Prior to my life in the wine business, I worked for a small record label based in Los Angeles called Plug Research. Operating an independent record label, and putting together a roster of artists that reflect a forward-thinking curator, is in many ways like creating a winery: the vineyards you work with are your artists, and your role in the cellar functions much like that of a producer, guiding your artists to their highest expression without losing the essence of what makes them special. David DeLaski, a veteran of the Los Angeles music scene, understands this concept better than anyone, as reflected in the beautiful wines he is making alongside his wife Anna under their new label, Solminer. I met the two of them at their vineyard and home in Los Olivos this past week to discuss life after the music business, organic farming, and winemaking with an eye toward the natural.
“Music is something you can get deeper and deeper into, with a great community, and there’s a bit of an obsession there,” says David DeLaski. “There are a lot of parallels with wine in that sense.” As both winemakers and musicians can attest, there is an all-consuming quality to these passions; once you’ve got the bug, you can think of nothing else. “I came to wine through my dad,” recalls David. “He was a businessman who enjoyed wine and so I got exposed to it at a very young age. I don’t have a cellar of old dusty bottles, though. I never became a big wine collector; wine was never a huge part of life until all this, until we started making wine. Some people are big collectors of music, but I was never an obsessive record collector; I loved to create it.”
Solminer did not begin with the grand ambitions of becoming the next cult winery or building a 10,000 case brand. Rather, it grew naturally out of the love of the craft of winemaking and the joy of farming. “Honestly, we weren’t quite sure how we’d fit into all this,” says David. “At first it was like ‘well, we’ll be weekenders and make a barrel of Gruner Veltliner.’ But you get sucked into this community in a really wonderful way. So we took a chance on it all, and we’re really glad we did.” The two also fortuitously connected with Steve Clifton of Palmina and Brewer-Clifton fame to guide the winemaking and help them focus their goals in the cellar. “We got hooked up with Steve because we loved his wines, and I think he was open to what we’re doing because it was something different, Gruner Veltliner,” recalls David. “If we were just another producer making Pinot Noir I don’t know if he would have been interested.”
While their first vintage of Gruner came from John Sebastiano Vineyard, going forward it will come entirely from their estate DeLanda Vineyard in Los Olivos. Their small home vineyard is a beautiful property, with a palpable energy that one can sense upon entering the driveway, originally planted entirely to Syrah when the DeLaskis took it over. Starting with a clean slate, they made the decisions to alter the varietal focus and to farm it organically, in large part because of concerns for their young son Linus. “The bottom line is, it was never a choice, because Linus is down there playing, in the vineyard, in the dirt,” emphatically states Anna. “So we decided from the beginning, if we have to deal with something, it’s going to be done organically.” The couple has also begun incorporating biodynamic practices in the vineyard, a philosophy which, again, grew out of the development they saw in their children first. “Our background in biodynamics comes from the side of Waldorf education, which has opened us up to a lot of ideas and philosophies that Steiner had,” says David. “My older boys go to a Waldorf school, and if our vines grow anything like they have, then maybe there’s something to Steiner’s philosophy.”
Though their vineyard still has quite a bit of Syrah planted, they’ve grafted increasing amounts to Blaufrankisch and Gruner Veltliner. Anna, a native of Austria’s famed Wachau region, guided the couple towards this decision to plant two of Austria’s most noble grapes, rarely seen outside of their homeland. They’re also making the unique choice to create a Blaufrankisch-Syrah blend, the first of its kind to my knowledge. “Adding a little Blaufrankisch to the Syrah is amazing,” smiles David. “Just 5 or 10%, it’s really cool.” Their winemaking, following along the lines of their farming approach, leans toward the natural, utilizing native yeasts, mostly neutral vessels, and minimal sulfur. “We never really made a conscious decision to be ‘natural winemakers’,” states David. “It’s kind of ingrained with the rest of our philosophy. The more I understood about the winemaking process, the more I started to taste the difference in those kinds of wine, and the more I taste them, I find myself drawn to them. I appreciate mistakes or natural occurrences from year to year.” The DeLaskis interpretation still means that there must be a core of deliciousness first and foremost; these wines are natural, but they are also clean, precise, and bright.
