, two of the stars of the renowned CVCA team, at the helm, they have addressed the needs of each block and variety in-depth, not an easy task for a vineyard with so much diversity.  As part of their move toward sustainability they have installed owl and bat houses, moved away from using synthetic treatments in the vineyard (save for a couple of blocks that they’re still dialing in, and even then in miniscule amounts), and generally moved toward creating a more diverse environment.  “Taking from the land only what we need and giving back to it is what we believe in,” proudly states Gomez.  “We’re doing a pomace-to-compost program now, for example, which is a lot of work, but it’s important to us, so it’s worth it.”

While located in the extreme east of the Los Olivos District, Camp 4 still lies on the Positas series, part of the Ballard-Santa Ynez-Positas series that defines the AVA.  Their close proximity to Happy Canyon is only hinted at by the chunks of serpentine present here that have come down from Figueroa Mountain.  With the Rhone and Bordeaux varieties at Camp 4, there is an intense minerality present in the final wines that is distinct from Ballard Canyon to its west or Happy Canyon to its east.  In the red varieties in particular there is a gravelly textural presence that unifies the wines.

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In addition to their estate program for Kitá, Camp 4 sells fruit to around 60 different producers in the valley, many of whom vineyard designate the fruit or use it as the backbone for appellation bottlings.  Grenache Blanc has jumped out as a star as it has in many vineyards within the Los Olivos District.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc also find a voice in this site that is strikingly different from the very-close-by Happy Canyon.  “Cabernet Sauvignon is my baby,” states Gomez, and it shows in the details of the finished wine.  While Happy Canyon Cab has a tendency to be brawny and ultra-ripe, reminiscent of modern Napa Valley’s powerful renditions of the grape, Kitá’s take on Cab is finessed, with notes of pencil lead and cassis that are more reminiscent of France’s Medoc.  The sun-kissed character of California is still apparent, but with a great sense of balance and encouragement of non-fruit aromatics.

A graduate of CSU Fresno’s renowned viticulture & enology program, Gomez carefully blends science and intuition in her winemaking approach.  “I look at everything when I’m picking,” she says. “I like to pick for acidity, because I like that brightness, but we look at brix and pH, we look at flavors, and we often do several picks to find the various components that we want to achieve.”  This meticulous approach is present in the final wines.  Tasting through barrels with the winemaking team here was fascinating, as they were constantly questioning what they could do to improve a wine the following vintage, or how they could blend barrels to make a more complete wine.  “We try to be as true to the varietal as we can and deal with what we’re given.  Of course, we strive for lower alcohol, we like that brightness, that acidity.  We want age-ability.  And I don’t believe in doing a bunch of additions to correct a wine.”

tara winemaker kita

While a young label, Kitá is already making beautiful wines, and has a bright future ahead of it.  They are taking a special site to even greater heights through devoted farming, and they are striving at every step to make wines that will age and showcase place.  Tara Gomez is part of a great Santa Ynez Valley tradition of channeling the land that goes well beyond grapes, and ultimately, it is this love of a spiritual home that makes the deepest impression.


Kita 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Camp 4 Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley

Kita 2013 Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley

Another Green World: From Farm to Table with Buttonwood’s Karen Steinwachs

April 21, 2014

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“All of these wines are grown for the table.”  With this one sentence Karen Steinwachs sums up the philosophical core of Buttonwood.  A working farm as well as vineyard and winery, Buttonwood is centered on the idea that wine’s ultimate purpose is to shine at table, where it can spark conversation and communion with friends and family.  I spoke with Karen this week about her farming and winemaking approach, as well as the unique environment that is Buttonwood Farm.

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After years in the high-tech world, Steinwachs decided to leave the rat race and pursue a long-held dream of working in the wine industry.  An ardent fan of Santa Barbara County wines, she managed to secure a gig at Lincourt in the fall of 2001, working her way up from the bottom as a cellar rat.  “I kept talking to the winemaker about ways that the winery could be more efficient, because once you’ve been in management as long as I have been, it’s hard to drop that attitude.”  A great student, she quickly worked her way up the ranks of such notable wineries as Foley and Fiddlehead.  When the opportunity to take over as winemaker at Buttonwood arose in 2007, she jumped at the chance.

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“I was very familiar with Buttonwood from attending their many events.  I loved the concept of it being a farm as well as a vineyard.”  Aware of the fact that she was stepping into a winery with a style people were familiar with, she approached her first vintage with the goal of learning about the character of the fruit, vinifying every lot separately to gain knowledge about the site character.  Through this meticulous approach, she was able to see the strengths and needs of the vineyard, and has gradually brought her own style to the wines to accentuate the site’s best characteristics.  “There have been changes since I took over.  The wines are now a little more approachable while still being age-worthy.  We work a lot on tannin management, because I want to be able to enjoy the wines while I’m still alive.  We’ve also worked on bringing more freshness to the whites.”

