I’m fortunate that I am in a position to taste some amazing wines from around the world on a regular basis. As a result of this, when I assess wines from our area (or any area for that matter), I compare them not just with their local peers, but with my personal benchmarks for great wine on a global scale. Santa Barbara County, I am proud to say, is making the best wines in its history, and it only seems to be getting better. I am consistently pleased and excited by what is coming out of our little corner of the world. Every now and then, however, I taste something that goes a bit deeper, that burrows into my mind and truly blows me away, forcing me to recalibrate the way I view a particular grape variety. This past week I had that experience with the Zinfandel of Eric Bolton.
A graduate of CSU Fresno, Bolton has vast knowledge of the science of winemaking. Yet he is not a mad scientist in the winery; rather, he prefers to focus on bringing in healthy, balanced fruit from properly farmed sites and let it do its thing. Fermentations happen with native yeast, and there are no additions beyond sulfur. Bolton first gained acclaim as head of the winemaking team for the Ambullneo (now known as Greg Linn) label. While these have flown somewhat under the radar locally, they are stunning expressions of Pinot Noir: lots of whole-cluster, alcohols in the high 12s to mid 13s, an incredible array of floral and spice aromatics, and great longevity. 2013 marked Bolton’s first year stepping out on his own, making just around 40 cases of Zinfandel.
“The vineyard source is Tres Niños, right across the street from DePaola Vineyard near Lake Lopez in Arroyo Grande. It’s a rocky clay loam,” Bolton states matter-of-factly. (Okay, so technically we’re in San Luis Obispo County here, but Bolton is making his wine in Santa Maria and he is the essence of SB County’s spirit through and through). Despite being picked quite late in the season, the fruit was just barely/perfectly ripe, clocking in around 13% alcohol, almost unheard-of for modern Zinfandel. Bolton also embraced Zin’s textural resemblance to other thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Grenache and fermented the grapes 50% whole-cluster, a somewhat atypical decision that proved wise. Nick de Luca of Ground Effect recently did the same with his Zinfandel out of Paso Robles and the results were equally stunning. “You don’t really pick up the whole-cluster much now other than texturally. It’s really shifted a lot in barrel,” says Bolton.
The Arroyo Grande Valley may be one of the most underrated locations in the state for great Zinfandel. Colder than many of Zin’s more fashionable locales, yet warm enough to ripen Zinfandel to extreme levels should one choose to do so, it is a perfect spot for more classically balanced Zin. Saucelito Canyon has long produced legendary wines from their estate here, particularly their small parcel of vines dating back to the 1800s. Bolton’s rendition, however, is without comparison. Opening with classic varietal notes of peach and brambly red fruits, it unfolds to more exotic aromatics of wet gravel, white pepper, and violets. Texturally, the whole cluster provides precision and a lithe presence, with an intensely mineral finish reminiscent of chalk. To find Zinfandel in this style, one would have to go back to the early iconoclasts, such as Ridge and Joseph Swan. “I have to say Ridge would be the biggest inspiration,” smiles Bolton. “Those Zins they made in the ‘90s were great. I had an ’87 in 2006 and it was a wonderful wine, still going strong. I also worked with Michael Dashe and liked what he was doing; he’s certainly an inspiration as well.”
Bolton will continue to make this wine in 2014, and hopes to add Sangiovese to his roster in the near future. “I would love to do something that could stand head to head with great Brunello, but I have to find the perfect source,” Bolton says. Given the beautiful wines he’s crafted thus far, I have no doubt that he could do great things with a grape that has perplexed many of California’s best. For now, I’ll be grabbing all I can of his Zinfandel, as it is a singular wine of inspiration and place, and a new favorite.