Tasting through the current Solminer lineup was a revelation. Their Gruner, utterly distinctive, seemed to marry the lentil and pepper notes the variety is known for with a textural weight reminiscent of Roussanne, as well as autumnal notes of baked apple and cinnamon. Their estate Syrah was also singular, sort of Crozes-Hermitage meets the Langhe in its marriage of iron, pepper, earth, and dried leaf. The star of the lineup, however, was their sparkling Syrah, “Nebullite”. It reminded me of one of my favorite wines on the planet, Camillo Donati’s Lambrusco. There was a living quality to the wine, imbued with the same notes of earth their still Syrah possessed along with extra dimensions of macerated raspberry and a thrilling sous bois, Balsamic character. “As a musician, I was never classically trained. I always liked to improvise, and to me, natural wine has that improvisatory nature, it’s like jazz.” To continue the jazz comparison, that sparkling Syrah was like the first time I heard Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come: You either get it or you don’t, but if it speaks to you, it is an experience like no other.
When I first met Anna and David months ago here at the Café, I noticed their exuberance and air of positivity, qualities that were in abundance on my recent visit. One immediately senses that these are two people in love, living their dream, and that joy radiates through their wines. “The key was meeting Anna and coming here, and falling in love with her and with this place,” smiles David. “And then going to Austria together, and seeing how ingrained wine is in the culture and the community there. When we returned, we realized we had that same community here, and that we could create that same lifestyle in Santa Ynez.”
“If there is one overarching philosophy in my winemaking, it’s finding the middle path.” Nick de Luca, winemaker and co-owner of Ground Effect, is not expressing a desire to make middle of the road wines. Rather, he is referencing the enlightened Middle Path of Buddhist philosophy, where one transcends extremes to find a centered, balanced way of living. I had the opportunity to work under de Luca at Dierberg/Star Lane, and always found him to radiate this attitude, with a balance that is also reflected in the wines he is making. I sat down with him over coffee this past week to discuss his work at Ground Effect, as well as his new position as consulting winemaker for Richard Sanford’s Alma Rosa.
“I had this philosophy about terroir, and then I realized that I was making blends from all these different vineyards, which was kind of farcical,” laughs de Luca “so I’ve moved back to focusing on single sites and single varieties.” The initial idea behind Ground Effect was that the wines would be distinctive blends, which have been the trend up until 2014, and quite successfully I might add. Like many winemakers I’ve spoken with this year that are part of Santa Barbara County’s current winemaking generation, however, de Luca had to follow his muse regardless of the branding implications. “I switched up this year. It was hard to contract a ½ ton here, a ½ ton there, so I committed to 100% Chenin Blanc. And I also started working with Presqu’ile Syrah.” He has also focused his attention entirely on Santa Barbara County fruit. “I shifted out of Paso Robles because it’s just too far away,” he says.
The other major change for de Luca in 2014 was joining Richard Sanford and the venerable Alma Rosa label as consulting winemaker. “I got a call on a Wednesday, Richard and I had lunch on a Thursday, and I was signing papers Friday,” recalls de Luca of the fortuitous hiring. “It was really sudden and really exciting.” Sanford is a Sta. Rita Hills legend, and makes a great philosophical match for de Luca. “Richard Sanford is so committed to farming sensitively. He’s a big observer of Eastern philosophy, and there’s a lot to be said within that philosophy for finding personal balance and having that reflected in the wines.”
This desire to farm for balance leads de Luca to the topic of water, a subject that is on the mind of every Californian in these dry times. “Farming with less water is really important. We have to learn to pull these big crops with less water, or learn to live with smaller crops, and I hope the latter is true.” While the environmental need to conserve water is unquestionable, for de Luca, the desire to farm with as little water as possible extends not only to drought concerns, but to site representation. “Vines have a memory. You can totally delete terroir with irrigation. I think it’s important to think of it in those terms; you are deleting terroir.”
