“Cupid’s Choice” at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe

February 2, 2016

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café have selected the perfect wine to accent all of the romantic moments you have planned for your day. The Cupid’s Choice features three local wines from distinct wineries that pride themselves on the love and care that goes into each vintage. Each winery is unique, yet shares a common thread – that of close family and friends, coming together to pour their heart and soul into creating wine that reflects their own joy in life and pride in the land and grapes they love. Let “Cupid’s Choice” lead you on a day of mutual discovery! Start with a lovely burst of brunch-time bubbles courtesy of a sparkling “Brut Rose.” Then, after a day of adventures, you can look forward to a “Slice of Heaven” served with a great meal. As the evening deepens, bring your Valentine closer for a “Sweet Ending” with a premier dessert wine. “Cupid’s Choice” has romance written all over it! The collection sells for only $93 (regularly $108) and if you come in to purchase in-store, it includes a beautiful Italian Wine box, a suitably charming gift for your favorite Valentine.

Riverbench 2013 Sparkling Brut Rose

Riverbench Vineyard & Winery was established in 1973. Located on the southeastern side of the Santa Maria Valley, the alluvial soils proved a match made in heaven for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes planted on the property. The winery is committed to sustainable winegrowing practices, and their wines brilliantly reflect their inspiration – Champagne in France, the country of romance and celebration. Their tasting room, located on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, is in a restored 1920s craftsmen style house. The garden includes a bocce ball court and a horseshoe pit, and is a lovely property to visit for a wine country picnic. Riverbench presents a small portfolio of wines from their outstanding vineyard, which results in wine of “uncommon character and dimension.”

Riverbench’s 2013 Sparkling Brut Rose is lightly perfumed with aromas of lilac and a hint of rosewater. This palest blush pink wine boasts noticeably fine bubbles, and in the mouth, flavors of meringue, marzipan, and raspberries are made all the more intriguing by a sensual hint of sauvage.

Babcock 2012 Pinot Noir, “Slice of Heaven”

Babcock Winery & Vineyards was established in 1978. Mona and Walter Babcock purchased the 110-acre property, off hwy 246, in the western side of the Santa Ynez Valley. Originally planting 20 acres to Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, in 1983 they created their first experimental vintage. Encouraged by the results, the couple decided to move forward with plans for a small winery. In the meantime, their son decided to investigate the “wine thing” with his parents, which prompted a change in his education plans. He spent a couple of years of enology course work, but after crushing some Gewurztraminer in 1984, he forgot about school and ended up being awarded gold medals at the L.A. and Orange County Fairs for his 1984 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc. From there, a love affair with wine has been blossoming over the last 40 years. Says Brian “…I do like the idea of pulling corks on wines that are like a dream come true.”

Babcock’s 2012 Pinto Noir, “Slice of Heaven” is dry and bright in acidity, and would be excellent with beef, pork, and dishes of wild game. The tannins are fairly thick for a Pinot Noir. The winemaker notes, “If you want to get a handle on what the excitement is all about in the Sta. Rita Hills, just taste this wine that was grown in the absolute epicenter of the place.”

Foxen 2013 Sweet Ending Dessert Wine

The Foxen Vineyard and Winery lies deep in the Santa Barbara wine country. By following the quaint, twisting, rural Foxen Canyon Road, visitors will discover the historic Rancho Tinaquaic, on what remains of the original Mexican land grant ranch that covered most of the current Foxen Canyon. Once there, stop first to see “The Shack.” Renamed foxen 7200, the small, rustic building is where it all began when friends Dick Dore and Bill Wathen founded the Winery in 1985. Then, travel a little bit farther up the road to the new solar-powered winery and the FOXEN tasting room. Although far from the sea, the name of the winery is in memory of Dick’s great-great grandfather, Benjamin Foxen, who was an English sea captain in the early 1800s before coming to Santa Barbara and purchasing the land. His love of the sea is reflected in the distinctive anchor which became his cattle brand, and then later the trademark of the Foxen Vineyard & Winery.