In the Old World, farming grapevines without irrigation is the standard. Even on the Greek island of Santorini, which averages just 3-4 inches of rainfall per year, the vines are, miraculously, not irrigated. By comparison, Santa Barbara County’s average of 12 inches per year sounds like a deluge. Yet the vast majorities of vineyards in our area, as well as the rest of California, are irrigated. While grapevines require less water than many crops, the issue of water conservation in the vineyard is one that will need to be addressed more seriously in the coming years as our drought events become more frequent and extreme. This week I spoke with two of Santa Barbara County’s dry farming practitioners, Bill Wathen of Foxen and Peter Stolpman of Stolpman, about how they manage the challenges of dry farming and the character of the resulting wines.
The growing conditions at these two sites are strikingly different. At Stolpman Vineyards, in the heart of Ballard Canyon, “we are blessed to sit on a 3 foot layer of moisture and nutrient retaining clay with a 300ft deep slab of limestone beneath,” says Stolpman. “Not only does the clay retain moisture, but it also retains the cold temperatures of the night. The clay makes our land even better suited to dry-farming, as the impact of day-time heat is lessened.” Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard, on the other hand, has much more challenging conditions, with a lot of sand, a soil whose extremely well-draining nature poses one of the greatest challenges for dry farming in Santa Barbara County. “The soil profile at Tinaquaic is a little magical, as in I don’t know how these vines do it every year with only annual rainfall,” states Wathen. “It is a deep sandy loam, unsure of the Series (ed. Note: the USDA soil map says it’s Arnold Sand), with pockets of Careaga sand. In years of normal rainfall the vine canopy can be quite aggressive, so there is a lot of retention. We generally average 2 to 3 tons per acre (3-4 pounds per vine) yields historically.” Amazingly, even in these difficult growing conditions, Wathen is able to get sustainable yields and make it work without water.
Spacing in vineyards where the goal is dry farming is an important factor. When one observes California’s historical vineyard plantings pre-1960s, which were essentially all dry farmed, spacing was very wide, and the vines were often untrellised. As modern farming has looked to top sites in the Old World such as Burgundy and their farming practices for inspiration, California’s vineyards have moved to much tighter spacing, often as tight as meter by meter, occasionally even closer. This poses much greater hurdles for dry farming as the competition for water increases. Stolpman, who has variable spacing on his property, believes that the type of trellis is just as important as the spacing. “Our spacing ranges from 10×5 to 3×3 in the vineyard. The 10×5 blocks certainly adapt the best to dry farming, but we’ve also seen positive results in our 3×3 block,” he says. “Key with the tightest spaced blocks is head-pruning and not expecting much yield per vine. The jury is still out regarding our conventional 3×6 blocks where the six foot rows allow us to trellis the vines. These vines are set up to carry more canopy and more clusters than the tighter head-pruned blocks.”
Wathen’s property has more space between vines, though he believes going even wider from the get go may have been more advantageous. “When Dick (Doré) and I planted Tinaquaic in 1989, we really didn’t think through the irrigation issue. We planted what was high density at the time (8X4), and assumed that water grew on trees here at the ranch,” Wathen states. “We were able to give each vine 1 gallon of water every 10 days through the first two growing seasons. After that, they seemed fine without water, so we changed strategy. Ideally, yet after the fact, we should have gone on a 10X10 or 12X12 planting without a trellis, enabling us to cross cultivate.”
Both sites utilize cover crops, and are very cognizant of the timing in planting and plowing. “We plant cover crop every year for erosion control and green manure,” says Wathen. “The cycle here goes 1) disc and plant cover crop after harvest. 2) Disc the cover crop under early to late spring, depending on the annual precipitation that year; dry years earlier, wet years later. 3) Disc and roll a few times late spring to seal the surface.”