Stylistically, de Luca’s winemaking has seen a fairly dramatic shift over the past 5 years. While he gained fame at Dierberg for ripe, powerful wines, he has moved to a style that is brighter, fresher, with lower alcohols and, for my palate, more precise expressiveness. “I’m certainly not in the ripeness camp anymore. I don’t know where I fall. I try not to be overly self-conscious; I try to be true to the vintage.” While de Luca’s recent wines could certainly be grouped into the fashionable In Pursuit of Balance or Natural genres, he prefers not to follow dogma or fit easily into a particular clique. “I’m definitely not natural. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when there’s a problem just fix it. I’m not scared of sulfur, I’m not scared of acid… I’d prefer to have all those things worked out in the vineyard, and not have to do that in the wine, and sometimes it works out that way; I think the best wines do work out that way. But if something goes wrong, I’m going to handle it.”
Alma Rosa’s wines have traditionally been fairly large scaled, but de Luca has approached his work there much as he has Ground Effect, with an eye toward balance. “I don’t like wines to be purely about fruit. That’s been my challenge at Alma Rosa, as the style has traditionally been more fruit-driven, so I want to find the balance between that fruit and the more interesting non-fruit aromatics the Sta. Rita Hills can give.” He is also a strong proponent of low yields, and feels that they are not only necessary for great wine, but for sustainable agriculture. Having observed yields shifting higher in the Sta. Rita Hills recently, a trend he is not fond of, he has worked with Sanford to keep their yields low, farming for intensity rather than tonnage. “It’s no secret that low yields make better wine; Europe has realized it for centuries,” states de Luca. “But people are getting greedy, and there’s a lot of overfarming going on out there.”
The wines of Ground Effect have found a devoted audience, and while they may not get as much press as some of de Luca’s more vociferous peers, they are some of the most mineral, intense, well balanced wines coming out of the New World. “The sad part to me is that the two extremes are what get the press,” he laments. “The ultra-ripe wines get the press, and the people on the extreme opposite end, in part because they’re bashing those ripe wines, get the press. And the people who are just trying to make good, middle path wines get looked over, and that’s too bad.” For my palate, the great wines of the world are found on this middle path; centered, balanced, and sure of what they have to say. While they may not have the immediate sexiness of the extreme, they possess a pure, unbridled joy within them, a soulfulness that makes casual wine drinkers have the “a-ha!” moment to make them wine obsessives. Open a bottle of Ground Effect’s 2012 “Gravity Check” and you’ll see exactly what I mean…
Working with wine on a daily basis, it’s easy to become cynical: Tales of wineries heavily adulterating their wine after claiming it to be “unmanipulated and hands-off”; cookie-cutter wines crafted with sleight-of-hand rather than sweat and intuition; the feeling that it’s all been tasted, that it’s all been done before. But there is hope. Inspired by the ghosts of California’s reputation-making icons from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Europe’s embrace of balance and terroir, and their own desire to craft something utterly unique to this time and place, there is a new group of rebellious, restlessly inventive Californian winemakers working at the edge of sanity to create something distinctive and enduring, something to call their own. Among the most exciting of this new crop on the Central Coast is J. Brix.
I had the pleasure of meeting the husband and wife team behind J. Brix, Emily and Jody, back in 2008, when they were first delving into their own garage-based winemaking endeavors. They have grown exponentially since then, and are now crafting some of the most expressive, pure wines of place in Santa Barbara County (and a little bit from their home base of San Diego too!). I spoke with Emily via email about their philosophy on wine, their plans for the future, and more.
Cameron: Having two winemakers involved in a project is difficult enough, but you have the added element of being husband and wife. How does this affect your project and the decision-making process?