Foxen’s 2013 “Sweet Ending” Dessert Wine brings to mind a walk through a blossom-filled meadow in the prime of spring. It’s taste, like an unforgettable kiss.

Let “Cupid’s Choice” 3-pack collection from the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café provide the romantic notes of a very special Valentine’s Day!

Shopping Los Olivos

December 1, 2015

With the festive holiday season fast approaching, the excitement of celebrating with family and friends can seem dizzying as we bustle about preparing for gatherings, shopping for that perfect gift, and transforming our homes into warm and welcoming winter retreats sparkling with seasonal touches. Just thinking about all there is to do while juggling work, crowded streets, and traffic is enough to leave you breathless and wistfully dreaming of stepping back to a time where you could explore the streets of a small town at your own pace. A town with small, family-owned stores offering unique items, and one that offered plenty of opportunities to relax and enjoy a moment over a glass of wine, savor a small snack, or dine at a leisurely pace. A town that offered a quaint festive feel, where you were greeted with smiles, helpful advice, and ended the day feeling like you’ve gained new friends.

Luckily, you don’t need to step back in time! Such a destination is just a few hours drive from Los Angeles. In the town of Los Olivos, located in the heart of the Santa Barbara wine country, you will find all you need to check everyone off your shopping list (including you) and have an enjoyable time doing it. To make your stay as comfortable as possible, and feel like a real vacation, check out the openings at the Bernat Winery & Retreats. Two of the Bernat Retreats are located just a few minutes from downtown Los Olivos. If the Bernat Retreats are booked, Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn is a delightful boutique hotel in downtown Los Olivos.

Waking up to crisp, clean country air is invigorating and sets the stage for a totally enjoyable day! Your morning can start with a delicious weekend breakfast at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café, owned by locals Sam & Shawnda Marmorstein, or you can cozy up to a cup of freshly brewed Peet’s Coffee at Corner House Coffee, originally one of the first residences in Los Olivos built around 1800, and repurposed by the local Lash Family, it has become one of the gathering spots for the community. Corner House offers an array of freshly baked goods in addition to a selection of hot breakfast items. Both the coffee shop and the Los Olivos Café have great patios to watch the morning unfold as you wait for the shops to open between10 – 11am.

Next door to Corner House Coffee is Los Olivos’ go to sweet shop, Stafford’s Famous Chocolates, located at the base of an historic water tower, the perfect place to stock up on stocking stuffers. Behind that are two delightfully complimentary shops, Wendy Foster – LO and !Romp – LO. Wendy Foster offers a stunning collection of dressy/casual clothing selected from renowned designers. Each piece delivers a stylish statement and you’re sure to find a beautiful edition to any woman’s wardrobe. Next door, !Romp offers a selection of Italian footwear and handbags, plus unique one-of-a-kind accessories and gift items. Walking out and behind Corner House Coffee, as you head toward Alamo Pintado, you’ll discover Waxing Poetic. Owned by Patti Pagliei Simpson, her store offers interesting pieces of jewelry, charms, candles, housewares, and many objects that are sure to delight.

For the little people on your shopping list, don’t miss the Tiny Tree Boutique located inside a restored, historic water tower originally built in the late 1800s. Tiny Tree is a specialty children’s clothing store with a unique and vintage-inspired custom product line for girls designed and handmade by owner Christine Lash. She also has a few other product lines for both girls and boys, including shoes and hats. Nearby is Inez gallery featuring fine art and handmade goods. Next door, is First Street Leather. Set a little ways back, the shop has been a local favorite for nearly 40 years. Stepping inside you’ll experience the deep rustic smell of leather and find fashions “that feel like butter to the touch.” A few steps further you’ll discover the entrance to a secret garden space housing the Artisans Gallery. Originally an old silversmith’s workshop, the gallery offers handmade leather designs and handcrafted items from different regions of Mexico City.