With 3 years of drought, culminating in 2014’s extremely dry conditions, farming adjustments have been made at both sites to make dry farming possible. “We have elongated the weaning periods for younger vines,” Stolpman says. “This year for instance, we gave all of the vines 12 years and under an overnight drink once in January and February to imitate normal rainfall. We gave the very young vines another drink in April and early May. We only irrigate during root days and from our own measurements know that water goes 8-12 inches deeper into the Limestone with less Lunar gravity.” Wathen has also had to shift his approach. “This year has been extremely challenging balancing the canopy,” emphasizes Wathen. “You always need to be thinking about next year. Adjustment farming is the key. The rule of thumb is >20 inch shoot, 2 clusters. 12-20 inch shoot, 1 cluster. Less than 12 inch shoot, 0 clusters.”
So, is the character of dry farmed vines detectable in the glass? Wathen and Stolpman have different opinions on the subject. “We find we get a natural balance from dry-farmed vineyards as the vines regulate themselves,” says Stolpman. “Because of the lack of water, the vines want to go dormant in the fall, and we try to pick while the vine is on its last breath, giving us a perfectly ripe crop. Irrigated vines will continue green and happy, with no sense of the seasons, and winemakers may choose to pick much later at higher sugars.” Wathen has a different take. “I really have not seen any difference in ripening curves vs. irrigated fruit. Believe me though, if I had the water, I would irrigate.”
As a lover and seeker of site character in wine, the issue of dry farming is one I’m passionate about. There is a representation of vintage and place in these wines that can’t be denied. While I love many, many wines that come from irrigated vines, most of whom are also managing their water use meticulously, there is a truth in wines from completely dry farmed fruit that seems to set itself apart. “Balanced vines give balanced wines. Dry farming allows the vineyard to give a truer expression of itself rather than the more modern, homogenous approach of irrigating, green-dropping, and picking late,” emphasizes Stolpman. And when one tastes a bottle of Stolpman’s “Originals” Syrah or Foxen’s Tinaquaic Vineyard Cabernet Franc, it’s hard to argue this statement. I hope that the conversation about dry farming becomes a more prominent one in Santa Barbara County’s future, and that we can have an open dialogue about how water, or the lack thereof, will define our future as a wine culture.
I was a teenage indie rock obsessive. As such, I embraced the genre’s most lo-fi practitioners, particularly Guided By Voices. Their best works, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, are laden with tape hiss, false starts, songs that stop abruptly and cut into other songs, and a generally shambolic aesthetic; rather than trying to mask the economic shortcomings of their recording devices, they celebrated them, creating a whole universe that felt like a direct line from their bedroom to mine. In the past few years, a handful of vintners in California have taken an analogous approach in their winemaking and farming, creating soulful wines despite their shoestring budgets. Associated most closely with the natural wine movement, these are analog wines for a digital era, looking back to go forward. Mike Roth, formerly of Martian Ranch and now launching his own project, the aptly named Lo-Fi, has been at the forefront of this movement in Santa Barbara County. I met with him this week in the record-high heat at his new estate vineyard in Los Alamos to discuss the future and taste his first releases.
“So this is the Mullet,” declares Roth. “Business on the front slope, party on the back.” Roth’s vineyard name befits the nature of his new venture. While the approach and technique are quite serious and methodical, the project is meant to be fun and accessible, “wines for the proletariat” as Roth likes to refer to it. Planted just a few weeks ago, the vineyard was created using solely recycled materials from other local vineyards, installed by Roth with the help of friends and family. The steeper, southwest-facing front slope is planted to Gamay, while the gentler back slope is Cabernet Franc, unique varietal choices that have shown early promise in Los Alamos at other sites.
Roth gained notoriety at Martian for his idiosyncratic approach to farming, carrying heavy crop loads early on and dropping fruit late to offset our area’s tendency toward fall heat spikes, allowing for ripe fruit at low brix and in turn, lower alcohols. He plans to farm his estate in a similar fashion, with an approach that embraces the natural ecosystem as much as possible. “Farming here will be organic, though I’d really prefer to avoid any additions for the most part.” The soils at Mullet, like most of Alisos Canyon just east of here, are Chamise shale loam. These acidic shale-based soils, which contain a fair amount of clay, have shown great promise for Cabernet Franc in particular at sites such as Thompson and Martian. “Planting here is meter by meter. I hope to eventually dry farm it, there’s enough clay here that I think it could work,” states Roth.
