“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.
Great wine starts with a great story. A vineyard tells us a story through its soil and its climate; the farmer frames this story with agricultural tradition and the stewardship of the land; and the winemaker captures both of these stories, along with their own imprint of self and style. This past Thursday we held a dinner event at the Café called Under the Influence that sought to give four local winemakers the opportunity to tell their stories and the stories of the wines that have inspired them. It was a night that exceeded my greatest expectations.
South African native Ernst Storm began the evening by pouring his 2012 Presqu’ile Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc alongside Ashbourne’s 2008 “Sandstone,” a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Semillon grown in South Africa’s Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The latter wine was crafted by Storm’s brother Hannes, whose wines under the Ashbourne and Hamilton Russell labels are some of the most acclaimed in South Africa. While one could see a certain similarity between the two, the overall contrast was striking. Storm’s youthful Sauvignon Blanc, grown in the extremely sandy soils and cool climate of Santa Maria Valley’s Presqu’ile site, was bright and fresh, with its pyrazine notes of grass and jalapeño accented by guava, gooseberry, and a really unique hint of oak. As it turns out, that noticeable oak accent comes from the use of acacia barrels, which also provide a distinctive textural presence to the wine. The Ashbourne, on the other hand, 4 years older, was already developing some tertiary nuances, with notes of lanolin, beeswax, and bruised apple starting to appear. Nevertheless, the varietal character was unmistakable, possessing a similar herbaceous character as the Storm, joined to wet-stone minerality (sandstone soils here) and a more voluptuous texture. The most fascinating thing for me about tasting these side by side was to see the shared family passion from these two brothers, and the level of commitment they both bring to their different projects. While the winemaking details may be different, they are united in their desire to express site as clearly as possible.
Our next course saw the team from Liquid Farm sharing their 2012 “Golden Slope” Chardonnay next to Francois Carillon’s 2011 Puligny-Montrachet. Liquid Farm’s goal from the outset has been to create a domestic interpretation of the wines they had fallen in love with from Burgundy, so their choice came as no surprise. The differences between the two wines were, as with the first course, quite vast. The Francois Carillon, despite a splash decant, was still a bit reduced, showing a fairly high amount of SO2 on the nose. I have found this character in quite a few 2011 white Burgundies, which may be in response to all of the premox issues that have plagued the region over the past decade. Overall, though, Carillon’s Puligny was incredibly precise and soil-driven, with an intense mineral presence. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the “Golden Slope” bottling still came across with admirable restraint and balance against one of Burgundy’s benchmark producers. The fruit and textural power of the wine were unmistakably California, traits I believe should be celebrated, and the minerality of the Sta. Rita Hills in all of its saline glory was an intriguing contrast to the limestone origins of the Carillon. Paired with Barramundi and Manila clams, both wines were delights to ponder and savor.
Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe chose to honor our local pioneers for the third course. The Pinot Noir from his estate has become a modern benchmark in American wine, with examples from his own label as well as those purchasing his fruit achieving great recognition. He poured a 2006 Longoria “Fe Ciega Vineyard” Pinot Noir next to the 2010 Clos Pepe Estate, and spoke of Rick Longoria’s influence on his own path as a farmer and winemaker. He also honored two other local innovators, Bryan Babcock of Babcock Winery and Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat. It is sometimes easy to overlook the originators in favor of the hot new thing, but these three men are still crafting some of the most site-driven, balanced wines in Santa Barbara County, so it was beautiful to see Wes, who himself is a bridge between the first generation and our current new crop of young winemakers, honor this trio. The wines shown wonderfully, with the power and richness of the heat-spike-affected 2010 Clos Pepe contrasting nicely to the more developed, earthy Fe Ciega bottling.