At the intersection of Grand and Alamo Pintado stands the Los Olivos flag pole at the center of town. Erected in 1918 as a tribute to WWI Veterans, it is a common point of orientation for locals and visitors. On the southeast corner is the Los Olivos General Store, formerly the Los Olivos Garage, and used as Goober’s garage during the filming of “Return to Mayberry”. The Larner Family embraced the theme “wine-art-home”, so the store features locally produced artisan items “that celebrate the lifestyle of the Santa Ynez Valley.” You will have no problem spending time browsing through all the interesting items on display. Among the unique home décor, tabletop items, jewelry, books, handbags, scarves, wine accessories, packaged gourmet foods, olive oil, skin care products, and garden goods, you’ll be able to check off many on your gift list. And, you can step through a door and taste the Larner wines too!

Continuing east on Grand, toward the Hwy 154 end of town (literally about twenty steps away), pop into Avec Moi Décor featuring beautiful European gifts and antiques for the home and garden, including a selection of baby gifts. A little further on you’ll discover Gallery Los Olivos exhibiting original works of art in a variety of medium. Then, at the corner of Jonata and Grand, it’s worth a quick trip around the corner to visit Pumacasu. Owned by a husband and wife team, Carlos carries vintage and antique corkscrews, while Christine is an accomplished bench jeweler that makes pieces right in front of you.

Crossing the street at the east end of Grand, step into the Saarloos & Sons tasting room because by now, you’ll be ready for a treat. Inside their tasting room you’ll find a sweet surprise…Enjoy Cupcakes! Inspired by local produce, flavors, and wines, owner Amber Vander Vliet creates incredibly delicious bite-sized cupcakes that melt in your mouth.

Heading back toward the flagpole, you’ll pass the Carriage building. Climbing to the second floor, you’ll open the door to the Style Junction and find yourself transported to a loft in Soho, London, England. Owner Sue Turner-Cray, British born, offers vintage and new, one-of-a-kind designer clothing. If you have a woman on your list that likes “something with a unique flair”, this is the place to find it.

Arriving at the northeast corner of Grand and Alamo Pintado, be sure to go into the courtyard and stop in at HoneyPaper on the second floor. This is the place to discover unique holiday cards to send to special friends and family. And, this is the place you’ll find lovely paper and ribbons to wrap the treasures you have found on your shopping spree. Owner Michelle Castle “believes that invitations, social stationery and even a simple greeting card can make a lasting impression.” Paper is her passion, and from her hand-selected assortment, you’ll be sure to make a lasting impression with your gift. You can visit Atmosphere Atelier owned by interior designer Collette Kaplan. Open Friday and Saturday, this upscale boutique offers antique furnishings, accessories, lighting, and beautiful tabletop items. Across the courtyard, and accessible from Alamo Pintado, you can drop into Olive Hill Farm. Featuring the best olive oils in the Los Olivos area, you can stop and enjoy an olive oil tasting before checking out the local gourmet food products, including wonderful olives, tapenades, gift baskets, vinegars, and more.

Following Alamo Pintado north to the southwest corner across from St. Mark’s In-the-Valley Episcopal Church, is a garden shop that cannot be missed. J. Woeste – Los Olivos offers a wide variety of succulents, garden ornaments, sculptures, birdbaths, wind chimes, and more. Outside and inside, you will find something that is perfect for everyone on your list that has the slightest interest in nature.

Moving back toward the flagpole in the center of town, you will pass two clothing stores offering unique attire, Toro for Men and Bonita Boutique for women. Bonita offers bohemian style clothing from upscale designers, while Toro offers clothing, leather goods, and a special section for dog lovers.

Crossing the park to explore the other end of Grand Avenue, you should take the time to drop in and experience Jedlicka’s Saddlery for a taste of the real ranch life. This is the store to find quality western wear and equestrian apparel for all the horse lovers on your list. From cowboy hats to cowboy boots and everything you need in between, Jedlicka’s has been outfitting cowboys and cowgirls since 1932.