Roth’s first release under the Lo-Fi label is as much a mission statement as a wine. Sourced from the organically farmed Coquelicot Vineyard near the Santa Ynez River, it is 100% Cabernet Franc, fermented with native yeasts, aged in neutral vessels, made entirely without the use of sulfur. Philosophically, it encapsulates everything Roth is about. “It definitely has a bit of a Bourgueil thing going on,” proudly states Roth. He is referencing one of the Loire Valley’s great Cabernet Franc regions, and while I see a family resemblance, I find his rendition under Lo-Fi to be distinctly Santa Ynez. Its generosity of fruit and texture are unmistakably California, and the herbal and spice nuances, which range from fresh tobacco and roasted tomato to exotic notes of Oaxacan mole negro and wild sage, aren’t found outside of this area. There is a similarity to other local practitioners working in an early-picked style- Lieu Dit, Roark, and Buttonwood– though the soulfulness of Roth’s take is his own.
While it is still early going for Roth’s new projects, I anticipate the future for his label and his vineyard highly, with forthcoming releases of Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Gamay to fill out his portfolio. He is an artist working in the medium of grapes, following a vision that does not adhere to trends. As he dives into this new work, unencumbered by the expectations of others, I’m reminded of a classic Guided By Voices lyric: “Watch me jumpstart as the old skin is peeled See an opening and bust into the field Hidden longings no longer concealed”
Journey just past the Santa Ynez River, into the hills off of Refugio Road, up a steep gravel driveway, and you will be greeted by the spectacular vistas of Refugio Ranch. Rising dramatically into the Santa Ynez Mountains, this 415 acre ranch is a sprawling piece of property, comprised mostly of open spaces; just 27 acres are currently planted. I met with Ryan Deovlet, Refugio Ranch’s contemplative winemaker, on an overcast Monday to explore the intricacies of this special site.
We climbed into the ranch’s Polaris, and went zooming up a precipitous hill. Rounding a bend, I was greeted by a tiny block of Syrah. “This is the Escondido (hidden) block, Clone 383, which is a little bit compromised by daylight hours.” Tucked way back into a canyon on the ranch, one can understand both the name and the challenges of ripening in this spot. “Because of the shadowing in this block we lose a couple hours of sunlight compared to the rest of the ranch. It tends to be a little more red fruit, with a lot of the carpaccio, pepper, meaty character. It actually inspired me to create a second red wine blend because it is so distinct from our other blocks.”
In talking with Deovlet, I quickly saw his desire to grow with the Ranch, willing to abandon previously held ideas or techniques if it meant better expressing a sense of place. “I have total autonomy, but it’s a collaboration between all of us, Niki and Kevin Gleason (the Ranch’s owners), Ruben Solorzano, (of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates), and myself. We’ll pull corks together and talk about the direction of the property and evaluate what we’re doing. With these small lots, you take a risk sometimes and it doesn’t always work. But for the most part, things are working out and they’re putting their trust in me and giving me autonomy.”
The farming here is essentially organic, though there aren’t currently plans to pursue certification. Like many properties I’ve visited in the valley recently, I was impressed by the diverse ecosystem they’ve preserved and nurtured here and how they’ve adapted to the unique needs of the site. “Kevin and Niki were cognizant of what they had here. It’s a nice, cool sanctuary,” says Deovlet. “They were very conscientious of where to plant and how to preserve the natural terrain. It still has a raw, wild feel.”
The diversity of the Ranch also applies to their choice of plantings: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, and Malvasia Bianca for the whites; Syrah, Grenache, a recent addition of Sangiovese, and Petite Sirah for the reds. Deovlet also plans for some new additions, perhaps Picpoul or Bourboulenc to bring more acid and minerality to the whites, as well as some Grenache planted in their sandier river blocks. One of the most intriguing varieties on the property is Malvasia Bianca. Deovlet crafts a beautiful Spring white from this fruit, with a touch of residual sugar, a hint of spritz, and great acid, balancing the minerality of the Ranch with an easy-going exuberance.