While all of the wines on the night were complex and worked beautifully at table, the final course was perhaps the highlight for me: The 2010 Luminesce Syrah from Thompson Vineyard next to Domaine du Coulet’s 2010 Cornas ‘Brise Cailloux.’ Thompson Vineyard is one of the great sites of Santa Barbara County. Tucked back into Los Alamos Valley’s Alisos Canyon, the Syrahs from here are legendary, with a structure and precision rarely found outside of the Northern Rhone. Luminesce’s rendition leans toward the Old World in its balance and approach: just 13.4% alcohol, it was fermented with around 30% whole clusters and aged in puncheons. The wine showed amazingly well, with white pepper, gravel, smoked meat, and blueberry on the nose, along with a poised, beautifully structured palate. The overall balance in this wine could easily stand head to head with the greats from Hermitage or Cornas, and on this night it did just that. Coulet’s Cornas is a personal favorite, and for me captures the essence of this tiny appellation. The 2010 did not disappoint, with aromatics of iron, kalamata olive, blood, and bacon leaping out of the glass. There was also a touch of Brettanomyces, which sparked an interesting discussion among the winemakers. Luminesce’s Kevin Law somewhat jokingly said that he liked a little “imported Brett,” i.e. bretty wines from the Old World, while others found the Coulet close to their threshold for tolerance. Personally, I thought it added to the wine, particularly texturally, and was a great example of how a flaw can actually enhance a wine’s beauty. With smoked New York steak and mushroom & spinach strudel, it was an incredible end to the night.
The evening was deeply moving both emotionally and intellectually. Giving these winemakers an opportunity to discuss their inspirations allowed us to see their joy and passion as tasters, and hear the stories behind their influences. It can be easy as professionals in the wine business to get bogged down in the minutiae of winemaking or French Appellation law. This evening was such a treat because it allowed all of us a return to the pure elation as imbibers that made us fall in love with wine in the first place.
Special thanks to Matthew Negrete for the wonderful photos
What spurs our obscure obsessions as wine lovers? How does a grape like Melon de Bourgogne or Carignan capture our attention through the sea of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon? What drives a vineyard owner to plant Blaufrankisch in the middle of Los Olivos, or a winemaker to devote fanatical attention to a grape like Picpoul? Much like falling in love with another human being, falling in love with a grape often has an intangible, probably chemical, element that can be difficult to articulate. To delve further into one of my own obsessions, Semillon, I spoke to my favorite producer of the grape in Santa Barbara County.
Kevin Law is a soft-spoken winemaker who bucks the trend of modern winemaking promotion. He spends no time on Facebook or Twitter, and rather than talk up his achievements, he is constantly pushing himself to do better, never satisfied, knowing he can create something with even greater intensity and site expression, that he can dial in the next vintage just slightly more. To provide full disclosure, Kevin has been a good friend of mine since we worked a harvest together 6 years ago, and I’m always stunned that someone who is crafting such beautiful wines isn’t content or resting on his laurels. I sat down and spoke with Kevin this past week about his Semillon program under the Luceant and Luminesce labels (the name changed to Luceant with the 2012 harvest due to a trademark dispute with another winery), and how his obsessive love for this grape, and the best way to express it, drove him to craft one of the great white wines of Santa Barbara County.
Kevin’s love for Semillon originally began with a bottle that, thanks to Kevin, has also become one of my benchmarks for great California wine, Kalin. “Their Semillon was really the wine that made me fall in love with the grape. Bottle aged for usually around 10 years before release, it comes from vines planted in the 1800s in gravel, with cuttings from Yquem. It’s highly mineral yet rich, and still youthful at 15 or 20 years of age.” It is this ability to age that is part of what makes Semillon so special. To taste an aged bottle of Yquem’s Ygrec, or some of the top bottlings from Hunter Valley like Tyrrell’s Vat 1, is an unparalleled drinking experience. “Due to its chemistry and phenolic structure, Semillon makes for very long lived wines, more along the lines of Marsanne or Roussanne in their aging trajectory.”
For his own Semillon, Kevin’s search took him to Buttonwood Vineyard in the heart of Santa Ynez. “Buttonwood attracted me because of the vine age, which is rare for this area period, but to have 35-year-old Semillon in particular is pretty special,” says Law. “It sits on a gravelly mesa and the climate is just about perfect.” To channel the purity of this site, Kevin relies on winemaking that is both minimal and very thoughtful in its approach. “Since the initial vintage I’ve started utilizing more stainless steel to preserve its bright minerality and freshness. I’m still not hitting the wine with any sulfur until April or May. The wine undergoes whole berry fermentation on the skins for three or four days to emphasize texture and dryness, highlighting the minerality rather than the fruit. It is then basket pressed, and finishes primary in tank and neutral barrel.”