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There is no recipe here; rather, the vagaries of the vintage are allowed to shine and adapted to.  “We approach every single wine differently and adjust from year to year as we fine tune the needs of each wine.  I grow 10 different grape varieties here, and we’ve sought to make the wines more distinct from each other and really give them their own voice.”  This experimentation and exploration extends to the vineyard, where new grape varieties have been planted in the name of making more complete wines.  “We’ve grafted some of our Merlot to Malbec and plan to plant some more.  And on the white side, we’ve grafted quite a bit of Grenache Blanc, which grows beautifully here.  I see it becoming a signature grape of the Los Olivos District AVA.”

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The soils at Buttonwood are mostly Santa Ynez series, part of the uniform Ballard-Positas-Santa Ynez series that defines the Los Olivos District, though there is some diatomaceous earth, serpentine and sand in pockets.  They also sit on the aquifer that is common throughout the AVA.  “We have a very big aquifer here, and a lot of the oldest vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley are in this part of the valley.  There are also a lot of own-rooted vines, and the roots here go incredibly deep.”  Much like Fred Brander, the architect of the Los Olivos District, Steinwachs feels the area is still defining itself, but has all the makings of a great AVA.  “It’s going to be a tough area to define because it truly is different than the other AVAs here.  Our defining factor is that our soils are totally uniform, unlike Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon.  I always get a minerality, which is a word that can be hard to define, but there is a rocky quality in our site that I find throughout the AVA.  The wines also tend to have great acidity, in part due to the big temperature shifts from day to night we have here.”

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Like many vineyards in the area, Buttonwood excels with several different Bordeaux and Rhone varieties.  However, Steinwachs sees two standouts in her work there thus far.  “I have to credit Chris Burroughs for the tagline ‘Blanc and Franc.’  Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc have been here since the beginning and grow beautifully.”  Even in cool years like 2010 or 2011, the Cabernet Franc here (as with all of their Bordeaux varieties) isn’t green or vegetal; rather, there is earth, cigar box, and raspberry fruit, with only a hint of pyrazine, an unmistakably Californian expression of the grape that has the balance and presence of great Bourgueil.  “Cabernet Franc is a fussy little diva, it’s like Pinot Noir.  You have to grow it perfectly or it throws a tantrum, you have to baby it in the cellar, but it makes great wines.  We do focus on leaf pulling and shoot thinning in the vineyard to avoid that green character, but generally we don’t find that bell pepper character from this site.”

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The farming at Buttonwood is some of the most thoughtful in the Valley.  While it incorporates elements of organics and biodynamics, it is most reminiscent to me of Japanese iconoclast Masanobu Fukuoka’s philosophy, adapting to the natural needs and environment of the site.  “We say that we’re farming ‘biologically.’  We don’t use any synthetic herbicides or insecticides,” says Steinwachs.  “Our theory is that if we keep the plants healthy and maintain a diverse environment, they’ll protect themselves.  Philosophically, we’ve really got our own way of farming, which is organically minded, self-contained, and focusing intensely on what nutrients the soil may need.  We’re constantly testing the soil to see how we can address the needs of our plants.”  As her friend and fellow winemaker Nick De Luca (a proponent of Fukuoka-inspired farming) says, “terroir is an unplanted field,” and in this sense, the farming at Buttonwood seems geared towards capturing the essence of the land as accurately and naturally as possible.

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Buttonwood Vineyard and Farm looks and feels very much like old school California.  Yet it also points the way to what the vineyard of California’s future will likely look like: wider spacing to address our growing water issues; cover crops growing wild; polyculture, with fruits and vegetables growing alongside grapes; in essence, a self-contained ecosystem where the farming adapts to the needs of the place rather than dogmatically following a prescribed set of rules.  “It’s not about me as a winemaker,” says Steinwachs.  “We farm for deliciousness, whether that’s tomatoes or wine.  We love the fact that people are coming back to the table.  It’s not just the eating and drinking, it’s the communal aspect of people getting together.  And that’s what Buttonwood is about.”

Purchase Buttonwood’s beautiful Sauvignon Blanc

Free of Distortions: A Tasting of the Oft-Maligned 2011 California Pinot Noir Vintage

April 14, 2014

Discussing vintages is a tricky thing.  It’s all too easy to let the generalizations of a handful of critics define something which, by its nature, requires nuance.  California’s 2011 vintage is a perfect example.  A challenging year in terms of weather- frost, rain, and atypically cool weather that never really warmed up- it has been panned by many of the mainstream wine media, citing what they perceive as wines lacking in concentration, shrill and weedy in their structure and flavor profile.  Having tasted hundreds of ‘11s from the state, particularly from the Central Coast, over the past couple of years, I must emphatically disagree; on the contrary, I have found the wines to possess a freshness and structure rarely achievable in California, with plenty of fruit and concentration to boot.  I wanted to assess this further with others in a blind format, so I set about organizing a tasting of 2011 California Pinot Noir wines from throughout the state.  The event took place this past Saturday, with many winemakers and sommeliers in attendance to join in the analysis (and reveling).