Speaking of minerality, the soils here are some of the most exciting I have seen in Santa Barbara County. Black and lunar-like, with lots of rocky topsoil, it’s a clay loam with mudstone in its origins, quite different from the soils of the Los Olivos District AVA that stops just north of here. “It’s organic, heavy earth, alluvial mountain runoff all captured within this little bowl we have here,” states Deovlet. “We have great water retention. The goal is to eventually dry farm everything, which we’ve been working with Ruben on.” While these are mostly sedimentary soils, there is a bit of igneous material in their Petite Sirah in the form of granite, perhaps helping to explain why this grape expresses itself in such a singular way here.
“The Petite, for me, sort of serves as our Mourvedre, bringing a little more structure and putting a California twist on a Southern Rhone-inspired blend,” states Deovlet. He and Ruben are also exploring a new farming technique, using a crossbar to spread the canopy in the fruiting zone on the Petite, with the goal of giving the fruit longer hang time while preventing issues with rot or mildew. “We have to be very focused on canopy balance and low yields, with the intention that we can get all the fruit off before we hit the late October rains. In ’09 and ’10 we had those storms come through before we got everything in and we learned some hard lessons. That being said, if low yields over and over and over again mean the project never gets into the black, that project isn’t sustainable. There has to be a balance in the farming.”
Deovlet and Solorzano have had to make some big strides very quickly in approaching the farming at the Ranch as the growing conditions are so particular. “We haven’t had the most consistent of vintages, so we’ve had to learn on the fly. I’m blessed to be working with Ruben; everyone calls him the grape whisperer, and it’s true, he’s very intuitive in his approach.” While Deovlet initially had some concerns with the slightly higher pHs/lower acids the site was giving him, he’s learned to accept them, particularly after speaking to old world winemakers like Chave who see similar numbers. In place of acid, the structure of Refugio Ranch comes from tannin. “When I’m pulling fruit, it might be 25 or 26 Brix. At those numbers, we see that ideal tannin development, and at this site the vine isn’t starting to shut down.”
When the subject of Chave, one of the great iconoclcasts of the Northern Rhone, arose, I asked if Deovlet still saw the Old World as his benchmark. He thoughtfully replied, “I’m certainly inspired by the Old World, and you do find some of those aromatic markers here. That being said, I like to have a foot in the Old World and a foot in the New. I certainly take some ideas and inspiration, but we have this California sunshine, and these unique growing conditions, and I want to create something that speaks to the character of the Ranch.” To that end, the project is expanding their lineup of wines based around what the vineyard has shown them thus far, from 3 different bottlings to 8. While this may initially present challenges from a sales standpoint, their motivations are solely quality-driven. “It’s not diluted in moving from 3 wines to 8; it’s the opposite, it’s listening to the vineyard and fine tuning our style,” emphasizes Deovlet. “We’re making great strides in learning to understand the property, and how distinct it is.”
For such a young property, Refugio Ranch has made incredible leaps in quality very quickly, due in no small part to the passionate team in place. “The Ranch, generally speaking, has been a beautifully organic evolution to learn, block by block, how to approach viticulture from a very individualistic approach, and the same in the cellar,” says Deovlet. “I think that process has kept us in tune and taught us to listen to the wine. The ultimate question is, stylistically, are we doing justice to this property? They’re coming out of the gate delivering pleasure, and I think and hope they’re going to age as well.” Their current lineup indicates that they are indeed listening intently to the voice of this place, and I expect it to become ever more clear and distinct in the coming years.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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 Noirs 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
If you think most winemakers are obsessed with soil, try hanging out with one who’s a former geologist. Michael Larner shifted his career path from studying rocks to expressing their presence through wine and hasn’t looked back. From the labels to the winemaking philosophy, the wines of Larner are driven by a devotion to expression of the earth, and there’s a palpable passion for place in every bottle. I took a trip to Larner Vineyard with Michael this past week and was amazed by the dedicated farming and incredible geology of this special place.