Like tying the perfect bow on a gift, ending a day in Los Olivos isn’t complete until you open the door to the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café. Not only will you be able to take a deep breath and savor a delicious meal at one of the most renowned restaurants in the Santa Ynez Valley, but their wine selection and retail area is the perfect place to purchase wines and gifts to pair beautifully with all your wine and foodie friends. Many of the ingredients are picked that morning from the Los Olivos Café organic farm – so you will be experiencing them at the peak of flavor. The staff is knowledgeable, friendly, and strives to make everyone feel at home and welcome. From house-made pasta to a fabulous barramundi with fried chickpeas and persimmons, you won’t be disappointed. With 20 boutique stores to explore and enough charm to make you feel like you truly stepped back in time, Los Olivos is a shopping destination, not to be missed!

Living & Sharing: the Wine Country Dream

November 2, 2015

5 years ago, in 2010, the Marmostein’s added the Bernat Retreats to their property so out of town visitors could enjoy wine country living. Sam and Shawnda find it so fulfilling to see guests enjoying the property and the beauty that surrounds them. More often than not, their guests express the desire to drop everything and live the life Sam and Shawnda enjoy. And it is possible! That’s just what Sam did, and that’s just what Shawnda did. They have the winery, the vineyard, the restaurant, the wine store, the farm, and the retreats, but what makes it wine country living – is sharing it!

It is a source of pride for both Sam and his wife Shawnda that their wine and the food offered at their Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe reflect good stewardship of the land. The Bernat Vineyard that Sam planted on 4 acres has been CCOF certified organicIMG_1507 since 2009. Their restaurant has a history of using ingredients from local farmers and growers, helping to support the agricultural heritage of the Valley. This year, they were able to utilize more of their land and started the Los Olivos Café Farm next to the vineyard. Growing the crops on their own land ensures that Los Olivos Café Chef Chris Joslyn receives a large selection of entirely organic produce to use in his dishes, picked from less than a mile away at the peak of freshness and flavor. The farm also provides the flowers for the tables at the Café and extra produce is being canned and offered for sale in their store.

IMG_5533The Bernat four acre vineyard, with its 19 year old vines, is comprised of Sangiovese, Syrah, Nebbiolo, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cabernet vines were grafted over five years ago, so those grapes have not been bottled yet; 2016 should be their first release.

Farming your own land can lead to many unexpected skills. Sam has become a professional gopher trapper in the years he’s had his own vineyard. He has learned to read the needs of the plants, for example that vines need water to keep the PH down. But what keeps him engaged and loving his life is looking out the window at his fields and knowing what season of the year it is. And, Sam says, “It’s great to create something people can enjoy.”

A “signature” of any event that Sam and Shawnda host is their enthusiasm for giving back to the community by creating memorable, enjoyable moments for their guests. For those lucky enough to attend the sold out Annual Bernat Winemaker Dinner at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café earlier this month on October 9, the Marmostein’s did not disappoint. Greeting guests near the bar with a tasting of their first Bernat 2014 Rosé Nebbiolo, Sam and Shawnda made sure each guest was warmly welcomed and at ease. By last Thanksgiving, Sam noticed that the grapes weren’t progressing and decided to pick, press, and ferment a Rosé. Only 100 cases were brought out a few months ago and with only 35 remaining it has become a welcome addition!

IMG_2104Invited into the private dining room located at the end of the Wine Wall (made famous as the backdrop in the pivotal scene of the Academy Award Winning movie, SIDEWAYS), the intimate gathering of guests found their seats while Sam and Shawnda made sure everyone was comfortable. The family style tables, dressed with beautiful arrangements of flowers picked and arranged by Shawnda from the Café Farm, encouraged conversations among tablemates. It was easy to forge new connections and friends. Everyone was sociable and it was quickly learned that there were numerous anniversaries and a birthday to celebrate, which prompted many stories and laughter. One young couple was celebrating their anniversary and their first weekend “away” from the kids! Judging from the smiles, they seemed to be enjoying every minute.