In an all too common tale for Semillon, Buttonwood grafted these blocks over to other grape varieties recently, and what little they have left will remain for their estate. This is the tragedy and difficulty of working with obscure varieties like these as a small producer; unless a farmer is madly in love with the grape, it’s just too tempting to plant something more commercially viable in its place. Kevin is now on the quest for a new Semillon site, and has some pretty specific criteria. “Old vines are a huge factor for me. Vineyards that are reminiscent of Bordeaux tend to be ideal- gravel with a little bit of alluvium, and moderately warm. Santa Ynez, particularly the middle to eastern part of the valley, is one of the perfect areas in California for Semillon. My goal is to continue to capture the true expression of 100% Semillon, and show how great this variety can be. And if no one likes it I’ll drink it all myself.” Now THAT is what I call obsession.
Today we are offering Kevin’s 2011 Semillon. It is one of the most profound wines I’ve had from our area, and if you are a fan of mineral, balanced, age-worthy white wines, I highly suggest you grab a couple- one for today, and one for the cellar. I have no doubt that this will be a 10 year, if not 20 year, wine. If nothing else, I hope people taste the beauty in this bottle and start requesting more wines like it; maybe we’ll finally see a few new Semillon plantings!
I vividly remember the first time I tasted a Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc. It was 2008, on a breezy Sta. Rita Hills afternoon, in the Dierberg tasting room. In my narrow-minded view at the time, I was more interested in checking out their Pinots; my affection for Sauvignon Blanc was reserved almost entirely for Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The tasting began with a Sauvignon Blanc from their Star Lane Estate, which I was expecting to be, like so many California Sauvignon Blancs, pleasant but no more. Sticking my nose in the glass, however, was a whiplash-inducing double take experience. Exotic tropical fruits (guava, papaya); a distinctive herbal character (Shiso leaf perhaps?); flowers galore; acid for days; yet underneath all of this exuberant varietal and climate-induced character was a mineral presence I had never experienced in New World Sauvignon Blanc.
Their tasting notes referred to it as “wet gravel.” Yeah, sure, that was there, but it went deeper. This was wild, animal, and primal. As with all great wines, it was clear this came from a special place. Soon after, I took a drive out on Happy Canyon Road, spying the great, dramatic vineyards of this place from afar: Vogelzang, Happy Canyon Vineyard, Westerly (now McGinley), and of course, Star Lane. Further research showed the source of this unique character: ancient, magnesium-rich serpentine soils laced with chert.
Since that first encounter I’ve tasted numerous Sauvignon Blancs from Happy Canyon, and have found this mineral presence, in greater or lesser amounts, in just about every wine. There have been some truly stellar examples from the area that showcase this site character, and I am amazed at the quality coming out of such a young region (20 years is “old vines” here). Yet the most exciting thing about Happy Canyon is that no one has really nailed it yet. And to be present in the midst of so much experimentation, so much adventurousness, devoted to this tiny region, is truly thrilling.
One school of thought seems to favor treating the area like the Loire Valley, picking early, emphasizing the high acid (for the geeks: even at very high brix, pH can still be 3.1 or 3.2 here), showcasing that minerality, putting the tropical fruit character in the background, and using neutral or no oak. Producers such as Lieu Dit, Ojai, and Habit are crafting wines of incredible purity, laced with that HC funk and structured for mid-term aging.
Another approach is to take cues from Bordeaux Blanc, utilizing barrel fermentation and aging, often with a fair amount of new wood, later/riper picking, and even incorporating a bit of Semillon into the mix. These wines are lush and lavish, typically needing bottle age to shed the more overt wood and get to the mineral core. Dragonette’s bottlings, particularly their Vogelzang Vineyard, are beautiful iterations of the style. Doug Margerum’s small production “D” and Fiddlehead’s various cuvees are other powerful examples. Aged bottles from these producers show style married to site in distinctive fashion.
Perhaps the most exciting for me are those taking a uniquely Californian approach: influences from the Loire, Bordeaux, and Marlborough, along with a Friulian/Slovenian inspiration in the form of skin contact and/or fermentation, joined to other subtle techniques borrowed or dreamt. This is a style that has a high degree of difficulty, but the risks are rewarded in the form of incredibly complex wines. Star Lane is one of my personal favorites in this genre: they vary their skin contact dependent on the vintage; wines are sometimes fermented in oak, sometimes not; stainless steel is utilized in the form of both barrels and large tanks; lees are occassionally stirred; basically a melting pot to capture every possible facet of this site in a cohesive package. In each vintage since I initially tried their estate Sauvignon Blanc, they have tinkered with their approach, with each year further amplifying the intense serpentine funk of this very special place.