Located in the southern end of the new Ballard Canyon AVA, the vineyard was planted in 1999 and 2000, and currently has just 34 acres of grapevines. The geological jumble at Larner would make any soil geek salivate. In the upper hills one finds bits of the rocky Paso Robles conglomerate; there are chunks of Careaga sandstone, chert, and quartz; Marina sand overlays much of the property (“We have a running joke that we should have started a business selling playbox sand before we started the vineyard,” says Larner); and underlying everything is chalk- Larner’s defining soil. Unlike the northern half of Ballard Canyon, which has harder limestone, Larner sits on a bed of very friable, and thus easily exchangeable, chalk. I was somewhat surprised to find that the soils here, despite their chalkiness, are actually quite acidic, much like the acidic granite of the Northern Rhone. “Our soil pH is around 4.5, though we chose to focus on rootstocks to address that issue rather than amend it with something like gypsum.” In general, Larner’s approach to farming has focused on a natural approach and finding ways to let the vineyard most clearly express itself. They have been farming organically for several years as well, and are wrapping up the official certification process.
Like most of Ballard Canyon, Larner excels with several different Rhone varieties, along with a guest appearance by some delicious Malvasia Bianca, but the shining star is Syrah. The Ballard Canyon Winegrowers are even taking the unique step of creating a cartouche bottle for estate-grown Syrahs from the region, along the lines of what one might see in Barolo. “We’ve planted 7 different clones of Syrah, which allows us to get multiple expressions of Syrah from one site,” says Larner. “Our idea was never to put 20 acres of one clone and one rootstock; we wanted diversity.” This clonal diversity has also allowed Larner to observe the flavors imparted by the site separate from those imparted by clone. “To me, the thread has always been that minerality. I call it flint, and there is a lot of flint and chert here,” says Larner. “There’s also a chocolate note, different from oak-derived chocolate aromatics, reminiscent of cacao.”
The vineyard initially came to fame through the fruit it sold to small producers. “By definition, the clonal diversity meant that we needed to find smaller producers to buy the fruit. We couldn’t provide 20 tons that would ripen at once for a larger brand,” says Larner. “As a result, these smaller guys started branding the vineyard, and really distinguishing the site in the eyes of critics and the public.” While the Larner estate program has grown, Larner’s focus is still on the clients who made the site’s reputation. “People often think we’d be taking the best fruit for ourselves, but we always make sure our clients get what they want first and farm it to their specifications. We actually end up with what they don’t want.” The list of winemakers who purchase fruit here reads like a who’s who of Santa Barbara County: Paul Lato, Jaffurs, Herman Story, Kunin, Tercero, Palmina, Bonaccorsi, Kaena, Transcendence, McPrice Myers– and that’s not even the whole lineup!
The winemakers who purchase Larner fruit speak of the site, and its farming, as though it were a top lieu-dit in the Rhone Valley. “Michael really wants his clients’ wines to be great,” says Craig Jaffurs, owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellars. “I think he takes our wine as a personal reflection. Because of this, he’ll go above and beyond the call of duty to get our grapes farmed, picked, and delivered. In 2010, a cool, tough harvest year, Michael offered to pick our grapes in sub-lots so we could maximize our quality.”