FullSizeRender 2-1As guests settled and began looking with anticipation over the beautiful menus designed by Shawnda, the attentive waiters arrived with the first course of the evening – a cantaloupe and arugula salad tossed with mint, pistachios, feta and a lemon vinaigrette. This course was paired with the Bernat 2012 Grenache Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley, made with grapes from Camp 4 vineyard in Los Olivos. The perfectly balanced grenache blanc was left unfiltered to bring out the true flavor, and then hand bottled.

The second course, hot smoked salmon on a bed of warm lentil and baby kale salad with a shallot confit soubise, was excellently paired with the Bernat 2010 Estate Nebbiolo. A lean 5-year old wine that feels kind of Italian, it is made from the last grapes to be harvested and takes the longest time to mature. Also taking the longest time in the bottle, it is well worth the wait.

Chef Joslyn’s third plating was a mouth-watering ragout of duck and mushrooms on a bed of snap peas and pappardelle pasta. Perfectly paired with the Bernat 2011 Estate Sangiovese, Sam explained that only a ¼ acre of his vineyard is planted with Sangiovese, so there is very little produced of this excellent varietal.

FullSizeRenderThe richest course featured a grilled Colorado lamb chop placed above an eggplant, fennel, tomato and olive-pine nut relish, then drizzled with lamb jus. Cooked to perfection, the lamp chop was paired with the Bernat 2010 ‘Intrigue’ Estate Syrah. Double decanted before serving, it is Bernat’s flagship wine with a long finishing flavor.

The surprise of the evening came with dessert. Accompanying a beautifully arranged chocolate fondant dessert with salted caramel ice cream topped with a crisp caramel sugar confection, Sam and Shawnda presented their first library wine. The 2002 Syrah, made exclusively from their vineyard, was enthusiastically received and provided an excellent finish to a wonderful evening.

This winter marks 20 years of providing quality wine, food, and experiences for Sam and Shawnda. They will be celebrating this special Anniversary with a dinner event on December 12th. Currently, they are running a contest for best story. Throughout November, Shawnda will be collecting stories from guests about their experience at the Café. Did you get engaged there? Have your first date or celebrate a golden anniversary? Meet someone famous? Fall in love? All stories are welcome. If you have a café story to share, send it to info@winemerchantcafe.com with the subject line “Our Los Olivos Café Story”. Shawnda and Sam will select the top two stories and post it on the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café’s Facebook page for a vote. “Like” your favorite story and the winner will receive two tickets to the 20th Anniversary Dinner. Runner up will get a lunch for two. The 20th Anniversary Dinner is not to be missed! The menu will be a keepsake featuring old pictures and a timeline of the last 20 years, in addition to outlining the 3 courses paired with great wine. Bernat wines might be in one or more of the dishes, and they’ll be starting off with an amuse bouche and champagne. It is an evening for celebrating and reminiscing. The winning story will be read at dinner, and I’m sure there will be plenty of spontaneous stories to enjoy, especially from some of the employees who have been with Sam and Shawnda almost from the beginning! Reservations are now being accepted on eventspot.

Host a Gathering with the Masterful Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe!

May 21, 2015

The Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café has been offering quality dining for guests looking for excellent, freshly prepared food on a daily basis since 1995. Recently, they have expanded their service to bring that same level of expertise for intimate group experiences inside and outside the restaurant.

For those looking for a quiet place to meet, located in an exclusive section of the restaurant is a beautifully appointed room with rustic, wainscoted walls using recycled barn wood. The warm tones make this a perfect retreat for elegant private gatherings. Artwork on the walls creates additional charm, while a mounted high definition TV that can be used for presentations during corporate events or slide shows celebrating life moments, adds practical usability to the room. The Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café is known for it’s inventive use of seasonal, locally sourced produce to create world-class signature dishes. Their knowledgeable and friendly staff is happy to assist in choosing wines and selecting a delicious customized menu to fit your budget

For off-site events, the Los Olivos Café will deliver everything needed for a successful dining experience with their new catering van. Serving up the flavors of the California Central Coast, private residences or businesses can now host a top notch dining experience direct from the kitchen of talented Executive Chef Chris Joslyn. In addition to working with staff to customize the menu, there is discount pricing available from the restaurants wine selection for all off-site events too.