The other practitioner of this style that I am greatly anticipating is Roark. Ryan Roark received Happy Canyon Sauv Blanc for the first time in 2013, and had the opportunity to do a couple of different picks. I recently tasted these with Ryan out of barrel, and was blown away. One selection, picked early for acid and intensity, and aging as we speak in neutral oak, showcases the wet stone minerality and herbal/floral character capable here. The other selection gave me goosebumps: fully skin fermented, it didn’t show the sameness that can often occur with skin fermented whites; rather, this magnified that primal funk with amazing power and weight, like someone crafted a cocktail from rocks and guava. If he can get the marriage of these two picks into the bottle with that same intensity, it may very well be a benchmark for the area.
If you have not experienced a Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc, run to your nearest wine shop and start exploring, as these are some of the most visceral, exhilarating wines coming out of California right now. For me, this is the essence of everything great about New World wine culture: a new region, still being discovered, capable of delivering an experience found nowhere else in the world.
“Thought of you as my mountaintop
Thought of you as my peak
Thought of you as everything
I’ve had but couldn’t keep”
– The Velvet Underground, “Pale Blue Eyes”
The recent passing of Lou Reed hit me hard. As a teenager growing up in sleepy Santa Maria, the world created by The Velvet Underground transported me to a place far removed from the sprawling broccoli and strawberry fields of the valley. Characters from Andy Warhol’s Factory and New York’s seedy late ‘60s underground were vividly captured by Reed, evoking a time and place that, 45 years later, still feels timeless.
This loss of a hero got me to thinking about wine (all roads seem to lead me there nowadays). As an adult, I have often found this same transformative experience through great wine bottles. Unlike The Velvet Underground & Nico, however, which will sound exactly the same 100 years from now, wine, no matter how great the vintage or producer, is finite by its very nature, prone to inevitable decay. The memory of a great bottle is persistent and haunting because we know we will never have quite that same experience again.
So for those whose art is wine, how does one find the same sense of immortality allowed through the mediums of film, painting, or music? In the Old World, it is the site, the terroir, which is prized above all else. Each successive generation is passed the torch of great land, from Romanee-Conti to Clos de la Coulee de Serrant. Yet it is the human element that must channel Mother Nature and define the voice of a given place in a lifetime; as the vineyard passes from one generation to the next, so too an inevitable stylistic shift happens.
In the New World, on the other hand, we often place the human element above all else. Technical innovations and stylistic touches often trump the expression of site, for better or worse. The greatest practitioners of this style focus less on sense of place and more on sense of self, driving so intently toward a personal vision that they capture something utterly unique.
The greatest wines and winemakers of the world, however, be they from France or Germany, Oregon or California, manage to marry these two philosophies; they showcase a special place while putting their own personal, inimitable stamp on it. One such winemaker that I had the chance to share a table (and more than a few bottles) with numerous times this past harvest is Lane Tanner.
Lane retired her namesake label with the 2009 harvest; she still consults here and there, but she is, essentially, done with full time winemaking. Unlike the typical scenario in Europe, there is no scion to carry on her namesake; all we have left is the string of superb vintages she crafted from 1984-2009. These wines, whether from consumption or from decay, will eventually disappear, leaving only the memories they created and the imprint of their influence.
Rather than dwell on this unfortunate fact of wine, however, I’ve begun to embrace the unique beauty in its life and death cycle. The fact that I am alive to enjoy these wines in their prime (her ’90 Sierra Madre was a transcendent experience), to learn the farming and winemaking lessons that Lane has been gracious enough to pass on, to have a hero from my hometown; these are things to celebrate.
Perhaps it’s fitting that, here in the Wild West, our vinous heroes ride off into the sunset. And maybe one of wine’s greatest qualities is its fleeting nature: it forces us to be present in the moment, to embrace those sharing a table with us, and to stop and appreciate something beautiful. So as you pop a bottle of Lane Tanner’s ’94 Sierra Madre Plateau, and cue up “Sunday Morning” on the stereo, take a moment to appreciate the unique, and ephemeral, beauty of the experience; ‘cause when it’s gone, it’s gone.
We have a VERY limited quantity of library 4 packs from Lane. Limit 1 per person. Featuring:
– 1992 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir
– 1994 Sierra Madre Plateau Pinot Noir
– 1995 Sierra Madre Plateau Pinot Noir
– 1996 Sierra Madre Vineyard Pinot Noir
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.
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.