The wines from Larner Vineyard, across producers, are fascinating in their structure. In my experience the wines need a few years in bottle to really strut their stuff, striking that perfect balance between minerality, spice, and fruit. It is also a vineyard that seems to favor picking at relatively restrained ripeness levels. “Larner shows its best at moderate sugar levels, not at the extremes,” says Larry Schaffer of Tercero. “If you pick too early, the naturally higher acid in the grapes will be too prominent, as will the higher than normal tannins. If you pick too late, the verve that the vineyard brings because of the sandy soil does not translate into the grapes.” As a result, there is a beautiful balance here between muscular structure and delicate aromatics. “It produces a wine with rich but not heavy fruit and moderate tannins,” says Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. “In a blend it is the mid-range, filling in all of the gaps that may have been left by more high-toned or darker, more tannic fruit. On its own, in the best vintages, it shows earthy, smoked meat aromas along with the fruit, and has admirable length, considering that it still doesn’t come across as overtly tannic.”
In addition to the huge soil influence, climate is a major factor here, as the vineyard occupies a cooler microclimate than most of the AVA. “It seems to stay much cooler than other parts of Ballard Canyon and therefore things tend to move along much slower there,” says Schaffer. “Bud break tends to be later and grapes just seem to take their pretty little time.” Jaffurs agrees, attributing the quality of this site’s other star grape, Grenache, to this more moderate climate. “Ballard Canyon, and his spot in particular, are in that sweet spot between the really cool marine influences of Lompoc and the warmer Santa Ynez spots. He could have the best Grenache site in Santa Barbara County.”
Larner Vineyard is one of the most thrilling sites in a region filled with them (Jonata, Stolpman, and Purisima Mountain just to name a few). The passion of Michael Larner, and his desire to elevate not only his vineyard, but Ballard Canyon and Santa Barbara County as a whole, is readily apparent. “One of the things I look for in a vineyard other than site is an ‘impassioned grower.’ Michael certainly fits the bill,” says Jaffurs. “He loves his vineyard like he loves his family. He is hard working and committed, and always in good humor, even when things are tough.” Kunin echoes these sentiments, saying “This business is one built on relationships – both in the marketplace and in the vineyard – and I am happy to have a lengthy and fruitful (no pun intended) one with the Larner family.” This family oriented, hands-on, untiring spirit is the essence of what makes our area so special. And ultimately, it is these intangible factors that give Larner Vineyard that little something extra.
Starting a winery in the New World, especially California, can be a daunting financial prospect. Unless one is already wealthy from another career, making even 100 cases can be an economic challenge. And if you’re a young cellar rat on a tight budget, it takes real perseverance, scrounging every available penny to pursue your dream. Rick Hill is a winemaker who did just that. A New Zealand native, Hill took a circuitous route to achieve his goals. “In the early ‘80s in New Zealand, there really wasn’t an opportunity to find a career path in wine. It was all small mom and pop operations that couldn’t afford employees, and I figured I needed a way to make money to create a path for my interests in winemaking,” says Hill. “So, I actually ended up in the milk and fruit juice industries, which I had a background in, and traveled the world doing that and building up capital.”
Through his travels Hill came upon an internship opportunity with Simi Winery in Napa in 1997. Hearing of his love for Pinot, the crew there suggested he head down to Santa Barbara County instead, where he landed a gig at the renowned Central Coast Wine Services (CCWS) as a cellar rat. “My job would be anything from picking up pizzas at 4 in the morning to doing 4 punchdowns a day at a winemaker’s whim, and by ingratiating myself to them they gave me a lot of trust. Many young winemakers feel the need to jump around every year, work a vintage in Tuscany, then Argentina, etc., but when the harvest ended, I felt I’d really found my own little niche here and wanted to stay.” Though still splitting his time between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, he committed to returning each year to CCWS to work harvest.
Rick’s fourth vintage in the area (2000) saw a fortuitous event that would forever alter his winemaking path. One of CCWS’s main clients, Lane Tanner, injured her knee and needed a full time assistant. “She said, ‘look, I don’t have a lot of money to offer you, but if you work exclusively for me, I will give you two tons of any grapes that I have sources from,’ and I thought, ‘perfect.’” Those two tons, which would come from the venerable Bien Nacido Vineyard, were the birth of the Labyrinth label. This was also the beginning of a relationship that would blossom from a close friendship into a romance. In 2004, after dating for a few years, Rick and Lane decided to marry, turning Hill into a full time Central Coast resident. “My plan was a 2 year transition; hers was immediately, so I moved within 6 months to the U.S. full time.”