The beautiful Santa Barbara Wine Country also offers many opportunities for an alfresco experience at a nearby park or winery. By calling ahead, a small group of 20 or more can order a 3 course gourmet lunch for delivery to any place with normal vehicle access in the Santa Ynez Valley or groups can pick up the budget friendly $20/per person lunch spread to take with them on their journey.

The Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café celebrates the bounty of the region, offering the best of the local wines and working with nearby growers and farmers to insure each dish will be an exceptional and memorable experience for guests.

They Reminisce Over You: Contemplating Bien Nacido and What Gives a Vineyard Soul

September 16, 2014

RockSteadPoster

On Thursday September 18th, we’ll be hosting a dinner here at the Café featuring Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Trey Fletcher of Bien Nacido Estate to celebrate 40 years of Bien Nacido Vineyard. It’s very rare to get this legendary brain trust in one place to share their stories, so it should be a pretty magical evening. Leading up to the dinner, I’ve been reflecting about what makes Bien Nacido so distinctive, and, in a larger sense, the things that make a vineyard special beyond the usual talk of soil and climate.

Beginning in 2008, I had the privilege of working at Bien Nacido for 2 ½ years as a cellar rat for Tantara, whose winery was located on the property. From our location in the central flats of the property, I could see our neighbors Ambullneo down the road (Dieter Cronje and Matt Murphy, who would go on to create the formidable Presqu’ile property, were part of the cellar team there at the time), and ABC and Qupe’s massive cellar across the river. Driving into work each morning, checking out the various blocks was a visual roll call of the who’s-who in Santa Barbara County winemaking: that slope is Foxen’s Block 8; that little wedge of Syrah belongs to Paul Lato; there’s Manfred from Sine Qua Non checking on his fruit. And of course, there were the legendary parcels made famous by the likes of Au Bon Climat, Qupe, and Lane Tanner, each its own piece of history with a story to tell. Great vineyards have a certain energy to them, a soul if you will, and Bien Nacido is one of the most soulful sites I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in.

Where does this presence of place come from? I don’t think it’s something that can be separated from the human element. All of the factors that have come together in Bien Nacido- the passion of the Miller family, who founded the property and own it still; the fervent passion of Jim Clendenen, who spread the gospel of Bien Nacido throughout the world; the brilliant modern stewardship of vineyard manager Chris Hammell- have given form and voice to the natural elements of this piece of land in a way that is singular and special. A site whose natural factors suggest something merely good cannot be willed into greatness; by the same token, a site with the seeds of greatness can’t realize its potential without the vision of human beings like those mentioned above. In this way, wine may be the ultimate expression of the union between Mother Nature and Man.

If I were to use one word to describe the character of Bien Nacido Vineyard, it would be verve. Whether it is a late-picked, luscious Syrah, a spice-driven, lithe Pinot Noir, or a mineral, lean Melon, there is a brightness and vivaciousness that gives lift and precision to wines from this site. The cool climate of the Santa Maria Bench, coupled with calcium-rich shale soils, is a large part of the reason for this, though again, the personalities behind the wines are a huge factor. When one observes the passion and attention to detail given by Justin Willett of Tyler and Lieu Dit, or the acuity of Trey Fletcher for Bien Nacido’s estate program, it’s no surprise that this lively, precise quality can be tasted across the varietal spectrum.

There is a story in the soil, a voice waiting to be broadcast that will shout to the world the character of a great site. Bien Nacido is such a site, with translators who have managed to magnify and capture its unique personality. I look forward to hearing from Jim Clendenen, Trey Fletcher, and Bob Lindquist as they delve deeper into the story of Bien Nacido; no matter how much you think you know about a familiar place, there is also a new layer to be uncovered.