JBrix: The closest thing I can compare this partnership to is a seasoned band. Each member brings his or her own innate, different skills and ideas, and you riff off one another until you end up with something better than where either of you started. Or, you realize after you’ve hashed it all out that one person’s initial suggestion is simply a better plan. It doesn’t feel difficult to work together. We start at a place of mutual respect for one another’s abilities. We are fortunate to have very similar palates and philosophies, but that doesn’t mean we never disagree. We do always make sure we come to an agreement before important decisions are made. I think we each appreciate having another person readily available and willing to listen to our occasionally harebrained schemes – which sometimes, actually work out better than we could have imagined. (After all, that was how we ended up making wine in the first place.)
C: How do you feel about being classified as “natural” winemakers? What does natural wine mean to you?
JBrix: We approach winemaking as we do life, seeking and finding pleasure in simplicity. We taste a clarity in wine made from healthy fruit, grown in the right place, and guided in the cellar without unnecessary manipulation. We hope to hear the voice of the vineyard in the finished wine. For us, the best way to facilitate that is to work with well-tended fruit; pick it at the right time; listen to what it has to say throughout the fermentation and aging process; and respond accordingly.
C: What do you look for in a vineyard? Do you start with a desired soil/climate and then see what’s planted, or do you seek out specific grape varieties?
JBrix: The first thing we look for in a vineyard, whether we’ve sought it out because we’re looking for a specific variety, or because we’ve tasted a wine from there that we loved, is an unquantifiable stirring. It feels like when you first meet someone and instantly connect; you can tell you’re going to be dear friends with that person, even though you haven’t gotten to know one another yet at all. When that happens for us at a particular vineyard site, we just need to make wine from there. For example, we never thought we’d be making Pinot Gris – but when we went to Kick On in search of Riesling, we fell in love at first sight, and we wanted everything they grew. We now make vineyard-designate Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from the vineyard, in addition to our Riesling (which is coming in crown-capped Petillant Naturel and traditional versions in 2013!).
C: What are your thoughts on Riesling in California? Where do you see the future of this grape going in the state in general, and SB County specifically?
JBrix: We could not be happier to be making Riesling from what we suspect is the perfect place in California for it to grow – Kick On Ranch in Los Alamos. We can thank Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard for making the Kick On Ranch Riesling that inspired our then six-year-old son to declare it “better than ice cream,” which set us on a quest to discover the place from which it came. Will there be a huge resurgence of Riesling in California? Probably not. It’s definitely not a workhorse grape. It’s a bit of a finicky variety to grow, and very climate-specific, if it’s going to be grown well. But, if the soil and the climate in the vineyard are right, we’d be happy to see more.
C: How has your winemaking changed over the years as you’ve had the opportunity to work with some of these sites, such as Santa Barbara Highlands or Kick On, for a few vintages?
JBrix: It’s so amazing to get to know these places better every year, and to see how they respond to all the facets of the different growing seasons. One of the most fun things about making wine is that it’s really a year’s worth of events that contribute to the decisions you make once the fruit is picked, and if we stay attuned to what’s going on in the vineyards all year, there usually isn’t much hand-wringing at harvest. We handle things differently from year to year based on what nature brings us, and each season offers more insight into the ways of each vineyard.
C: Where do you think the potential lies in San Diego as far as sites/growing regions/grape varieties?
JBrix: San Diego’s wine identity is still up for grabs, and our cellarmates Chris Broomell and Alysha Stehly of Vesper Vineyards are pioneering the new winegrowing movement. Chris is a sought-after vineyard consultant these days, and he’s made a conscious decision to bring the whole Rhône catalog to new area vineyards – everything from Picpoul to Terret Noir. Most of these plantings aren’t old enough to harvest yet, but we are looking forward to seeing it happen, and tasting the results, in the years to come.
C: What are the wines that inspire you? Have there been any particular producers or bottlings you’ve modeled your various wines after?