Hill’s approach in the cellar and resultant wines speak to a love of Burgundy. Elegant, with an emphasis on spice and structure over fruit, they are the essence of great California Pinot Noir. “Essentially, for anyone growing up in New Zealand, we didn’t have much in the way of local wine or other New World wine available, so European wines were the benchmark, and for me in particular it was about Burgundy,” says Hill. “Those early years of drinking Old World wines that shunned high alcohol and lots of new oak really laid the foundation for my winemaking philosophy.” Hill utilizes a variable approach in his assessment of when to pick, relying on numbers, flavors, and instinct honed over years. “You’re looking for that point in time when there’s no herbaceous flavor in Pinot, particularly if you’re doing whole-cluster.” He finds the ideal flavor profile in the fruit when picking to be along the line of cranberry or pomegranate with a hint of black cherry. “I want to avoid those darker flavors, the blackberry and prune. That’s just Shiraz in drag.”
Hill’s sister label, Haka (a Maori war cry, honoring his Maori heritage and connoting power or boldness), was born out of the economic turmoil caused by the recession. As with his winemaking approach, he is very forthcoming about the economic realities and challenges of being a small producer. “When the economy tanked, from 2007 to 2011, people stopped buying most of those high end Pinots. I didn’t want to destroy the Labyrinth brand by discounting, because people have long memories when it comes to pricing, so I founded Haka as a way to bring value-driven wines, as well as a different varietal focus, into the marketplace.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and through his Haka label he has found a new niche through his exploration of Tempranillo. “I’ve been passionate about Tempranillo since the New Zealand days when the early imports first came into the country. You can pick it early and get those nice sinewy tannins and dried cherry, you can pick it late and get more of the black licorice and coffee grounds; for Haka, it’s really my benchmark wine.” He has explored, and is still exploring, numerous interpretations of the grape, picking at different ripeness levels, utilizing both French and American oak, and working with sites in warm-climate Paso Robles and cooler sites in Los Alamos. His ‘12s and ‘13s out of barrel are some of the most exciting expressions of the grape I’ve yet tried from our state, matching the power and minerality of Toro with a uniquely Californian presence of fruit.
After a brief hiatus, the Labyrinth label bounced back in a big way with the 2012 and 2013 harvests. Working with new vineyard sources in Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, there’s renewed vigor in Hill’s Pinot program. While the Haka label has allowed him to work with more powerful grape varieties and a slightly riper style of winemaking, his Labyrinth Pinots are still classically balanced, site-driven, and filled with notes of earth and spice. He also chooses to work with only one cooper, Alain Fouquet, for his Pinots, a decision he believes helps communicate the differences between sites more clearly. “If I start utilizing different coopers, it’s like ‘where is that change coming from? Is it the site, is it the picking, is it the oak?’ I really want those vineyard differences to be apparent, and for my style to stay consistent, which is why I stick with one cooper.” Lovers of California Pinot with a Burgundian sensibility should keep an eye out for the release of his 2012s later in the year.
There is an intuitive nature to Hill’s winemaking that can be tasted and felt throughout his entire program. It is an approach he describes as “habitual practices but no fixed rules.” While there is a desire for consistency of quality and a certain sense of style, the vagaries of vintage are adapted to and allowed to speak, making for wines that beautifully marry time and place with a sense of self. In these wines one tastes the ebullience of a young cellar rat from New Zealand, whose desire to express himself through wine has only grown with time.
In the heart of Santa Barbara Wine Country, we are the premier wine merchant for California Central Coast wines, from Santa Barbara County to Monterey County, with select vintages from other areas of California’s Wine Country and noteworthy wines from around the world.