To purchase tickets to our event Rock Steady: 40 Years of Bien Nacido Vineyard,

We’re Gonna Rise Above: Dragonette’s Sauvignon Blanc Elevation

August 5, 2014

Sauvignon blanc wine Dragonette Cellars

“Sauvignon Blanc is the poor bastard child grape, it’s just so unappreciated,” sighs Dragonette’s Brandon Sparks-Gillis.  “And there’s just so many producers who treat it like sh*t, and who treat it as just this cash cow, turn-and-burn grape, which I think is part of why it has a bit of a bad reputation.”  Sparks-Gillis is one of Santa Barbara County’s most vocal advocates for the nobility of Sauvignon Blanc.  While the grape’s value-driven examples from California, the Loire Valley, and New Zealand are popular everyday choices for much of the wine-drinking populace, few bestow the grape with the praise reserved for, say, white Burgundy.  The team at Dragonette is among the few lavishing Sauvignon Blanc with an intensity of farming and winemaking to rival the world’s greatest estates.  This week I spoke with Brandon Sparks-Gillis and John Dragonette about their work with Sauvignon Blanc in Happy Canyon.

Great wine often requires context.  While I’m a believer in the merits of blind tasting, particularly if one is seeking to identify typicity within a grape variety or a region, many of the world’s most unique and treasured wines don’t show their best in a blind setting.  I would include Dragonette’s Sauvignon Blancs in this group.  These are wines that not only require but deserve a few hours at table with the right food and enough time and air to explore their nuances, along with an understanding of the philosophical approach behind them.  The concentration in the wines, along with the use of oak, puts them in the rarefied air of producers like Francois Cotat, Didier Dagueneau, and Yquem’s ‘Ygrec,’ wines that are similarly proportioned and walk the tightrope between voluptuousness and mineral intensity effortlessly.  In a blind tasting, these stick out when poured next to more traditional and/or mundane renditions of the grape, which I believe is something to be celebrated, not maligned.

Brandon Sparks-Gillis
Brandon Sparks-Gillis

The wines of Dragonette would not be possible without the unique geological and climatic character of Happy Canyon.  While their initial Sauvignon Blancs incorporated fruit from outside the AVA, they have now devoted themselves solely to this amazing region.  “We were inspired by a pretty wide range of Sauvignon Blanc initially,” says Sparks-Gillis.  “As we started to work with Vogelzang and Grassini (both in Happy Canyon), we were really interested in what they were giving us.  And as we started tasting the wines, we saw that they definitely lean a little more towards a Bordeaux expression of Sauvignon Blanc.”  Without a doubt, the closest analogue to the area is Bordeaux, particularly the bold examples from producers like Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut-Brion.  And unlike Bordeaux, the Sauvignon Blancs of Happy Canyon don’t require the addition of Semillon.  “We initially sought out Semillon,” states Sparks-Gillis, “but we found that the wines from here were already so round and rich that we didn’t need it.”

Harnessing the power of Happy Canyon and fine-tuning how to best channel the area’s site character in the vineyard and the winery has been Dragonette’s greatest achievement.  “Our dogma is to have no dogma,” emphatically states Sparks-Gillis.  “We’ve had lots that range from 11.5% alcohol to 15%, and that may lean more towards one direction or another depending on the vintage.  We want to let the season speak rather than having a dogmatic approach to when we pick.”  They have worked tirelessly in the vineyard to control canopy and yield, seeking tiny, concentrated clusters that can strike a balance between fruit and minerality.  “Sauv is all about minerality.  There should be a fruit component, but if it’s all about fruit it can often get flabby and boring.”

The wines are never the ripest examples from Happy Canyon, though they’re certainly not ultra-lean, early-picked examples.  The team at Dragonette believes that the area finds its truest expression in-between those two extremes.  “I think in general, Happy Canyon has leaned toward a riper style, and that’s often where we find the best representation of place,” states Sparks-Gillis.  “If you ask most people about Sauvignon Blanc, a lot of the things they’ll talk about- herbaceousness, cat pee, high acid- yes, these are related somewhat to climate, but they’re also very much stylistic decisions related to stylized winemaking.”  This slightly riper, more intense character has been a big factor in the wines’ ability to age gracefully as well.  “Happy Canyon typically drifts into the 3.4-3.6 pH range, but the wines still show a lot of spine.  I think part of that has to do with our lower yields.  Without that intensity and concentration, these wines don’t have the bones to age.”