Tasting wines with winemakers blind, especially when they know their own wines are in the mix, makes for a fascinating study in human behavior.  The flow of ideas seems to coincide with the flowing of wine; the fear of offending others or speaking freely about a wine’s attributes and flaws doesn’t seem to subside until liquid courage has opened the mind and the mouth.  Knowing this, we prefaced the Pinot tasting with several whites from 2011 to loosen the room.  Again, the freshness of the vintage spoke loud and clear, from Viognier to Chardonnay, with minerality and acidity unified with fruit.

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On to the Pinot tasting, seventeen wines were tasted in total, single blind, with wines brought by the various guests.  To give context to the personal biases of myself, as well as those in attendance, palates in general leaned toward wines with an Old World sense of balance: lower alcohol, higher acid, and a desire for spice, earth, and floral character over fruit.  As a vintage, 2011, given its quasi-European weather, definitely encouraged and allowed for these characteristics in the wine.  That being said, I was surprised at the amount of ripeness present.  While many critics have maligned the vintage for its lack of heft, there was certainly not a lack of richness, even in the earlier-picked examples.  Perhaps these wines have gained body with age, as upon release there was a tightly coiled character to 2011.

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One of the most significant factors with 2011 is that it was one of the first vintages where a major shift in terms of ripeness was present.  While this was certainly helped along by the vintage, it was mostly a stylistic choice.  Across the board alcohols were lower in a year where, despite the relative cool, it was still possible to achieve 15 or 16% alcohol in Pinot Noir.  It brought up a question that hasn’t been heard in regards to Californian wine in quite a long time: when is a wine not ripe enough?  Without a doubt there was wine present here that may have been picked too early.  In the same way an ultra-ripe wine can have a one-note character, some of these had a simplicity to them that made for a rather dull drinking experience.  There were also a few examples where producers utilized high percentages of whole-cluster (stem inclusion), a practice I’m typically quite fond of, that came off as green and overtly vegetal.  In general, the wines that really stood out were those that accented the best characteristics of the vintage and captured not only their vineyards, but their own sense of style and artistic interpretation of the year.

There were 3 consensus favorites among the group, all of which are great examples of site-driven Pinot Noir.  Jamie Kutch’s Sonoma Coast bottling under his Kutch label was gorgeous, and many thought reminiscent of old-school Santa Maria Valley Pinot.  With 25% whole cluster, 30% new oak and just 12.8% alcohol, all of its elements were perfectly in balance, its notes of rhubarb, underbrush, and sea shell making for a compelling, mineral wine.  Ryan Deovlet’s eponymous label rendered one of the best examples of Bien Nacido I’ve tasted.  Sourced from both old vines and newer plantings within this iconic site, it was classic Bien Nacido in its aromas and flavors of blood orange and black pepper, with a textural depth rarely found outside of Burgundy.  Last but not least, everyone loved Luceant’s 2011 Laetitia Vineyard Reserve bottling.  Seeing the most whole cluster and the most new oak of the 3 (50% of both), this was overflowing with spice, though again, all the elements were in balance.  This showed the power and pedigree of the Laetitia site, with forest floor, clove, and blackberry.

One of the marks of a great wine region is its willingness to periodically assess itself in an honest way.  I take a lot of pride in the fact that tastings like these are constantly happening in our area, often with winemakers pitting their wines against examples from the old world or from other local producers.  There is a desire to elevate not only their wines, but the region as a whole, a trait that I hope we continue to encourage.  What tastings like these continually assert to me is that these are wines that can play comfortably on the world stage, and that are only getting better.

 

The full lineup of wines tasted in no particular order, all 2011:
– Luceant, Laetitia Vineyard Reserve, Arroyo Grande Valley
– Kosta Browne, Russian River Valley
– Kita, Hilliard Bruce Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Presqu’ile, Estate, Santa Maria Valley
– Tantara, Lindsey’s Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Tantara, Corral, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
– Labyrinth, Sta. Rita Hills
– Siduri, Sta. Rita Hills
Paul Lato, Wenzlau Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Kutch, Sonoma Coast
– Deovlet, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
– Tyler, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
– Hirsch, San Andreas Fault, Estate, Sonoma Coast
– Longoria, Fe Ciega Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills
J. Brix, Kick On Ranch, Santa Barbara County
– Qupe, Saywer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley

 

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