JBrix: We love wines that instantly allow us to understand something about the place they were made. We always enjoy drinking wines made by people we know and respect, and those they recommend. We are fortunate to be represented on the West and East Coasts by two distributors (Amy Atwood and Zev Rovine) who bring in some very exciting small-production wines from Europe, Italy and Australia, so several of those are on our radar right now. The only wine we’ve made that’s strictly modeled on a particular style is the Pinot Gris we fermented and aged in a beeswax-lined clay pot, after the kvevri wines of the Republic of Georgia. Our first vintage, the 2012, is yet to be released, and we did it again in 2013.
C: What mark do you hope to leave on the landscape of wine? What would you like for the J. Brix legacy to be?
JBrix: “Legacy” is an amusing word to ponder at the moment, as we’re still trying to teach our children to turn out the lights after they’ve left the bathroom. This project, though, is more than the two of us and our ideas. It has its own soul. It arose from an undeniable impulse; one that we didn’t see coming until it chose us. It came from something true and real, and that is all we want for our wines: that they are true, and that they are real. In the end, our legacy, our lifetime, is the sum of our stories. We are compelled to tell the stories of these seasons, transmitted through these vineyards. To do so honestly is our highest goal.
“This is a wonderful Pinot Noir, it’s very Burgundian”… “I think you’ll really enjoy this Syrah, it’s a dead ringer for something from the Northern Rhone”… “Their Chardonnay is beautiful, it drinks just like a great Chablis”. We’ve all heard these comments (and I’m certainly guilty of uttering them) in regards to Californian wines. It’s almost as if the greatest compliment we can pay a balanced wine from the New World is that it tastes like something from the Old World. After almost 30 years of high-alcohol, ultra-ripe wines, it’s understandable that those of us championing this return to wines of balance and place would want to connect the dots to Europe’s more classically structured, subdued wines. But if we expect to stand head to head with, rather than on the shoulders of, these old world giants, we have to start proudly owning our unique sense of place.
Santa Barbara County, despite its youth, has already carved out numerous small micro-regions with their own distinct site character. Santa Maria Valley, Santa Maria Bench, Los Alamos Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Ballard Canyon, and the Los Olivos District all have distinctive soils, macroclimates, and topography found only in this special part of the world, and the producers advocating for these areas, now more than ever, are capturing their idiosyncratic essence.
Take Justin Willett. The winemaker behind Tyler, Lieu Dit, and Vallin (does he ever sleep?!?) is crafting wines at refreshingly low alcohols, with a vivid savor of place. While his inspiration comes from Burgundy (Tyler), the Loire (Lieu Dit), and the Northern Rhone (Vallin), the wines could clearly have come from nowhere else but California. The beet root and black pepper of his Bien Nacido Pinot Noir from Santa Maria; the guava, papaya, and musk notes of the Lieu Dit Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon; the lush blueberry and cracked pepper of Vallin’s Santa Ynez Syrah; these are wines that stand on their own as benchmark examples of what our area is capable of.
Or sample the Grenache of Angela Osborne. It comes from Santa Barbara Highlands, a vineyard so remote and wild that it feels like stepping onto the moon; 3200 ft. elevation, soils so sandy that they look like a dune, scrub dotting the landscape, snow in the winter. This is a place with real character, from a winemaker who has tapped so deeply into her own wavelength that she’s essentially a genre of one. Tasting this wine, one senses the feral high desert in its origins, the California sunshine, the passion of a woman walking the vinous tightrope with no harness; the essence of what this new movement is all about.
And let us not forget our pioneers, the wild ones who started on this path of balance and never strayed from it even when fashion swung away from them. Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat; Lane Tanner; Adam Tolmach at Ojai; Stephan Bedford; Fred Brander; they have helped shepherd and inspire this new generation, and are still making beautiful wines, further defining what makes our region so special.
It is a thrilling time to be a wine lover in Santa Barbara County. We have one of the most unique growing regions on the planet, with incredible soils, a huge range of climates, and topography to make any European envious. And now, in a big way, we have a wine culture that is starting to take proud ownership of this utterly singular sense of place. Perhaps one day, years from now, we will hear jealous murmurs in Burgundy: “Have you tried this? It tastes just like a Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills…”
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