John Dragonette
John Dragonette

The winemaking seeks to accent this concentration texturally and aromatically while preserving the minerality.  Early experimentation with varying amounts of new oak has led them to what seems to be a relatively stable regime of 80% oak (of which only 10-20% is typically new) and 20% stainless steel, though again, the vagaries of vintage may shift these percentages.  “A winemaking technique will often evolve from what someone who’s inspired us is doing, but ultimately we want to express the truth of Happy Canyon,” says John Dragonette.  “For example, we’ve shifted to larger format cigar-shaped barrels similar to what Dagueneau is using, which is what most of our new oak is now, and that brings about a much slower evolution in the wines.”  Rather than create wines defined by the spice or structural character of new barrels, they are using oak as a very subtle accent, with the ultimate goal of, again, emphasizing the site-driven character of Happy Canyon.

The two sites they are currently working with, Grassini and Vogelzang, create very different wines despite their close proximity and similar soils.  The Grassini shows a unique top note of very fresh coconut, along with kiwi, guava, and piercing minerality.  Sparks-Gillis says the wine’s green label is a nod to the character of the site.  “Grassini has a little more of a green spectrum to the fruit, which is not to say herbaceous or underripe.  This is more just-barely-ripe pineapple, kiwi, more of a freshness.”  Vogelzang on the other hand is very deserving of its yellow/orange label: The more exotic of the two, its notes of fig, papaya, and musk are incredibly sexy, and more importantly, utterly singular; in short, it is the essence of Happy Canyon.

In a piece I wrote on Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc a few months ago, I said that no one had quite nailed it yet.  Maybe I was being a bit hard on the area, but that’s because I have such strong conviction that Happy Canyon is capable of producing some of the greatest single vineyard Sauvignon Blancs on the planet.  Now that I’ve had the chance to experience the Grassini and Vogelzang bottlings from Dragonette, and more importantly had the chance to experience them in the proper context, I can honestly say that these guys are nailing it.  Brandon Sparks-Gillis says there’s no magic formula; rather, their success is the sum of numerous small steps that elevate the wines to their highest expression.  “Getting from mediocre wine to good wine is not that difficult, but getting from good to great can be an overwhelming amount of work.  We feel like our wines are getting there, but 10 years from now I hope people can taste our wines blind in a lineup and say, ‘that’s Dragonette.’  And hopefully there’s an element of greatness there.”


Buy Dragonette Wine Here

Winemaker to Watch: The Singular Zinfandel of Eric Bolton

June 24, 2014

Zinfandel wine barrel

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.

Mineral zinfandel wines
Mineral wines deserve a mineral backdrop

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.

All of the wines featured on our blog can be found at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe!

In the Mouth a Desert: Dry Farming in Santa Barbara County

June 2, 2014

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 the future of Santa Barbara County, and that we can have an open dialogue about how water, or the lack thereof, will define our future as a wine culture.

Some Velvet Morning: Ryan Deovlet and Refugio Ranch

May 12, 2014

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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.

Refugio Ranch

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.”

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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.

A recently dug soil pit showing that intensely black loam.
A recently dug soil pit showing that black loam.

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.

Decomposed granite in the Petite Sirah block.
Decomposed granite in the Petite Sirah block.

“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.”

Petite Sirah crossbar
Petite Sirah crossbar

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.”

Grenache on the left, Alban clone Syrah on the right.
Grenache on the left, Alban clone Syrah on the right.

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.


BUY:
REFUGIO RANCH 2014 ‘AQUA DULCE DE REFUGIO’ MALVASIA BIANCA, SANTA YNEZ VALLEY

REFUGIO RANCH 2014 SAUVIGNON BLANC, ‘TIRADORA’, SANTA YNEZ VALLEY, CALIFORNIA

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

April 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purchase Buttonwood’s beautiful Sauvignon Blanc

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